No team wants to finish last. But someone has to. That fate fell to the Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Marlins, Cubs and Rockies this season. Seeing the Red Sox become just the second team in history to go from last place to a championship -- the Twins did it in 1991 -- proves it's possible to rebound right away, and it gives every club a goal to shoot for.
"It's always encouraging for everybody. Talent, obviously, is the big thing," said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. "The Red Sox had a lot of talent. I have to give them a lot of credit how it was managed, both from the general manager's standpoint to the manager on the field. They did a great job of bringing the club together. Really good players as well. Let's not overlook that.
"But I do think if you're out there, you're looking at the hope. [Commissioner] Bud Selig always talks about that, [that] the game of baseball is a game of hope. And when you have things like that happen and you see other small-market clubs, like Oakland's success or Tampa's success, it gives a lot of people encouragement."
Added White Sox GM Rick Hahn: "It does provide you with a fair amount of hope. You look at how they did it, and they did it on the strength of good pitching and some shrewd moves along the way by the front office and the on-field management, John Farrell and his staff. And a little bit of luck sprinkled in along the way."
It's still early in the offseason. So much can change between now and the beginning of next season that it's impossible to accurately predict what rosters will look like when Opening Day rolls around -- much less which teams might surprise in 2014.
"That's a hard question," Zduriencik said. "If you asked me that question at the beginning of Spring Training, I'll have a better answer, because clubs will be retooled, restocked. You'll have a better idea of what clubs are going to look like. And health is a factor, too. If something happens all of a sudden this winter where a player gets hurt ... those factors are sometimes the unknowns."
Still, when baseball people were asked during the recent General Managers Meetings to speculate on which last-place team seemed well-positioned to vault into contention, there was one team that was mentioned most often:
"They've always had a good offensive club, and if they get some of the pitching they're trying to get ..." said Reds GM Walt Jocketty. "I like [manager] Walt Weiss. I had him as a player and talked to him a lot last year when we were in there. He's a good leader of men, and I think that's important. So I think they have a good shot at improving."
"When we played the Rockies, they impressed me with some of their young offensive players," added Nationals GM Mike Rizzo.
Colorado's rising young stars include catcher Wilin Rosario, second baseman DJ LeMahieu and third baseman Nolan Arenado, all 25 or younger. Of the projected starting lineup, only left fielder Michael Cuddyer, the National League batting champion, is over 30. And there's a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa.
Braves special assistant Jim Fregosi also mentioned Colorado, but with a caveat: "It's going to be difficult, because the Dodgers are going to dominate that division for a long time because of the money they have."
Any team with pitching can't be dismissed, so the White Sox can't be ruled out. Chicago finished last in the American League in runs scored but has already added slugging Cuban defector Jose Abreu. The White Sox also got outfielder Avisail Garcia from the Tigers as part of the three-way Jake Peavy deal before the July 31 Trade Deadline and will continue to look for ways to add pop to the lineup as the offseason continues.
"Given where we are from a pitching standpoint, we feel we've got some of the ingredients of a championship club," Hahn said. "It's incumbent upon us to add to the moves we've made so far with Avi Garcia and Abreu that will put us in a position. And get a fair amount of luck along the way, too. But it certainly shows it can happen, and we feel we have some of the ingredients to put us on that path."
The Blue Jays still have many of the big names in R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera, who created such hope when they were acquired last winter. And while the Marlins, Cubs and Astros appear to be in the continuing phases of rebuilding, one never knows when prospects might come more quickly than expected.
"The Miami club is really positioning themselves in the right way," Rizzo said. "They have a young, power pitching staff and have some good core position players, too. So I think Miami is on the right track. Maybe because I see them play all the time. They're an impressive group of guys, and I know they gave us some fits when we played them."