It's MLB Preview Week! It's almost here. I'll be doing different MLB previews all week. Monday, we looked at who the biggest stars of 2016 will likely turn out to be. Tuesday, we looked at five teams destined to disappoint in 2016. Now, five teams that could surprise in 2016.
Last year, neither team that reached the World Series was expected to get even close to there. The Royals were seen as an October fluke sure to regress to their natural place in the pecking order, and the Mets were expected to finish a double-digit number of games below the mighty Nationals in the National League East. Instead, both teams cruised to division titles and faced off in a fun, if disappointingly short, World Series. The year before that, the surprise team was the Royals; the year before that, the Pirates; the year before that, the Orioles. You never know who's going to come at you out of nowhere.
We don't know who it will be. But we know it will be someone. Here are five teams that could surprise everybody in 2016 with a season far better than anyone expects.
Chicago White Sox
So, fine, the Drake LaRoche stuff didn't exactly give you a ton of confidence in the White Sox organization being a particularly well-oiled machine. But for the third consecutive year, I think Chicago has a terrific chance to be the big surprise team in the American League Central.
It starts with a powerful lineup that's short on on-base ability but long on hit-the-ball-over-the-fence ability. New addition Todd Frazier is feared enough to give Jose Abreu plenty of pitches to hit, Melky Cabrera is always a little underrated (at hitting, not web-page construction), and if there's ever a stadium where Brett Lawrie is going to get himself right, it's U.S. Cellular Field. There's a non-zero possibility that the Cell turns into Rogers South. (Or Rogers Midwest. Whatever.)
But it's the rotation I'm beguiled by. Chris Sale is my preseason AL Cy Young choice -- even if he misses his little clubhouse buddy -- Jose Quintana is a lot better than you realize he is, and Carlos Rodon could be a breakout No. 3 starter. Mat Latos is probably wishing on a star, but if he sticks, this is a super solid 1-5. The bullpen has a few holes, but there are worse bullpens in the bigs, and relief is a crapshoot anyway. The White Sox have an above-average lineup and an above-average rotation. Why is everyone so down on them? What am I missing here?
To be fair, overcoming the lost leadership of Drake LaRoche is going to be a challenge.
Los Angeles Dodgers
All right, all right. No reasonable person believes the Dodgers to be anything other than a serious playoff contender. They've made the postseason three consecutive seasons, they've got the biggest payroll in baseball, they're the freaking Dodgers. I get it.
But it sure feels like the rest of baseball has forgotten about the Dodgers, doesn't it? The Mets and (especially) the Cubs are the hipster fun young teams, with their mimes and their crazy Cespedes cars. The Giants and the Diamondbacks are the ones who made the big free-agent acquisitions in the offseason. The main news the Dodgers have made has all been bad, from their pitcher injuries to their television situation to the fact that this is going to be Vin Scully's last season, a fact I refuse to believe.
These are all real problems for the Dodgers, but they're disguising the fact that this is still a terrific, deep team. The lineup essentially has eight above-average hitters in it -- with a couple more on the bench -- and it has a nice combination of reliable vets (Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, even Justin Turner) and young phenoms (Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Corey Seager), any of whom could be on the verge of breakout superstar seasons. The Dodgers have a lineup that's relentless, top to bottom, with more help on the way.
The rotation is the primary concern, but still, this is a staff that begins with the best pitcher on earth and has a gaggle of options, even after the injuries, to fill in throughout the season. Kenta Maeda has impressed this spring, Scott Kazmir still has the opportunity to surprise, and Jose De Leon and Julio Urias are banging on the door down in the Minors. Plus, Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy could be back by the end of the season. None of these pitchers are Zack Greinke, but they give the Dodgers a lot of options. And that has always been the plan under the new regime: Get top-tier talent and have plenty of options if something goes wrong, both in the field and on the mound.
L.A. is building a monster, and we've let a few disappointing postseasons distract us from that fundamental fact. The Cubs and the Mets are well positioned for the next half-decade. The Dodgers are still in a better position now. We ignore them at our own peril.
As Joe Sheehan put it, when you're starting off with two of the best players in baseball in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, you've got a lot of wiggle room. The Marlins can be average everywhere else, but if those two have healthy season, they're still a serious playoff contender.
So, those two questions:
1. Can they stay healthy?
2. Are they average everywhere else?
Well, so far so good for Stanton and Fernandez. They've looked as terrifying this spring as ever. They both need to prove they can stay on the field for a full season, but nothing so far has dissuaded anyone from thinking this could be the year. If one or both go down, sure, the Marlins are probably toast. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt.
So, if Stanton and Fernandez are all right, how's the rest of the team? There's upside, from Christian Yelich maybe having that breakout season we've all been waiting for to an underrated Marcell Ozuna to batting champ Dee Gordon. The issue with the Marlins is how thin they are everywhere, including the rotation after Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen. This is not a team that will handle injuries well. (If Ichiro gets more than 400 at-bats again, yikes.)
But the possibility is there to be a serious playoff contender. Miami needs health and the non-stars to be average. It's not an insane scenario. Heck, maybe the Marlins will finally get Barry Bonds his first World Series ring!
The M's have been disappointments for several years, and it's quite reasonable for their fans to be completely spent of optimism, particularly now that they're the team with the longest playoff drought in the sport.
But hang in with me. There's hope.
First off, new general manager Jerry Dipoto was surgical in his offseason moves, attacking the area of most need: on-base percentage. Nori Aoki is a vastly underappreciated player -- I couldn't believe Seattle got him so cheap -- and Adam Lind is the exact sort of player the Mariners need against right-handers at first base. They're a better team, already, with the two of them.
But I'm most excited by Robinson Cano. This is a potential future Hall of Famer we're talking about, and his terrible start last season -- and the fact that the Mariners never really recovered -- obscured how fantastic he was in the second half. That's to say, he was the normal Robinson Cano in the second half, and he might be primed to destroy this year. With Nelson Cruz back, and Kyle Seager surging, and Felix Hernandez recovered, and an intriguing back of the rotation (look out for Taijuan Walker this year), Seattle has just enough pieces to keep you intrigued in a somewhat weak division.
Can the M's pass the Astros? Probably not, but I can see them keeping pace with the Rangers and being far better than the A's and (especially) the Angels. This looks like a .500 team to me, one with an excellent chance to be more than that. Cano's an all-timer who is also a sleeper AL MVP Award pick this year. Don't see that often.
Tampa Bay Rays
Start with the fundamental fact that the Rays have the best rotation in their division, and it's not particularly close. Here is their top five, when everybody is healthy:
1. Chris Archer
2. Jake Odorizzi
3. Drew Smyly
4. Matt Moore
5. Erasmo Ramirez
There isn't a single starter there that wouldn't be giddily lapped up by anyone else in the AL East. If the Rays had an average offense -- even in a division that has some great offenses -- they'd be the favorites in this division.
They've got a path to one. Manager Kevin Cash has proven himself unusually flexible and resourceful in the dugout, embracing platoon and late-game switches and basically using the whole roster, every game, like you're supposed to. No one in the Rays lineup is all that terrifying, but there are enough pieces to scratch and claw your way to 3-4 runs a game. With this rotation, there will be many nights when that's all you need. And if someone like Corey Dickerson takes a step forward and Evan Longoria captures some of his old magic, you might have something.
The Blue Jays and the Red Sox look a few steps ahead of the Rays right now, but the Tampa rotation could be something else (especially if Moore is healthy all year). The Rays have had seasons where they stealthily dispatched more expensive, more heralded teams above them before. This might be another one.
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