Tuesday March 24th, 2015

TEMPE, Ariz.—It’s time for the annual game of Pick the Surprise Playoff Teams: identify the losing teams from last year that will be playing in October this year. It’s not as hard as it seems. (Not like Kris Bryant-making-the-opening-day-roster-hard; that’s downright impossible.)

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Two years ago, I told you one or two teams from among Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle, Cleveland, Boston, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and San Diego would be in the playoffs. Turned out three of them made it: the Indians, Pirates and Red Sox. Last year, I told you Seattle, San Francisco and the Angels were the three teams most likely to turn around. The Mariners missed the playoffs by a game. The Giants and Angels made it, with San Francisco, finishing off their turnaround with a World Series title.

So what surprises will we get this year? First, a refresher: 25% of playoff teams in the wild card era had a losing record in the previous year, including at least one team—and an average of two teams—in every year but one in that 20-year span.

We have 15 contenders this year. I throw out any team that lost 96 or more games last year. Though it’s been done before (1999 and 2011 Diamondbacks, '07 Cubs and '08 Rays), those are true outliers. So goodbye, Arizona and Colorado.

I tend to favor teams with lousy records in one-run games, which can vary from year to year, but I can’t get behind Cincinnati (22-38 in one-run games, the worst in baseball) because I believe the Reds are set up to be more of a seller than a buyer come July. Speaking of selling, Atlanta and Philadelphia are out because they wisely have been in sell mode already.

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I also look for teams with new leadership, knowing that 36% of all playoff turnaround teams began the year with a new manager or made a change during the season. I’ll throw out Tampa Bay here because it made a change under duress, not because it wanted Joe Maddon to leave. Minnesota is out because it plays in the deepest division in baseball, and Texas is out because the Rangers can’t be 21 games better this year without Yu Darvish. I’ll admit Houston is a tempting choice because it has a new manager (A.J. Hinch), a record in one-run games that is likely to improve (17-28) and some intriguing talent. But sorry: While I see improvement, I still see too many easy outs in the lineup. Remember this: Among the eight teams last year that struck out the most in major league baseball, all eight had losing records.

Okay, enough whittling. We’re down to six losing teams from 2014. You should expect two of them to be in the playoffs this year. Here they are, ranked in order of which teams have the best shot at pulling off this year’s version of the turnaround.

1. Boston Red Sox: It’s easy to see where the improvement is: A team that was a bottom-five offensive club last year should lead the league in runs this year. I’ve been telling you that the game has changed so much in the past five years—largely because of the expanding inventory of power-throwing pitchers—that the traditional measurements of what makes a good club no longer apply (i.e., five starting pitchers that pitch deep into games). And the way to measure good hitting now is to see who hits relief pitching.

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Major league hitters batted just .242 against relievers last year, tied with 1968 as the lowest mark against relievers in the past 101 years, and we’re talking about double the number of plate appearances because of the expansion of teams and the expansion of bullpen usage. At-bats become more difficult later in games because managers can keep running out their pitchers with premium stuff and can better control the platoon and/or matchup advantage.

So if you can find hitters who hit relief pitching, you have an elite offense. And that’s the Red Sox. Their lineup includes five hitters who all were better than average last year when it came to hitting relief pitching: Dustin Pedroia (.249), David Ortiz (.249), Pablo Sandoval (.266), Hanley Ramirez (.300) and Mookie Betts (.333).

(Now take a look at the five returning Yankees with the most at-bats last year. You find that none of them were above average against relievers: Jacoby Ellsbury, .242; Brett Gardner, .220; Brian McCann, .219; Mark Teixeira, .193; Carlos Beltran, .214).

The rotation is a shade better than mediocre, unless somehow Clay Buchholz is able to throw 200 innings for the first time in his life. But it’s good enough, because Boston should have a premier offense, premier defense and a large enough inventory of major-league quality pitchers on its 40-man roster—be they starters or relievers—to mix and match all year long.

2. Chicago Cubs: Here’s where a change in leadership matters, the way it did for the 2013 Red Sox (John Farrell) and '13 Indians (Terry Francona). The Cubs didn’t just make a change—they hired an impact manager. Maddon is the most impactful free agent signing of the offseason.

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​Maddon already has this team believing it’s very good. Maybe this is worth nothing, but the Cubs ran one of the most inspiring, energetic camps I can recall since the 1984 Mets, when rookie manager Davey Johnson, full of swagger and emboldened by a 19-year-old phenom named Dwight Gooden, convinced a team coming off seven straight losing seasons that it could contend. (Those Mets won 90 games, finishing 6 1/2 games out).

