If I told you at this time last year that the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles would make the playoffs, you would have laughed in my face. That is the beauty of Major League Baseball, because right when we think we know something, the exact opposite happens.
With spring training so close, it is time to start thinking about teams that have the ability to put together a run similar to what the A's and Orioles did last year. It may not happen again, but there are teams on the outside that can take the next step with a little development and luck.
As we examine the non-playoff teams from 2012, with the exception of Toronto because it is expected to be good thanks to deals made this offseason, here are the best bets to compete for a division championship.
Kansas City Royals
2012 record: 72-90 (16 GB in American League Central)
The Royals made one of the most puzzling moves of the offseason when they sent prized prospect Wil Myers, pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis.
It was obvious to everyone that the Royals had to address their starting pitching, but doing so at such an extravagant cost for a good-not-great starter in Shields and reliever in Davis seems foolish.
However, if I am playing devil's advocate, I will say that as long as the Royals get a strong bounce-back season from Eric Hosmer, more development from Mike Moustakas and maybe one or two overachieving performances somewhere else in the lineup, they can score runs.
The pitching staff with Shields and Ervin Santana, who could benefit by getting away from the good offenses in the American League West, will be better. John Lamb is also coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Danny Duffy might return later in the year to add depth after having Tommy John surgery last season.
More important than all the "what could be" is the fact that the American League Central still isn't very good. Detroit is still the class of the division, but Chicago was a surprise contender last year and didn't do anything to get better. Losing A.J. Pierzynski will hurt.
Jeff Keppinger isn't going to repeat his .325/.367/.439 performance with Tampa Bay last year.
Cleveland and Minnesota are still in rebuilding mode. If the Tigers' defensive woes continue, and the back of the bullpen remains a problem, the Royals could make themselves players in the Central.
2012 record: 81-81 (13 GB in National League West)
Like the Royals, the Diamondbacks made puzzling trades that left many wondering what exactly they were trying to do.
Even though the trades that sent Trevor Bauer and Justin Upton out of town will likely hurt in the long run, right now this is still a quality team that has the talent to compete in a very good National League West.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have grabbed all the headlines in the division since last August—save for that brief period when San Francisco won the World Series—but there are a lot of question marks with the Dodgers, especially on offense.
Matt Kemp has to play 140 games this season. Adrian Gonzalez has to hit for more power his year than he did in 2012. Andre Ethier has to do better than a .606 OPS against left-handed pitching. Hanley Ramirez has to act like he is interested in being a great player again.
Even the pitching staff beyond Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke is full of question marks. The bullpen is being built around Brandon League, who gave up a .292 average to lefties in 2012.
The defending world champion Giants are an injury to Pablo Sandoval or Buster Posey away from being one of the worst offensive teams in the league.
Arizona has plenty of question marks too. Will Brandon McCarthy ever be able to stay healthy? What will Randall Delgado do in a new, hitter-friendly park? Is Daniel Hudson going to contribute this year after Tommy John surgery last summer? What is going to happen in center field with Cody Ross?
But there are pieces with the Diamondbacks right now ready to help the team get back into contention in the National League West. Hopefully the team allows A.J. Pollock to play center field, and Tyler Skaggs wins a rotation job out of spring training, because they are two players definitely worth watching.
Boston Red Sox
2012 record: 69-93 (26 GB in American League East)
I'm not sure why, exactly, but I am drinking some of the Red Sox Kool-Aid right now. I think the Shane Victorino contract is hilarious and will blow up in their faces sooner rather than later, but some other moves give me hope.
Mike Napoli on a cheap one-year, incentive-based deal has the potential to pay off huge. He is most valuable as a catcher, but hits for enough power and gets on-base enough to be a good first baseman.
The addition of Ryan Dempster to the rotation gives them another solid innings eater, which they desperately needed last year. He also has some upside, though his stats with Chicago are never going to come again, especially in the American League East.
As long as Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz don't implode again, the Red Sox should have an above-average rotation.
Defense, especially on the infield, could be a big plus for this team. Dustin Pedroia is a good defender at second base. Jose Iglesias, assuming he wins the job out of spring training, could step in today and be one of the two best defensive shortstops in baseball. The only question is, will he do anything with the bat to justify keeping his glove out there?
Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has to stay healthy at the top of the lineup. We saw how much of a game-changer he can be when he can play in 2011.
Not having Bobby Valentine around anymore might be the biggest change of them all. We heard all the complaints from everyone near a microphone last season about how awful he was, so now if the team doesn't succeed, maybe the players will finally accept some of the blame.
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