One of the greatest underappreciated truths of wild card era baseball is that losers turn into playoff teams every year. In the 15 years since baseball split into six divisions and allowed eight playoff entries, every postseason but one included at least one team that had a losing record the previous season. Thirty teams -- fully one-quarter of all playoff teams from 1995-2009 -- made the immediate turnaround from a losing record to the postseason. Why should this year be any different? Who will it be?
One-third of the way through this season, we have five teams that have emerged as the most likely of the latest surprise playoff teams: the Padres, Reds, Mets, Blue Jays and Athletics. They are the only teams with a winning record this year that had a losing record last year.
Now is a good time to start separating contenders (welcome back, Cincinnati) from pretenders (nice knowing you, Seattle and Milwaukee). Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson used to say it took 60 games to take the measurement of a club. More recently, Oakland GM Billy Beane parcels the season in thirds: the first third for taking stock of your team, the second third for roster adjustment and the final third to let the modifications play out.
One-third of the way in, the first-place Padres rate as the biggest surprise of all. They are tied for the most wins in the league. Still, does a team with the fifth-worst offense in the league have enough bats to be a playoff team?
"I think we have enough here," manager Bud Black said. "The way I look at it is we have a lot of guys who aren't hitting close to what their normal levels are. Tony Gwynn is not a .210 hitter, Will Venable .220, Jerry Hairston .240 . . . we have a bunch of guys right here who will be better and give us more offense. I think we're okay."
The Padres are a handful even if they get middle-of-the-pack hitting. Their pitching is that good. One potential trap door, however, is the development of 22-year-old right-hander Mat Latos, who threw only 127 1/3 innings last year. The Padres don't want him to make more than roughly 27 or 28 starts this year -- roughly about 160 innings -- so Black said the team will be have to be creative in having Latos take extra days of rest and skipping starts. The Padres, for instance, will give him an unofficial "vacation" this summer by scheduling off days before and after the All-Star break. (The Tigers gave Rick Porcello 15 days off last year using this strategy. He still finished with 31 starts and 170 2/3 innings.)
So will the Padres take this year's role of Cinderella? We have two-thirds of the season to see if the shoe fits. In the meantime, here are the best turnaround teams and their prospects for the playoffs, ranked in order of their likelihood to be playing in October.
Reasons to contend: They are the best offensive team in the league, ranking first in runs, homers and slugging, and they pummel lousy pitching. The Reds are 17-7 against intradivision punching bags Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Houston, none of which figure to get much better, so Cincinnati can take advantage of a weak division. (They are 16-19 against all others.) Scott Rolen is playing like an MVP. Mike Leake is unbeatable (5-0) straight out of college. A little luck helps, too. Twelve of their 33 wins have come by one run.
Warning signs: Is Rolen too old and is Leake too young to keep this up? Rolen, 35, has averaged 118 games the past three years, and his production at this age runs counter to everything that has happened in baseball over recent years with the reduced value of older players. Rolen has a .953 OPS; no other 35-or-older infielder has even an .800 OPS. Leake, a 2009 draft pick who never threw a game in the minors, is bound to hit a wall in the second half. Aroldis Chapman, 22, may provide second-half help, but he is walking almost five batters per nine innings in the minors.
Reasons to contend: The Padres' pitching and defense are good enough to keep them from falling out of the race. Only the Giants turn more batted balls into outs than does San Diego. And the Padres' bullpen is magnificent: 10-6 with a major-league best 2.61 ERA and lowest rate of allowing inherited runners to score (18 percent).
Warning signs: Contrary to Black's optimism, the offense might not get any better. The top of the order is abysmal; the 1-2 spots have a combined OBP of .299. (Black is giving his worst hitters the most plate appearances.) The outfielders are hitting .222 with 14 home runs, leaving room for GM Jed Hoyer to find a bat next month. By then, San Diego should have a good idea of where it stands. The Padres are in the middle of the first of four straight road trips that take them into the Eastern time zone, a grueling stretch in which they will visit Philadelphia, New York, Tampa Bay, Florida, Washington, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. And their division, the NL West, is very strong.
Reasons to contend: The Mets have plenty of upper echelon talents, including Johan Santana, Francisco Rodriguez, David Wright, Jason Bay and Jose Reyes -- though Reyes, at 27, mysteriously has gone backward in his development. He has the 17th worst OPS of any regular in the league, which the Mets hope only means he is due for a huge correction just to get back to his average production. Mike Pelfrey is bidding to join those elite; the Mets are 11-2 when he pitches, 20-25 when he doesn't. New York has been the best home team in baseball (23-9).
Warning signs: Santana has the worst strikeout rate of his career as a starter (6.5 per nine innings), adding to the concern of what is not a very good pitching staff. Only the Pirates and Nationals have a worse strikeout-to-walk rate than the Mets. New York waffles between contender and pretender with regularity. The Mets' month-by-month records capture their inconsistency: 14-9 in April, 12-17 in May, 5-1 in June.
Reasons to contend: Few teams can throw more pure stuff at the opposition than Toronto. The Jays lead the league in strikeouts and have more quality starts than any AL team except Tampa Bay. Overall, they have been remarkably healthy.
Warning signs: There are plenty. Start with the strength of their division. The Jays pretty much have to win at least 94 games to be a playoff team out of the AL East. They are beating people with home runs, but they're next to last in the league in on-base percentage. It's a dangerous way to live, especially when Jose Bautista is helping to carry them. Bautista, 29, on his fifth organization, is slugging .596 -- 196 points better than his career mark entering this year. He has ambushed AL pitchers, having hit eight of his 18 home runs on the first or second pitch of an at-bat. Scouting reports on Bautista are being adjusted.
Starting pitchers Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil have not thrown more than 124 2/3 and 142 1/3 innings, respectively, in any pro season, so their workload will become an issue in the second half.
Most ominous of all is the schedule. Toronto has capitalized on a soft early schedule. The Jays are 18-7 against losing teams, including 10-1 against the three last-place AL teams, Baltimore, Cleveland and Seattle. They have a losing record (15-19) against winning teams. Their reckoning begins August 2, when they hit a killer portion of their schedule just as their young pitching is entering a danger zone. Starting that date, they play 35 of their next 38 games against teams that have winning records: the Rays (9 times), Yankees (9), Red Sox (6), Angels (3), Tigers (4) and Rangers (4).
Reasons to contend: Even the awful Mariners can hang around the AL West, so the bar here is not too high. The Athletics can be a pest if only because they are so tough at home (20-12). The bullpen (10-10, 4.19) figures to be better. After a slow start with control issues, Ben Sheets (20 strikeouts, four walks in this past four starts) gradually may be pitching himself back into form.
Warning signs: Oakland's fate hinges on the elbow of Brett Anderson, the left-handed ace-in-the-making who is on the DL with tendinitis. The Athletics hope all he needs is some rest. If true, and Anderson turns out to be fine, move up Oakland two spots on this list. We'll see.
The Athletics have been outscored and been fortunate in one-run games (11-4), giving them the look of team with little margin of error if they hope to hang in there. Actually, their chances depend on whether the Rangers or Angels get hot. They need a slow-speed division race -- one in which 85-87 wins are enough to capture the AL West.