SARASOTA, Fla. -- One of the 14 losing teams from last year will be in the postseason this year. Does that sound like a bold prediction? It's not. It's a way of life in the wild card era.
Thanks to the Cincinnati Reds, last season marked the fifth straight year and the 15th time in 16 years with the wild card that at least one team made the playoffs the year after posting a losing record. The Reds were the 31st such surprise team in those 16 years.
The most common denominator for the postseason surprise teams is an improvement in run prevention. Nineteen straight surprise teams -- and 27 of the 31 overall -- allowed fewer runs. The Reds were no exception, cutting 38 runs off their runs allowed from 2009. But Cincinnati's biggest area of improvement was its offense. Healthy seasons from Joey Votto and Scott Rolen and power from Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs helped the Reds increase their run production by 117.
Typically, surprise teams don't have staying power. Only seven of the previous 30 surprise teams returned to the postseason the year after their breakout. The Reds, however, because they are loaded with young players who haven't yet hit their ceiling, look like they are not one-year wonders.
So you can book your annual surprise party for October right now. The only question is this: Which team or teams will show up? (We have had nine postseasons with more than one surprise team.) Here's a look at what teams have the best chance to be the next Cincinnati Reds:
1. Milwaukee Brewers2010: 77-85, third in NL Central
Start with run prevention, where the Brewers should see a major improvement. Only Pittsburgh and Arizona allowed more runs last year in the NL, and now Milwaukee has added righthanded pitchers Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Takashi Saito and Sean Green. The power-packed offense, which was fourth in runs last year, can be even better because the lineup is full of players on the right side of 30.
But the biggest concern for this team is its defense. Last year only the Pirates were worse in defensive efficiency, the measure of how well a team turns batted balls into outs. It's not likely to be much better this year. The Brewers will need injuries to come into play for the Reds, who have the better team on paper.
2. Florida Marlins2010: 80-82, third in NL East
This is a very talented team but a volatile one in terms of potential win total. The Marlins have a Cy Young Award candidate, Josh Johnson, 27, and an MVP candidate, Hanley Ramirez, 27, who should be entering the best years of their career. But Johnson has thrown 200 innings once in his career and Ramirez still hasn't matured into a true franchise player, the kind of guy who brings effort and focus every night. Outfielder Mike Stanton is another wild card: a 21-year-old with tremendous raw power who might hit 35 home runs or more by mistake.
3. Los Angeles Angels2010: 80-82, third in AL West
The Angels never have had back-to-back losing seasons under manager Mike Scioscia. Indeed, after their only two previous losing seasons under Scioscia, they rebounded with playoff seasons each time, once to win the World Series.
This team has a long way to go to improve enough on offense to win this underrated division. Getting Kendry Morales back is a start, but some of the hyped products of the farm system are going to have to produce one of these days: Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis, Brandon Wood and Peter Bourjos. Next up: Mike Trout.
4. Chicago Cubs2010: 75-87, fifth in NL Central
MLB Network recently ranked the top 100 players in baseball. Only one Cubs player made the list -- and not until you got all the way to 61, closer Carlos Marmol. (Disclaimer: I appear on the network but was not involved in the list.) You can argue with the list, but not with the problem it highlights about the Cubs: They don't have elite talent. So where is the room for growth? They will need shortstop Starlin Castro, 21, outfielder Tyler Colvin, 25, and pitcher Andrew Cashner, 24, to blossom into top 100 stars.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers2010: 80-82, fourth in NL West
They have a good inventory of quality arms, starting with Cy Young Award candidate Clayton Kershaw, but this is not a very good offensive team -- with age issues that may come into play. Their room for growth is if Matt Kemp, 26, and James Loney, 27, take the step up from good hitters to impact hitters.
Here's a quick look at the rest of the 14 losers from last year:
Improved, but too far to go: Baltimore, Washington, Arizona.
Stagnant: New York Mets, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle.
No chance: Houston, Pittsburgh.