Giants vs. Rangers probably made for a few Xbox
championships last year, but few saw it coming as a World Series matchup.
Those teams weren’t the only Cinderella acts: Cincinnati has
been a downtrodden franchise since winning the World Series in 1990, but they
won the NL Central, only to get swept out of the postseason by the Phillies.
San Diego rampaged through most of the season thanks to their starting
rotation, only to come unglued over the last two months when the pitching
leveled off and exposed their lack of hitting.
Here are three teams that may surprise us this season:
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Any team with a pitching staff
led by Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda and Chad Billingsley should be looking at
90 wins, but instead the Dodgers finished below .500 last season. Matt Kemp
fell victim to can’t-be-bothered-itis, which hampered him both in the field and
at the plate; Andre Ethier, who looked like an MVP candidate for the first
month, missed over 30 games due to injury and wasn’t the same afterwards. Manny
Ramirez was a dead weight and James Loney still hasn’t managed that breakout
season everyone’s been waiting for.
This year, with their young nucleus becoming merely young…ish…salaries are going up and the Dodgers may not be able to afford it because the McCourt’s are still arguing over who owns the
organisation (blame MLB – the McCourts never had the money to run the franchise
in the first place and shouldn’t have been allowed to buy the club).
This year, however, the Dodgers
have a legitimate shot. Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley can both be
unhittable when they’re on, and both are developing the consistency born of
maturity at the top of the rotation. Not having Manny around should help, as
should a bunch of hitters who hopefully realise they’re in a small window of
opportunity to succeed.
2. New York Yankees
I’m picking the Yankees as a
surprise this year because I think there’s a chance they miss the playoffs. Not
because they’ve overpaid Derek Jeter by about 300%, or because they got
frightened into throwing a fat contract at a declining and now permanently
DH-ing Jorge Posada two years ago, but because their rotation. Or what passes
for a rotation – really it’s CC Sabathia and a roulette wheel. AJ Burnett
frequently looks like he should win a Cy Young, but tends to forget where the
strike zone is just often enough to be league-average over the course of a
season. And of course neutrals everywhere sniggered when free agent Cliff Lee
shunned the Yankees and took less money – though still enough to buy his own
franchise – from the Phillies.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
When was the last time a Scott
Boras client underperformed in a contract year? Prince Fielder will be hoping
for a contract in excess of $150m this offseason and it won’t be offered by the
Brewers, so he’s as motivated a man as you’ll find.
His impending departure will
either prove a crippling distraction or drive his teammates to make the most of
their chance while he’s on the team. Newly-acquired Mark Kotsay and Nyjer
Morgan add experience and speed to an already well-balanced and deep lineup,
while new ace Zach Greinke, once he returns from his basketball injury and if
he’s got his head straight, will form a formidable one-two punch at the top of
the rotation with Yovani Gallardo.
Not everything will be a surprise though, because some
timeless and some recent truths will continue to keep the universe in balance,
· The Pirates will be horrible – mathematically
eliminated by the end of August and desperately trying to trade away any
players who make more than the league minimum and can still hold a bat.
· The Rays and Marlins will continue to
demonstrate what well-run franchises they are, and how much Floridians prefer
football, as attendances continue to bounce along many fathoms below what their
teams deserve. The Marlins of course are hoping next year’s new stadium will
make all the difference.
· Baltimore will return to propping up the AL East
as haplessly as they have since the 90’s. They don’t have the talent to do
anything else, and manager Buck Showalter has a history of getting players to
buck up their ideas for a short time before they get sick of the shouting.
Surprises, however, are surprising, so I eagerly await the stories
of the season that nobody can yet see coming – just don’t expect the Pirates to
be one of them.
The Pirates losing.
That’s just how it is.