The emergence of Matt Harvey could keep the Mets in the playoff race much longer than anticipated.
When writing on potential trade targets that could be available later in the 2013 MLB regular season, I often refer to players on teams that I don’t expect to contend and are very likely to be out of the pennant race by mid-July.
It’s almost a given, however, that there are at least one or two teams that play better than expected and end up in a position to be “buyers” at the trade deadline as opposed to “sellers.”
There were no bigger surprises than the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles in 2012. Neither team made any significant deals, although they didn’t trade any players to contenders as would have been expected. And in all likelihood, both teams were talking to other teams around the league and looking to upgrade for the stretch run.
While it’s still early, we can point to a few teams who are not only off to good starts, but they appear to be playing much better than anticipated.
Here are four teams that could end up as surprise “buyers” in July.
The Colorado Rockies only get to play the San Diego Padres 13 more times this season, so maybe we shouldn’t get too excited yet. They’re 6-0 against San Diego, and they took two of three from the last-place Milwaukee Brewers, although the division rival San Francisco Giants swept them in three games.
On the surface, however, this team has a chance to be much better than expected.
We can’t forget that they lost 98 games in 2012. A little bit of confidence—even if it comes from beating up on the Padres—and a healthy starting rotation, however, could go a long way in Colorado.
They have a very talented lineup and bullpen that is capable of closing out games. Closer Rafael Betancourt is perfect in five save opportunities, and setup man Matt Belisle already has four holds.
Dexter Fowler (pictured, six home runs, nine RBI in 12 games) is looking to join the elite star-level class of teammates Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. Catcher Wilin Rosario, who hit 28 homers as a rookie, and Michael Cuddyer are also off to strong starts.
The success of the Rockies is highly dependent on the rotation, though. The current starting five of Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio, Jeff Francis and Jon Garland combined to make just 52 starts in 2012. Francis made nearly half of those, and Garland didn’t pitch at all.
If De La Rosa, who has given up three earned runs in 12 innings with three walks and 10 strikeouts over his last two starts, can return to his pre-Tommy John surgery form and Chacin (1.96 ERA in three starts) can stay healthy, this team has a chance to stay within striking distance of a playoff spot.
I’ve said this several times in the past few months: The Kansas City Royals, off to a 7-5 start, are going to have a good season. I fully expect them to be in the mix for a playoff spot in July. But since they have so many doubters, I’ll include them here.
The new rotation members of James Shields (pictured), Ervin Santana and Wade Davis have combined for five quality starts in eight games. Jeremy Guthrie, who was re-signed to a three-year deal this offseason, has won both of his starts.
As expected, the bullpen has been very good. Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar have combined to allow one earned run in 23 innings with five walks and 30 strikeouts.
A potentially talented offense hasn’t even gotten going yet. Billy Butler (.892 OPS) and Alex Gordon (.906 OPS) have done most of the damage at the plate while mostly everyone else has struggled.
If the rotation holds up, which is much more likely with the current group than the 2012 rotation, the offensive woes won’t be as magnified. The pressure will stay off the young hitters, and they’ll have a better chance to get it going.
Once that happens, this Royals team can be very good.
They played above their heads in 2012 too, entering the All-Star break with a 46-40 record. But by the time the trade deadline came along, they were under .500 and looking toward 2013.
Manager Terry Collins has his 25-man roster, made up of mostly no-name players, playing hard once again and off to a 7-4 start.
Everyone except for Ike Davis, who also had a terrible start last season, is hitting. They probably won’t keep it up (.816 OPS through 12 games), but they won’t have to maintain this sort of offense if the pitching is strong enough.
The rotation, behind emerging ace Matt Harvey, has the potential to be very good. Lefty Jon Niese has two quality starts in three games, and veteran Shaun Marcum could be ready to return from the disabled list by the end of the month. Zack Wheeler could join that trio by midseason.
As long as the bullpen doesn’t fall apart, I like the New York Mets’ chances to go into the All-Star break with a winning record again.
Closer Bobby Parnell and fellow relievers Scott Atchison, Josh Edgin and Brandon Lyon have combined to allow three earned runs in 18 innings with two walks and 15 strikeouts.
While it’s hard to see them staying anywhere near the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals in the NL East, there’s a chance they could stay close to the second wild-card spot. If so, they could pursue an outfielder before the trade deadline.
It’s not so much their early-season record (6-8) that has me thinking the M’s can be in the playoff race in September. It’s that they haven’t even played very well. They're hanging around while the other teams in the division don’t appear ready to run away from the competition.
Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez (pictured, four home runs, 10 RBI) is proving what he's capable of doing when healthy. The additions of Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez are offsetting the slow starts to younger hitters like Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak.
If the veteran hitters can come up with enough big hits early in the season and the younger hitters can get going eventually, the Felix Hernandez-led rotation is good enough to keep this team afloat in the AL West.
A team with much less depth and talent was only four games under .500 early last September.
If the Angels continue to struggle, there's a good chance the M's can get over the .500 hump this season and make a run at a playoff spot late in the year. Adding another bat and another starter at the trade deadline should make them a force to be reckoned with down the stretch.