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October 10, 2008

Future Shock

Who are the Next Rays?

by Kevin Goldstein

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The Tampa Bay Rays are the talk of baseball right now, and for good reason. After beginning the year with 10 straight seasons of 90-plus losses, they're in the American League Championship Series, and more importantly, this isn't a fluke year. Thanks to a core of young talent and an outstanding minor league system, the Rays are going to be a consistent playoff contender for the remainder of the decade, if not even further out. So what's the next team we might expect to do this? Let's look at four consistent (or at least semi-consistent) bottom feeders in each league and assess their chances, beginning in the American League.

Baltimore Orioles

Resumé: They have finished fourth or fifth in the American League East with a losing record in each of the last eleven years, except for a third-place finish in 2004 (78-84) when they nonetheless finished 23 games out.

Going Well at the Major League Level: Nick Markakis is an exciting young star, and center fielder Adam Jones has the potential to become the same kind of talent. Brian Roberts is a difference maker at the top of the lineup. After being given up on by the Indians and scouts throughout the league, Jeremy Guthrie has transformed into a reliable, above-average starter.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: Much of their run production comes from players who are not part of their long-term plans, such as Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora. After Guthrie, the rotation is an utter embarrassment, as no other starting pitcher had an ERA under five, and three of them (Garrett Olson, Brian Burres, and Radhames Liz) made 17 or more starts with a six-plus mark. The bullpen is a shambles as well; while George Sherrill recorded 31 saves, he also had untrustworthy peripherals, as did others who had good seasons like Jim Johnson and Matt Albers.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: Matt Wieters is seen by many as the best position prospect in the game, a switch-hitting catcher with the ability to hit in the middle of the order for a championship-level team. The system is absolutely loaded with pitching. Chris Tillman and 2008 first-round pick Brian Matusz both project as star-level starting pitchers, while Jake Arrieta and David Hernandez both look like solid rotation arms, and lightning-fast Brandon Erbe could end up as either a starter or closer.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: After Wieters, the position players drop off a cliff. Outfielder Nolan Reimold is far more solid than spectacular, first-round pick Billy Rowell has been a major bust, and their Triple-A roster this year was a prospect wasteland.

Cashflow: Good and getting better. The Orioles dropped more than $25 million off the payroll from 2007 to 2008, and only Matusz is committed to past 2009. That's a lot a roster flexibility, and owner Peter Angeles has been more hands-off of late.

Moving for Young Talent: Huff is coming off of a career year and could draw some interest for the final year of his deal at $8 million. Melvin Mora is in the same situation, and costs $9 million, but also offers more versatility, and might be the more attractive commodity. Roberts has a limited no-trade clause, and will be a free agent after 2009.

Outlook: Semi-positive as a long-term play. The Orioles have such an impressive collection of young pitching talent that one has to believe that some real improvements will be coming in the next few years. Wieters will be a massive piece in the run-scoring puzzle, but a man alone can't turn around an offense. Oh yeah, they're in the American League East, and that's its own kind of nightmare.

Kansas City Royals

Resumé: They've had a losing record in 13 of the last 14 years, including 100-plus losses in four of the last seven. During those 13 years in the American League Central, they've finished third twice, fourth four times, and last seven times.

Going Well at the Major League Level: Zack Greinke has overcome his personal issues, and the Gil Meche deal has worked out much better than expected (outside the organization, at any rate), giving the team a solid one-two punch at the front of the rotation. Joakim Soria is one of the best closers in baseball, and the bullpen was actually solid overall as Ramon Ramirez evolved into a quality set-up man. Shortstop Mike Aviles was a huge surprise this year, though expecting an 834 OPS long-term is probably pushing it. Third baseman Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler still have impact potential.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: Butler and Gordon are still more potential than reality, although both had second halves that provide optimism. The lineup still has some glaring holes, especially at catcher, first base, and center field. Luke Hochevar has not lived up to expectations as a number-one overall pick, and scouts don't think he ever will. The bubble burst on Brian Bannister as well, as teams learned to lay off of his off-speed stuff.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: With their last two first-round picks, the Royals have one of the best teenage power combos in the game with Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Kila Ka'aihue had a breakout season, slugging 37 home runs and leading the minor leagues in walks. The Royals have a plethora of impressive young arms as well, culled over the last two drafts, led by Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery, and Tyler Sample.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: There is very little to be excited about in the upper levels of the system, and after Moustakas and Hosmer, both of whom are a long ways away, the hitters falls off dramatically. The pitching prospects offer plenty to dream about, but precious little to depend on.

Cashflow: The team doesn't spend a ton of money, with a payroll of under $60 million this year, and they don't have much in the way of revenue either. The only questionable contract on the books is $24 million for two more years of Jose Guillen, but Gil Meche seems to be well worth his $35 million over the next three years, and David DeJesus is quite affordable for the value at $14.3 million over the next three including a club option. If Butler or Gordon break out, expect the team to become interested in buying out some of their free-agent years.

Moving for Young Talent: Guillen will be tough to deal, but is also one of their few commodities.

Outlook: Neither the team nor the minor league system is set up for a quick turnaround, but the Royals have seen slow and steady improvements under the guidance of general manager Dayton Moore. In the last three years they've won six, seven, and six more games than the year before, and if they can do that again, they'll have their first winning season since Carlos Beltran was in center field and Darrell May led the rotation. It's easy to see them becoming competitive, but more will be needed to make them a playoff contender.

Seattle Mariners

Resumé: They've finished last in the American League West four of the last five seasons, including a 101-loss campaign this year, their worst since 1983.

Going Well at the Major League Level: The starting pitching should be quite good in the long term. People forget that Felix Hernandez is only 22 years old and still has plenty of growth. Erik Bedard is ahead of schedule recovering from a shoulder cleanup, and is expected to be fully healthy by spring. Brandon Morrow was brilliant at times during five late-season starts, and if he can overcome his control issues, he has as much potential as any of them.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: They can't score runs. Ichiro is nice and is a 200-hit machine and all, but he also had an OPS that was a whopping four points higher than Nick Swisher's. They only had two players with more than 20 home runs last year, and nobody slugged over .480. Top power prospects, Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien, showed little in extended major league looks. J.J. Putz has regressed, and the rest of the bullpen is shaky at best.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: Led by Phillippe Aumont, the rotation at Low-A Wisconsin was impressive one through four; all project as at least big-league arms. Outfielders Michael Saunders and Greg Halman both began playing to the level of their tools and showed multi-faceted games. Infielder Carlos Triunfel will be ready for Double-A as a 19-year-old next year.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: The upper levels of the system are pretty empty, especially when it comes to pitching. As good as the rotation was at Wisconsin, that's how bad the lineup is, as the system is quite low on high-ceiling offensive players.

Cashflow: This is a tough situation. Payroll was just short of $120 million last year for a 100-loss team. They're locked in for one more year of Adrian Beltre at $12 million, three more years of Carlos Silva's badness for a whopping $34 million, and, inexplicably, three more years of Kenji Johjima at $24 million. The front office is in line for some kind of nasty remark, but the good news is that the Wii keeps flying off the shelves, so there should be money in the bank.

Moving for Young Talent: With a hot start, there could be some interest in Beltre, and the same could possibly said for Jarrod Washburn, who enters the last year of a deal that pays him just over $10 million. Suzuki's performance isn't necessarily worth $68 million plus all of the perks over the next four years, but he puts fannies in the seats and would be hard to move on a winning-of-hearts-and-minds level.

Outlook: It's hard to say until we see what direction they take. It's a bad team that is not really set up for a complete youth movement, and their spending on veterans has been nothing short of wasteful. This one could take a while.

Texas Rangers

Resumé: They've rarely been awful, but still have had a losing record in eight of the last nine years, including five last-place finishes.

Going Well at the Major League Level: The team led the league with 901 runs scored this year, and they have plenty of young talent. Josh Hamilton became a superstar, Ian Kinsler is one of the best offensive second basemen in the game, and Chris Davis looks to have shored up first base and given the team another massive power presence in their lineup. With Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Max Ramirez, the team has as much young catching talent as anyone, and could deal that much-desired commodity from a position of strength.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: The pitching is a mess, but what else is new? They've finished in the top half of the league in ERA just once in the past 11 years, and have not finished in the league's top four for a quarter of a century. With a 4.74 mark, Vicente Padilla led the rotation this year, and closer C.J. Wilson finished with a 6.02 mark. They need better corner outfielders.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: There are many, many things to look forward to, as the Rangers have one of the deepest and most talented systems in the minors, especially when it comes to pitching. Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland are both high-ceiling power arms who could be ready as early as mid-to-late 2009. The 2007 draft netted top-level high-school pitchers Michael Main, Blake Beavan, and Neil Ramirez, while a recent focus on international talent produced a stunning rotation at short-season Spokane that included Ramirez and lefty Martin Perez. Their 2008 first-round selection, Justin Smoak, fell into their lap and was far better than the 11th overall pick that they acquired him with.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: Other than the catching, the Rangers don't have much up-the-middle talent, as their two best non-catching prospects at those four positions-shortstop Elvis Andrus and center fielder Julio Borbon-are generally overrated speedsters without secondary skills. Beyond Feliz and Holland, the rest of the pitching will require patience.

Cashflow: It's solid yet not ideal, with payroll under $70 million last year, but owner Tom Hicks has a track record of being willing to spend when the situation warrants. That said, they do still have some questionable contracts on the books. Padilla and Kevin Millwood will earn a combined $23 million in 2009, and they're on the hook for another $12 million to Millwood the following year. Their most questionable deal is the $16 million per year owed to a declining Michael Young through 2013. That one could look like a dead albatross in a few years.

Moving for Young Talent: Millwood and Padilla are solid arms who could attract some interest and clear the way for a youth movement. At some point, they'll be able to improve the club by trading away one of the catchers.

Outlook: They have committed ownership, a nice young talent base, a loaded minor league system, an excellent recent track record in the draft and with their international signings, and a smart front office. All the ingredients are there to make the Rangers a clear winner in the "next big thing" race. That said, I expect this to be a slow burn as opposed to a sudden Rays-like leap forward. I wouldn't categorize them as a strong buy for 2009. Expect a winning record, but I don't think they'll be a real threat in the West until 2010.

Up Next: A look at four National League candidates: the Reds, Giants, Pirates, and Nationals.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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