Dark-Horse 2014 MLB Playoff Contenders Entering Spring Training

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2014

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Hope springs eternal, and that may never be more true than in the hearts and minds of baseball fans. Every fanbase kicks off spring training with at least some sense of hope and optimism at the start of a new season.

There are obviously teams expected to contend each year, but the past two seasons have shown that dark-horse teams can emerge and make a push to October as well.

The Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles exceeded expectations to reach the playoffs in 2012, while the Cleveland Indians emerged as the dark-horse team of the league last year.

So who is in position to be this season's dark-horse contender? Here is a look at three teams that could surprise in 2014 with spring training just around the corner.

 

Milwaukee Brewers (2013: 74-88, Fourth in NL Central)

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 11:  Carlos Gomez #27 of the Milwaukee Brewers grounds out for the final out against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on August 11, 2013 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners defeated the Brewers 2-0.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Gett
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Despite playing in a talented NL Central, the Brewers looked to have at least a shot at contention entering last season.

They closed out 2012 with a 29-13 stretch, and while that was not enough for them to make the playoffs, it was something to build on. On top of that, they had the highest-scoring offense in the National League with all of the major pieces returning.

Injuries to Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez and the suspension of Ryan Braun derailed the offense, though. Meanwhile, the rotation struggled outside of free-agent addition Kyle Lohse, and the bullpen was below average once again.

So what makes them a potential-dark horse team for the upcoming season? Let's take a look at their projected Opening Day roster:

Starting Lineup2013 Stats
1. SS Jean Segura588 AB, .294/.329/.423, 20 2B, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 74 R
2. CF Carlos Gomez536 AB, .284/.338/.506, 27 2B, 24 HR, 73 RBI, 80 R
3. RF Ryan Braun225 AB, .298/.372/.498, 14 2B, 9 HR, 38 RBI, 30 R
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez304 AB, .283/.370/.461, 18 2B, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 43 R
5. C Jonathan Lucroy521 AB, .280/.340/.455, 25 2B, 18 HR, 82 RBI, 59 R
6. LF Khris Davis136 AB, .279/.353/.596, 10 2B, 11 HR, 27 RBI, 27 R
7. 1B Mark Reynolds445 AB, .220/.306/.393, 14 2B, 21 HR, 67 RBI, 55 R
8. 2B Rickie Weeks350 AB, .209/.306/.357, 20 2B, 10 HR, 24 RBI, 40 R
Bench2013 Stats
C Martin Maldonado183 AB, .169/.236/.284, 7 2B, 4 HR, 22 RBI, 13 R
1B/3B Juan Francisco240 AB, .221/.300/.433, 10 2B, 13 HR, 32 RBI, 26 R
2B Scooter Gennett213 AB, .324/.356/.479, 11 2B, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 29 R
IF Jeff Bianchi236 AB, .237/.272/.292, 8 2B, 1 HR, 25 RBI, 22 R
OF Caleb Gindl132 AB, .242/.340/.439, 7 2B, 5 HR, 14 RBI, 17 R
Starting Rotation2013 Stats
1. RHP Yovani Gallardo31 GS, 12-10, 4.18 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 144 K, 180.2 IP
2. RHP Matt Garza24 GS, 10-6, 3.82 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 136 K, 155.1 IP
3. RHP Kyle Lohse32 GS, 11-10, 3.35 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 125 K, 198.2 IP
4. RHP Marco Estrada21 GS, 7-4, 3.87 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 118 K, 128 IP
5. RHP Wily Peralta32 GS, 11-15, 4.37 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 129 K, 183.1 IP
Bullpen2013 Stats
LR LHP Tom Gorzelanny43 G, 10 GS, 3-6, 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 83 K, 85.1 IP
MR RHP Alfredo Figaro33 G, 5 GS, 3-3, 4.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 54 K, 74 IP
MR LHP Will Smith19 G, 2-1, 0 SV, 3.24 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 43 K, 33.1 IP
MR RHP Rob Wooten27 G, 3-1, 0 SV, 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 18 K, 27.2 IP
SU RHP Brandon Kintzler71 G, 3-3, 0 SV, 2.69 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 58 K, 77 IP
SU RHP Francisco Rodriguez48 G, 3-2, 10 SV, 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 54 K, 46.2 IP
CL RHP Jim Henderson61 G, 5-5, 28 SV, 2.70 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 75 K, 60 IP
All team stats courtesy of Baseball Reference

It had been a relatively quiet offseason for the Brewers prior to their signing of right-hander Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal. If Yovani Gallardo can bounce back and Wily Peralta can take a step forward after a solid rookie season, the rotation could potentially be a strength.

The lineup should be improved with a healthy season from Ramirez and the return of Braun from suspension, and in their absence, the young duo of Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura enjoyed breakout seasons.

First base is a question mark of sorts, as Mark Reynolds, Juan Francisco and Lyle Overbay will fight it out this spring, but barring injury, the offense has the pieces to once again be one of the best in the National League.

Contending in their own division, let alone the entire National League, could be a problem. However, all the pieces are there for the Brewers to make a surprise run at contention this season after a disappointing 2013.

 

Seattle Mariners (2013: 71-91, Fourth in AL West)

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 26:  Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Safeco Field on June 26, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It's been rough going for the Seattle Mariners of late, as they have posted four straight losing seasons and have not reached the postseason since 2001. There was reason for optimism last season, though, as they had one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, and a number of high-upside prospects were knocking on the door entering 2013.

The M's finished the season 71-91, but guys like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar all got their feet wet at the big league level.

After building in-house for years, the team has opened up its payroll this offseason and made a number of major additions. Here is what the projected Opening Day roster looks like with those additions in place:

2014 Seattle Mariners Projected Roster
Starting Lineup2013 Stats
1. CF Dustin Ackley384 AB, .253/.319/.341, 18 2B, 4 HR, 31 RBI, 40 R
2. 3B Kyle Seager615 AB, .260/.338/.426, 32 2B, 22 HR, 69 RBI, 79 R
3. 2B Robinson Cano605 AB, .314/.383/.516, 41 2B, 27 RBI, 107 RBI, 81 R
4. DH Corey Hart*562 AB, .270/.334/.507, 35 2B, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 91 R
5. 1B Justin Smoak454 AB, .238/.334/.412, 19 2B, 20 HR, 50 RBI, 53 R
6. LF Logan Morrison293 AB, .242/.333/.375, 13 2B, 6 HR, 36 RBI, 32 R
7. RF Michael Saunders406 AB, .236/.323/.397, 23 2B, 12 HR, 46 RBI, 59 R
8. C Mike Zunino173 AB, .214/.290/.329, 5 2B, 5 HR, 14 RBI, 22 R
9. SS Brad Miller306 AB, .265/.318/.418, 11 2B, 8 HR, 36 RBI, 41 R
Bench2013 Stats
C John Buck392 AB, .219/.285/.362, 11 2B, 15 HR, 62 RBI, 39 R
IF Willie Bloomquist139 AB, .317/.360/.367, 5 2B, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 16 R
IF Nick Franklin369 AB, .225/.303/.382, 20 2B, 12 HR, 45 RBI, 38 R
OF Franklin Gutierrez145 AB, .248/.273/.503, 7 2B, 10 HR, 24 RBI, 18 R
Starting Rotation2013 Stats
1. RHP Felix Hernandez31 GS, 12-10, 3.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 216 K, 204.1 IP
2. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma33 GS, 14-6, 2.66 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 185 K, 219.2 IP
3. RHP Taijuan Walker~25 GS, 9-10, 2.93 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 160 K, 141.1 IP
4. LHP James Paxton~26 GS, 8-11, 4.45 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 131 K, 145.2 IP
5. RHP Scott Baker3 GS, 0-0, 3.60 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 6 K, 15 IP
Bullpen2013 Stats
LR RHP Erasmo Ramirez14 G, 13 GS, 5-3, 4.98 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 57 K, 72.1 IP
MR LHP Lucas Luetge35 G, 1-3, 0 SV, 4.86 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 27 K, 37 IP
MR RHP Yoervis Medina63 G, 4-6, 1 SV, 2.91 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 71 K, 68 IP
MR LHP Charlie Furbush71 G, 2-6, 0 SV, 3.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 80 K, 65 IP
SU RHP Tom Wilhelmsen59 G, 0-3, 24 SV, 4.12 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 45 K, 59 IP
SU RHP Danny Farquhar46 G, 0-3, 16 SV, 4.20 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 79 K, 55.2 IP
CL Fernando Rodney68 G, 5-4, 37 SV, 3.38 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 82 K, 66.2 IP
*2012 Stats, ~Minor League Stats

The big addition here is obviously second baseman Robinson Cano, who was inked to a massive 10-year, $240 million deal prior to the winter meetings. The big question will be how much the team can get out of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, both of whom dealt with knee injuries last season, and whether they can provide enough production to protect Cano.

The pitching staff will once again have one of the best one-two punches around in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but the big X-factor will be how well rookies Walker and Paxton hold down their spots in the rotation.

Right-hander Fernando Rodney should give the bullpen a needed boost after it ranked 29th in the MLB last season with a 4.58 ERA. The team struggled in close games, going 19-29 in one-run games and 6-15 in extra innings. A better bullpen could help rectify that.

The AL West is tough. The Oakland A's and Texas Rangers are expected to be contenders once again, and the Los Angeles Angels still have the pieces to make some noise as well. If some young players can take a step forward and the offense holds up, though, the Mariners could surprise.

 

San Diego Padres (2013: 76-86, Third in NL West)

PHILADELPHIA, PA -SEPTEMBER 10: Pitcher Andrew Cashner #34 of the San Diego Padres delivers a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies in a MLB baseball game on September 10, 2013 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rich Schultz
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The 2013 San Diego Padres finished the season 76-86 for a second consecutive year, marking their third straight losing season. It wasn't all bad, though, as they showed flashes of what could be a bright future for the team.

A 10-2 stretch at the beginning of June pulled them within one game of first place on June 17 and improved their record to 36-34 on the season at that point. They crashed back to earth with a 1-14 stretch a few weeks later, but the Padres showed some potential during that span nonetheless.

The team entered last season with the 26th-ranked payroll at just over $67 million, according to USA TodayDespite that, it has been able to build a solid roster through player development and solid use of its limited free-agent funds.

Here is how the Padres' 2014 Opening Day roster projects to shape up as they look to take a step forward in the year ahead:

2014 San Diego Padres Projected Roster
Starting Lineup2013 Stats
1. SS Everth Cabrera381 AB, .283/.355/.381, 15 2B, 4 HR, 31 RBI, 54 R
2. CF Will Venable481 AB, .268/.312/.484, 22 2B, 22 HR, 53 RBI, 64 R
3. 3B Chase Headley520 AB, .250/.347/.400, 35 2B, 13 HR, 50 RBI, 59 R
4. LF Carlos Quentin276 AB, .275/.363/.493, 21 2B, 13 HR, 44 RBI, 42 R
5. 1B Yonder Alonso334 AB, .281/.341/.368, 11 2B, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 34 R
6. 2B Jedd Gyorko486 AB, .249/.301/.444, 26 2B, 23 HR, 63 RBI, 62 R
7. RF Seth Smith368 AB, .253/.329/.391, 27 2B, 8 HR, 40 RBI, 49 R
8. C Nick Hundley373 AB, .233/.290/.389, 19 2B, 13 HR, 44 RBI, 35 R
Bench2013 Stats
C Rene Rivera67 AB, .254/.268/.328, 3 2B, 0 HR, 7 RBI, 4 R
1B/OF Kyle Blanks280 AB, .243/.305/.379, 14 2B, 8 HR, 35 RBI, 31 R
IF/OF Alexi Amarista368 AB, .236/.282/.337, 14 2B, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 35 R
OF Chris Denorfia473 AB, .279/.337/.395, 21 2B, 10 HR, 47 RBI, 67 R
OF Cameron Maybin51 AB, .157/.232/.235, 1 2B, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 7 R
Starting Rotation2013 Stats
1. RHP Ian Kennedy31 GS, 7-10, 4.91 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 163 K, 181.1 IP
2. RHP Andrew Cashner31 G, 26 GS, 10-9, 3.09 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 128 K, 175 IP
3. RHP Tyson Ross35 G, 16 GS, 3-8, 3.17 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 119 K, 125 IP
4. RHP Josh Johnson16 GS, 2-8, 6.20 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 83 K, 81.1 IP
5. LHP Eric Stults33 GS, 11-13, 3.93 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 131 K, 203.2 IP
Bullpen2013 Stats
LR RHP Tim Stauffer43 G, 3-1, 3.75 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 64 K, 69.2 IP
MR LHP Patrick Schuster~55 G, 0-1, 0 SV, 1.83 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 45 K, 44.1 IP
MR RHP Nick Vincent45 G, 6-3, 1 SV, 2.14 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 49 K, 46.1 IP
MR LHP Alex Torres39 G, 4-2, 0 SV, 1.71 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 62 K, 58 IP
SU RHP Dale Thayer69 G, 3-5, 1 SV, 3.32 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 64 K, 65 IP
SU RHP Joaquin Benoit66 G, 4-1, 24 SV, 2.01 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 73 K, 67 IP
CL RHP Huston Street58 G, 2-5, 33 SV, 2.70 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 46 K, 56.2 IP
~Minor League Stats

Starting pitching has been a major issue for San Diego over the past few seasons, but the rotation has a chance to be a strength this season if a few things break right.

Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross showed flashes of being plus arms in the second half last season, while Ian Kennedy was acquired at the deadline and is looking to rebound. There may be no bigger bounce-back candidate, though, than right-hander Josh Johnson, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal in the offseason.

Offensively, the team could be far better than last season. Jedd Gyorko could take a big step forward in his second season, middle-of-the-order bats Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso played less than 100 games last year and Chase Headley will be looking to turn things around in a contract year.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the clear favorites in the NL West entering the season, but the Padres could make a run at a wild-card spot if their starting rotation performs up to its potential. The team has a deep farm system and a good young core at the big league level, so the best is yet to come. It's just a question of whether the Padres will be ready to make a run at the playoffs in 2014.