As we finish up the dog days and prepare for the stretch run, half of the six divisions are being led by surprise candidates. While the Reds and Padres are fairly shocking division leaders, even the Twins deserve mention as well for overcoming injuries to fixtures like Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan, as well as a first half from catcher Joe Mauer that fell below MVP expectations.
Can these three squads make it last based on their farm systems?
Reds: Ahead of schedule
As far as being a playoff competitor, most saw that as more of a 2011 goal for the Reds, with 2010 simply being the year that the team got better. Now ahead of schedule, the Reds are a talented team with youth on their side, and their minor-league system has plenty more to offer.
Leading the pack is Cuban import Aroldis Chapman, who has recently been moved to the bullpen in anticipation of a big-league callup that will make him playoff-eligible. While the Reds still see the 22-year-old southpaw as a starter in the long run, he's been nothing short of dominant in shorter stints, combining a triple-digit fastball with a nasty slider to limit International League hitters to a .160 batting average while striking out 40 over 25 2/3innings since the conversion to reliever. The Reds are desperate for bullpen help, Chapman can provide it. One wonders if an explosive showing in September could cement his future role for the club.
In addition, the system offers some possible answers to replace expiring contracts down the line. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera certainly provides clubhouse leadership and steady defense behind a young pitching staff—but the black hole that is hit bat needs to be replaced, and the Reds might have just the ticket in Triple-A Louisville's Zack Cozart, a 2007 second-round pick out of Mississippi. While Cozart will never hit for a high batter average, he has well above-average power for the position, with 27 doubles and 16 home runs for the Bats. He's also offering enough defensive ability to be a zero downgrade from Cabrera. Look for the Reds to decline Cabrera's 2011 mutual option to give Cozart a look.
Twins: Never slowing down
With winning records in nine of the last 10 seasons (and five post-season appearances), the Twins are a model for mid-market teams who want to take on the big spenders in October. The Twins' success is based on scouting and player development— the overwhelming majority of their core players are home-grown.
While most of the Twins' top position prospects are playing at the lower levels, one pitcher has made the move all the way to Triple-A in his full-season debut, and many think he has the potential to be the steal of the 2009 draft.
Kyle Gibson slipped due to concerns over a stress fracture in his pitching arm—but the Twins couldn't pass up an expected top 10 selection with the 22nd overall pick and eventually signed him for a $1.85 million bonus. Gibson has stayed healthy all year, and after beginning the season at High-A Fort Myers, he gave up just one run over 5 2/3 innings in his International League debut. He could be competing for a big-league job as early as next spring. He's not going to blow anyone away on a stuff level, but his 88-92 mph fastball features natural, heavy sink, while his slider and changeup are both major-league ready offerings. "He's a classic Twin," said one scout, who recently evaluated Gibson. "He has three solid pitches with plus command and for me, he's very similar to Carl Pavano."
Padres: This had better keep working
Here's the problem for the Friars: the upper levels of their minor-league system aren't going to provide any short-term help to a lineup that has considerably fewer impact bats than your average playoff-bound squad.
While the Triple-A Portland squad is loaded with fringy talents who have already peaked, the Double-A team at San Antonio has been the bigger disappointment. Infielders Logan Forsythe and James Darnell have failed to live up to expectations after strong 2009 showings. That leaves the top hitting prospects at the lower levels and years away.
There could be one bright spot, though.
20-year-old Jaff Decker is a bat-only prospect with a John Kruk body and equally patient approach, and few top prospects in baseball had a more miserable start to the season. The 2008 supplemental first-round pick went into the All-Star break hitting a measly .195/.256/.319. Since then, he's found his swing and been the among the best hitters in the California League, batting a much healthier .300/.437/.606 and showing the kind of power and patience scouts have seen from him in the past. He'll begin 2011 at Double-A, and could be in line for a September look—if not next summer.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .