5 teams headed for big breakouts in 2024

July 21st, 2023

The 2014 Chicago Cubs were not a very good baseball team. They finished 73-89, last place in the National League Central. There are all sorts of unmemorable players who got many at-bats for that team, from Arismendy Alcantara to Junior Lake to Justin Ruggiano. There aren’t many Cubs fans who look back at 2014 and say, “Ah, those were the days.”

But you could see the seeds of what the Cubs were going to be -- and what they’d ultimately be able to accomplish -- on that roster. There was a 24-year-old Anthony Rizzo; a 21-year-old Javier Báez; a 24-year-old Kyle Hendricks; a 28-year-old Jake Arrieta, who finally started to figure it out after years of struggle in Baltimore. And that team started to emerge after the Trade Deadline. The Cubs went 28-27 after the Deadline passed, certainly not an earth-shattering record, but after what the Cubs had been in the years before that (96 losses in 2013, 101 in 2012, 91 in 2011), an above-.500 closeout to the season felt like a massive victory. And most importantly: It was a window into what was coming.

In the following offseason, the Cubs signed Jon Lester and traded for Dexter Fowler, and in 2015 they promoted Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber … and then they were off. They’d win 97 games that season, beating the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game and the Cardinals in the NLDS before being swept by the Mets in the NLCS. And you may have some vague memories of how 2016 worked out for them.

The point is, the 2014 Cubs are the sort of team, over the last two months of the season, you keep an eye out for: A young team that isn’t contending this year but is starting to show signs that they may be ready to do so soon. They’re the up-and-comers, the teams who will look to slingshot out of a solid final two months into an emergent 2024 season.

Who are the best 2014 Cubs-like candidates down the stretch? Here are some potential suspects.


The Pirates made another first nod to the wave that’s coming by calling up pitching prospect Quinn Priester, another cog in a machine that is just getting started. Henry Davis, Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales and Endy Rodríguez are ready to be lineup mainstays, and while their recent growing pains have been part of the reason the Pirates have faded after their hot start, there’s obviously tons of talent here working its way into form. The Pirates have six regulars 25 years or younger, with more coming up through the system, and Oneil Cruz should be back healthy next season.

The Pirates, in many ways, are the best example of what we’re talking about with the 2014 Cubs … or at least they would be if the Reds hadn’t beaten them to it.


You know, the Rockies made the playoffs for the second consecutive season only five years ago. It’s not impossible, even in that division. And while the Rockies have their fair share of problems, there are some signs of hope. The emergence of Nolan Jones has been helpful to a lineup that needs every hit it can get, and Zac Veen, among others, is winding his way through the system.

But what you want to see here is upside, which is why Ezequiel Tovar is a guy to keep an eye on over the last two months. He’s young, he’s going to play every day and he’s bursting with talent. Can he put it together to give this team something to build around? This division is tough, and this is pretty optimistic for the Rockies. But you gotta start somewhere.


After the rough 2022 season, you can be forgiven for writing off the Tigers right from the get-go. But while they’re hardly tearing the league apart this year, the AL Central’s mediocrity has kept them at least within striking distance of the division lead. That may not really matter, because the Tigers are starting to, at least, see a little bit of fruit from their prospects. Riley Greene has recovered from his injury -- an injury that surely cost him an All-Star bid -- and looks like a mainstay of this lineup for years to come. But perhaps most encouraging has been the rebound of Spencer Torkelson, who has come on over the last two months, climbing all the way up to a 100 OPS+. That might not sound like much -- it marks him as a league-average hitter -- but it’s a sign of how far he has come … and how much further he might have left to go.

There are some nice players in their 20s on this roster: Greene, Torkelson, Matt Vierling, Kerry Carpenter, even. Akil Baddoo is still just 24. They may send out some talent at the Deadline, but none of it will be young, and those players will have plenty of opportunities to continue to make their mark. And hey, you never know: In this division, they might mess around and actually win the thing this year.


OK, so it might seem very strange to put the Cardinals here, considering this has been perhaps their most miserable season in two decades and they’re about to be trading away anything that’s not nailed down in an explicit attempt to bring in as much pitching as possible. But as we’ve seen since the All-Star break -- the Cardinals won five in a row heading into their series at Wrigley Field -- this is a prideful franchise full of players who are not used to having little to play for down the stretch … and want very much to lay some groundwork for 2024.

But while veterans like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt are keeping the Cardinals afloat, the young players are the ones who give reason to get excited about this team heading into next year. After the initial hype, Jordan Walker has settled into being one of the most consistent young hitters in the game, and players like Brendan Donovan (who has been fantastic for a month now), Lars Nootbaar and Iván Herrera are making their cases for being linchpins moving forward as well. If the Cardinals end up trading Paul DeJong, as many suspect, top prospect Masyn Winn could be installed as the shortstop for the rest of the year, too. The Cardinals aren’t going away, despite the disappointment of this season. They will want to show, these last two months, what they can be in 2024. (Now, about that pitching …)


Nearly a decade later, why can’t the original-recipe Cubs repeat what the 2014 Cubs set in motion? This belies the Cubs’ positive strides this year -- this remains, after all, the only team in the division with a positive run differential -- but that 7 1/2-game deficit is substantial. What makes you most excited about the Cubs? There’s the proof of concept that their plan for this year -- shore up the defense and get more athletic -- has worked: One of the main reasons Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman have had success is because they’ve had that defense behind them.

There are also the young players who have already stepped forward, namely Christopher Morel and Miguel Amaya. And there are the guys who are coming, including Pete Crow-Armstrong, who could be called up any day now. This division is up in the air over the next few years, and the Cubs seem well positioned to take advantage of it.