We do our homework. We look at offseason moves. We dissect last season's performances. We analyze front offices. We take trade targets and potential injuries into account. We think about the whole picture. Then we make predictions about the upcoming season … and those predictions are wrong. Not always 100 percent across the board wrong, but reliably not right. They're not right for lots of reasons -- predicting things is hard, after all -- but mostly because there is always some team that comes out of the back of the division to win more games than we'd think. Raise your hand if you thought last season's Pirates were going to make the playoffs and now put your hands down because no you didn't. The formerly last place Red Sox won the AL East and the World Series and very few people called that one. So it goes.
We know there will be surprise teams again in 2014. Who will they be? Here are the likely candidates.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
What They Did Last Season: When people say "they came out like a house afire" they mean things started well. The 2013 Angels came out like they themselves were on fire and therefore were unable to concentrate on playing baseball well what with being on fire and all. That was unfortunate because after a particularly lousy start to the season (they were 11-22 on May 8), the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (sounds like a perfume nobody would ever buy) went 67-62 the rest of the way. That's hardly a 100-win pace, but had they played that way the whole season, they'd have won 84 games. Of course, if you don't count losses, every team is undefeated.
What They Added/Lost: The offseason was short on pizzazz, but long on filling holes in the roster. The gave up Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, but Albert Pujols at first and a full outfield of Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Kole Calhoun will plug those holes. Moving those players allowed them to add David Freese at third base, Tyler Skaggs to the rotation and Raul Ibanez to DH.
Why They'll Surprise: In a word, talent. The Angels have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, a player so good that he's like having two All-Stars in their prime packed into one roster spot. Sure, you can't bat Mike Trout after Mike Trout in the lineup (oh, if you could!) but Trout's presence means the Angels don't need as much production from the rest of their roster as every other team in baseball. Beyond Trout, there is a real chance for improvement for the entire team.
As Marc Normadin noted in these virtual pages last week, the Angels' 2013 season was in large part the result of two of their highest paid players not producing up to spec. Albert Pujols endured the worst season of his career, and Josh Hamilton often resembled a child wearing a blindfold staggering in the general direction of what he hoped was a piñata after spinning around five times. Even so, both guys have played at a much higher level in the recent past, so it isn't outrageous to suggest that we could see at least a modest uptick from them.
Similar statements could be made about David Freese, Erick Aybar and Jered Weaver. Freese might just be a one-to-two win player, but he had an excellent 2012 season, so the Angels are hoping he can recreate some portion of that productivity. Aybar put together two good seasons in 2011 and 2012, but then fell off last year. Part of that is Aybar's slap-hitting ways depend on balls in play finding holes -- so luck is a bit of a factor there. Jered Weaver stands alone as the linchpin for the Angels. After two consecutive down seasons, the Angels need Weaver to stay healthy and be the ace he was in 2010 and 2011. A drop in velocity doesn't portend promise, but Weaver has never been a blow 'em away with heat kind of guy anyway. If healthy, Weaver should be strong enough to drag the Angels into contention.
Why They Might Not: Depth. This isn't the deepest team, especially when it comes to starting pitching, and the farm system isn't ready to contribute much of anything on either the pitching or position player side. If Jered Weaver gets injured again, or C.J. Wilson takes a step back, there isn't much in the way of able-bodied above average replacements.
Toronto Blue Jays
What They Did Last Season: Get injured. Or not play particularly well. Or both. The number of Blue Jays who had healthy, productive seasons last year can be measured on one three-fingered hand. The end result was the baseball equivalent of the Chevy Chase Show. It looked good on the first day but after that it should have been cancelled.
What They Added/Lost: Not much has been added, to date. Dioner Navarro will replace J.P. Arencibia, an upgrade as long as Navarro can remember to bring his limbs to the ballpark each day. Josh Johnson took his six-run ERA and his injury history (which doubles as his autobiography: Oww!: The Josh Johnson Story) to San Diego. Toronto needs to replace Johnson, and, indeed, rumors suggest the Jays are aggressively looking to add one of the better starters remaining on the free-agent market. Only Rajai Davis could be missed, and even if so, not severely.
Why They'll Surprise: This is mostly the same team many if not most projected to win the AL East in 2013. People weren't wrong about the team's talent base; Toronto got hit with the duel storm of bad years and lots of injuries. Most teams, even good ones, can't survive serious injuries to their best players. Take Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury and John Lackey off last year's Red Sox team and you'd likely see a lesser result. The talent base is still strong in Toronto. Like the Angels, we've seen the Blue Jays players perform at above average levels in the very recent past, so some improvement, even if only in the form of staying on the field more often, could reap benefits.
