In our latest Pipeline Perspective, Jonathan Mayo and I have been tasked with identifying which of this year's last-place teams is in the best position to reverse their fortune. Jonathan chose the Marlins. I have two answers, not because I'm indecisive but rather because I believe the question can be interpreted in two ways.
The Cubs are the last-place team poised to contend the soonest. The Astros are the one with the brightest future.
No team in baseball has four hitting prospects as good as Chicago's quartet of shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. Not only are they talented, but they're developing quickly and should arrive at Wrigley Field by the end of 2014 or the early part of 2015. Add them to a lineup that already contains building blocks Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo (both of whom have had rough years but are each 23) and a promising young catcher in Welington Castillo, and the Cubs shouldn't have any problems scoring runs.
Chicago's pitching is a greater concern, but there are some pieces in place. Jeff Samardzija is the only National League starter to average more than a strikeout per inning in both 2012 and 2013. Travis Wood is the first Cubs left-hander to qualify for the ERA title with a mark under 3.00 since Dick Ellsworth in 1963.
The Cubs have made it a priority to acquire pitching by any means possible since president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Co. took over following the 2011 season. Both Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop took big steps forward after coming over from the Orioles in a July 2012 deal for Scott Feldman, and C.J. Edwards (formerly of the Rangers) and Arodys Vizcaino (formerly of the Braves) were two more trade acquisitions, and they have even more upside. The Epstein regime has used 16 picks in the top 10 rounds of the past two Drafts on pitchers, most notably Pierce Johnson, the No. 43 pick in 2012.
Furthermore, Chicago is the most desirable free-agent destination among the six last-place cities. The Cubs have more spending power than the other five, and they'll ratchet up their payroll once they're ready to start winning again.
The Astros have farther to climb than any of the other teams in the basement. But they also have a major asset in hand as they rebuild from the ground up: baseball's best farm system.
It begins with the past two No. 1 overall Draft picks, shortstop Carlos Correa (2012) and right-hander Mark Appel (2013). Correa has the Alex Rodriguez starter set of tools, while Appel has the stuff and polish to headline a rotation.
That's just the start. In terms of position players on the way, Houston also has outfielder George Springer, who nearly became the first 40-40 man in the modern era of the Minor Leagues; Jonathan Singleton, the game's top first-base prospect; and second baseman-turned-outfielder Delino DeShields Jr., who might be the best all-around player among the Minors' top speedsters.
On the mound, the Astros have a pair of power arms in right-handers Mike Foltynewicz and Lance McCullers Jr. Foltynewicz repeatedly hit 100 mph during the final two months of the season, and few pitchers can match McCullers' overpowering fastball/slider combination. Houston also owns the top choice in the 2014 Draft, which right now looks like a ticket to getting North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon, who has an even higher ceiling than Appel.
The Astros' big league club struggled mightily, but it isn't bereft of talent. Catcher Jason Castro had a breakthrough season, and Houston may have three more keepers for its lineup in Jose Altuve, Chris Carter and Matt Dominguez. Its best starting pitchers have been rookies Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer.
The Pirates had to suffer through 20 straight losing seasons between playoff berths, but they're finally headed back to the postseason. It shouldn't take the Cubs or Astros nearly as long to get back on track.