Surprise, surprise: Teams that could be unexpected contenders
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
When it comes to predicting which Major League Baseball teams will get to the postseason, everyone knows the favorites.
It's hard to imagine the 2012 playoffs taking place without the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, for instance.
Every year, though, an unexpected squad or two crash the postseason party.
Let's take a look at four teams - two from each league - which just might surprisingly make the cut this season:
The Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively, have won the past three National League West championships. Since 2006, four of the division's five teams have captured the crown.
Which is the lone NL West team that hasn't won it during that span? Colorado. In fact, the Rockies have never won the NL West title during their 19 seasons of existence.
The Rockies haven't been a long-suffering franchise, however. They captured the NL pennant in 2007 and reached the postseason as recently as 2009.
Despite appearing on the verge of being a perennial contender, the Rockies slipped to third place in the NL West in 2010. The bottom fell out last season, when they went 73-89 and barely avoided the basement.
Getting to the top of the division, or at least re-establishing themselves as a playoff contender, won't be a simple task. The 2011 division champion Diamondbacks added Trevor Cahill to a solid starting rotation and Jason Kubel to a hard-hitting lineup. The 2010 World Champion Giants still boast a staff of aces, and the Dodgers should have a healthier Andre Ethier to bolster a Matt Kemp-led middle of the order.
So, why could the Rockies challenge for a playoff spot, and maybe have a chance to steal their first division crown? Colorado should have the best offense in the division. With cornerstones like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez healthy and ready to lead the way, Colorado added another solid bat (Michael Cuddyer) to the middle of the lineup and a scrappy guy who will get on base (Marco Scutaro) to the top part of the order.
Leadoff hitter and center fielder Dexter Fowler was terrific in the second half of last season, and he reported to spring training with 12 pounds of added muscle. Fowler is a decent bet to put together a breakout season.
Ramon Hernandez will bring good offense to the catcher position until promising Wilin Rosario is ready to take over the job and eventually provide an even more potent bat. Projected No. 8 hitter Casey Blake is a declining player, but he just needs to hold the fort at third base until top prospect Nolan Arenado comes up for good sometime later this season. Blake can't possibly be as bad as last year's third baseman, Ian Stewart (.156, six RBIs), either.
Even though closer Huston Street went to division rival San Diego, the Rockies still should have a decent bullpen. Rafael Betancourt's never been in the closer role for an extended period, but there's little reason to think he won't succeed as Street's replacement. Matt Belisle is a solid setup man and hard-throwing Rex Brothers has the look of a closer-in-the-making.
There's a reason why most experts don't consider the Rockies a playoff contender, though, and it's a pretty convincing one: The starting rotation is unproven, and learning the ropes while pitching half your games at Coors Field can be a difficult proposition.
The Colorado rotation underwent a transformation when previous ace Ubaldo Jimenez was shipped to Cleveland in a trade deadline deal last July. Another mainstay, Jorge De La Rosa, will likely miss the first two months of the season while continuing to battle back from Tommy John surgery which cut short his 2011 season.
"Unproven" doesn't necessarily equal a lack of ability. Jeremy Guthrie, over from Baltimore, is nothing special, but he should be a staff leader and innings eater. Jhoulys Chacin isn't well known, but he won 11 games and has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Juan Nicasio broke his neck when he was hit by a line drive last season. He's back and throwing as hard as ever, and he has flashed ace potential.
The rest of the rotation spots are up for grabs, but Colorado eventually figures to have two of the pitchers acquired in the Jimenez trade - Drew Pomeranz and Alex White - take over those positions. Pomeranz, the key to the deal for the Rockies, has the talent to eventually be a No. 1 starter. Ageless Jamie Moyer could open the year as the fifth starter until one of the youngsters is ready.
This is an excellent offensive team that also is solid defensively. Basically, if two or three out of the group of Chacin, Nicasio, Pomeranz and White take a big step forward, the Rockies could be playing meaningful October games.
With an 80-81 record last season, the Nationals came close to their first winning record since moving to Washington in 2005 (they also just missed in 2005, when they were 81-81).
