Be honest, at this time last year, was anyone picking the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series? In a sport that many will argue lacks a competitive balance, baseball has produced more than its fair share of surprise success stories of late.
Out of the previous eight World Series winners, five of them did not make the playoffs the previous season. That means 62.5 percent of recent World Series winning teams can be considered sleepers. The numbers are exactly the same for the runners-up over the same span of time.
Therefore, based on recent history, we can expect that it is more than likely that at least one of the teams that makes the 2011 World Series will not be a team that was in the 2010 playoffs.
Here are three teams from each league that could be candidates to go from playoff no-show to World Series Champion.
My mind was telling me to put the Cardinals or Padres in this spot, but you don't listen to your mind when picking sleepers, you go with gut instincts.
Since joining the league in 1993, the Marlins have won the World Series twice, both times coming into the playoffs as a wild card.
In both of those seasons, 1997 and 2003, the Marlins had a "perfect storm" type feel to the team, meaning they were able to pull a multitude of pieces together for an unlikely run.
It seems like they are a franchise that has had the ability to be successful by mixing developing young players with key veterans.
This year could be another one of those years. Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson have both established themselves as superstar-caliber young players. Now, upon entering their prime years, they could pave the path into late October for the Marlins.
Of course, some other pieces are going to have to fall into place. The Marlins have four highly touted outfield prospects in Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Scott Cousins, and 2009 NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan. They will need significant production out of these youngsters.
Similarly, Florida's pitching staff features some young talented arms who have yet to realize their potential.
For the Marlins to compete with the Phillies and Braves in the NL East, they will need Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Volstad to be the 2011 equivalent to the 2003 Marlins Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, and Dontrelle Willis.
A bounce-back year for Javier Vazquez would help take some pressure off the Marlins' younger starters.
If everything breaks right, Omar Infante, John Buck, and Wes Helms will be the solid yet unspectacular veteran glue that can bind all of this young talent into a cohesive, championship-caliber team.
As if it wasn't bad enough to begin with, the 2011 White Sox are going to make U.S. Cellular Field an absolute nightmare for opposing pitchers.
To put it simply, the South Siders can absolutely mash. Their lineup will feature three players with legitimate 35 HR potential in Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Quentin.
CF Alex Rios is coming off a 20/30 season and in the midst of his prime at 30 years old, he is certainly capable of repeating that type of production.
Even the White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez has averaged 18 HR over his career.
Juan Pierre should be adequate in the leadoff spot. As a career .298/.347 hitter, he reaches base enough to provide ample RBI opportunities for the aforementioned sluggers.
Also, with Pierre coming off a 60-SB season, pitchers will have to respect his ability to steal. This means that the hitters behind him will see more fastballs.
Gordon Beckham could be the X-factor for the White Sox. 2011 will be his third full year in the big leagues and if this once-ballyhooed prospect can start to produce, he could propel Chicago past the always-tough Twins and Tigers in the AL Central.
The White Sox certainly do not have World Series-caliber pitching, but they feature a rotation of mostly solid veterans who should be able to keep the team in games.
Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd have been above-average pitchers over their respective careers. Edwin Jackson has the potential to be successful if he can cut down on his walks. And Jake Peavy is a former ace who could provide a huge boost if he can regain his old form.
With an offense that is going to score as much as this one, all the pitching needs to be is decent.
The Rockies have been one of the toughest teams to figure out over the last four seasons. In 2007, they won 13 of their final 14 regular-season games. Then, they beat the Padres in a one-game playoff for the NL Wild Card. Then, they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating the Phillies in three straight and the Diamondbacks in four.
Altogether, that's 21 wins in 22 games.
They went on to get swept by Boston in the World Series, being outscored 29-10 in the three games.
They followed up their trip to the World Series by laying an egg in 2008, finishing the season 14 games under .500.
In 2009, they were back up to their old tricks. They were 12 games under .500 on June 3 before winning 21 of their next 25 games, which included an 11-game winning streak. They found themselves back in the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the Phillies.
In 2010, the Rockies were in competition in the NL West into September, but their penchant for streaky play finally got the better of them. They lost 13 of their last 14 games and missed out on the playoffs.
Their streaky play as a team mirrors the streaky play of their star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The oft-injured Tulo has been up and down in his young career, at times looking like a bum and at times looking like a god.
In September of last year, he had a mind-blowing stretch of games, finishing out the month with 15 HR, 40 RBI, and 30 R.
The good news for the inconsistent Rockies is that the NL West should be wide-open again in 2011. The Giants and Padres both feature outstanding pitching, but little offense. Colorado could be the most balanced team in the division.
If Tulowitzki can put together a complete season and 2010 breakout superstar Carlos Gonzalez can come close to repeating his production, the Rockies will be well on their way to a playoff bid.
Ty Wigginton and Ian Stewart are both capable of belting 20 HR, which will ease the burden on the shoulders of Tulo and Gonzalez.
In 2010, Ubaldo Jimenez showed he could be one of the very best pitchers in the game. He was 15-1 before the All-Star Break which included a no-hitter against Atlanta on April 17.
In addition, if the Rockies do make the playoffs, they have one of the most unique home field advantages in baseball.
Coors Field is notoriously a hitters' paradise, and the Rockies generally fill their staff with ground ball pitchers to try to offset the mile-high thin air. Only the Twins had a better home record than the Rockies last season.
The Tigers, like the Marlins, feature both talented veterans and up-and-coming youngsters.
Let's start with the obvious. Miguel Cabrera is the Albert Pujols of the American League. He is a force in the middle of the lineup who makes everyone around him better.
He should be surrounded by veterans Victor Martinez and Magglio Ordonez. Martinez is a career .300 hitter with 20 HR potential, which is serious production for a catcher.
Ordonez will be an X-factor for the Tigers in 2010. At 37 years old, his best days are clearly behind him. Injuries have plagued him often during his career.
That being said, if he is healthy, he is the type of pure hitter who can still hit .300 and drive in 100 runs.
Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch are two players that showed glimpses of greatness during their rookie seasons in 2010. Jackson finished the year hitting .292 with 27 SB.
Boesch had a monster first half, batting .342 with 12 HR, but he faded big time in the second half, hitting just .163 with 2 HR. Both of them will have to take a step forward for the Tigers to outlast the Twins and White Sox in the AL Central.
When it comes to pitching, Detroit has flame throwers everywhere you look. Justin Verlander is a bona fide ace who can hit 100 mph on the radar gun. He is not the only one. Reliever Joel Zumaya has also been clocked in triple figures.
Even the soft tossers on the Tigers staff are in the mid-90s with their heaters. Brad Penny, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello all feature blistering fastballs.
The latter two, Scherzer and Porcello, are the Tigers' pitching versions of Jackson and Boesch. Both have been sublime at times, but not consistently.
In fact, both had trips to the minors in 2010 to work on their mechanics, which seemed to work as they came back to pitch well late in the year.
Things may not always be perfect with a troubled star like Cabrera leading the way for the Tigers, but no one is more capable of steadying a ship through rocky waters than Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
It is not going to be easy to overcome the Cincinnati Reds, who are one of the best young teams in baseball, but if anyone can do it this year, it will be the Brewers.
The hard part for Milwaukee will be getting to the playoffs, but once there, they are built to win in a short series. With three stud pitchers, they are actually a lot like the Giants were last year, but with a better offense.
Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo are two of the lesser-known good pitchers in baseball. Greinke had the one great season where he won the AL Cy Young award in 2009, but other than that these guys are both on the cusp of being considered legitimate aces. They will both need to take a step forward to get the Brew Crew into the playoffs.
Following Greinke and Gallardo in the rotation is someone who is even more overlooked, Shaun Marcum.
Marcum has a career 3.85 ERA and 1.24 WHIP pitching for the Blue Jays in the AL East, which is by far the toughest division for pitchers. He was 13-8 last season with a K/BB ratio just a hair under four.
If they should find their way into the playoffs, the Brewers pitching will make them a team that no one wants to face in the first round.
John Axford was stellar at closer last year after he took over the position, and he will need to be that good again.
Offensively, the Brew Crew feature two superstars, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Fielder is playing for a new contract, so he should have a little extra motivation. Expect a big year from the big guy.
In addition, the Tigers feature some intriguing second-tier hitters. Corey Hart was an All-Star last season. He finished the year with 31 HR, 102 RBI, and 91 R.
Casey McGehee hit 23 HR and had 103 RBI. And Rickie Weeks had a power spike, hitting 29 HR, which is outstanding production for a second baseman.
If he can maintain that type of production, the Brewers will have one of the most well-rounded lineups in the National League.
Okay, so maybe the Red Sox are not a true sleeper. In fact, many consider them the favorites to go all the way this year. In 2010, however, the Sox missed out on the playoffs, so for our purposes, they are a sleeper.
I am not going to get into every detail about why the Sox are going to be so dominant this year.
Here is the abridged version of the story:
In 2010, the Red Sox were decimated by injuries. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury missed 59 games, 87 games, and 144 games, respectively.
Pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jonathan Papelbon all had off years. Despite all this, the Sox still only finished six games behind the Yankees for the AL Wild Card.
This off season, the Sox added two stars in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Assuming they aren't hit with the injury bug again, the Red Sox lineup is going to be legendary.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are two young studs who will anchor the Sox pitching staff. If Beckett and Lackey can come back to form, and Daisuke Matsuzaka can be reasonably productive, the Sox will have a rock-solid starting five.
Their bullpen features the aforementioned Papelbon in addition to young flame thrower Daniel Bard, former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, lefty specialist Hideki Okajima, and wily veteran Dan Wheeler.
This team is stacked from top to bottom. They have the talent, the experience, and the coaching to go all the way.