Nine teams that could be surprise playoff entrants
Surprise teams have become no surprise in baseball in this age of parity. Before last season I wrote that the postseason would likely "include one or two from among Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle, Cleveland, Boston, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and San Diego." All them had losing records the previous year.
I underestimated. Turns out three of them made it: the Indians, Pirates and world champion Red Sox.
How could I be so sure that losing teams would become playoff teams? It happens all the time. Every postseason but one in the 19 years under the wild card format has included at least one team that played losing baseball the previous year. The average is 2.1 such surprise teams each year (26 percent of all playoff teams), including 3.0 over the past three years.
So now, especially with the second wild card in each league in its third year, we should expect two or three teams that had losing seasons one year rebound to make the postseason the next year. The fun is trying to identify them. This year, we have 14 teams from which to choose. Here are some helpful clues to narrow the choices:
• Remove all teams that lost 98 games or more last year. Why? The most losses by a team the year before making the playoffs is 97, by the 1998 Diamondbacks and 2010 Diamondbacks. That eliminates the Astros, Marlins and White Sox.
• The only other teams to rebound from 96 losses to make the postseason are the 2007 Devil Rays and the 1997 Cubs. That makes the Cubs and Twins, who each lost 96 games last year, too much of an outlier. They're out. We're down to nine teams.
• Look for teams with room to improve in one-run games. The Indians (+6 wins), Pirates (+1) and Red Sox (+4) showed slight gains last year over how they did in those games in 2012.
• A change in managers helps. In the wild card era, 37 percent of surprise teams rode a new manager (first full season with the club or a mid-season hire) to the postseason . But the effect has been stronger recently. Seven of the past 11 surprise teams had a new manager. Call it the John Farrell Effect.
The Red Sox were better off with Farrell than his predecessor, Bobby Valentine. But think of everything else that went right for Boston. When spring training began you knew that Boston needed Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to pitch better and for David Ortiz to be healthy. Lester and Buchholz, though throwing fewer innings, reduced their combined ERA from 4.70 to 3.08, increased their wins from 20 to 27 and reduced their losses from 22 to 9. Ortiz increased his plate appearances from 383 to 600. And don't forget the back of the rotation; whereas Josh Beckett, Aaron Cook and Diasuke Matsuzaka went 10-29 with a 5.80 ERA in 50 starts, John Lackey and Ryan Dempster went 18-22 with a 4.02 ERA in 58 starts. It was a turnaround season in most every way for Boston.
So who will be this year's Red Sox -- or, more likely, this year's Indians? Try to think of it as a race to 90 wins, a decent way of defining a playoff-caliber team. Here is a list of the nine possible surprise teams, listed in order of the greatest probability of playing in October, with their 2013 record listed. The leading candidate, true to the spirit of this trend, is a real surprise.
1. Seattle Mariners (71-91)
Seattle has nearly all the preferred ingredients you look for in a turnaround team. It has a new manager (Lloyd McClendon), a record in one-run games from last year that is bound to turn around (19-29, the worst of the nine surprise candidates listed here), major additions (Robinson Cano, Corey Hart, Fernando Rodney and possibly Nelson Cruz) and young players who are approaching their prime years (Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton).
Alas, you could have identified all those ingredients in the 2013 Blue Jays -- and they stumbled to a 10-21 start and essentially were toast. Starting well will be paramount for Seattle, but it faces a brutally tough early schedule. The Mariners play 23 of their first 34 games on the road, a five-week gauntlet in which they play nearly as many games in California (10: seven in Oakland and three in Anaheim) as they do in Seattle (11).
2. San Francisco Giants (76-86)
To borrow from Steve Perry, When the lights go out in the city . . . The Giants fell apart last year with the least expected scenario: their starting pitching cratered. Only the Phillies and Rockies had a worse rotation in the NL last year than San Francisco (4.37). The road back to the postseason depends on comeback seasons from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong and for 38-year-old Tim Hudson to resume throwing the way he was for the Braves last summer (2.73 ERA in June and July) when he suffered a gruesome season-ending ankle injury.
3. Los Angeles Angels (78-84)
If Albert Pujols stays healthy and Josh Hamilton stays strong (he put back the weight he lost last year), the Angels should contend. Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, deserves a true pennant race. The difficulty for Los Angeles is that its rotation is full of questions, even if Jered Weaver returns to workhorse form. Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs are very unproven. Heavens, did you know the Angels have gone four straight years without making the playoffs?
4. San Diego Padres (76-86)
Here are the Padres' ranks in the NL in runs scored since 2008: 16, 15, 12, 15, 10, 12. In that time they also ranked among the bottom three teams in slugging every year. This year will not be much different, so it's up to the pitching staff and defense to make a virtue of run prevention and to win an absurd number of low-scoring games -- basically to copy the 2013 Pirates' blueprint.
That makes a comeback by Josh Johnson vital. Johnson is now 30 years old and has thrown 200 innings in a season once. San Diego had the fifth most games lost to the DL last year, so it is due for better health.
5. Milwaukee Brewers (74-88)
Talk about your strange brews. Milwaukee is an odd outfit that has only three lefthanded pitchers on its 40-man roster and only five lefthanded hitters. The Brewers' pitching staff strikes out few batters (14th in the league) and their batters don't walk much (Jonathan Lucroy, with just 46 walks, had the most last year among returning players). Having seen their win total drop by 13 in 2012 and then by another nine in 2013, the Brewers could bottom out or they could bounce back. They better get more innings from their starting pitchers; only the Rockies' starters posted fewer last year in the NL. Finding 16 more wins in the deep NL Central to get into the postseason picture seems the less likely scenario.
6. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89)
Now showing: The Wheeze Kids 2, a cinematic story that brings to mind Cocoon 2. The Phillies are betting against current industry wisdom and history by trying to win with old players. More than half their everyday players are 34-36 years old: Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd. Last season the entire league combined had only five players that old play enough to qualify for the batting title. Never in NL history have five 34-and-older players played that much on one team. What could possibly go wrong?
7. Toronto Blue Jays (74-88)
Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista started only 54 games together. Starting pitchers R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ did not find the AL to their liking. A fantasy league project of players who mostly never won anywhere else fizzled to that 10-21 start and didn't get much better.
Looking for hope? Toronto lost the fourth-most games to the disabled list last year, so you could write off the 2013 collection as a team that never had a chance. With that in mind and onerous contracts in hand, the Jays bring back virtually the same team to see if it works better this time.
8. Colorado Rockies (74-88)
They have the best 3-4 hitting combination in the game, if only Troy Tulowitzki, 29, and Carlos Gonzalez, 28, would stay healthy. They have played five years together. Not once have they each played 130 games in the same year and they have combined for just two 100-RBI seasons. Let's say Tulowitzki and Gonzalez finally do stay healthy together. Is the pitching good enough to win 90 games? Not likely, though a breakout season from another injury-prone young player, lefthanded starter Brett Anderson, would help close the gap.
9. New York Mets (74-88)
What was a poor offensive team last year (14th in average, 14th in slugging and 11th in runs) should be improved slightly with the addition of outfielder Curtis Granderson. (The Mets would sign up today for Chris Young to match the offense they found in Marlon Byrd last year.) But without ace Matt Harvey, gone for the year because of elbow surgery, the Mets are stuck in another transitional year, with a goal of getting pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler and catcher Travis D'Arnaud established as building blocks for a run in 2015.