12/23/08 10:00 AM EST
Who could be next year's surprise?
Several clubs preparing for 2009 on the rebuilding fast track
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
Not long after the final pitch of the World Series has been thrown, when the last bottle of the champagne has been emptied and the parade route has been mapped out, clubs begin strategizing about how they can do it all over again.
Over baseball's many decades, there hasn't been one clear-cut path to that coveted October stage. The teams with the highest payroll aren't always guaranteed to make the postseason and those with limited resources can't necessarily be counted out.
Consider the Cinderella season that the Tampa Bay Rays pieced together in 2008. In the span of one year, the Rays went from owning baseball's worst record to claiming the American League pennant, proving plenty of prognosticators wrong along the way.
It was just the latest example of a team pulling a fast one on the baseball world. Every year, there seems to be at least one club that quickly moves on from its past woes, many times emerging as an unexpected contender.
That begs the question: Who will be this year's Rays? This offseason has been slow to develop, with many players still available on the open market, but many clubs already have solid foundations in place. Sometimes, it doesn't take much maneuvering to build the latest surprise package.
"The fact of the matter is there's a fine line anymore between first place and last place," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "The Tampa Bay Rays were a good example of that. The Detroit Tigers a few years ago were a good example of that."
Leyland was referring to the 2006 Detroit club that he took to the World Series one year after the team won just 71 games. It's possible that Leyland may also have been hinting that the Tigers could be a candidate for a comeback season this time around, too.
After a busy offseason two winters ago, Detroit entered the 2008 campaign with lofty aspirations. The team was the favorite in many corners to claim the AL crown and some forecasters believed the Tigers could amass 1,000 runs.
If the Rays were baseball's biggest surprise, the Tigers just might have been the year's greatest disappointment.
Detroit's pitching went awry and the club stumbled to a last-place finish in the AL Central. This winter, the Tigers -- still owners of a potent offense -- have acquired pitcher Edwin Jackson from Tampa Bay and are hoping to turn things around.
Detroit isn't alone in that quest, though.
One American League general manager noted that Oakland -- a team that performed better than initially expected in 2008 -- has put itself in a position to contend. Not only that, the A's still have the resources to make another move this winter, even after swinging a trade to obtain slugger Matt Holliday from the Colorado Rockies.
At the same time, the GM added that the lack of overall movement through this winter's first two months makes it hard to identify which teams might be in store for a breakout season.
"In most offseasons you could answer that by this point," he said. "But this offseason is not even close to completion."
Then there was Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd, who wasn't shy about naming his own team as a potential comeback club for 2009.
Colorado was the surprise team two years ago, when the Rox pieced together a furious late-season streak to cruise into the playoffs and then to the World Series. The Rockies traded away Holliday this winter, but acquired outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and pitchers Huston Street and Greg Smith in the process. O'Dowd believes his team is in a good position to contend again.
"There are clubs sitting here today," O'Dowd said during the Winter Meetings, "that if we opened up tomorrow they wouldn't know who their club is. There are clubs in our own division like that. We could play tomorrow and fill out a club. Is it a perfect club? No. Have we ever had a perfect club? No.
"We're not going to have a perfect club. But we feel pretty good about where we're at in light of where everybody else is at. Nobody in our division got a whole lot better. You could say we lost Matt, we got worse. But the sum of the product may be just as good or better."
Beyond the Rockies, one AL executive believed that the Braves -- with the acquisition of right-hander Javier Vazquez this winter -- has enough to potentially be a legitimate contender in the National League in '09. One high-ranking NL official pointed to the San Francisco Giants, who have a strong young pitching staff, led by Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum.
There's also the Marlins, who boasted one of baseball's most powerful lineups in 2008, and have a talented, young pitching staff.
"They've got a young club," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, referring to Florida. "They've got a lot of young pitching and they've got some dynamic players. They have stability in their organization and they have a pretty good track record."
Another NL executive said not to count out the Cincinnati Reds, who have budding stars in first baseman Joey Votto and outfielder Jay Bruce, as well as a talented young pitching staff. Off the field, the Reds are guided by general manager Walt Jocketty, who led the Cardinals to the World Series title in '06, and are managed by Dusty Baker, the skipper for the '02 NL-champion Giants.
This winter, the Reds acquired veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez in a trade with the Orioles and signed pitcher Arthur Rhodes, adding the left-hander to one of the league's top bullpens from last season. Combine those moves with a promising rotation that includes Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and highly touted prospect Homer Bailey, and the Reds' future looks bright.
"The Cincinnati Reds are rising fast," the NL official said. "Walt Jocketty has already built a champion. Dusty has managed in the World Series. They may not be totally there yet, but the parts are coming together. The pitching has promise. The offense is strong -- Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will be stars.
"They may be a year away, but if everything falls right, they could be a surprise in '09."
Or, perhaps, the biggest surprise might be the Rays showing that their feat last season wasn't a fluke.
"Don't discount the Rays from doing it again," said a high-ranking Marlins official. "They're young, talented and now know what it takes to be a World Series team."