|Small wonder those timely hits were so hard to come by|
By now we all know the story of the 2014 Kansas City Royals. A Wild Card entrant who tore threw the American League bracket on their way to one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory. And while the Royals ultimately fell short, they left in indelible mark on the landscape of baseball on down to even the most casual fan.
Its easy to look at the 2014 Royals and to interpret their success as a fluke. A one time thing. But as the incomparable Kevin Malone once said "The fluke is the most common fish in the sea. So if you go fishing for a fluke, you might just catch one."
Unfortunately, relegating the Royals to 'flash in the pan' status does a huge disservice to the hard work that Dayton Moore did putting that team together over a prolonged rebuilding period. Armed with a deep farm system due in large part to the aforementioned rebuilding, the Royals had a young, affordable line-up full of home grown talent. They also sent valuable players packing when the timing seemed right (Zack Grienke, Wil Myers, etc.) and the return they recieved helped cement their already developing core.
I do expect the Royals to be a very competitive team again this year, but to expect the same type of playoff success would be unreasonable and unfair. It can be done, but I just wouldn't count on it. So lets take a lot at what teams might fit into the 2014 Kansas City Royals mold and make some early February predictions.
San Diego Padres
The Padres should be right at the top of the list of surprise teams, except they won't necessarily surprise anyone this season since they largely stole the first half of the hot stove season. AJ Preller made some big time moves bringing in Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Will Middlebrooks (meh), Derek Norris, and Tim Federowicz. While all these guys have their perceived warts in one way or another its awfully hard to argue that the Padres aren't a better team today than they were this time last year. Preller also did all this without terribly dismantling the Padres pitching staff or completely stripping their minor league system bare.
While both the Royals and the Padres have undergone an extensive rebuilding process that is more or less where the comparisons end. While the Royals did trade away a top flight prospect (Myers) in order to gain some major league established pitchers (Sheilds, Davis) that was really the only time they did that. The Padres made 3 trades of that ilk this off-season alone without adding any starting pitching. Of course pitching was a relative strength of the Padres so that does make some sense, unless the Padres manage to pry Cole Hamels away from the Phillies.
Also dissimilar from the Royals, the Padres have not really been able to develop any strong positional prospects. Jed Gyorko may eventually get to Alex Gordon level, but I wouldn't stake my reputation on it. So disappointing have the Padres prospects been that they were willing to part w/ their short stop (DFA'd Everth Cabrera) and catcher (Grandal - decent, but sent packing for Matt Kemp). Meanwhile, the Royals sported such competent to above average homegrown players like Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain.
There's no magic blueprint for Royals type success. So how the Padres got to 2015 by no means excludes them from that type of run. However, I think they have too many question marks for the Padres to be 2015's team. Kemp may never be the same, who knows who Myers really is, and how will Grandal's departure affect the pitching staff to name a few. They'll be a much better team, but probably not better enough.
Now here is an interesting team. The Mariners have seemingly been knocking on the door now for that last few years. Much like the slow build the Royals went through leading up to 2014, the Mariners have been combining some solid prospects with outside acquisitions to put themselves into a position of respectability.
Most notable is the homegrown "Best Pitcher on the Planet" Felix Hernandez and hired gun Robinson Cano. The Mariners are also bolstered by the emerging James Paxton and Tijuan Walker to fill out thei rotation and the recently "Got Paid" Kyle Seager at the hot corner. They've got an extremely solid foundation going forward.
What's hard to know is if the Mariners have done enough to compete in the AL West. The Angels seemed to have figured out their formula to win, and the Athletics are a perennial off-season punchline who manage to prove everyone wrong every year. Texas twins Rangers and Astros both figure to be better in 2015 which will make wins out west very hard to come by. The Mariners certainly have a shot, but this may be a win the division or bust situation.
Nobody rebuilds like the Marlins. They've almost made it an art form. How many teams can average a World Series title once every 10 years or so while also alienating the fan base roughly twice every 10 years? These guys are doing something special.
One of the reasons the Marlins have been so successful in short periods has a lot to do with their ability to identify and develop talent. Typically though the Marlins take that talent, win a little and then send those players on their way in an effort to "rebuild" acting like a small market team. I'm sorry, but since when has Miami been a small market? If the Marlins can't make money in Miami, then they are just plain doing something wrong (Oh right, they tear apart their team every couple of years and built an ugly stadium in the middle of a swamp).
Something changed this year though. The Marlins kicked off their offseason not by dealing their marquee player but by signing him to a massive contract extension. Giancarlo Stanton received possibly the largest contract in baseball history from the team that once traded Miguel Cabrera for a box of nickels. The Marlins weren't done there as they went on to add Dee Gordon (a nice compliment to an already emerging line-up) and Mat Latos (An upgrade to an already solid rotation). On paper, the Marlins look to be a fairly well rounded team with a deep well of young players. If they can hold down the fort until Jose Fernandez returns from TJ surgery as projected in early June, the Marlins could be strong contender for the NL Wild Card.
Chicago White Sox
Sometimes we look far and wide for the next big thing when it was right underneath our noses the whole time. A team that closely matches up with 2014 Royals is their very own division mates, the 2015 White Sox. Now the White Sox where World Series Champions just 10 short years ago, but its been a long road out of hell since then.
Unlike the Royals, the White Sox never went through a full bottoming out process as they have floated right around .500 or so over the last decade. However, they have made the most out of their drafting and scouting by building a young nucleus around Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, and Alexi Ramirez (Not great, but competent as SS which is harder to find that you might think). The White Sox also went out and significantly improved their line-up by adding Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, and David Robertson.
Also working in the White Sox favor is the general state of the AL Central. We already talked about the Royals. They'll still be tough, but its hard to predict that they will be better. The Tigers have stopped adding big time players and now appear poised to enter into a downward cycle. The Tribe may be on their way up, but its equally as likely that they are on their way down, and then there the Twins. Oh the Twins. An apparently loaded farm system that still is not ready to bear any fruit. That puts the White Sox in a prime position to rack up some wins and possibly even take down the division.
There you have it. Four teams with the possibility of taking the 2014 Royals' path to (near) playoff glory. There's probably four more teams I could add to this list, but at that point I'd be predicting success for a quarter of the league. That's just silly. If you think I'm an idiot for excluding your favorite team, I'm hardly hiding, Let me know.