Competitive parity has been the defining characteristic of this Major League Baseball season, so much so that the loosest definitions of the term "contender" (thanks in no small part of the inclusion of the second wild card in the playoff picture) includes more than two-thirds of baseball's 30 teams.
Heck, even the Mets, Padres and Rays entered the week within eight games of a postseason spot -- likely too large a gap to overcome but far enough from mathematical elimination to at least keep some fever dreams alive.
Well, no matter how much parity is in play, if a team entered the last week of August with an all-too-realistic chance of losing 90 games this season, we feel comfortable counting that club among the non-contenders. And this invites a conversation about what 2015 might have in store for such squads.
With that in mind, what follows is a reverse power rankings, of sorts. A look at which current also-ran the best chance to reach October. Next October.
To be eligible, a team had to be on pace for at least 88 losses this season. Sorry, Mets, Padres and Rays (or should we say congrats?). I've listed the teams based on what I believe is the likeliness of them making the postseason in 2015, starting with the most likely, the defending champs.
The classic hangover season is nearly over for the defending champs. And though the proceedings have been painful, Ben Cherington and Co. clearly didn't squander the opportunity it afforded them to fixate on the future. They got Major League talent back for Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes and John Lackey (Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly) and well-regarded pitching prospects Edwin Escobar and Eduardo Rodriguez back for Jake Peavy and Andrew Miller. They signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, a worthwhile gamble in light of what we've seen from Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig.
So much still has to go right for the Red Sox, most notably major developmental strides for Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez and Mookie Betts, all of whom have had either mixed or, in some cases, outright poor results at the plate in their first extended Major League look. And it remains to be seen how the Red Sox address the gaping hole Lester left in their rotation.
But Boston liked going from worst to first so much in 2013 that it will attempt to do so again in '15. And if nothing else, the seeds are here -- in personnel and financial might -- to make it happen.
Adam Eaton -- before injuring his oblique -- brought needed tenacity to the leadoff spot, Avisail Garcia made it back quicker than expected from a major shoulder injury in April, Jose Quintana has solidified his status as a legit No. 2 behind arguably the second-best lefty in the game, Chris Sale. And oh yeah, if you don't get a thrill watching Jose Abreu (.308/.366/.598 slash line in his rookie season) at the plate, you don't have a pulse.
The White Sox are a markedly more interesting team than they were a year ago, one that has the opportunity to build its lineup around Abreu, whose quick maturation in the Majors has allowed him to be productive even in those rare stretches when his power wanes. They'll need to rebuild the bullpen. They'll need a nearly seamless transition from 2014 top draft pick Carlos Rodon, who could be in the rotation as early as April (and could be in the big league bullpen as soon as Sept. 1).
They'll need the usual combo of luck and health and undervalued assets bearing fruit. But after a 99-loss season in 2013, the Sox are one of baseball's most improved in '14, and '15 is looking mighty promising.
Sometimes the stuff going on beneath the surface is more interesting than what's taking place in the light of day, and the Cubs' reported waiver claim of Cole Hamels, which obviously didn't result in a trade, definitely qualified as interesting. It could be an indication that the Cubs have the budget to spend on top-flight pitching, and Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are the obvious targets in that department.
The Cubs, under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, have also demonstrated a magic touch for finding diamonds in the rough in the pitching market and polishing them up (witness Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Scott Feldman, Paul Maholm and Travis Wood, and keep an eye on Felix Doubront).
All of this bodes well for this club's ability to field a viable staff around what figures to be an above-average offense. Thanks to the fully-developed Anthony Rizzo, the revitalized Starlin Castro, the recently promoted Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler, and a farm system with more to offer (most notably the power-hitting Kris Bryant, who should arrive in 2015), the Cubs' not-too-distant lineup looks legit. They probably won't end their more-than-a-century-old World Series hunt next year, but they could get frisky this winter and bridge the gap significantly.
A franchise-record payroll netted the D-backs nothing but their worst showing in the standings since 2010. They recovered from that '10 campaign to win the NL West the following season, and it's incumbent upon recently installed "chief baseball officer" Tony La Russa to point them in the direction of a similar turnaround.
It will be surprising if La Russa totally sticks with the leadership status quo -- general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson -- this offseason. Early reports indicated that Gibson will be retained, despite some industry eye-rolls over his team's emphasis on "grit" and some noteworthy incidences of pitchers stumbling once they arrive in Arizona, but La Russa denied that any firm decisions have been made.
The good news? The D-backs went 43-43 between their disastrous 5-18 start and Aug. 1, when they lost MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt to a broken hand. If Goldschmidt, Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock and Miguel Montero (who recovered from 2013's offensive stumbles) are healthy next year, the D-backs will again have the makings of a championship-caliber lineup. They also plan to field another nine-figure payroll, which means they'll be players in the winter free-agent class. What they don't have is a clear idea of what the rotation will look like, which is why a seamless recovery for Patrick Corbin from Tommy John is essential. It will also be interesting to see how top prospect Archie Bradley fares, if he's promoted in September.
