MLB Predictions 2012: Meet the World Series Dark Horses
We're in the midst of a lull. Football has ended and real big-league baseball has yet to begin. In a good portion of the country, the ground is frozen as winter is in full effect.
However, there are reminders of spring and summer around every corner.
You can find Cadbury Eggs at the grocery store. Plans for Mother's Day are beginning to be discussed. Who's the early Kentucky Derby favorite?
Every year, it's a momentous occasion here in Philadelphia, when the city's beloved Phils' truck is loaded and packed tight for the 1000-plus mile trip to Clearwater.
It's a scene repeated all throughout the country with equal anticipation.
Part of the reason that anticipation runs so high is that everyone is on equal footing—at least that is the belief of the members of each of the organizations, as well as their respective fanbases.
If you're lucky, you won't have to read too much on the ills of those two franchises.
Today, though, the focus is on the teams that are lying in wait. Teams are stalking and ready to burst onto the scene and throw a monkey wrench into the plans of the Phillies and Yankees, much like the Giants in 2010 and the Cardinals in 2011.
Today, we're picking our dark horses.
Atlanta Braves: 22-to-1
I can't get over the fact that the Atlanta Braves odds to win the 2012 World Series are currently sitting at 22-to-1.
Perhaps it has something to do with their fade down the stretch last season. Perhaps it has to do with the public's perception of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Yes, the Phillies are good and as I've stated before, you'll be hearing all about just how good they are from pretty much every other sportswriter and pundit there is.
I, however, believe that this is the year that the Braves push them for 162 games and wrestle away the NL East title.
The Braves are young and hungry. They made it to the playoffs in 2010 only to lose in the Divisional Series to eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.
Led by the likes of veterans Brian McCann and Tim Hudson—whose early season absence will surely be missed—the Braves possess the perfect amount of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance.
Jason Heyward came into the league and was touted as the game's next great player. Considering his 6'5", 235-pound frame and propensity for smashing baseballs deep into the night, one can understand why the expectations were as lofty as they were.
They weren't fair though. Most people don't come into the big leagues and put up monster numbers right away. Heyward has been pretty good, but far from the dominant force seemingly everyone expected he'd be.
I include myself in the group that called him a disappointment.
While he very well may turn out to be a disappointment and the fact that he regressed last season is a bit troubling, the most important thing to remember about Heyward is that he won't even turn 23 until August.
Assuming that with another season under his belt, he rights the ship and plays the way that most think he's capable of, then he alone is a game changer.
Consider that the Braves, though missing the postseason, did win 89 games last season and did so with very little production from Heyward.
Why were the Braves so successful then last season?
The answer is simple: pitching.
The Braves have as much pitching as anyone in the majors. A starting rotation that features Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor is a good starting rotation indeed.
Add to that a top-notch back of the bullpen, anchored by closer Craig Kimbrell, and it's pretty clear why from top to bottom, the Braves pitching staff ranks with baseball's best.
Granted, it's a 162-game season played over the course of six months, plus in the postseason anything can happen, but with this core and continued improvement from the likes of Freddie Freeman, Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla, the Braves have arrived.
Their time to win is now and I expect them to do exactly that.
Arizona Diamondbacks: 28-to-1
The Arizona Diamondbacks at odds of 28-to-1 are very enticing.
Combining a mix of players, young and veteran alike, the Diamondbacks, who were 2011 National League West Champions after winning 94 games in the regular season, are being very undervalued.
The addition of Trevor Cahill to a rotation that already includes Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson allows Joe Saunders to slide comfortably into fourth position and makes an already strong starting rotation even stronger.
I suspect that last year was no fluke for Kennedy, who posted a record of 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA. If I'm right and he can replicate that kind of season and Hudson continues his progression, the D-Backs will pose a significant threat to any team in a short series.
Additionally, what sets the Diamondbacks apart from most of their contemporaries is that I don't foresee them having a difficult time producing runs.
