Which Dark-Horse MLB Teams Could Make a Run at the Playoffs?

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Which Dark-Horse MLB Teams Could Make a Run at the Playoffs?
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Though the 2013 MLB season is not yet three months old, we already have a good idea who will be in the thick of the playoff picture come September.

That's not to say it is too late for the teams who have gotten off to a slow start, with last season's Oakland A's being the perfect example of what can happen when everything clicks.

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The Oakland A's used a huge second half to emerge as the dark-horse postseason team of 2012.

On June 13 last season, they were 28-35 and nine games back in the AL West race. They improved to 43-43 by the All-Star break and used a 51-25 second half to capture the AL West title on the final day of the season.

What the A's did last year was special, and it's certainly not something that happens every year, but there are a few teams who have the potential to make a similar run this season.

Here is a detailed look at one team from each league that has the best chance to be this year's dark-horse postseason contender.

Just to get it out of the way ahead of time, you won't see the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels or Los Angeles Dodgers as my choices. Given the expectations they entered the season with, it's impossible to call them dark horses, even with the slow starts they have gotten off to and their potential for improvement.

 

San Diego Padres

The San Diego Padres currently rank just below the MLB average in runs per game (4.23), while their pitching staff is in the bottom third of the league (4.30 ERA). 

Despite that, they are currently just two games under .500 at 32-34, which puts them in fourth place in the NL West and 7.5 games out in the wild-card race.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Slugger Chase Headley has yet to hit his stride at the plate this season after a monster second half in 2012.

That's not the most promising start to the season, but when you look at the numbers, it's a wonder the Padres haven't lost 10 more games than they have.

Offensively, sluggers Carlos Quentin (.260/.364/.474, 7 HR) and Chase Headley (.227/.332/.366, 6 HR) both have room to improve their play.

Rookie Jedd Gyorko (.284/.341/.461, 8 HR) and second-year man Yonder Alonso (.284/.335/.416, 6 HR) have both been good in the early going and should only continue to improve with more at-bats under their belts.

To put it simply, it's an offense that has exceeded expectations to this point as a team, but it still has plenty of room for improvement on a player-to-player basis.

Pitching is the bigger concern, as the team's top two starters entering the season, Clayton Richard (1-5, 8.06 ERA) and Edinson Volquez (5-5, 5.87 ERA), have been terrible in their 23 combined starts.

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Veteran Jason Marquis has been the surprise ace of the Padres staff.

However, the team's other starters have gone 19-12 with a 4.04 ERA in 43 starts. An unheralded group led by veteran Jason Marquis (8-2, 3.59 ERA) and Eric Stults (5-5, 3.53 ERA) has been better than anyone could have hoped, and if Richard and Volquez can get on track, the staff looks to be in good shape.

The bullpen has been solid once again, with a combined 3.35 ERA. Setup men Luke Gregerson (32 G, 2.01 ERA) and Joe Thatcher (33 G, 2.41 ERA) in particular have been great, while closer Huston Street (11-of-12 SV, 4.43 ERA) has gotten the job done despite a high ERA.

On quick glance, the Padres look like another also-ran this season, but a closer look at their roster shows they have plenty of areas where improvement is a distinct possibility, and they could really surprise if everything clicks.

 

Kansas City Royals

While the Kansas City Royals entered the season with higher expectations than the Padres, most expected them to be fringe contenders at best. Given their 30-33 record, it's safe to say they've been something of a disappointment, but unlike the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Angels, they still fit the bill of "dark-horse" contender.

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James Shields has given the Royals the ace they've been lacking since Zack Greinke was traded.

Looking to finally make the leap from rebuilding to contending, the Royals acted aggressively in the offseason to bolster their starting rotation. They re-signed Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year deal and acquired Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis via trade.

While the Santana addition was a cost-cutting move by the Angels, the additions of Shields and Davis from the Rays cost the team three of its top prospects, including Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers.

When the dust settled on the offseason, the Royals were a more complete team top to bottom on paper, but one that would have its work cut out for it in a deep American League.

At 30-33, the Royals are currently in third place in the AL Central, 5.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers, a game back of the Cleveland Indians and six games back in the wild-card picture.

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Alex Gordon has been one of the few bright spots on a struggling offense.

The starting pitching has been markedly improved, as the trio of Shields (2-6, 2.79 ERA), Santana (4-5, 2.99 ERA) and Guthrie (7-3, 3.60 ERA) has been among the best in baseball, despite what their records may show. Davis and Luis Mendoza have been average at best to fill out the staff, but as a whole, the starting pitching has not been the issue.

The bullpen, which ranked sixth in baseball last season with a 3.17 ERA, has been solid once again with a 2.76 mark that is tops in the American League.

That leaves the offense, and there is little question that has been the biggest issue so far this season. The .675 OPS as a team ranks 26th, and that lack of production has led to just 3.84 runs per game, good for 22nd.

A few weeks ago the Royals named Hall of Famer George Brett their hitting coach as the team looks to sort through its offensive woes.

Alex Gordon (.299/.347/.441) and Salvador Perez (.315/.339/.424) have been solid, but no one has more than six home runs. Billy Butler (.269/.381/.401) is not producing at the level he did last season, though he leads the team with 34 RBI.

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On the flip side, key young hitters Eric Hosmer (.274/.329/.341, 1 HR) and Mike Moustakas (.184/.250/.286, 4 HR) have fallen well short of what the team expected of them, and Jeff Francoeur and Chris Getz both have an OPS below .600.

There is a reason analysts once viewed Hosmer and Moustakas as top prospects and future stars, and the tools are certainly still there for them to make that impact.

If they can turn it around and the trio of Gordon, Perez and Butler can continue hitting, the offense could go from a liability to an asset.

Catching the Tigers will be tough, and the wild-card picture is crowded in the AL, but if the Royals can get the offense going, they have the pieces to make a big second-half run.

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