2011 MLB: Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers Lead Top Breakout Candidates

Jeffrey BeckmannCorrespondent IApril 2, 2011

2011 MLB: Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers Lead Top Breakout Candidates

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    Will Baltimore be overlooked in AL East?J. Meric/Getty Images

    Hope.  For now.  

    That's how baseball fans see it as we inch past Opening Day.  No matter how improbable it might be, fans everywhere believe this is the year their team takes it to the next level.

    Yankees?  Phillies?  Red Sox? Forget about it!  We’ve all seen Tampa Bay shoot onto the scene, and we all witnessed the Rockies remarkable run to the playoffs only a few seasons ago. 

    This year it’s “our turn,” most fans will say.   But which teams actually have a chance to play spoiler, and which teams stand to build on their 2010 performances?  I will give you my top five.

No. 5: Baltimore Orioles

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    Can Vlad lead the O's out of the cellar?J. Meric/Getty Images

    When Buck Showalter took over as skipper midway through last season, he immediately showed a group of young under-achievers how to win. 

    In a deep AL East, the O’s have almost no chance at the postseason, but if Jeremy Guthrie and Co. continue to improve on last year and their young hitters finally put it all together, they could be a legitimate threat in baseball's toughest division.  

    Adding in veterans Vlad Guerrerro and Derrick Lee, don’t be surprised if the O’s come out and win 80-85 ballgames to crawl out of the cellar in the AL East.

No. 4: Washington Nationals

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    Werth may have been the Nats first big acquisition, but he won't be their last.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    No doubt Stephen Strasburg’s injury puts a damper on the hope of some Nats faithful, but there is still a lot in Washington to like.  Eventually Strasburg will return, and their farm system is loaded with talent (Bryce Harper, anyone?).

    Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle should be a dynamic duo for years to come, and the addition of Jayson Werth adds some pop to the Nats outfield.  If young pitchers Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan can finally break out, and their young bullpen pitches as well as they look on paper, they could steal plenty of games from their NL East foes. 

    You can tell the attitude is changing within the organization, from the GM on down, and I expect them to start winning sooner rather than later.

No. 3: Florida Marlins

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    Han-Ram finally has a side-kick in Mike Stanton... Can they deliver?Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    How can they NOT be on the list?  Every year, it seems a young Marlins squad with a roster comprised of young prospects manages to beat expectations.  

    Their continuous cycle of trading away homegrown superstars to load their farm-system has always left them with above-average talent at all positions.  Now, with a crop of young arms led by Josh Johnson, alongside the best shortstop in the game in Hanley Ramirez, this team is not one to be overlooked.  

    To succeed, lone veteran pitcher Javier Vazquez will have to regain his 2009 form and former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will have to rebound from an injury-riddled 2010 campaign.  

    Somehow, they always find a way to remain competitive, and this year's key could be through the powerful bat of Mike Stanton.

No. 2: Milwaukee Brewers

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    All-Stars Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder hope to make the Brewers home Wisconsin's new "Titletown"Elsa/Getty Images

    I've seen the Brewers picked to finish anywhere from first to fourth in the NL Central.  If it's the latter, it won't be because of the Brewers bats.  

    After Casey McGehee's breakout performance last season (possibly the greatest waiver claim in recent memory) and Corey Hart once again showing flashes of an All-Star, Ryan Braun and the Brewers should never hurt in the scoring department.

    But what once looked like a potentially dominant pitching staff was decimated by injuries throughout spring training.  Considering none of the injuries were Adam Wainright-esque, there should be no reason for the Brew Crew to panic.  

    New additions Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum should thrive in their new NL Central home, and Yovanni Gallardo should take a huge leap forward without having the pressure to carry the entire rotation on his shoulders.  

    If they can avoid a slump through arguably the league's toughest first-month schedule, they should be primed to play meaningful games come September.  Expect a monster year from Prince in his encore with the Brewers, who I believe will ultimately beat out the Reds for the NL Central crown.

No. 1: Oakland Athletics

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    Will Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui provide enough run support for a powerful young rotation?Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    Moneyball at its best.  This is an almost exact replica of the 2010 San Francisco Giants: Very strong pitching, mediocre hitting.  Timeliness of their hitting will prove to be the biggest factor.  

    The additions of Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui will provide middle of the order power unseen in Oakland the past few seasons, while the addition of David Dejesus is still very under-appreciated at this point. 

    Billy Beane won’t be afraid to acquire a bargain bat at the deadline (with whom he will later flip for more young talent), and they should be able to get just enough production on offense to win a lot of low-scoring one-run ballgames.

    Those are the perks of having a strong and young starting rotation with a bullpen full of savvy veterans. Pitcher to watch? Gio Gonzalez. This guy is for real.  

    Not only might the A's dethrone the Rangers in the AL West, but they could be serious contenders come playoff time.