Remember when there was hope on the banks of the Allegheny River in 2011? The Pittsburgh Pirates, after suffering their 18th losing season in a row, hired manager Clint Hurdle before the start of the 2011 season.
That season began with great promise: On July 4 the Pirates had a record of 44-41 and were only 1.5 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates even went as far as to be buyers at the trade deadline, where they acquired Ryan Ludwick from the San Diego Padres and Derrek Lee from the Baltimore Orioles.
As the cynical Pirates fans might have predicted, the moves did not pan out and the team dropped to 62-75 by September 1. The Pirates were 18.5 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers and the franchise headed to their 19th losing season in a row. Without A.J. Burnett in the rotation to start the season because of a facial fracture, it is unlikely that the Pirates will repeat the 2011 magic.
Every year in Major League Baseball there is a team (or two) that gets their fans excited and then fades in the dog days of summer. Ordinarily, this occurs with young teams or teams where everyone starts off with a career year but peter out once they start playing teams for the second or third time. Occasionally, these teams that surprise the baseball world keep it up through vernal equinox and end up making the postseason.
Here are six teams that could start off well this year but will likely fade after the All-Star break.
The Blue Jays have managed to be around .500 for the last few years (81-81 in 2011, 85-77 in 2010, and 75-87 in 2009) in arguably the toughest division in baseball. The Blue Jays can certainly swing the bat: they were fifth in MLB in home runs in 2011 and sixth in runs scored. The pitching was not very good in 2011, sporting a 4.32 ERA, but that is a little inflated by playing in the American League and having nearly a third of their games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.
In 2012, the Blue Jays only play two games against the Yankees until mid-July and their interleague opponents will be the National League East. If their pitching overachieves a in the beginning of 2012, the Blue Jays could make a serious early-season run.
Bryce Harper in a Spring Training game March 5th.
The Nationals look to be interesting if nothing else in 2012. Bryce Harper’s call up is going to come sooner rather than later and many fans are interested to see how Stephen Strasburg returns from injury.
Strasburg looked shaky last September by going 0-2 with a 6.35 ERA in two starts in 2012, but that was just a warmup for this year. Jayson Werth had an abysmal 2011 in relation to the amount of money he makes and he could very well bounce back in 2012.
The current rotation does not scare anyone much, but the Nationals have plenty of pitchers that could start strong and fade late a la Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang.
Seattle’s rotation had a respectable team ERA of 3.90 in 2011, but the big issue with the Mariners was that one run was often enough to beat them. The offseason acquisition of Jesus Montero from the New York Yankees will help, but it won’t be enough to carry them for an entire season. If Ichiro has a strong first half and some other position players have solid April/May runs, the Mariners may be near the top of the division on July 4.
This is a franchise that lost 17 in a row in July of 2011, so the lineup will have to overachieve to be a surprise in a rough division. The Mariners have a tough road in the first half with several games against the Rangers and Angels as well as games against every team in the American League East, but, if they get enough hitting, they can be a surprise in the first half of 2012.
The acquisition of Theo Epstein is a big one for the Chicago Cubs because there will be a good system in place to build the team from within. However, the sad news for North-siders is that this process takes time. It will be three years (at least) before the Cubs are serious contenders, but this year may start off with a bang. The Cubs’ lineup is not going to really scare anyone, but with new management in place this roster of players will have extra incentive to work hard and keep their jobs.
The 2011 Cubs were last in the league in fielding percentage which didn’t help the pitching staff much. Losing Carlos Zambrano was addition by subtraction, and Chris Volstad and Jeff Samardzija seem to be pitching strongly this spring. If the Cubs actually get something out of Alfonso Soriano, the rest of the lineup overachieves a little, and the fielders catch the ball, the Cubs can surprise early.
The Twins had a frustrating 2011, finishing the season with a 63-99 record. The injuries and inconsistency piled up for the Twins, and they couldn’t make the late-season run that many baseball fans have become accustomed to. Ron Gardenhire is a great manager and this is a quality organization. Their pitching staff is experienced while Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer enter the season as healthy as either one of them get.
The early-season schedule is tough with several games against the American League East and West, but it is not impossible. This team probably does not have the top-flight pitching and the offensive firepower to overtake the Tigers and win the division, but they should still be in the race come the trade deadline.
The Rockies seem to have a surprise team every time they are not expected to do much. They made a World Series run in 2007 and won the National League Wild Card in 2009. With the addition of Michael Cuddyer to an already good lineup, the Rockies will be able to slug their way to a lot of victories in the early part of the season. The addition of Jamie Moyer brings an additional pitching coach to the organization as well as an AARP card.
With nine games against the Padres before July 1 and series against each of the Pirates and the Mets, the Rockies can get off to a fast start. This team doesn’t have the pitching to keep up with the Giants and Diamondbacks through the entire season, but they are capable of winning enough games with beer league softball scores to be in the race later than people might think.