Timelines for contention 

March, 13, 2012

Preseason predictions tend to focus more on the likely contenders than the likely also-rans, as no one gets that worked up over a team that's going to win 70 games, plus or minus five. Even the fans of those teams are usually more concerned about their long-term outlooks, so I've looked at five such clubs to assess how long their fans might have to wait before the teams could reasonably expect to contend.

I've looked at future payroll commitments, major league assets, farm systems, ownership status and front office strategies. I also considered the competition in each team's division to assess their chances of earning a playoff spot. So, for example, the New York Mets face a higher standard than the Chicago Cubs or San Diego Padres because the National League East is so tough. (Exclusion of any club isn't a comment on how soon they might become competitive.)

Kansas City Royals

The Royals aren't that far off, but exactly how far is more a function of their pitching than all other variables combined. The offense has improved markedly over the past two years, with Eric Hosmer prepared to explode on the league this year, and the Royals have gradually improved their defense at most positions, looking weak only at third base and possibly left field. Their only significant contract commitments beyond 2013 are to Billy Butler (through 2014) and Salvador Perez (2016, plus club options), so they have the flexibility to add a major arm or to continue to lock up critical young players to long-term deals.

But their lack of pitching at the major-league level is exacerbated by difficulty getting their first wave of top pitching prospects -- led by Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb -- established in the majors, with Duffy the most successful so far by default.

General manager Dayton Moore has done a solid job of poaching undervalued arms from other organizations, but you can't build a contending staff that way. So the Royals will either need to have several of those young arms -- a group that could also include Aaron Crow, Chris Dwyer and Jake Odorizzi -- step forward in the next two seasons, or they'll have to trade some of their prospect depth for a starter, just as Milwaukee did to acquire Zack Greinke from the Royals a year ago. The Royals have the players to do it, but it might mean giving up a prized prospect such as Wil Myers or Cheslor Cuthbert in the service of pushing the team back over .500.

They will most likely contend next in ... 2014

Chicago Cubs

Keith Law

ESPN Senior Writer