In 2012, we had the Orioles and the A's.
In 2011, it was the Diamondbacks.
In 2010, the Padres took their turn.
In 2009, the Rockies got the honor.
For various reasons that can't be understood until the after the fact, if understood at all, there is a surprise contender that emerges almost every single MLB season. Sometimes it is uncanny luck in one-run games. Sometimes there is a breakout player that carries a team. Sometimes several players overachieve all at the same time. Sometimes it is just pure randomness. Whatever the reason, having a team come out of nowhere to make a legitimate run at the playoffs is fun for everyone involved.
The only thing more fun than that Cinderella team is the impossible task of figuring out who that team might be before the season starts, or in this case, right after it starts. That's exactly what I intend to try, probably unsuccessfully to do… wait for it…. now!
The only real tool we have at our disposal for a task like this is process of elimination. Obviously, the first thing to do is cull all the teams that were, you know, actually good last season. If you are .500 or above, you can't exactly sneak up on anyone. So Yankees, Orioles, Rays, Tigers, White Sox, Rangers, A's, Angels, Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Reds, Cardinals, Brewers, Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks, you're all out.
Just like that, we are down to 13 contenders. To thin the herd further, we'll have to eliminate the teams that actually made a major effort to improve their roster in the off-season. There is hardly anything shocking going on when a team like the Jays makes a huge trade to acquire loads of talent and ends up being much better than they were the previous season. Joining Toronto on the chopping block will be the Royals and Mariners both who made several big trades as well as the the big-spending Indians and Red Sox.
That leaves us with eight potential surprises. However, we need to reduce the field a bit more, this time by considering the other end of the spectrum. Not to be mean about it, but some rosters are just too awful to shock the world by winning 90 games. So, with apologies to their poor fans (but no their cheap ass owners), the Marlins, Twins and Astros are all being removed from consideration.
That leaves us with our final five contenders. But really it should be the final four since the Pirates need to be disqualified. They a losing team last season, but only barely having won 79 games. They also made a few semi-major moves to improve the roster with their additions of Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli. Besides, they've been first half surprises (and second half flops) each of the last two seasons, so they will hardly shock anyone if they get out of the gates quickly once again.
The Mets though seem like they could be a contender. They are in a tough division, lost Johan Santana for the year and might have one of the worst starting outfields in recent memory, so nobody is really taking them seriously. But by focusing on those warts makes it very easy to overlook the many things the Mets have going for them. They, of course, still have MVP candidate David Wright and some other capable bats in Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy. Those players alone won't take them far, but the young players in the organization might be exactly what the Mets need to sneak up on everyone. They already have the very impressive Matt Harvey in the rotation and could call up top prospect Zack Wheeler to join him. With Jon Niese already in place and maybe some good luck with Shaun Marcum's health, the addition of Wheeler could the Mets a top tier rotation without anyone even realizing it. Let's not forget to mention that they have elite catching prospect Travis D'Arnaud waiting in the wings whenever New York decides their lineup needs a shot in the arm.
But maybe it won't be the Mets, mostly because, well, they are THE METS and there is always the specter of the Wilpons stepping in to screw everything up.
One team where ownership and management will be an actual boon to the club is the Chicago Cubs. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made some very nice under the radar moves to up the talent level of the Cub roster. In fact, it was almost too much of an upgrade to the point where we would've had to eliminate them from consideration, but not quite. What Chicago has now is a pretty solid rotation with Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and, eventually, Matt Garza. That rotation might even be pretty good if Carlos Villanueva and Scott Feldman blossom moving from the AL to the NL. The batting order for the Cubbies isn't great, but they have the makings of something with a top four of David DeJesus, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano. If they can just dig up one more useful bat and avoid having their bullpen implode on them, then just maybe Cub fans will not have to wait until next year… for a playoff berth at least.
If there is one team that most closely resembles last year's Orioles, it is probably the Padres. The offense has some nice veteran talent in the great, but injured, Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin (the Adam Jones and Nick Markakis of the Padres). They've also got some young bats who haven't quite clicked yet in their career, but could now that the fences have been brought in at Petco. Yonder Alsono seems like an ideal candidate for a Chris Davis-type breakout year. Jedd Gyorko, like Manny Machado, is young infield talent who people are expecting a lot from and Yasmani Grandal could be their Matt Wieters, once Grandal's PED suspension expires. But where the Padres might actually have a leg up on the O's is they also have another breakout candidate in Cameron Maybin. On the pitching side, the analogy holds up. The San Diego rotation is full of unheralded arms both young and old but their bullpen has loads of talent, the kind of talent that could lead a team like the Friars to an uncannily strong record in one-run games.
One team that has received absolutely no sleeper hype, it is the Colorado Rockies. That is perfectly fair seeing how their rotation is a trainwreck and their front office generally doesn't seem to know what they are doing but is highly meddlesome nonetheless. That being said, they do have two of the best players in the game on their team with Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The rest of the lineup isn't half bad either with Dexter Fowler leading off and Wilin Rosario poised for a potentially monster year with the bat. That is pretty much all the Rox have going for them though, which strangely might be exactly why they are the perfect candidate to be this year's big surprise. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expects the Colorado Rockies!
Or maybe it won't be any of those teams. Maybe this year's surprise will be that there is no surprise. Dang you baseball! Just when we think you are going to zig, you zag.