The rule of the Wild Card era, generally speaking, is that at least one also-ran from one season runs away with a postseason spot the next year.
Now, sometimes you can see it coming. The 2016 Red Sox, for example, were plainly an improved club on paper after adding David Price and Craig Kimbrel last winter, and they delivered a division crown.
Other times, it's more about nuance. I'm not here to suggest that the following four teams, all of which finished sub-.500 last season, ought to be labeled contenders. I'm just pointing out that their relatively low-key winters don't necessarily mean they'll be dead in the water come Opening Day.
Here are a few clubs that might be better than you think.
2016 record: 69-93
2017 FanGraphs projection: 80-82
Goodbye: 2B Jean Segura, C Wellington Castillo, C Tuffy Gosewich, OF Mitch Haniger, RHP Daniel Hudson, OF Peter O'Brien, OF Rickie Weeks
Hello: RHP Taijuan Walker, SS Ketel Marte, RHP Fernando Rodney, C Chris Iannetta, C Jeff Mathis, OF Oswaldo Arcia, OF Jeremy Hazelbaker
Not much went right for the D-backs in 2016. And, beyond the additions of Boston imports Mike Hazen as GM and Torey Lovullo as manager, it's been a quieter winter in Arizona this year than last. But there's reason to like this club as a sleeper in the NL Wild Card race.
A.J. Pollock's return from injury should further augment a Paul Goldschmidt-led lineup that scored the fourth-most runs in the National League last season, and, just as importantly, he'll improve a defense that posted a minus-17 on the defensive runs saved above average scale. One thing that was positive in the winter of 2015-16 was the acquisition of Segura, who had a surprising power surge in '16. The new regime possibly sold high on Segura and excess outfielder Haniger to the Mariners, bringing back the more youthful upside of Walker for the rotation and Marte for the shortstop spot. It was a move that addressed the long-term without compromising much, if any, of the short, because a change of scenery could do the athletic Walker good, and Marte looked like a sleeper shortstop stud before a variety of injuries and a bout with mononucleosis saddled him in '16.
While the D-backs added to their bullpen with Rodney, their key difference could be behind the plate, where Iannetta and Mathis will vie for time. Both are likely improvements on Welington Castillo's pitch-framing ability, and that could help Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller -- and the D-backs at large -- get back on track.
2016 record: 68-94
2017 FanGraphs projection: 82-80
Goodbye: 2B Logan Forsythe, LHP Drew Smyly, RHP Kevin Jepsen, 1B Logan Morrison, SS Alexei Ramirez
Hello: RHP Jose De Leon, C Wilson Ramos, OF Colby Rasmus, OF Mallex Smith
It's understandable why Evan Longoria would voice some displeasure about the Forsythe trade, because Longo has seen too many talented players walk out the door in his time in Tampa Bay. But the Rays landed a potential stud in De Leon to strengthen what was already one of the deeper rotation outlooks in the game.
And while that alone isn't enough to label the Rays an outright contender in the AL East, there are enough good things happening here to make you feel like they could be due for a big jump from their 2016 win total, thereby keeping the rest of the East honest.
Let's start with an assumption that Chris Archer will be better this year than last. He quietly posted a 5.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 3.25 ERA in the second half last season, so the return to form has already begun. Steamer projects a 3.33 ERA out of Archer in '17. The Rays will get Alex Cobb's first full season back from Tommy John and Blake Snell's first full season in the bigs after he posted a respectable 115 ERA+ as a rookie last year. With Jake Odorizzi, Andriese and De Leon on hand, the rotation is a good bet to be, well, good.
The offense took a hit with the loss of Forsythe, no doubt. But it has added two nice bounceback candidates in Rasmus, whose ear cyst and hip issues aided a major statistical slide in '16, and Ramos, who could be back as early as May after a torn ACL cut short a transcendent '16 season in Washington (.307/.354/.496 slash). As I write this, there's still the possibility of the Rays moving Brad Miller from first to second to land another bat in that crowded market. There is upside in the addition of young outfielder Smith, and maybe 2016's midseason acquisition, Matt Duffy, more closely replicates his breakout '15 in San Francisco after battling an Achilles injury last year.
