Baseball is different. History means more, numbers never lie and while you'll occasionally have the Cinderellas who steal your heart in October, there's far less change year-to-year than in the NBA or NFL.
Kevin Durant turned a downtrodden franchise in Seattle to one of the most dominant teams in the Western Conference almost overnight. The Seahawks won the NFC West at just 7-9 two years ago, a division which is now seen as one of the best in the NFL.
Change happens, but baseball is typically slower than most to ride those winds. You can expect the Yankees and Red Sox to compete every year, the Cardinals and Angels normally show up in September, while the Cubs, Royals and Pirates to scuttle along to another losing season.
You feel that breeze though?
Maybe the baseball landscape is shifting a little quicker than usual. Take a look at the standings and you'll see the Pittsburgh has the second-best record in the National League while the boys in Pinstripes are adjusting to their new position as division bottom-dwellers (although technically only 5 games out of the Wild Card).
Credit the Tampa Bay Rays for bucking the trend. Five years ago, they proved to baseball that developing a deep farm system, a strong crop of young arms and investing in budding stars was the way for even a small-market team to compete longterm.
Pittsburgh followed suit, as did Arizona and the 2012 Nats. Guys like McCutchen, Corbin, Goldschmidt, Strasburg and Harper are proving that homegrown superstars are a safer bet than investing in high-priced free agents every offseason.
So who's next? Who can be the next team to climb their way out of the depths of their divisions and into a postseason race?
Day by day I'll take a look at five teams who could be hanging around this time in 2015. Lets start in The Windy City.
Chicago Cubs (54-71 in 2013, 5th in NL Central)
The Skinny: Take a good look at the 2013 Chicago Cubs depth chart. Most of those heads will be on different uniforms come 2015, if not sooner. Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are just about the only two position players I expect to still call Wrigley home in two years, and thats only because they may have to.
Castro, who was the youngest Cub ever selected to an All-Star Game in 2011, seemed poised to join the upper eschilon of shortstops along with Tulowitski and Jeter - but it just hasn't clicked. Mental mistakes the organization hoped he'd grow out of still plague him at the plate and in the field. He forgets how many outs there are left in an inning, ignores base runners, takes plays off mentally and is seen as lazy across the league. Maybe those mental lapses could be forgiven if he wasn't hitting just .240 with a team-high 104 strikeouts and just eight steals on the season. Still, at age 23 it's far too early to give up on one of the most promising players at his position, but the clock is ticking (although considering the Cubs have him locked up through at least 2019, his clock may tick a little slower).
Likewise, Chicago recently signed Rizzo to a contract extension that could keep him in Wrigley until 2022. While those who compared him to Joey Votto early in Rizzo's career have grown quiet of late, I still believe he has a very high ceiling. He struggles with many of the same issues that fellow first baseman Freddie Freeman dealt with in his young career. While he may never hit for the type of average as the Atlanta All Star, both players struggle(d) with the something many young players succumb to: trying to hit the ball out of the park every time someone is on base. Rizzo is hitting a dreadful line of .177 with runners in scoring position, which has (in part) been to the fact that he's been trying to mash them home when given the chance. Freeman hit just .270 though two full seasons as a starter, and just .243 with runners in scoring position. Now? He's slashing .309/.387/.477 with an impressive .441 with runners in scoring position and 82 runs batted in. Be patient Chi-town.
As far as the rotation goes, de facto ace Jeff Samardzija might be the only one who sticks around, and with trade rumors swirling around the Notre Dame grad even he is no guarentee. Personally, I love "The Shark." Samardzija cut his teeth in the bullpen early in his career, where he established himself as a strikeout machine (8.6 career K/9) before coming into his own as a starter in 2012. While many would argue he's taken a step back this season, he still has the makeup of a top of the rotation guy in any major league rotation. While (at 28) he's a bit older than some of the other young fireballers he's compared to, he has only 500 innings of major league tread on his arm. The big 6'5" righty was a standout receiver for the Fighting Irish before going into baseball, so his athleticism and durability shouldn't be a question moving forward. While the temptation to deal him for what would be a sizable return might be too much to withstand, you need to build a rotation around someone and Samardzija is a good place to start.
One other name who could be an option is southpaw Travis Wood. The 26 year-old currently leads the team in ERA (3.13), despite posting numbers of 4.27 and 4.84 in the two years prior. While his strikeout, walk, and WHIP are in line with his career averages, the dramatic drop in ERA is attributed to the fact that he's only allowed 13 home runs all season. Color me unimpressed. His xFIP has hovered 4.40 all season while sporting an unsustainable 6.6% home run to fly ball ratio. While it is easier to keep that number down in the windy confines of Wrigley Field, he's more suited as a back of the rotation guy than a front-end starter.
The Future: Two years into the Theo Epstein project, and the Cubs have quickly developed one of the better crop of position players in any minor league system. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, Albert Almora, and the recently added Eloy Jiminez (widely regarded as the top international talent in 2013) all figure to be major league starters at some point in their careers. And, with the exception of Jiminez, all could be taking to Wrigley field as early as next season.
Baez has proven to be an absolute stud, advancing by leaps and bounds in 2013 with regards of plate discipline (increased to a 9.2% walk rate at AA-Tennessee) while showing signs of plus raw power (31 HR). He's already big for a shortstop, and could be moved to second base if Starlin Castro manages to regroup. Regardless of where he calls home on the field, his bat has drawn comparisons to Gary Sheffield, and should look good in the heart of any lineup. Almora and Soler could be the strongest pair of outfield prospects in any system. Both offer an enticing power-speed combination that fit nicely in the top half of a batting order, and could lock down center and right, respectively, for a long time.
Mike Olt, acquired from Texas in the Matt Garza deal, has struggled through vision problems all season, causing his prospect stock to plummet. Still, he's shown a history of strong contact throughout his career and could hit 25+ homers in a full season of appearances. Even if Olt's bat continues to miss everything thrown his way, emerging slugger Kris Bryant provides Chicago with a security blanket who'll compete for the starting job as early as 2014. Regarded as the top hitting prospect of the 2013 draft, Bryant has only reinforced his reputation through the low minors with a .344/.385/.688 slash line to accompany seven homers and 23 RBIs in 96 professional at bats. If Olt progresses as the Texas Rangers once hoped, then Bryant could take his talents to right field with the rangier Soler sliding to left. If all that talent matures at once, it could be a messy puzzle in Southside, but one most managers would love to get their hands on.
Things haven't necessarily developed as quickly on the pitching front. Their top prospect arms, guys like Dillon Maples, Pierce Johnson and Duane Underwood all have promise, but are still developing in the low minors. The wild card in all of this is Arodys Vizcaino. Acquired from the Atlanta Braves for Paul Maholm, he's missed the past two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. Once regarded as one of the best young arms in baseball, a return to form could give the Cubs the second or third starter they desperately need behind Samardjiza. With Epstein's history of pursuing pitching through free agency, the assets they could move and the low payroll the Cubs have moving forward, it'd not unrealistic to think they'll be in the market for David Price, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana or any other pitcher who might become available this offseason.
Conclusion: While they may have some of the most promising talent in the minors, they also have the most difficult road to the postseason. The NL Central is an absolute monster: with the Cardinals system loaded from top to bottom with talent, no one can ever count out Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh is assembling a promising young team that looks to be a factor for years to come and even the Milwauke Brewers won the division two years ago. Its not unrealistic to think both Wild Cards could emerge from this division at seasons end. At least the Cubs can hope to be apart of that discussion not too far down the road.