With the excitement of the St. Louis Cardinals fighting their way into the playoffs in 2011 and the Oakland Athletics rallying to win the AL West on the last day of the season in 2012, Major League Baseball has not been at a loss for “Cinderella” stories as of late.
Although only the usual suspects currently remain in the pennant race, the influx of unexpected teams into this year’s postseason has been nothing short of thrilling. Perhaps this is due to the expanded playoff seeding, as is obviously the case with the 2012 Cardinals, but others—like the Nationals—turned draft picks and offseason acquisitions into division titles.
By nature, Cinderellas are unexpected, but having seen some of the rallies that came in the last month of the season, here are five teams that could be building for a surprise season in 2013.
Despite the offseason loss of Prince Fielder to Detroit through free agency and MVP Ryan Braun facing allegations of PED usage, it was uncertain whether or not Milwaukee would be capable of repeating a division title in 2013.
Although the Cincinnati Reds ultimately came away with that victory, the Brewers, who were 7.5 games out of a wild-card position at the start of September, fought to within 2.5 games before trailing off in the final week.
Milwaukee rounded out their roster at the trade deadline by dealing Zack Greinke to the Angels for shortstop prospect, Jean Segura. Add that to a rotation that includes Yovani Gallardo with John Axford closing out games, and the “Brew Crew” could develop a quiet balance in 2013.
Baltimore fans were probably not as surprised by the Orioles this season as the rest of us were. That's because this success has been three years in the making.
When Buck Showalter took over as the Orioles manager in the summer of 2010, the Orioles were 34.0 games out of first place in the AL East. Over the remainder of the season, the O’s—who had gone 32-73 until that point—finished the season on a 34-23 run.
The next year was more of the same, but the boys by the Bay still managed to win five of their last seven games with the Red Sox to finish off Boston’s disappointing September collapse.
In 2012, the Orioles nearly beat out the Yankees for the division lead.
With rookie third baseman Manny Machado leading them into 2013, probably against a revitalized AL East lineup, Baltimore should have the playoffs in their sights once more.
The Arizona starting nine isn’t made up of the most recognizable names, but therein Cinderellas are born.
Given the weak free-agent market, it seems possible that Justin Upton will be a big name in offseason trade talks, as the Diamondbacks have discussed trading their star center fielder many times before. It might just be prospects, but the yield for the two-time All-Star should project highly.
One player that Arizona will definitely want to go after in free agency, however, will be their closer, J.J. Putz, who saved 32 games with a 2.82 ERA in 2012.
San Francisco is not going anywhere in the West, but the Diamondbacks can absolutely contend with the Giants and Dodgers for a wild-card position in 2013.
The Angels are particularly mysterious going into this offseason. With a number of players entering free agency, it will be interesting to see how the group in Anaheim decides to structure their roster for the 2013 campaign.
Three things that I see as being particularly influential for the Angels are the back-to-back threat of Albert Pujols and Mike Trout in the middle of the lineup, Jered Weaver and his CY Young worthy numbers, and the movement of the Houston Astros into the AL West.
L.A. was one of the best American League teams during interleague play this year while Houston was one of the worst teams in the National League. An extended schedule against Houston will likely improve the Angels' win total in 2013, but will also be a benefit to the Rangers, who led the American League with 14 interleague wins this season.
Expect the AL West to once again be the tight division it used to be in the early 2000s.
This seems like the hot prediction in recent years, but has yet to come to fruition.
However, the Pirates have been making midsummer runs at both the NL Central and the wild card in each of the last two years, but have failed to hold on after the trade deadline. Which begs the question: how have they been doing it?
Despite having a middle-of-the-road team ERA of 3.86—13th overall in the MLB—the Pittsburgh offense was in the bottom-third of the league in runs scored with 651.
Those numbers make sense for a midseason push, but are hardly enough to sustain a legitimate playoff run.
The Pirates took a chance acquiring A.J. Burnett last offseason and they were rewarded for it. Pair that with Andrew McCutchen—an MVP candidate in center field—and Pittsburgh has a manageable core to continue building upon for 2013.
A significant offseason signing this winter, particularly if it is a pitcher, could put the Pirates over the edge next September.