2016 record: 78-83
2017 FanGraphs projection: 84-78
Goodbye: RHP Neftali Feliz, OF Matt Joyce, LHP Jeff Locke, IF Sean Rodriguez, RHP Ryan Vogelson
In Pittsburgh, the biggest transactions this offseason were the ones that didn't happen -- the much-discussed but ultimately uncompleted trades bringing in Jose Quintana and shipping out Andrew McCutchen.
Quintana obviously would have been an upgrade, and it's important to note that the Pirates do have the prospects to pull something off in-season, if need be. Whether you feel the McCutchen non-news was good or bad for the Buccos is directly dependent on the weight you place upon Cutch's track record vs. his steep offensive and defensive decline in '16.
While there is little doubt McCutchen needs to address his defensive positioning or simply change positions altogether, I say give me the 30-year-old former MVP with something to prove, and I'll take my chances.
If we can assume better from Cutch, who had an uninspiring .256/.336/.430 slash last season and is projected by Steamer to come in at .283/.378/.470 this year, then the Pirates have what can only be considered to be an above-average position-player class, with decent organizational depth in the form of guys like Austin Meadows, Alen Hanson and Kevin Newman. In Josh Bell, the Pirates have a young and pliable talent who can be eased into a first-base platoon with David Freese, so that bodes well for the offensive upside here. Although I confess to having absolutely no idea what to expect from South Korean DUI collector Jung Ho Kang.
The real reason the Pirates might be a bit undersold right now is the rotation. It wasn't very good in '16, registering a 4.76 ERA that ranked 11th in the NL. But Nova obviously provided a boost midseason and was re-signed to get a full year of the Ray Searage treatment, and a return to form from Gerrit Cole (149 ERA+ in '15, 108 in '16) and full seasons from Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon could elevate that group from one of the NL's worst to one of the best. For what it's worth, FanGraphs' projections give the Pirates' starting group the eighth-highest Wins Above Replacement projection in the game, and that could be enough to reverse the downward course the Buccos charted last season.
2016 record: 74-88
2017 FanGraphs projection: 82-80
Goodbye: RHP Jhoulys Chacin, C Jett Bandy, 2B Johnny Giavotella, RHP Tim Lincecum, RHP Jered Weaver, RHP C.J. Wilson
Hello: 2B Danny Espinosa, OF Cameron Maybin, OF Ben Revere, IF Luis Valbuena, RHP Jesse Chavez, C Martin Maldonado
In his second offseason at the helm of the Angels, Billy Eppler once again had to try to improve a team paying north of $50 million in the upcoming season to a past-his-prime Albert Pujols and a long-since-departed Josh Hamilton.
Oh, and the Angels have one of the worst farm systems in the game, so a trade along the lines of the Andrelton Simmons acquisition last year was out of the question.
Those aren't the easiest circumstances in which to augment the group surrounding Mike Trout, who had a 10-WAR season on a team that won just 74 games last year. It remains to be seen if this club actually is as improved as FanGraphs and other projection models might insist. The bottom line is they don't have a sufficient safety net should injury strike as rapidly and relentlessly as it did in '17 (already, there is skepticism about the early season availability of Pujols, which is why the Valbuena signing made sense).
But if you acknowledge the payroll parameters and grade on a curve, Eppler gets an A for effort here. Valbuena is a nice bargain signing coming off an '16 shortened by hamstring issues. He has an .822 OPS vs. right-handers over the past three years. Espinosa is of course no Trea Turner, which is why the Nationals traded him. But he's always hit lefties, he hit a career-high 24 home runs last year and, most importantly, he'll pair with a potentially healthy Simmons (who missed 40 games last year) to form possibly one of the better defensive double-play combos in the game. Maybin should also provide better defense in left than he did in center in Detroit, and, despite missing half of last season with a hand injury, he's provided pop and speed the past two years. And while Revere didn't pan out as an everyday option in Washington, he profiles as a valuable reserve here.
The end result is a position player group that has a little more range, versatility, speed and power.
The Angels aren't exactly favorites out West, but if nobody grabs their elbow in the rotation, I wouldn't put it past them to get over .500 and perhaps vie for at least a Wild Card spot. I mean, they do have that Trout guy, and he's pretty decent.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.