Justin Upton emerged last season as a legitimate major-league superstar. I expect that he should, at just 24 years old, continue to improve and build on his numbers from last season (.289, 31 home runs, 88 RBI, 22 stolen bases).
Also, the addition of Jason Kubel's bat in left field is certainly an upgrade in the power department over last season's left fielder, Gerardo Parra.
If Paul Goldschmidt, who seemed to be bashing a Tim Lincecum offering five rows past the wall every other time he faced him, improves and develops into the mashing, prototypical first baseman that most anticipate he can be, it will only further enable the team's offensive output.
Just imagine if this offense can finally find some consistent offensive production out of the immensely talented Chris Young. The incredibly strong center fielder possesses enormous power potential and can hit the ball a country mile. However, his career batting average of .240 isn't going to cut it.
If Young can get it together and get on base more often and hit for a better average, this Diamondbacks team just might find themselves playing in late October.
St. Louis Cardinals: 25-to-1
It might sound a little weird to call the defending World Series Champions a dark horse, but with odds of 25-to-1, that is exactly what they are.
There are several factors in play that have caused this drastic undervaluation.
The first being the departure of El Hom—er, I mean Albert Pujols. Yes Albert Pujols is the greatest player of his generation and one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
His career numbers are dazzling and miniaturize many of his colleagues. The fact that his statistics have been compiled during the steroid era, without even so much as a sniff of wrongdoing on his part, is nothing short of astounding.
The second and third factors in this gross miscalculation are the departures of long-time manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan.
I would argue that the loss of Duncan outweighs that of LaRussa. Duncan has made a career out of transforming pitchers into stars.
His near-mystical ability in developing pitchers has been well documented over the course of his lengthy major-league career.
However, don't let these three changes fool you into thinking this is a rebuilding year for the Cards.
They return every other starter from last year's World Series. In fact, they are sliding Lance Berkman from his spot in right field to first base and implanting 2011 All-Star Carlos Beltran into Berkman's vacant right field position.
Will Pujols' leadership and productivity be missed?
However, this is a very strong offensive squad led by Matt Holliday, as well as the aforementioned Berkman and Beltran.
David Freese, last season's NLCS and World Series MVP, will be manning the hot corner on a daily basis for the Cards. I'm not one to get too excited over a minimal body of work, but what Freese accomplished on the grandest of stages last year, combined with his production from the regular season that saw him hit .297 with 10 home runs in 97 games, makes me believe that he has arrived as a major-league force.
Much like the other teams on this list, the Cardinals have a pretty deep starting pitching rotation. Led by Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals pitching staff as a whole was just good enough last season to get the job done.
While the organization didn't make any moves this offseason to the rotation, that doesn't mean that the Cards aren't adding an impact pitcher.
That's right, Adam Wainwright, who was arguably the Cards' best pitcher entering last season, is expected back for the start of the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last February and missing the entire 2011 season.
If Wainwright can rebound strong and return to the form that he had prior to his injury, the Cardinals staff becomes exponentially better.
I'll leave you with Jaime Garcia. The young lefty has terrific ability and I believe is poised to have his breakout season after having two very good seasons to begin his major league career. If Garcia can have that truly breakout season, of which I believe he is capable, he very well may find himself as the coveted X-factor that is able to propel the Cardinals back into elite status.
All in all, value like this might just be too hard to pass up.
The American League
You'll notice that this list does not include a single American League team.
I count exactly five teams in the A.L. that have the capability of winning the World Series: the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels and Rangers. Not a single one of these teams have odds of less than 10-to-1.
These teams, along with the Phillies, actually comprise the teams with the six best odds of winning the World Series.
I love an underdog story as much as anyone, but I can't sit here and genuinely say that I believe that any team in the A.L. has the ability to beat any of these previously mentioned five in either a five- or seven-game series, let alone keep pace and finish ahead of them after a 162-game campaign.
With all of this said, please don't be surprised if you see one of these three teams hoisting the World Series trophy when the season concludes. Remember, you heard it here first.