A lost season like no other. Shin-Soo Choo and Yu Darvish bpth went on the disabled list in the past week, because, well, why not? Everybody else is doing it in Arlington. The Rangers have used a team-record 57 players, including 36 pitchers and 18 rookies. They've put more than $70 million worth of talent on the DL, using it 25 times. In a related development, they've dropped 20 games in the standings in just a little more than two months, and this will be their worst finish since 2003.
Here's the hard truth about the Rangers' outlook once this ugly 2014 is over: It's not guaranteed to get significantly better in '15. We still have questions about what kind of hitter Prince Fielder will be once he recovers from neck surgery. We have concerns about what the Rangers have received offensively from Elvis Andrus (.662 OPS) and free-agent acquisition Shin-Soo Choo (.714). We can't deny that Adrian Beltre, who will be 36 next April, can't keep this up forever. And though nobody reasonably expected a bunch of kids to come up from the farm system and save the season, a few flashes of brilliance from Rougned Odor and reliever Roman Mendez (1.23 ERA in 20 appearances) are about the best the farm system has had to offer in the face of all this adversity.
So we'll see how the Rangers respond to all this come winter, but for now it's clear the road back to respectability will be a challenging climb in a lot of key areas.
A Sports Illustrated cover promoted them as "Your 2017 World Series Champs," and when is the SI cover ever wrong?
All right, fine, don't answer that. And while you're at it, try not to focus too much on the fact that it doesn't look like Brady Aiken will even get a chance to prove There Is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect -- at least, not in Astros gear. The Aiken situation and the hacked internal message board are issues Jeff Luhnow's front office will have to overcome in all future negotiations.
Still, this is undoubtedly a club on the upswing, playing with more passion than you'd expect from a team so far below .500. In addition to an MVP-type season from Jose Altuve, the Astros have seen encouraging signs from Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh on the mound and encouraging power from George Springer and Jon Singleton at the plate. That said, shortstop Carlos Correa lost key development time due to injury, and it's too soon to tell if Mark Appel's Class A struggles were a California League concoction or something more sinister.
The Astros won't win it all in 2015. But at least they'll be one step closer to 2017.
Three straight seasons of 90-plus losses, and a .446 winning percentage this year means they're dangerously close to a fourth. Counter to that continuity is continuity of a different sort, as Ron Gardenhire has been given an especially long leash for a man in his position, with the early word that the Twins will honor his 2015 contract.
Will Gardenhire finally have a ready-to-win roster? Hmm. The four-year, $49 million Ricky Nolasco contract looks even worse now than it did when it was announced, neither of the two goals of Joe Mauer's move to first base (returning his performance to past norms and keeping him healthy) became reality thus far in 2014 and top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano both basically lost a year of development due to injuries.
But at least Mauer has been much better since his return from an oblique injury, rookie Danny Santana has been a strong offensive weapon who can still shift back to short, Brian Dozier has been a stable supplier of offense in the middle infield, Kurt Suzuki has been a blessing both with his bat at the plate and input behind it and Kennys Vargas (.537 SLG in 95 at-bats) is a straight-up beast. On the mound, the Twins have gotten strong returns out of a low-key investment in Phil Hughes (108 ERA+), Kyle Gibson (92 ERA+) has shown flashes of being at worst a mid-rotation starter, and Trevor May and Alex Meyer at least offer some hope for the rotation's not-too-distant future.
This season made it painfully clear, yet again, that waiting on a durable season from Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez is not, in and of itself, a plan. And neither, frankly, is dangling either of those guys in the trade market, where their value is hindered by their lack of consistent health and the ample money due to them over the next several seasons. Couple those concerns with the ever-present difficulty of building a championship-caliber pitching staff in Coors Field (this year's staff ERA is hovering at 4.99), and a Rox front office with a decidedly unusual structure has another challenge ahead of it.
The biggest question, in the wake of some pointed public comments from owner Dick Monfort, is whether any changes will be made within that front office. Whoever is calling the shots will have to navigate around the absence of Tyler Chatwood and the concern over Jhoulys Chacin's shoulder condition to piece together a respectable rotation that may or may not include Brett Anderson (Colorado holds a $12 million option on him) and pending free agent Jorge De La Rosa. It's a tall order in the Rockies.
The Phils are still stuck in-between steps, because dispatching Roberto Hernandez to the Dodgers for a couple of warm bodies isn't going to alter the organizational calculus any. A recent Philadelphia Daily News column painted Ruben Amaro as "out of touch." Given Amaro's apparent expectation that other clubs should be forking over top prospects for the soon-to-be-37-year-old Marlon Byrd and $13-million-per-year closer Jonathan Papelbon, that's not an entirely unfair viewpoint. The Phillies are only now coming to grips with the long-present reality that their club was too old, expensive and flawed to be a true contender in the NL East, and it's going to take a major overhaul (and probably quite a few swallowed contracts) to turn things around.
This, simply put, will not be a quick process, and the general inaction this summer hasn't exactly sped things up at all. Nor has the apparent friction between Ryne Sandberg and some young players with no clear roles.