The Pirates enter Wednesday night's game in Milwaukee having reached 81 wins for the first time since 1992. Not only will they finish with at least a .500 record, but they're a near-lock to reach the playoffs and they have an excellent chance to win the NL Central, a division that didn't exist the last time Pittsburgh had a great baseball team. The Pirates didn't come out of nowhere, of course; the current team has been years in the making dating to the selection of Andrew McCutchen with the 11th pick in the 2005 draft, with a three-year buildup that included strong first halves followed by poor second halves in both 2011 and 2012.
Of course, we're the media, so we're over all that and we want to know: Who's next? What team, currently mired in misery, will be making a Bucs-like run to the top of the standings? The leading candidates haven't been down quite so long as the Pirates have, but they share traits: a small-market pedigree, a proud history that includes considerable success, and most important, a farm system that should produce a number of young, cost-controlled players ready to be the core of a good team. It's not quite as simple as ranking farm systems, although the team with the best chance to be the next Pirates does have what will probably be ranked this offseason as the top system in the game: the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins have the top two prospects in baseball in centerfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano. Buxton, the second pick in the 2012 draft, was a high-risk, high-reward selection who has showed excellent skills to go with all five tools. In a bit more than one full minor-league season, he has hit .312/.404/.502 with an excellent 146/92 K/BB (adjusted for intentional walks). He applies his speed to the game as well as any prospect in baseball, with 22 triples, 66 steals at a 75 percent success rate and excellent defense in center. Promoted to the Florida State League at midseason, he's hit .325/.415/.472 while being the youngest player in the circuit.
Buxton is the Twins' McCutchen, only better, with more athleticism and more upside. He'll probably come through the system faster, too; McCutchen didn't reach the majors until he was 22, while Buxton could make his debut as a September call-up next season, at 20, and projects to be a regular in 2015, at 21.
Buxton won't be named the best prospect in the FSL, however. He's not even the best prospect on the Fort Myers Miracle. That honor belongs to Sano, who has the best power bat in the minors. Sano was signed as 16-year-old and given what was then the second-highest bonus ever handed out to a Latin American amateur player -- $3.15 million. Sano's signing gave the Twins got one of the last big-bonus players to come out of the Dominican before rules changes governing the signing of international prospects took effect.
Minnesota certainly doesn't regret its investment. Sano has been brought along slowly; he's six months younger than Buxton but has nearly a thousand more minor league plate appearances. He's hit everywhere: .279/.373/.567 in his career while being young for every level he's played. In fact, once promoted to the Eastern League he was, like Buxton at Fort Myers, the youngest player in the league. For the first time, Sano has struggled a bit, still showing amazing raw power -- 19 homers in 276 at-bats and a .571 SLG -- but with a poor contact rate, striking out in 29 percent of his at-bats. He'll arrive more quickly at Target Field, with a chance to make the team out of spring training next March.
No team in baseball has a prospect pair like Buxton and Sano, and you'd be hard-pressed to think of a team with a similar pair of hitters coming through at the same time. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder with the mid-2000s Brewers, perhaps, although neither was the kind of player Buxton is. The Twins have depth as well, with pitchers Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer and Trevor May, all three of whom could be in next year's rotation. Kohl Stewart was the No. 4 pick in this year's draft and bolsters the system, and the team will have a top-10 pick in 2014 as well.
Some of the future is already in Minnesota; Aaron Hicks, 23, hasn't hit for average but he's shown power, speed and the ability to play a good centerfield. Brian Dozier, 26, is already one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball. Oswaldo Arcia, 22, is a good complementary piece. Joe Mauer, 30, is going to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for years to come even if he has to spend more and more time somewhere other than catcher. With all of these young players and just one big contract beyond 2014, Minnesota will have plenty of payroll room with which to pursue free agents as well.
It won't happen next season, but by 2015, the Twins are going to have perhaps the most exciting young team in baseball anchored by two budding stars. With a jewel of a ballpark and a passionate fan base that will support a winner, the Twins have all the makings of being the next Pirates.
Three other teams are trying to get on this train as well:
The Astros are on their way to a third consecutive No. 1 overall pick, the fruits of being the worst team in baseball for far too long. Next year is probably the last time they'll pick that high for a long time. Houston is already showing off some of the early fruits of the rebuilding process, with catcher Jason Castro, shortstop Jonathan Villar and pitcher Jarred Cosart making the team more watchable in the second half.
When they're ready, the Astros will benefit from their major-market status to run a major-market payroll, able to retain the products of their rebuild and reach into the market for necessary pieces.
Postseason ETA: 2016
The Mariners are also showing off a bit, promoting young starters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton this month for tastes of the major leagues, They join the exciting middle infield of Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, third baseman Kyle Seager and 2012 No. 1 pick Mike Zunino to give Seattle fans a glimpse of a promising future. The talent is here, but the question is the same as it's been for some time: Can the front office, led by general manager Jack Zduriencik, build a winning team from these raw materials?
Postseason ETA: 2017
That's been the question surrounding the Royals for even longer. GM Dayton Moore deviated from the process by trading his best prospect, Wil Myers, to the Rays last offseason for pitcher James Shields, costing Kansas City a bat it needed more than it needed another arm. The Royals will have their best season in a decade this year, but they're fringe contenders at best and head into the offseason with the same questions as they've had for years: Why can't they build a credible offense?
Moore can move the goalposts all he wants, but the Royals took a step backward in 2013 by trading Myers and may have made their path back to October longer than it ever had to be. They want to be the next Pirates, but Moore's lack of patience last winter may have made that impossible.
Postseason ETA: Unknown