The Cubs will look bad at times. They strike out far too much to be a consistent offensive team, which is why complementary players such as Tommy La Stella, Chris Denorfia and Dexter Fowler will play important roles. But other times, especially when Bryant arrives in mid-April and gets hot, this team will look spectacular.

Chicago is actually on track to reach the playoffs in 2016. On paper today, St. Louis and Pittsburgh still rate better. But if the Cubs can play .500 or slightly better for three months—and that’s very possible—the pressure will be on president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to add to this team in July, rather than waiting for the potential big free-agent pitching class after the season.

Jeff Roberson/AP

3. New York Mets: Break out your leisure suit and platforms, because the Mets have been a throwback team for six straight years: they’ve been stuck in the 70s (winning between 70 and 79 games every year and never finishing fewer than 17 games within first place). Why in the name of George Theodore would this year be any different? Start with this: potentially 42 additional starts from the sensational Matt Harvey (who had none last year) and Jacob deGrom (22 in 2014). That alone should get them into the 80s.

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Whether New York can climb to 88 wins will depend on its offense, and specifically the impact that hitting coach Kevin Long can bring. So far, so good. Long showed in spring training he already is getting better results from Curtis Granderson, his former star pupil with the Yankees, who is a prime example of what was wrong with this offense last year. The Mets hit way too many fly balls (the most such plate appearances in the league) and batted just .129 on fly balls in play, below the league average of .148. Their overall batting average on balls in play was .286; only the Reds and Padres were worse.

New York should have a better offensive profile this year if Long continues his work with Granderson, if professional hitter Michael Cuddyer stays healthy and if third baseman David Wright, coming off a career-worst .374 slugging percentage, can rebound with better health. The Mets will take three months to see if those reforms work. If not, New York's playoff chances will depend on swinging a big July trade, possibly dealing from the inventory of young pitching (Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz to name two) to find an impact bat.

4. Miami Marlins: They improved by 15 wins last year and need another double-digit increase (+11) to get to 88 wins. Such double-double leaps are rare, but this one seems possible. The Marlins have the best outfield in baseball (Christian Yelich, 23, Marcell Ozuna, 24, and Giancarlo Stanton, 25), as well as dazzling 22-year-old ace Jose Fernandez, who should be back in midseason after Tommy John surgery, and 24-year-old Henderson Alvarez, one of the game’s most underrated starting pitchers.

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The Marlins did supplement their young core with savvy veterans, but too many of them have recent histories of failing to put together two good halves: first baseman Michael Morse, second baseman Dee Gordon and pitchers Mat Latos and Dan Haren. Depth could be a problem, but if Miami stays healthy, this could be a wild-card team.

5. San Diego Padres: They already qualify as one kind of turnaround team, going from the most boring team in baseball to the most fascinating. The Padres look like a middle school science fair project: Either this thing is going to be amazing to behold, or we’ll be calling for the custodians with a mop and bucket even before we get to the All-Star break. The risks include a slow start because of all the new parts; a lack of defense and speed; stockpiling lefthanded hitting in the name of righthanded power; and an enormous ask from the talented Wil Myers, who has to learn a new league and how to play centerfield in Petco Park, as well as rediscover his offensive game after an injury-marred 2014.

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But hey, you have to love the effort. San Diego hit .226 last year, the worst mark of any major league team over a full season since the expansion Padres of 1969. Now they’re at least interesting. And Padres fans deserve some offense. Since Petco Park opened in 2004, paying customers there have had only a 50-50 chance of seeing their team hit a home run (49.8% of games). Other fans in baseball see the home team go deep 62% of the time.

Honestly, there is almost no difference today between the Padres, Marlins, Mets and Cubs; all of them look like 82–84 win teams on paper. But book this: One of them will be a playoff team.

6. Chicago White Sox: Hey, Sox fans: It’s okay to come back again! The White Sox have a crazy streak going that’s almost unheard of, with their attendance declining for eight straight years. The past two years were the worst back-to-back seasons for the franchise in 43 years. But let it be recorded that this team won the winter, filling every hole, especially in the bullpen. Chicago’s bullpen last year was so bad that it walked the most batters, struck out the fewest and lost the most games. Free agents Zach Duke and David Robertson will help. And to protect the impact bat of Jose Abreu, the Sox added Melky Cabrera to hit in front of him and Adam LaRoche to hit behind him. The Sox should at least put together a winning season and bring people back to the park, all the way into September.

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