There's no question the Nationals are a team on the rise, but they're still able to fly a little under the radar because the Philadelphia Phillies have had a stranglehold on the NL East, winning the last five titles. Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins made big offseason splashes by signing free agents Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buerhle. Also, the Atlanta Braves won 89 games last season and should again be solid.
The Phillies won the 2011 NL East crown by 13 games and they did it on the strength of their impressive starting rotation. The Nationals are building quite a rotation, too, with Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg possessing the talent to become the best pitcher in the game. He missed most of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he has looked good this spring.
Jordan Zimmermann, who posted a 3.18 ERA in his first full season as a starter last year, should prove to be a worthy longtime No. 2 starter behind Strasburg. Washington probably gave up too much when it sent four promising players to Oakland in exchange for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, but he won 16 games for the Athletics last season and should quickly establish himself as one of the NL's better young pitchers.
Edwin Jackson, who helped the Cardinals win the World Series last year, will be one of the best No. 4 starters in baseball. The No. 5 starter will be John Lannan, at least until Chien-Ming Wang recovers from a hamstring injury. Either one ought to win 10 games, which is all a team could ask of its No. 5 starter.
The Nationals bullpen is impressive, too. Drew Storen is one of the better young closers in the league, coming off a 43-save season. You keep thinking rubber-armed Tyler Clippard's high-innings totals will eventually take their toll, but he just keeps getting every big out in the seventh and eighth innings.
Henry Rodriguez gives Washington another power arm in the bullpen. If Brad Lidge can rediscover past form, the Nationals could have the deepest 'pen in the National League.
With the return of Strasburg and additions of Gonzalez and Jackson, starting pitching is the Nationals' biggest area of improvement. They didn't need as much of an upgrade on offense, where they already have some valuable pieces.
Ryan Zimmerman is a dark-horse MVP candidate. He underwent abdominal surgery that cost him two months of the 2011 season, but he's healthy now and looking as good as ever during spring training.
Left fielder Michael Morse, right fielder Jayson Werth, second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos are all above-average players at their respective positions. When 19-year-old uber-prospect Bryce Harper arrives for good from the minor leagues to play center field, likely by early June, the Nationals will have one of the most complete lineups in the league.
So, what could hold back the Nationals? The biggest weakness is the lack a natural leadoff hitter. Ian Desmond could open the season in that role, but he strikes out too often (139 times, against just 35 walks, in 639 plate appearances last year) and doesn't get on base often enough (.298 on-base percentage in 2011).
Another potential problem will be the innings limit being put on Strasburg. When he gets to 160 innings or so, the Nationals say he's going to be shut down for the season.
If the Nationals are in the pennant chase in September, they'll likely have forge ahead without their ace. Still, their rotation depth could help them get it done.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Blame much of it on small-market limitations, but the Kansas City Royals have been pretty uncompetitive for a long time.
* They have just one winning season in the last 17, when they went 83-79 in 2003 to finish third in the American League Central, seven games behind division champion Minnesota.
* They haven't made the playoffs since 1985, when they posted a Don Denkinger- aided World Series triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals.
* They haven't finished as high as second in the AL Central since 1995 and that season was hardly a cause for celebration; they ended up 30 games behind champion Cleveland.
Last year, the Royals were, well, a Royals-like 71-91. Anyone who follows the game, however, knows that Kansas City has begun to turn the corner. The Royals' farm system, regarded as one of the best these days, has developed plenty of young offensive talent that should give the franchise its best shot at contention since the Reagan Administration.
What's not to like about this lineup? Maybe they aren't household names yet, but a middle of the order that features Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas could prove to be one of the league's most productive. Ex-Brave Jeff Francoeur has settled in to become a solid complementary player.
Catcher Salvador Perez will miss the first half of the season while he recovers from knee surgery. When he returns, he is likely to establish himself as one of the majors' best young players at his position. Until then, Kansas City has to hope journeyman Humberto Quintero can hold his own.
Alex Gordon and Lozenzo Cain should provide speed and on-base skills. Former Brewers shortstop Alcides Escobar keeps improving offensively, and he's already one of the league's best glove men.
This squad has plenty of positives offensively and defensively, but whether the Royals can put together a rare winning season and challenge for the playoffs will largely depend on pitching. Unfortunately for Kansas City, its minor-league pitching prospects aren't quite ready for prime time; its offensive prospects have arrived to the majors earlier, making the Royals a bit one-dimensional as they chase heavily favored Detroit in the NL Central.
Jonathan Sanchez is a talented, if erratic, left-hander who came over from San Francisco in the Melky Cabrera trade. He has a chance to become the team's de facto ace if he can put it all together. Like Sanchez, the trio of Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Felipe Paulino, who also will be in the starting rotation, all have boom-or-bust potential.
Danny Duffy, the Royals' pitching prospect who struggled in his 100-plus major-league innings last year, is closest to making a major contribution. He has a chance to crack the season-opening rotation. If he does so, and matures quickly, he could become something special.
The team was dealt a big blow in spring training when closer Joakim Soria blew out his elbow, opted for Tommy John surgery and was lost for the season. Either Jonathan Broxton or Greg Holland will take over. If Broxton returns to health and boosts his confidence level, he could prove to be quite a valuable acquisition. Holland might be the better bet to get the first crack at the job.
The deck is going to be stacked against a Royals team that has a projected payroll of under $58 million, especially when the defending AL Central champion Tigers are spending more than $131 million. To make the playoffs, small-market teams like Kansas City often need to catch lightning in a bottle. If their suspect pitching comes through, the Royals could be a really interesting team.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The addition of another wild-card team in each league arguably benefits the Blue Jays more than any other team. When there was only one wild card in the AL, Toronto needed to finish no worse than second in the AL East - no small feat, with the big-spending Yankees and Boston Red Sox residing in the division.
Let's face it, it's frustrating to be the Blue Jays. In 2010, they won 85 games and finished fourth in the AL East. In fact, they've ended up in fourth place in each of the last four seasons despite winning a minimum of 81 games in three of those four years.
Even with an extra wild card available, getting to the playoffs for the first time since winning the 1993 World Series won't be easy for Toronto. After all, the Yankees, Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays figure to be three of the best teams in the majors. If any of those teams should slip, though, the Blue Jays have the talent to pounce on the opportunity.
With the likes of Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnacion, Eric Thames, Kelly Johnson, J.P. Arencibia and Yunel Escobar, the Jays' lineup has a chance to be one of the majors' finest. Underachieving center fielder Colby Rasmus is a wild card, too. If he plays to his considerable potential, Toronto's lineup will be incredibly deep.
Two bullpen newcomers should help the Jays close out games. Projected closer Sergio Santos saved 30 games for the Chicago White Sox last season. Even if he doesn't come through, the Jays can call on Francisco Cordero, who is coming off a 37-save season with Cincinnati.
As is the case with Colorado and Kansas City, the Blue Jays' ability to contend will ultimately come down to their starting pitching. Ricky Romero won 15 games and compiled a 2.92 ERa last season, so he has a legitimate chance to become a true ace.
Brandon Morrow was a pedestrian 11-11 with a 4.72 ERA last year. His peripherals, however, scream for a breakout year in 2012. With 203 strikeouts in 179 1/3 innings, Morrow was overpowering at times. He struggled with men in scoring position, leading to his disappointing ERA. If the Jays get to the playoffs, it's likely that Morrow will be a key reason.
The rest of the rotation is going to really need to come through, too. Brett Cecil was a miserable 4-11 last year, but he won 15 games the year before. A bounce back to some degree has to be expected.
Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan will likely be the fourth and fifth starters, respectively, provided the Jays don't again turn to prospect Kyle Drabek, who went 4-5 with a poor 51-to-55 strikeout-to-walk ratio while making 14 starts last year. Drabek, 24, would probably be better served going to Triple-A to rediscover his control.
McGowan, finally back from numerous health problems, has a chance to be a difference-maker. He injured his foot in an exhibition game Sunday, but the Jays are hoping it's nothing serious.
The Jays' offense is a given. The guess is that Romero, Morrow and McGowan will be strong enough to carry Toronto into the playoff discussion.
Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sports writer since 1985.