Next Big Thing is MLB FanHouse's look at emerging teams, trends and stars in 2009.
Trying to find the next Tampa Bay Rays a year after their meteoric rise to the top of the American League is a bit of an insult to what the Rays accomplished in 2008. Going from worst to first in one season just doesn't happen very often in baseball.
The 2008 Rays were the next 1991 Braves, if anything, so trying to find the heir to the Rays one year later when it might actually take a full generation for that team to emerge could be a fool's errand.
On the other hand, if we look at the 2008 Rays as following in the footsteps of the 2007 Rockies and 2006 Tigers, it's much easier to find a team that could take the mantle of enormous surprise in 2009. Enter the Texas Rangers.
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Now that the Rays have been all the way to the World Series and back, it's hard to find a more futile franchise than the Rangers. Texas has been to the playoffs just three times in team history -- a history that stretches back to Washington and 1961. The Rangers have never been to the World Series and have all of one playoff win to their name. In the decade since their last postseason appearance, they've had a winning record once.
But hey, if the Rockies and Rays can make the Fall Classic in successive seasons, if the Tigers can go from 119-game losers to American League champions in three years, then there has to be hope for Texas.
Offense has never been the problem since the team moved to Ameriquest Field, and that was never more true than last year, when the Rangers led the AL in runs, hits, doubles, batting average and slugging percentage. They did lose Milton Bradley this winter, but full seasons from Ian Kinsler, Hank Blalock and Chris Davis among others should be more than enough to offset the loss.
No, it is pitching that has been Texas' white whale over the years. Their team ERA in 2008 was a depressing 5.37. So why the cause for hope? A minor league system that has become one of the best in baseball (ESPN's Keith Law flatly ranked it No. 1 this week). At the top of that farm system are two very special pitchers, Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland. Both could eventually be aces, but even beyond that pair there is a ton of depth in the form of Michael Main, Blake Beavan and Wilfredo Boscan (the list goes on).
Match this high-ceiling pitching talent with an already impressive lineup and its easy to envision the Rangers becoming a force in the AL West, particularly as the window starts to close on the Angels. It might not happen right away, but if there's one organization in the majors closest to rising from the depths of the standings, it's the Rangers.
It's only a matter of time.