The All-Star Break is upon us, and until game action starts up again on Friday, we're going to do a brief season in review of the 2012 MLB season thusfar. Our staff has voted on a variety of awards, and we're going to roll them out over the next four days.
There are a few teams this year that are contending, and no one picked them to finish where they're currently at right now before the year. Hell, many of us had them as basement dwellers. But right now at the All-Star Break, these teams are surprising a lot of people.
Most Surprising Team
Pirates (four votes)
Orioles (two votes)
Indians (one vote)
White Sox (one vote)
The Pittsburgh Pirates look legit right now. They're in first in the NL Central with a 48-37 record and are arguably playing the best baseball in the NL right now. Early in the season, they had fantastic pitching, but a putrid offense. But lately, the offense has been catching up, and the team is playing complete baseball. They've been led by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, the league's batting leader at .362 who is also in the top five in the league in both homers and RBI. McCutchen has gotten some support on offense lately, most notably from second baseman Neil Walker, catcher Michael McKenry, and huge power/low patience hitters Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez. On the mound, James McDonald has transformed into an ace, posting a 2.37 ERA as a huge All-Star snub. AJ Burnett has been reborn after leaving New York, posting a 3.68 ERA that was inflated by one terrible start against the Cardinals in his third start of the year. Take that out, and Burnett's ERA falls to 2.59. Even Jeff Karstens and oft-injured veteran Erik Bedard have contributed this year. This has just been an unreal season for Pittsburgh, and I really hope they keep it up, because they've got a really nice looking young team.
The Baltimore Orioles started out as a house of fire, but have slowed as of late. The team has fallen to seven out in the AL East, and are clinging to the AL's final wild card berth by half a game. Baltimore looks like they're going to fall down the rabbit hole in the second half, but their fans might as well enjoy the ride. Adam Jones is by far the best regular on offense, clubbing 20 homers and OPSing .864 in the first half while also signing a contract extension. Aside from Jones and Matt Wieters, Baltimore's offense has been largely forgettable. On the mound, it's been a tale of two seasons for the Orioles. Jake Arrieta started strong, but has been demoted to AAA Norfolk after struggling lately, along with Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, who have also been bad this year. Asian import Wei-Yin Chen has been fantastic this year with low expectations, and Jason Hammel has been a force on the hill. Their bullpen has also been very good, but the team's 2.75 pen ERA is more than a run lower than their 3.87 FIP. DANGER DANGER.
The Cleveland Indians were exposed in the second half last year as a pretty bad team, but have stuck around the .500 mark this year after being projected for worse things. There have been things to be proud of as a Tribe fan this year, most notably Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera up the middle. Shin-Soo Choo has rebounded to his old self after an awful 2011 season, but catcher Carlos Santana has gone in the other direction. The rest of Cleveland's offense isn't spectacular, highlighted by big free agent signing Casey Kotchman turning back into a pumpkin with the stick. The Indians rotation has been terrible aside from Zach McAllister, who has made just seven starts this year. Justin Masterson has taken a step back, Derek Lowe is still Derek Lowe (striking out THREE BATTERS per nine innings), and Ubaldo Jimenez has continued to pitch like the first half of 2010 was a ridiculous fluke. The brightest spot for the Indians this year has been their fantastic bullpen, led by All-Star closer Chris Perez and his 24 saves. Vinnie Pestano has also been a monster for Cleveland.
And then, there's the AL Central leading White Sox. Last year was a disastrous year that led to Ozzie Guillen being ousted from his managerial position, and replaced in the offseason with coaching novice Robin Ventura. Of course, the White Sox are nine games above .500, and everything appears right with the team. Alex Rios is having a fantastic year after a borderline career-killer last year, Paul Konerko is smashing the ball like he's 26 rather than 36, Adam Dunn is playing like he has for his entire career minus last year, and AJ Pierzynski is hitting like a top-tier catcher instead of a clubhouse cancer. Phew. And then on the mound, Jake Peavy and Chris Sale are Cy Young contenders, rookie starter Jose Quintana has come out of nowhere to fill a hole in the rotation, and the bullpen has a pair of soul crushers in Addison Reed and Matt Thornton after an initial shaky period at the beginning of the year. And to think, the Sox are playing this well with close to nil from Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez, and John Danks. Sometimes, everything just clicks into place at the right time.