5 MLB Teams That Will Surprise in 2012
Every year, there's always that one team. That one team that defies all expectations and just starts...winning. No one projects them as Wild Cards, much less division winners, but somehow they get it done.
This phenomenon has been happening a lot more frequently lately. It started in 2008, when the perennial cellar-dwellers in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays, put it all together and took the division title from the Yankees and Red Sox, eventually even wrapping up the American League championship.
In 2009, it was the Minnesota Twins who fought into September to steal the division from the Tigers in Game 163. In 2010, the San Diego Padres won 90 games and fought all the way down to the final game of the season. Finally, in 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals pulled off a September miracle (as did the Rays) and won a Fall Classic for the ages.
So, who will be that team in 2012? There are a number of teams that have the talent to pull it off, but who you just might not think about when you picture the playoffs. It might just be the best year to be one of these teams in 2012, as a new Wild Card has been added to each league, further enhancing the underdogs' chances at making a surprisingly successful postseason run.
The way I see it, five teams have that "special something" that, if they can harness it, will shock the baseball world and bring them to the promised land in 2012.
I know the Pirates made some waves last year with their strong start, which saw them in first place in the NL Central as late as July 19. However, after messing with the team's chemistry at the trade deadline, acquiring players like Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, the Pirates faltered and eventually finished the season 72-90, in fourth place.
This year, however, those players have left via free agency, and new faces have joined the fold. If the team can reignite some of the fire that made it one of the game's best during the first half of 2011, then 2012 could be a special year in Pittsburgh.
As always, it begins and ends with Andrew McCutchen for the Pirates. Their star center fielder, just 25 years old, is already the face of the franchise and will be for the foreseeable future, having signed a six-year, $51.1 million extension with the club in March.
Last year saw an increase in McCutchen's overall production numbers, but with a marked decrease in his batting average. At such a young age, if McCutchen is able to regain his old batting average while still keeping his new-found power, he could eventually turn into a perennial MVP candidate for the Pirates.
McCutchen isn't the only young face on the team, however, as Pittsburgh sports one of baseball's youngest teams, with guys like Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Charlie Morton all possessing the tools for bright futures. Veterans like Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes and A.J. Burnett have been brought into the fold to help with the young players, with some getting a chance to resurrect their careers.
This team may not have all the flash that we're used to with playoff contenders, but if they can bring all their individual talents together and work as a team again, the NL Central title will not be far out of reach in 2012.
Kansas City Royals
The Kansas City Royals WILL win the division in the next three years. Mark my words, write it down right now, this team will eventually be considered one of the top teams in the American League very soon. They just have so much young talent that it's hard not to bet on them succeeding in the long and short term.
Last year was a year of debuts for the Royals, as first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella, catcher Salvador Perez and setup man Aaron Crow all made their major league debuts for the Royals.
Breakout years from Alex Gordon, Jeff Francouer, Melky Cabrera and Billy Butler all led to the Royals offense ranking as one of the best in the AL.
The Royals had such a surplus of young bats that they were even able to trade Cabrera, a free agent following this season anyway, to the Giants for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, at least starting to address the Achilles heel that is their starting rotation.
In a weak division like the AL Central, the Royals won't have to do much to become a contender, with their only opposition being the Detroit Tigers, who will be relying heavily on Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander for any success.
If the Royals can upgrade their pitching and their current players can learn to play as a collective unit, then there's a chance Kansas City might not only be hosting the All-Star Game in 2012.
I'll admit, I've predicted the Colorado Rockies to win the NL West for the last couple of years. Each year, this team has a ton of talent and a bunch of young guys who just seem like they would click together.
But each year, another team rises up and takes charge of the most winnable division in baseball. In 2010 it was the Giants, who went on to win the World Series. In 2011 it was those D-backs.
In 2012, look for the Rox to finally take charge.
The Rockies have some of the brightest young stars in the game today on their roster. It all starts with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez.
