After more than half the teams in baseball qualified for the postseason last year, it's a little trickier than usual to pick out "surprise" teams. Luckily two of the last three World Series champions were available for the taking. SI's MLB experts weigh in below on a team that could turn some heads when the season gets underway.
Tom Verducci: Kansas City Royals
I don’t see them as a playoff team, but the Royals just might finish above .500, which they haven’t done for the past five years. Admittedly there are many ifs here. But you figure that buying low on outfielder Andrew Benintendi and pitcher Mike Minor will work and that Carlos Santana at least will provide some plate discipline this lineup needs. Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and DH Jorge Soler can be impact players. Starting pitchers Kris Bubic, 23, Brady Singer, 24, and Brad Keller, 25, have interesting upsides they should now be approaching, though the Royals have to improve their defensive play behind them if they are going north of .500.
Stephanie Apstein: Boston Red Sox
I think the Red Sox will be better than we expect. I don't think they'll be good, and I still think they should be prosecuted for trading Mookie Betts, but I think the return of Alex Cora as manager is going to make a difference. The pitching looks like a bit of a disaster, but that is a serious lineup, and a 13–12 win is still a win.
Emma Baccellieri: Washington Nationals
Maybe it seems a little silly to call a potentially good season a "surprise" from a team that's not so far removed from a World Series—but after its disastrous run in 2020, plus the increased level of competition in the NL East, it seems like it's been mostly written off, which is fair. But this is still a talented roster! Juan Soto and Trea Turner along with a rotation that remains strong? There are still holes here, but if we're putting the bar for "surprise" around "could potentially end up in contention for a wild-card berth," I think it's on the table.
Connor Grossman: Milwaukee Brewers
The NL Central didn't offer many talking points this winter along the lines of "Oh, look what that team did to get better!" St. Louis traded for Nolan Arenado, and that's kind of the start and end of the list. The Reds and Cubs dismantled parts of their rosters after playoff seasons. The Pirates are, uh, bad. And then there's the Brewers.
They added Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. They can reasonably count on a bounce back from Christian Yelich. They front their rotation with Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. They have Josh Hader and Devin Williams to finish games off. The players are there for this team to continue its run as an annual surprise contender.
Will Laws: Washington Nationals
Does a team that won the World Series just a year and a half ago count as a surprise team? The Nationals are flying under the radar after they tied for last place (26-34) in the NL East last season, when they were hamstrung by Stephen Strasburg's carpal tunnel and the temporary absence of Juan Soto, who probably would have won MVP if he wasn't held out for more than a week due to a false positive COVID-19 test. The return of Strasburg and youngster Joe Ross (a 2020 opt-out) to the rotation and the additions of Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand and Jon Lester will reinforce the core of a squad that's already shown they have what it takes to win it all.
Matt Martell: Philadelphia Phillies
Given the state of the American League, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Angels reach the postseason for the first time since 2014. The same could not be said for the Phillies, who have the second longest active postseason drought in MLB. With an average bullpen last year they would've made the playoffs, so this offseason, they upgraded it. They brought back J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius and hired Dave Dombrowski as their president of baseball operations. Bryce Harper is one of the best players in baseball, and they also have a sneaky good starting rotation, led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. The NL East is arguably the best division in baseball, so the Phillies could fall short of the postseason yet again just because the Mets, Braves and Nationals are so good. But they do have a playoff-caliber team, even if that comes as a bit of a surprise.
Nick Selbe: Oakland Athletics
The A's seem to consistently outperform expectations, so they're as good a bet as any to surprise a few people this summer. Do they have obvious replacements for Liam Hendriks and Marcus Semien? No, but they can replace them in the aggregate. There are plenty of prime bounce-back candidates on this Oakland roster, namely cornerstones Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. Elvis Andrus won't replicate Semien's production, but other regulars—like Ramón Laureano and Mark Canha—should keep the offense afloat. On the pitching side, Chris Bassitt has quietly produced a 3.29 ERA in 254 2/3 innings over the past three seasons. His durability will be crucial atop a rotation that has talented arms like Jesús Luzardo, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and A.J. Puk, though collectively there isn't an obvious, dependable workhorse among the bunch. A revamped bullpen anchored by 2020 breakout reliever Trevor Rosenthal will need to be sturdy once again for the A's to defend their AL West crown.
Michael Shapiro: Boston Red Sox
I don't think the Red Sox will be as abysmal as many project entering 2021. This is still a lineup flush with talent, and we should see a bounce-back year for J.D. Martinez as in-game video returns to ballparks. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers makes for a terrifying middle of the order. The bullpen should be relatively stabilized with Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes finishing games. There are still questions surrounding the rotation (and its lack of depth) though if Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez are healthy, Boston should sport a league-average rotation. Is this a World Series contender? No. But I think the Red Sox will finish above .500, potentially challenging for a wild-card spot in the process.