With the World Series upon us, 28 big-league teams have cleaned out their lockers for the season. Of the squads who didn’t make the cut for October baseball, who might break out in 2012?
Here are five under-the-radar teams that could explode into relevancy next season.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have a lot in common with the Tampa Bay Rays entering their breakout 2008 season. Toronto is loaded with prospects and widely considered to have one of the five best farm systems in the game. Youngsters like Ricky Romero, J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie have already justified their hype by making a big impact. The Jays have powerful veteran bats in Jose Bautista and Adam Lind.
Next season, if pitcher Kyle Drabek sticks with the club and Colby Rasmus, acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals this year, delivers on his promise as a hitter, the Blue Jays could contend for the American League Wild card. If they go out and spend this winter on a solid veteran pitcher and perhaps a powerful DH, they could even top 90 wins in 2012.
2. Washington Nationals
The Nats’ late-season surge is the real deal. Stephen Strasburg is back after Tommy John surgery and dominating hitters like a seasoned veteran. His first full season in the bigs next year could be epic. Jordan Zimmermann forms a solid one-two punch with him atop Washington’s rotation.
With Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse, Washington’s offensive core is improving. The key to next year will be whether or not Bryce Harper makes the jump to the majors. Strasburg was the most hyped pitching prospect of the last decade and Harper’s hype as a hitter was just as significant. These two pillars should take Washington to new heights – possibly as soon as next season.
3. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners handled their 2011 season smartly. Knowing that they had no shot at the American League West crown, they gave up hope early and decided to play their young guys in hopes of developing them for next year. Justin Smoak is working out the kinks as a hitter; Mike Carp has been among baseball’s best sluggers in the second half; and top offensive prospect Dustin Ackley is here to stay as a second baseman with pop.
Rookie pitcher Michael Pineda was an All-Star this season and will form a powerhouse duo with Felix Hernandez next year. If the Mariners spend a bit of money on a No. 3 pitcher and/or a bat, they could push the Angels and Rangers next season.
4. Kansas City Royals
The Royals’ crop of elite prospects is unrivalled; that’s what happens when you finish last ever year for a million straight years. Billy Butler is already a perennial .300 hitter; Alex Gordon went from bust to success story this season; and both Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, prized rookie hitters, have shown they belong.
The key for K.C. is for its young pitchers to break out. Mike Lamb will try to return from Tommy John surgery next season and Mike Montgomery will hope to make the team.
In theory, Kansas City’s future is bright, but we say that about the Royals ever year.
5. Cincinnati Reds
After winning the National League Central in 2010, Cincinnati flopped in 2011. The reason: horrible pitching. Cincinnati’s bats aren’t to blame. The Reds’ high octane attack includes Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs. Former first-rounder Yonder Alonso has teased with major power potential in his rookie season. Cincy has arguably the game’s best defense, too.
In theory, a couple of tweaks to the Reds’ pitching staff could turn them back into contenders next season. Perhaps they’ll let megaprospect Aroldis Chapman start games instead of pitching him in relief. Maybe they’ll acquire a veteran. If Cincy does both, look out.
This is a guest post submitted by Jeff Herbst. Jeff has had a passion for sports ever since he could first walk. He works with Phoenix Bats, a company that creates wooden bats such as their high-quality custom wood bats for amateur and professional ball players around the globe.