From the Windup is FanHouse's daily, extended look at a particular portion of America's pastime.
Unless you're a Red Sox fan, the best story in baseball this year is the Tampa Bay Rays. By now, everyone likely knows the story but let's recap. In 1998, the Rays came into existence. In every season between 1998 and 2007, they won between 61 and 69 games, except for in 2004. They won 70 that year.
This year, though, is a different story. With last night's win over the Red Sox, they've got 90 wins and a two-game lead in the AL East, a division that seemed to be locked in a deep stranglehold that the Yankees and Red Sox would never let up. The amazing part is that everyone saw this coming in some form. GM Andrew Friedman has rebuilt Chuck LaMar's mistake from the ground up and the Rays are winning because they're good, not because they're lucky.
Baseball is cyclical and every couple of years, a young team bursts on the scene and surprises everyone. Who among baseball's long suffering franchises is next? There are seven franchises that haven't made the playoffs since the turn of the century; the Pirates, Nationals, Royals, Brewers, Blue Jays, Reds, Orioles, and Rangers (sorry Mariners and Giants fans, you've been good this century and that disqualifies you from this exercise), so let's take a look at them and see if we can't figure out who might be in line for the next turnaround.
Milwaukee Brewers- Sorry, Milwaukee. The Brew Crew may collapse and miss the playoffs this year, but Doug Melvin's really got this franchise on the right track. They've already clinched their second straight winning season and third of .500 or better in the last four. They'll lose CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets this winter, but Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra will still be there to anchor the staff and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder aren't going anywhere for a few years either. Four compensatory picks for Sheets and Sabathia won't hurt.
Toronto Blue Jays- The problem here is that the Jays aren't actually a bad team and haven't been for some time. J.P. Ricciardi is a fairly decent general manager and they've been above or around .500 every year since 1997 except for 2004. Just because the Yankees and Red Sox blocked them at the top of the division for a decade doesn't mean they fit the bill of a team that's similar to the Rays. That's just the way the cookie crumbles in baseball purgatory, I guess.
Washington Nationals- So long as Jim Bowden is involved, this team is going to be hopeless. They're bad now and they don't have much in the minors, so they're going to be bad for a while. Don't think about the Nationals. They will make you sad.
Pittsburgh Pirates- First-year GM Neal Huntington has taken this team in the right direction in his 12 months on the job, but that there's still a long ways to go.
Kansas City Royals- They're in a similar boat as the Pirates. Dayton Moore has done a promising job as GM since taking over for Allard Baird, but Baird's hole was dug so deep that they're going to be in it for a while.Just Right
Why it might be them: Edinson Volquez Jay Bruce Johnny Cueto Joey Votto Homer Bailey Edwin Encarnacion Brandon Phillips Bronson Arroyo Aaron Harang Walt Jocketty
Why it might not be them: Dusty Baker
Why it might be them: First things first, this team is already kind of good. Chris Davis, Ian Kinsler, and Josh Hamilton is a good young power core that they'll control for a while. They've got some holes to fill out, but having four catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Gerald Laird in the bigs, Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez in the minors) should help them plug some of those holes either by trades or position changes. The pitching's not there yet either, but Neftali Feliz has become one of the best pitching prospects in baseball and Michael Main had a breakthrough this year as well.
Why it might not be them: Their pitching is still very young and a ways off. As it stands now they seem to me to be more likely to slowly creep their way into contention like the Brewers have rather than to suddenly burst on the scene like the Rays did this year. Not that that's a bad thing at all.
Why it might be them: Andy MacPhail Erik Bedard Miguel Tejada Adam Jones Nick Markakis Matt Wieters
Why it might not be them: