It Could Happen
February 21, 2012

One of the great things about team sports is that every year something hugely unexpected happens where some team that no one thought would contend suddenly and inexplicably becomes a powerhouse.  Last year, the Diamondbacks were picked by many to be one of the worst teams in baseball.  Instead, they were one of the final eight teams in the playoffs.  Conversely, the Red Sox were all but assured a place in the World Series in April, only to fall short of the postseason by a calamitous injury-and-other-issues-plagued September.  With that in mind, here are my best guesses for September surprises:

Even though I think Yu Darvish will challenge for the Cy Young award this season, I predict the Rangers will fail to make the playoffs.  Even with their record of success over the last two years, it would not surprise me to see Derek Holland and Matt Harrison take a step back this season due to fatigue from the substantial increase in innings they endured last season.  I don't think either guy will suffer significant injury issues, but much like Mat Latos last year it could take them a while to get back in the groove.  I would target those two in particular in 2013 for their breakout seasons. Colby Lewis's struggles with the home run ball could become chronic as he continues to lose velocity on his fastball.  There are also some legitimate questions in the Rangers' pen.  I'm not convinced that Joe Nathan is the answer at the back end of their bullpen.  He doesn't have the velocity he did in his heyday and at 37 he's not likely to recover it.  Likewise both of the Japanese relievers the Rangers rely on are 36 years old and Darren Oliver is now gone so they'll need to find a reliable lefty out of the pen.  On the offensive side, the two big bats that drive their offense - Josh Hamilton and Neslon Cruz - do not have a particularly strong history of staying healthy.  Mike Napoli is not a .320 hitter.  And they still haven't found an adequate solution in center field.  Much went right last season for the Rangers to finish as strongly as they did and it's not far fetched to see those things go in the other direction, even if it is only for one season.  Our minds tend to project forward that what happened last year is likely to happen again this year with the same regularity, but anyone who has examined how life works with any degree of scrutiny will tell you that very little in life is regular. 

Toronto will win one of the AL Wildcards.  Stastistically there's not a lot to go on other than the likely maturation of a number of young players.  Their offense could be seriously mash-worthy with Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Bret Lawrie, Travis Snider, Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus.  Eventually all those young guys are going to figure it out and when they do they could have five hitters capable of 30 homers a season and another who has hit 26 in a season.  Their bullpen has some quality depth but now they have a shutdown closer at the end with the addition of Sergio Santos.  Their rotation has some serious upside with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan.  I'm not saying that they are a finished product, but those are some tough guys to hit when they are on.  Kyle Drabek and Carlos Villanueva are pretty talented, and Drew Hutchison is a name to remember.  He has excellent control and rumors are that the velocity on his fastball has increased a tick to slightly above average.  The Red Sox still have too many injury concerns and the Rays still haven't seriously upgraded their offense.  I do think one of those two teams ends up with the second wildcard but the Jays will jump them both to finish second in the AL East.

I'll go out on a limb and say the Pirates will win the NL Central.  It sounds crazy but they were leading the division through the first three months of last year (largely due to good luck) but they added two very talented pitchers to their rotation this offseason in Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett.  Burnett's ERA was the victim of really bad luck on flyballs last year and moving to the NL and to a bigger park will help that substantially.  He's still a productive pitcher and having him at the top of the rotation will take a lot of the pressure of James McDonald to excel.  Bedard just needs to stay healthy for a full season and maybe a move to the NL is just the tonic.  Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia are solid at the back end of the rotation and should be fine until one of their huge upside aces (Taillon and Cole) is ready, although realistically that probably won't happen until 2013.  The Pirates signed Shairon Martis (a blast from the Nationals' past) who could surprise.  He was fantastic last year in Double-AA Harrisburg and will still be only 25 years old.  The back of the bullpen is as solid as any in the division.  The offense will be improved, albeit marginally, with the departure of Ronny Cedeno, with Clint Barmes in his place.  Another big piece to the Pirates puzzle is third baseman Pedro Alvarez.  If he could stop trying to hit home runs with every swing thereby getting himself out, he could be a pretty productive middle of the order bat.  But even if he doesn't pan out, the Pirates have Casey McGehee to fall back on.  The outfield is athletic and has some depth with Starling Marte on the way.  The additions of Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth give them some decent veterans to lead the way.  Although statistically they don't look like much, this just the kind of quality veteran/young talent mix that comes out of nowhere.  That's not to say that this is all seat-of-the-pants falderall.  AJ Burnett was a 3 or 4 win (WAR) pitcher at his peak; Bedard's best year was a 6-win season.  Barmes is probably about 1-win better than replacement level while the man he is replacing is the definition of replacement level.  And a fully functioning Pedro Alvarez is probably a 2-3 win player.  He's been a collective negative to this point and if it doesn't work out, at least McGehee is replacement level.  Add it all up and the Pirates could be looking at a significant boost in wins.  The heavy money will be on the Cardinals or the Reds to win the division but if you want to play the longshot, the Pirates are the team. 

Had the Nationals signed Prince Fielder, I thought they would have been the best team in the NL.  Since he didn't, that point is moot.  Still, I like their chances to either challenge for the division or at least battle for a wild card.  Obviously the Phillies have the experience and the rotation to win.  But the heart of their offense is injured, injury pone or entering it's declining years.  Likewise, Roy Halladay is at the age when age-related declines are common.  Roy Oswalt is gone and Vance Worley is not nearly as spectacular as he looked last year.  A rotation with three or four aces is tough to beat, but a rotation with only two?  That would be doable.  The Marlins didn't do enough to upgrade their offense, and their pitching, while talented, still has some significant question marks.  Can Josh Johnson stay healthy?  Can Heath Bell reverse age-related decline?  Does Mark Beuhrle have something left in the tank?  Can Carlos Zambrano ever learn to pitch without destroying a dugout?  As for the Braves, Tim Hudson is already experiencing back troubles, Chipper Jones is a year older, they still don't know if they have a shortstop, Tommy Hanson has questions about his shoulder, Jurrjens has injury questions as well and two spots in their rotation will be filled by guys with less than a year's experience in the majors.  More importantly can Jason Heyward stay healthy... his minor league career suggests not. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals will likely get a better year from Jayson Werth, a full season from Jordan Zimmerman, at least a half season where the National League adjusts to Gio Gonzalez and most of a season from Stephen Strasburg.  They have rotation depth should anyone miss any time and Edwin Jackson has become a reasonably solid 200-innings starter with the enough stuff to think about more upside.  The bullpen is a strength with quality depth and a pretty potent combination for the 8th and 9th innings.  There are still questions about Adam LaRoche's health, but Mike Morse filled in acceptably last year and it's not like he's a plus glove in left field.  He might actually do less damage in the infield.  Assuming Bryce Harper debuts this year at some point that would give them a heart of the order of Zimmerman (career best: 33 homers), Morse (31), Werth (36), Harper (23 over 480 minor league and AFL at bats last year) and Ramos (15)... that's not too bad.  A healthy LaRoche adds 20-25 homer pop to that, leaving the top two spots in the line-up to figure out.  Neither Desmond or Espinosa has any track record of being able to get on base, so if rookie Steve Lombardozzi can show any signs of being able to do it this spring, don't be surprised to see him get a shot to stick at second base and the Nats use either Desmond or Espinosa as a utility player with the other playing short.  Another possibility is Anthony Rendon, who if healthy is as good a hitter as there is in the minors.  He has an extraordinary understanding of the strikezone, good power to all fields and likely won't need much time in the minors.  With Rizzo's innings limit on Strasburg it appears as though he is targeting 2013 for his pennant run - especially with the potential free agent class for centerfielders next winter, the Nationals' biggest current need - but he may have to accelerate his plans with the division seemingly there for the taking in 2012.