THERE ARE no "next Tampa Bay Rays" story lines out there this season. That was a once-a-decade worst-to-first turnaround. But there are some low-profile teams besides the A's that could bounce back into contention this season.
In fact, there's one in the A's backyard. The Rangers are just beginning to tap what is the best farm system in baseball, installing lefthanded masher Chris Davis at first base and 20-year-old Elvis Andrus at shortstop. Later in the season the team could call up two of the game's top prospects, righthander Neftali Feliz and lefty Derek Holland, who are part of a terrific crop of minor league pitchers. Andrus, Feliz and Holland help address the Rangers' biggest needs: improved pitching and defense. The team allowed a league-worst 967 runs last year. The Rangers won't improve that total by 273 runs—as the Rays did last season from the year before—but the pieces are in place for a fairly quick rebound, with 2010 looking especially promising. Trading veterans such as Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Marlon Byrd and Hank Blalock will create openings for the youngsters while also making the team better in the short term, a nice trick.
In the National League the Reds have already remade themselves through their farm system, with a core of first baseman Joey Votto, rightfielder Jay Bruce, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and righthander Johnny Cueto, augmented by righty Edinson Volquez, a 2008 acquisition. Those two young starters help fill out the deepest rotation in the division. Like the Rangers' hopes, the Reds' drive for a playoff spot rest in part on improving a poor defense. G.M. Walt Jocketty is optimistic that the return of shortstop Alex Gonzalez from a fractured left knee and the addition of free agent Willy Taveras to patrol centerfield will help. They might, though both will worsen the team's already weak on-base percentage, threatening to cripple a promising offense. Manager Dusty Baker, veteran-friendly to a fault, surprised observers last season by showing a lot of faith in Bruce and Votto; if he does that this season with outfielders Drew Stubbs and Chris Dickerson, the Reds could take a big step forward in a soft NL Central.
Also keep an eye on the Orioles and the Mariners. Baltimore improved last year thanks to its stellar outfield defense, which figures to get even better with the addition of 24-year-old Felix Pie in leftfield. Adding catcher Matt Wieters, the game's top prospect, to outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones gives the O's a promising core of young talent. There are parallels here to the 1989 team that almost stole the division—which was, however, much weaker than today's stacked AL East.
Seattle, meanwhile, should benefit from signing Ken Griffey Jr.—if he's kept in a platoon DH role. With Jeff Clement catching and defensive wiz Endy Chavez manning leftfield, that could make the M's a threat in the AL West. If Griffey is in leftfield, however, the defensive cost cancels out almost all the benefit his bat brings.
ELVIS LIVES The 20-year-old Andrus improves Texas's defense, a key ingredient behind the Rays' '08 resurgence.