2013 MLB Predictions: Surprise Teams Ready to Make Playoff Push

Christopher Benvie@CSBenvie81Correspondent IIJanuary 21, 2013

2013 MLB Predictions: Surprise Teams Ready to Make Playoff Push

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    In 2012, fans were both enamored and surprised with the success that found the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles. Each team seemingly came out of left field to make remarkable playoff pushes.

    Both stories were unique and fun to watch throughout the season.

    Enjoying that type of unexpected success is part of what makes the game of baseball so great; any team truly has a chance.

    Consider this: Last season, 15 teams had winnings records and two teams finished at .500, leaving 13 teams with losing records. Nine teams recorded 90 or more wins—two of which were the A's and O's.

    Prior to 2012, the last time the Orioles won 90 or more games was in 1997 when they went 98-64. The last time the A's won 90 or more was in 2006 before coughing up five consecutive seasons of .500 (once) or worse baseball.

    So the question is: Who will be the surprise team(s) this season? Let's have a look.

Kansas City Royals

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    The last time the Kansas City Royals were in the playoffs they won the World Series.

    That was 27 years ago.

    The Royals currently own the longest playoff drought in all of Major League Baseball and suffice to say, it finally got to them. This past winter the team addressed the biggest flaw in its lineup: starting pitching.

    In order to win, a team has to make some sacrifices. For the Royals, that sacrifice came in the form of mega-prospect Wil Myers being shipped to the Tampa Bay Rays.

    However, in return the team managed to get James Shields and Wade Davis, or, 40 percent of its 2013 starting rotation. In addition, the team traded for Ervin Santana from the Angels and managed to re-sign Jeremy Guthrie.

    Suddenly their starting rotation looks good—this good: Shields, Guthrie, Santana, Davis and Luis Mendoza, Luke Hochevar or Bruce Chen; take your pick.

    Throughout his career, Shields has had slightly elevated numbers while pitching against AL Central opponents. As a reference point, Shields owns a career 3.89 ERA and 1.223 WHIP with a .544 winning percentage and an average of roughly 6.2 innings per game.

    Against the likes of the Tigers, White Sox, Indians and Twins he is 13-11 in 40 games with a 4.12 ERA and 1.341 WHIP. That equates to a .541 winning percentage while going an average of 6.2 innings.

    When pitching in AL Central opponents' home fields, Shields owns a 5-3 record in 16 games with a 4.37 ERA and a 1.281 WHIP in 101.1 innings of work, or roughly 6.1 innings per outing.

    Other than the obvious spike in ERA, his numbers have been fairly consistent.

    By comparison, Bruce Chen, the winningest pitcher for the Royals in 2012 and last year's Opening Day starter, owns a lifetime 20-21 record against the AL Central with a 4.82 ERA and a 1.425 WHIP in 72 career games and 327.2 innings. That works out to a .487 winning percentage.

    When pitching in their home fields, Chen is 11-14 with a 4.92 ERA and a 1.357 WHIP in 38 games and 169.2 innings. That is a .440 winning percentage.

    The Royals will now likely be the fashionable pick to finish second in the AL Central and fight for a wild-card slot.

    Just because the pick will be trendy will not make it any less surprising should they succeed. There is a lot riding on the development of first baseman Eric Hosmer this season as well as that of third baseman Mike Moustakas. The two combined for a .237 batting average in 2012.

    Additionally, the Royals will get a full season out of their young catcher Salvador Perez, a man who only played in 76 games last season but still posted a .301 batting average with .471 slugging percentage. He racked up 11 home runs, 16 doubles and drove in 39 runs in half of a season.

    In truth, the Royals could really turn some heads if all of these stars align. 

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Other than being a trendy pick for 2013, what else do the Toronto Blue Jays share in common with the Kansas City Royals?

    The last time the Blue Jays were in the postseason they also won the World Series.

    Actually, they won it in back-to-back years.That was 19 and 20 years ago.

    Needless to say, the Blue Jays front office has grown tired of finishing at the bottom of the American League East barrel. Perhaps the success of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles was the catalyst the Jays needed to finally make some waves.

    In 2012. the Jays finished with a 73-89 record. It would be the fifth consecutive year in which the team finished fourth in the AL East.

    What resulted was arguably the busiest offseason of any team in Major League Baseball.

    The Blue Jays managed to trade for reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, four-time All-Star Mark Buehrle and two-time All-Star Josh Johnson to bolster their starting rotation.

    Assuming that Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero can live up to expectations, the Jays can brag about having (arguably) the best rotation in the American League.

    Comparatively, the Blue Jays starters of 2012: Henderson Alvarez, Romero, Morrow, Aaron Laffey, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison combined for a 41-51 record in 130 games. Collectively, their ERA was 4.57 with a 1.423 WHIP in 723.2 innings of work. That is roughly 5.2 innings of work out of your starters.

    Plugging in Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson with Romero and Morrow, the stats could be closer to: 60-54 with a 3.80 ERA and a 1.259 WHIP in 148 games and 933 innings from your starting rotation.

    That breaks down to an average of 6.1 innings of work from your starters; which could mean all the difference in the world to the bullpen.

    Additionally, the Blue Jays brought in Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis for a new-look middle infield and signed Melky Cabrera as a free agent to play left.

    Last but not least, as part of the trade with the Miami Marlins, the Blue Jays also received Emilio Bonifacio, a player with excellent versatility who could prove to be one of the more valuable pieces in that deal.

    If the Blue Jays don’t make the playoffs in 2013, not only would it be a disappointment, it would be a surprise.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates made it to the postseason Barry Bonds was still on the team.

    That was 20 years ago and the Bucs lost the NLCS in seven games to the Atlanta Braves. Since that 96-66 season, the team has not even won 80 games in the last 20 seasons.

    They came extremely close to ending that losing streak this past season, finishing with a 79-83 record. 

    The Pirates have made some subtle changes heading into the 2013 season, but sometimes getting another season of chemistry under your belt is the best change a team can make.

    While they managed to trade away closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, in return they did received a pretty decent package that includes former closer Mark Melancon (20 saves with a 2.78 ERA as a closer for the Astros in 2011), second baseman Ivan DeJesus and left fielder Jerry Sands. 

    The team will be handing the ball over to Jason Grilli to close out games. In his two seasons with the Pirates, Grilli owns a 2.76 ERA with three saves and 41 holds while only blowing three saves.

    Additionally, the team signed free-agent catcher Russell Martin, giving them a solid presence behind the plate while recently signing free-agent pitcher Jeff Karstens to a one-year deal as well. 

    There is still opportunity to boost the rotation. Currently, the team is in limbo with free-agent pitcher Francisco Liriano. Apparently the two sides are still in talks according to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports (via SB Nation), but other pitchers can still be had, like Kyle Lohse or Shaun Marcum. 

    The NL Central is going to be an extremely tough division once again in 2013. The Reds will certainly be in the mix, as will the Cardinals. The Brewers only finished four games ahead of the Pirates last season and were very much in the playoff picture down the stretch. 

    Remember, the Pirates were 16 games over .500 at one point in 2012 and were second in the NL Central until Aug. 21 when the decline started and the team went on to post a 3-6 record for the remainder of August and then going 9-22 through September and October. 

    Providing that this Pirates team can stay in the marathon until the end, there is no reason why they couldn’t be a Cinderella story in 2013.

    Christopher Benvie is a MLB Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report and a Contributing Writer for WEEI.com in Boston, Ma. Follow him on Twitter here: