It seems every season a small-to-mid market team emerges and makes some noise in the division races, posing a significant threat to the investments that "big market" clubs such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies make on annual payrolls.
The Tampa Rays finished 2010 with the best record in the American League at 96-66, despite a payroll only a fraction of that of their division rivals. Competing in a division where the Red Sox and Yankees were expected to win both the division and wild card, the Rays were a surprise postseason participant.
The San Diego Padres competed to the final game of the season for a playoff appearance despite no serious expectations entering the 2010 campaign. They finished with an impressive 90-72 regular season record.
The National League's expected postseason representatives are the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals or Cincinnati Reds and reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Which teams stand the best chance of upsetting one of the preseason favorites and make a similar rise to prominence in 2011?
Baltimore Orioles 2011 Payroll: $85,304,038
The Baltimore Orioles certainly weren't supposed to compete for the postseason against the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox in 2011, but through the first week and a half of the season, they are currently sitting atop the AL East with a 6-3 record, and a one game lead over the Yankees (Boston is 4.5 games back).
The Orioles added offense in the offseason with the signing of Vladimir Guerrero and trade for Mark Reynolds from Arizona.
The Orioles will have trouble hanging with either Yankees and Red Sox for the division crown, but if either team falters, they could still wind up in the playoff conversation.
With promising young pitching, an improved lineup and the fiery Buck Showalter leading the group, the Orioles could be surprise contenders for the AL Wild Card this season.
The Orioles could add an impact player before the deadline and still wind up with a payroll that is just a fraction of that of their division rivals.
Cleveland Indians 2011 Payroll: $49,188,867
The Indians were picked by many senior baseball analysts around the nation to be close to the bottom of the standings this season. That could still wind up being the case, but at the moment, they are baseball's hottest team!
After losing their first two games of the season, the Indians went on to win their next eight straight games.
The Indians competition in the AL Central will consist of the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. The Twins also probably deserve to be on this list, but since they always seem to be hanging around, they wouldn't qualify as a "surprise" contender.
Cleveland has the offensive pieces to make a run behind Shin-Soo Choo, Azdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner and eventually Grady Sizemore.
If they put together respectable pitching, they could make a run at the AL Central crown or even the Wild Card.
Cleveland 's payroll is one of the smallest in baseball, giving them plenty of flexibility if they need to add a player or two if they still find themselves in contention around the All-Star break.
Florida Marlins 2011 Payroll: $56,944,000
Okay, so the NL East title is probably out of the question with the Phillies and their four aces competing in the same division, but the NL Wild Card very likely will come out of the East this season, and why not Florida?
The Marlins primary competition will be the Atlanta Braves, who honestly should be better than Florida, but the Marlins do possess a core group of talented young players who could surprise some teams if they manage to put their games together earlier than anticipated.
Hanley Ramirez is off to a slow start, but he will heat up as the season goes on.
Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez just may have enough to lead the pitching staff to a better record than any other second place team in the National League and give them a berth in the playoffs as the wild card representative.
If you haven't already noticed a trend, you should now that I am bringing it to your attention. The Marlins are another team with a low payroll compared to their division rivals. The Marlins could add a starting pitcher if they need to or another bat to bolster their offense. This of course would be dependent on their remaining in contention with the Braves for the wild card (they aren't catching the Phillies, sorry Marlin fans).
Colorado Rockies 2011 Payroll: $87,998,071
The National League West is supposed to belong to the San Francisco Giants. Seemingly, everyone has picked the reigning world champions to repeat as division winners and return to the postseason.
The Colorado Rockies have the best chance of the other NL West teams to upset the Giants and knock them out of the 2011 playoff picture.
Carlos Gonzalez had a breakout season in 2010 and earned himself a nice extension during the offseason. The combination of Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitski, Todd Helton and Ty Wiggington compares well, if not better, than the Giants lineup.
It will likely come down to pitching. The question is whether Ubaldo Jimenez, Gustavo Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel can keep enough runs off the board to compete with the Giants stellar rotation down the stretch.
Colorado probably isn't adding any payroll during the season, but their $88 million payroll is considerably smaller than the $118 million their division rival Giants have spent.
Milwaukee Brewers 2011 Payroll: $85,497,333
The Brewers have an improved rotation with Zach Grenke and Shaun Marcum added to the mix during the offseason.
The lineup is solid with Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee driving in runs for the Brew-Crew.
The Reds will give the Brewers stiff competition for the division crown, but Milwaukee has the capability of hanging in the race down to the end.
Milwaukee may have run out of trade chips to acquire another impact player if necessary, but they do have the payroll flexibility if they choose to dip back into the trade market.Their $85 million payroll is about $20 million less than that of the Cardinals.
Oakland Athletics 2011 Payroll: $66,536,500
The Athletics are actually expected to contend this year after their busy offseason, making them a bit of a strange pick for this list.
The A's struggled to score runs in 2010 and still finished with a 81-81 season behind the best pitching staff in baseball.
Oakland added some bats to support their pitching efforts in 2011 with the signing of Hideki Matsui and the trades for David DeJesus and Josh Willingham.
The Athletics' $66 million payroll allows them flexibility to add another power bat midseason if they need more offense.