These two will likely bat third and cleanup in the Colorado lineup, and both should be good for 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBI, especially since they'll be playing 81 games in the friendly confines of Coors Field.
Tulowitzki is my preseason pick for NL MVP this year, as his overall value both at the plate and in the field makes him one of the top five position players in all of baseball. Gonzalez had a breakout year in 2010, but experienced some regression in 2011 due to nagging injuries. If healthy, this 3-4 duo could be one of the best in baseball and help push Colorado to a division crown.
However, pitching will be a concern as always in Coors, as the Rockies starting staff lacks an ace. There are plenty of young talented pitchers who will get a shot in 2012, such as Drew Pomeranz, Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio and Tyler Chatwood, all of whom are under the age of 27.
Also on the radar is the oldest player in baseball, the 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, who is attempting a comeback from Tommy John surgery. New addition Jeremy Guthrie, acquired from the Orioles this offseason, will try to contribute as well, but Colorado will likely have to look to trade for an ace at the deadline if they plan on competing in 2012.
Look for the Rockies to at least make a statement in 2012.
Toronto Blue Jays
How easily the Toronto Blue Jays get overlooked in the insanely competitive AL East. To a certain extent, you start to feel bad for this group of guys after a while, constantly fielding a decent team and constantly falling short of the powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox, and even recently the Rays.
It's so difficult to compete in this division that two years ago they even made the decision to trade the best starting pitcher in the game, Roy Halladay, to the Philadelphia Phillies in order to restock their farm system for the future.
However, it was but one year later that a 29-year-old utility man named Jose Bautista completed the most drastic transformation from "nobody" to "elite" that the game has ever seen. After hitting just 13 home runs the previous season, Bautista smacked 54 big flies in 2010, and proved in 2011 that it was no fluke, bashing another 43.
Imagine how different things would've been if Bautista had managed to emerge before the departure of Halladay. Having arguably the majors' best hitter with its best pitcher could have been enough to put the Jays into Wild Card contention the past two years, especially with the failures of the division rival Red Sox.
So, what makes 2012 any different than the past two years then?
Well, first of all, there are two Wild Cards this season, which automatically increases every borderline contender's postseason chances. Second, the Jays now have exactly what they were hoping for with the Halladay trade—an abundance of talented young players ready to make their mark on the major league scene.
Guys like Brett Lawrie, Ricky Romero, Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia could make Toronto a serious contender for one of those Wild Card spots, and 2012 could finally be the Blue Jays' year.
Of all the teams on this list, it's the Washington Nationals who have the best shot for a surprising postseason run in 2012.
Last year, the Nationals made a notable leap in the standings, moving from last place in the division to third place, behind the Phillies and Braves. The Nats won 12 more games in 2011 than they did in 2010, and if they can make that kind of jump again—from 81 to 93 wins—they'll have more than enough to make it to the postseason in 2012.
The Nationals had a busy offseason, trading with the A's for left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez while also signing free-agent starter Edwin Jackson and former closer Brad Lidge.
While it doesn't sound like a complete overhaul of the team that is universally considered one of the worst in the game, these moves really address the needs of the club and definitely make them a contender in 2012.
As long as breakout stars from last year—guys like Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos—don't regress, this team has a fantastic offense. They will surely look for a marked improvement from right fielder Jayson Werth, whom the Nationals committed seven years and $126 million to a year ago, after a rough first season in the nation's capital.
They will also be hopeful for healthy seasons out of their corner infielders, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, who both missed significant time last year due to injuries.
And finally, the Nationals will look for young phenom Bryce Harper to step up and make an impact when he is inevitably called up to the big leagues.
This Nationals team has everything you look for on a contender, the only question is if they can successfully put the pieces together. If they can, not only will the Nationals contend for the Wild Card, but they could contend for the NL East division title. And not only will they contend for the division title, they could potentially go all the way to the Fall Classic.
A lot of things have to go right in D.C. this year for it to host its first World Series, but when it comes to baseball, expect the unexpected. Expect the Nationals.