Why They Might Not: They could get injured again. They might have bad seasons again. Their collective peak might be lost, like a missed rest stop on the Turnpike. Toronto fans might just have to continue on their way in some level of discomfort as their chance to contend disappears in the rearview mirror (though we don't think so).
What They Did Last Season: 2013 was a disappointment, without question. Not unlike those above, the Nationals were picked to contend by many projection systems and reasonable analysts, but they fell a bit short because their pitching and hitting weren't otherworldly enough to catch the Atlanta Braves.
What They Added/Lost: A full season of Anthony Rendon (assuming his ankle holds out), a healthy Wilson Ramos, a healthy and improving Bryce Harper, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and, inexplicably, Doug Fister, whom they received from Detroit in exchange for pocket lint.
Why They'll Surprise: If Bryce Harper can avoid bull-rushing fully installed electronic scoreboards, look for a monster season from the young star. But mostly look at that starting rotation: Gio Gonzalez, Fister, Strasburg… Jordan Zimmermann is their No. 4 starter!
Why They Might Not: Players who get injured are the best bets to get injured again. Other than that, Washington should compete with the Dodgers for the title of best team in the National League.
San Francisco Giants
What They Did Last Season: The Barry Zito Era ended with a thud as the defending World Series champs fell to 76 wins, 16 games behind Los Angeles. How'd that happen? Oddly, the pitching-rich Giants suffered from lousy pitching. According to FanGraphs WAR, only the Brewers and Padres pitching staffs were worse than the Giants in the National League.
What They Added/Lost: Signing Michael Morse -- who you'll note is not a pitcher -- was one of the team's few offseason moves, along with signing Tim Hudson. Other than that, pretty much the rest of the 2013 Giants will return in their new role as the 2014 Giants. Oh, sure, they'll have new hair cuts, and probably clean caps, but beyond that, same guys.
Why They'll Surprise: Well, it's the 2012 World Series champs, transplanted into the year 2014, so why WON'T they surprise? The trick will be getting the band back together, production-wise. Matt Cain got into giving up homers last year, a habit he'll have to be disabused of if he wants to continue to put up above average seasons as a starter. The good news is that, as of now, this looks like a blip in his career numbers. Pair him with Madison Bumgarner and the Giants have a good top of the rotation. Not Kershaw/Greinke good, but good enough to challenge for a wild card. And if Tim Lincecum decides to show up? Well, then all bets are off.
Why They Might Not: Lincecum probably won't show up. Giants may not have the depth to put good pitching on the mound most nights. If you add up what they have between them, Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong might still have nothing. The farm system has some promising arms, but most won't be ready until 2015 at the earliest.
Kansas City Royals
What They Did Last Season: It was a step forward kind of season for the Royals in 2013. They missed the playoffs but posted their best season since the Pleistocene Epoch. Wait, I'm being told the Royals won the World Series in the '80s -- fine, so the Grunge Epoch then. Still, it was a bit of fresh air for a fanbase that has spent the better part of two decades breathing fumes from the tailpipe of an '87 Yugo.
What They Added/Lost: Omar Infante signed on to man second base, and the Royals astutely dealt for Norichika Aoki to fill in for the thankfully departed Jeff Francoeur. Starting pitcher Ervin Santana remains a free agent, and it seems likely when he signs it won't be with a city that rhymes with Pansas Pity, as the team has already turned to Jason Vargas.
Why They'll Surprise: A solid pitching staff and an above average offense could be enough for a wild-card spot. James Shields heads a non-elite starting staff, but one that should be around league average overall. Strong up-the-middle defense with Lorenzo Cain, Sal Perez and Alcides Escobar should help. After that, the offense takes over. Adding Aoki to the top of a lineup that includes almost-MVP candidate Alex Gordon and above average bats Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Perez and Infante should be where the wins come from. It's a good solid team with few holes. But it's also the Royals, so there might still be some way for them to mess it up. Short of that, this team figures to contend for a wild card spot.
Why They Might Not: As previously stated, they're the Royals so maybe they're contemplating trading James Shields for a backup catcher, moving Alex Gordon to long relief, or about to require all players to wear blindfolds on the field. Better sorry than safe!
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These are by no means the only teams that could surprise. One could make cases for the Padres, White Sox, Orioles and on and on. These are just the most compelling teams, in my humble opinion, the teams that stand the best chance to, in eight month's time, make all our well-researched predictions look silly.