For the first 10 years of their existence, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were a bad joke. They had finished in last place in every year except one, when the Blue Jays were just bad enough in 2004 that the Rays' 70 wins were enough to claim fourth place in the AL East. That was also the franchise record for wins in a season.
Losing had its privileges, of course. The newly re-christened Rays had already gotten the first pick in the draft three times and would pick first again in 2008. They had never selected lower than eighth. Because of this, Baseball America ranked the Rays' farm system the best in baseball for two years in a row. On top of that, they had a highly-regarded trio of young outfielders already playing in the majors: Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young.
The future was bright for Tampa Bay after the 2007 season. However, the present was pretty lousy. The team finished in last place yet again. The team's offense was league-average, but their pitching was dreadful. The team had a league-high team ERA of 5.53. You can chalk up some of that to having to play so many games agains the Yankees and Red Sox, but the Devil Rays pitching stunk against pretty much everyone. The Rays only won 66 games in 2007. Fans were pretty happy about that, since it was an improvement over the 61 games they had won in 2006.
Going in to 2008, the Rays made only one major trade, shipping off Young, the first overall pick in 2003, along with Brendan Harris, to Minnesota fro Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. And while their farm system was bright, only one of the Rays prospects was ready to contribute immediately in 2008: third baseman Evan Longoria. Now Longoria is a big deal and a great player, but he's only one player.
Yet the Rays went from losing 96 games in 2007 to winning 97 and the American League East in 2008. They made the World Series, eventually losing to the Phillies in five games. And as you know, their success was not a one-year fluke, either. While they dropped down to 84 wins (still a winning record!) in 2009, they have won 90 or more games a year every season since.
How were they able to improve so quickly? Longoria helped a lot, of course. Certainly his bat was an improvement over Ty Wigginton , whom he replaced in the lineup. But more importantly, Longoria provided superior defense at third base and allowed the Rays previous third baseman, Akinori Iwamura, to move over to second base where he provided a massive defensive upgrade over Wigginton. Wigginton was shipped to Houston for Dan Wheeler. More on that later.
In what seemed like a minor deal, the Rays acquired Gabe Gross from the Brewers to take over right field for Delmon Young. Gross was a worse hitter than Young, but he was a massively better fielder than the notorious butcher Young.
The Rays offense was slightly better in 2008 with the addition of Longoria. But what really happened was the Rays pitching staff took a massive step forward. The league-worst 5.53 ERA of 2007 dropped to a second-best in the league 3.82 in 2008. Adding Garza to the rotation helped immensely. But the starting pitchers all took a step forward. Not a big one. James Shields and Scott Kazmir were essentially the same pitchers in 2008 that they were in 2007. Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson took big steps forward. It's probably not coincidence that the two pitchers with the lowest strikeout rates improved the most. Tampa Bay's defense had been greatly improved, and the pitchers who relied the most on defense were the ones to benefit.
But the biggest improvement came in the bullpen. The 2007 Devil Rays bullpen was a toxic waste dump, to understate the case. Their closer, Alberto Reyes, saved 26 games with just four blown saves, although his ERA was an ugly 4.90. He was the best pitcher the bullpen had. Three relievers who made more than 40 appearances had an ERA over seven.
The Rays made a series of minor moves to improve that. The biggest move they made, getting a way-past-his-prime Troy Percival to be the closer, didn't work out too well as Percival wasn't much better than Reyes. But Wheeler was excellent. J.P. Howell was moved from the rotation (where he was terrible) to the pen, where he was very good. Grant Balfour took a big step forward.
Some of the bullpen's big 2008 season was the result of the improved defense, no doubt. But some of it was just finding cheap talent like Wheeler.
Why am I telling you about all this? Because I'd argue that the Cubs right now are in the same position as the 2007 Devil Rays were. A current team with some talented young players but several major problems. A strong farm system. The Rays had a big hole in the bullpen, whereas that's a position of relative strength for the Cubs. The Rays had some defensive black holes that needed to be addressed, whereas the Cubs' have black holes at the plate instead. We still aren't sure what the Cubs' starting rotation is after the Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel trade.
The point is, the Rays didn't have to go from a last place team to a third place team and up the ladder one step per season. They went from last to first very quickly. And the Rays didn't have to make a lot of big moves to become a contender. Their big farm system would pay off in the future, but in 2008, it was only Evan Longoria who had a big impact.
The 2015 Cubs, unlike the 2008 Rays, will have money to spend on a major free agent if necessary. We're already seeing Arismendy Alcantara having a major impact, but even if he just turns out to be league-average next season (and I think he'll be better than that), he'd be a major improvement on offense over Darwin Barney at second base or a major improvement in every sense over Junior Lake in center field. If Kris Bryant or Javier Baez could take over third base and move Luis Valbuena to the outfield and get Nate Schierholtz out of the lineup, the Cubs could have a fairly strong offense. Perhaps a prospect gets dealt at mid-season to fill in a different hole in the lineup. Add a free agent starting pitcher such as Jon Lester and have Kyle Hendricks (or any of the other half dozen back-of-the-rotation prospects) step in as a solid No. 5 starter, then this team could be a contender next season.
There are no guarantees that all this will happen, of course. While I see many similarities between the 2007 Devil Rays and the 2014 Cubs, you could also say the 2011 Kansas City Royals, who won 71 games, were similar. People predicted a Royals breakout in 2012, and they won 72 games. (The 2013 team did finish over .500.) So while the conditions are right for a rapid turnaround, it takes more than that to make a pennant winner.
What I am saying, however, is that the turnaround could come much faster than people expect. We talk a lot about 2016 and 2017, and certainly the current time table has those seasons as more of an estimated time of arrival. But it is very possible that the talent that reaches the majors from the Cubs farm system in those years would simply be reinforcing an already good team like David Price and Wade Davis would do for the Rays in 2009 and 2010.
I believe the future is near and that there is a chance that it will come next season. In any case, I can't wait to find out.