Ranking the 10 Biggest Surprises of the Young MLB Season

Jonathan IrwinContributor IIApril 15, 2013

Ranking the 10 Biggest Surprises of the Young MLB Season

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    Major League Baseball is just a couple weeks into its new season, and things already feel like a roller coaster. From struggling stars to brawl-induced injuries, there have been plenty of surprises to kick off 2013.

    While teams like the Oakland A's and New York Mets have gotten off to unexpectedly impressive starts, others like the Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blue Jays are finding wins tougher to come by despite adding high-level stars in the offseason.

    Taking a look back at the first half of April, we're ranking 10 of the biggest surprises from this early point in a young MLB season.

    All stats provided by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

10. Justin Upton's Breakout in Atlanta

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    Justin Upton has always been a player with tremendous potential, and that's what the Braves were banking on when they acquired him from the Diamondbacks in the offseason.

    But talent can only get you so far, and inconsistency has held Upton back in his career. Since 2009, Upton has finished his seasons with an OPS of .899, .799, .898 and .785, respectively.

    At 25 years old, 2013 is a crucial year for Upton. For the first time in his career, he's playing with a new club—which includes his brother, B.J.—and it looks like the fresh start was just what the outfielder needed.

    Upton has been ablaze to start the year, hitting .348/.415/.891 with an MLB-best seven home runs.

    Upton has enjoyed hot starts in the past, but none have been nearly as strong as this one. It looks like the slugger has finally realized his potential, and as long as this continues, 2013 will be the best year of his career.

9. Toronto's Rotation

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    The Toronto Blue Jays spent the majority of the offseason upgrading their rotation, which had many pundits marking them as favorites in the AL East.

    Despite new depth and a plethora of big arms, the rotation has been far from advertised.

    Newly acquired ace R.A. Dickey has had issues re-adapting to the American League, posting a 5.82 ERA and .290 opponents' average across his three starts.

    Josh Johnson was horrid in his most recent start against Detroit, giving up six runs on seven hits in just 1.1 innings of work.

    Even the Jays' veteran pitchers have had issues. Brandon Morrow has been inconsistent, and Ricky Romero has started his year in the minor leagues.

    Until Toronto's pitchers return to form, it's going to be a long season for the Jays.

8. Carl Crawford Playing Like Carl Crawford

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    It has been two long seasons since Carl Crawford actually looked the stud outfielder he once was.

    Battling injuries and the media, Crawford has hit .260/.292/.419 with 23 stolen bases and 126 strikeouts in 161 games since 2011.

    Now playing for the Los Angels Dodgers (post-August blockbuster with Boston), no one really knew if Crawford would regain his form. The trade was seen as a fresh start, but many wondered if it was too late.

    Right now the answer looks like "no," as Crawford has been rejuvenated at the plate in 2013. The 31-year-old has an impressive average of .396 and has flashed some pop in his bat.

    So far he looks healthy as well, playing in all 13 of the Dodgers' games.

    His only issue has been on the basepaths. Crawford has two stolen bases, but has also been caught two times. There's a chance he's just rusty, and his running should improve throughout the season.

    Even his defense appears to be returning to a high level. Seeing that Crawford was one of the most exciting outfielders in the game before his two-year slump, this is a good thing to see.

7. Boston's Pitching

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    Pitching has been Boston's kryptonite over the last few seasons, and the team's success in 2013 hinges on bounce-back campaigns from both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

    Overall, Boston's staff has been great to start the season, posting an AL East-best 2.69 team ERA. A big part of that has been the two pitchers listed above.

    Lester has a 1.42 ERA through three starts, with a 6.00 K/BB ratio. Buchholz is a perfect 3-0, and he has gone at least seven innings in each of his starts.

    On the back end of the rotation, Ryan Dempster has handled the division well—going seven strong innings Monday night—and John Lackey looked strong in his first start before leaving with a bicep injury.

    But there's two sides to ever story. While the rotation has been surprisingly good, the bullpen has been surprisingly bad.

    Boston looked like it had arguably one the best 'pens in baseball during the preseason, but it has yet to pitch like it. Daniel Bard is in the minors, Craig Breslow is on the DL and closer Joel Hanrahan has an 11.57 ERA.

    Despite the mediocre bullpen, it's impossible to ignore how good Boston's starters have been. If the arms keep this up, the Sox could be one of this season's biggest surprises come October.

6. The Mets' Offensive Potency

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    There aren't a lot of people who expected the Mets to compete this season. A big reason for that is an offense that appears to lack any punch.

    And yet New York's lineup has been surprisingly potent to start the season, and David Wright hasn't even hit a home run yet.

    The Mets are currently first in the NL East in batting average (.272), and they are second in the National League in runs scored (69).

    The team has scored five runs or more in five of its 11 games. That includes a season-high 16 runs against Minnesota this past week.

    Leading the charge is catcher John Buck, who leads the team in home runs (six) and RBI (19) to begin the year.

    Once Wright does get going, who knows how good this team could actually be.

5. Oakland's Repeating Magic

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    Oakland was one of the hottest teams down the stretch in 2012, using its torrid second half to grab the AL West. In 2013, it doesn't look like the A's are waiting for the All-Star break to play great baseball.

    The A's are currently 10-4 on the young season, sitting atop the division. The staff's 3.49 ERA is second best in the West, while the lineup leads the American League in both runs (85) and home runs (20).

    The team's rotation has been inconsistent to kick off the year, making the offense the key to success.

    Still healthy, Jed Lowrie has provided great pop from the shortstop position. And no one on the A's has been hotter than Coco Crisp, who's hitting .333 with four home runs and four stolen bases in nine games.

    Oakland has dealt with plenty of injuries early on. And as mentioned above, the rotation hasn't been pitching at full tilt. Yet the A's still lead the division.

    With a hot start now, who knows how deep these A's can go once healthy.

4. Justin Masterson Returning to Form

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    Justin Masterson was considered a high-level prospect when he was in Boston's system, but he never seemed to get his career on track there.

    Then 2011 came, when Masterson—playing for the Indians after the Victor Martinez trade—won 12 games with a 3.21 ERA across 216 innings of work.

    Unfortunately, 2012 proved disastrous for Masterson, who fell out of form with a 4.93 ERA. So far in 2013, it looks like the 28-year-old has himself back on track.

    Across three starts, Masterson is a perfect 3-0. He's only allowed one earned run in his 22 innings of work. Most recently, he posted a complete-game shutout against the White Sox.

    The big difference for Masterson has been creating whiffs. The right-hander's 8.2 K/9 is his best rate since 2009, and his current 2.50 K/BB is the second-best mark of his career.

    Masterson still has a long way to go in the season to prove that he's back to the level of an ace, but if the early goings are a sign of things to come, it's going to be a big year for the young pitcher.

3. The Halos' Slow Start

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    For the second year in a row, the Los Angeles Angels were huge buyers in the offseason, bringing in heavy-hitting Josh Hamilton and closer Ryan Madson.

    Once again, the Angels have been surprisingly quiet to start the season. The Halos are currently tied for last in the AL West at just 4-9.

    Injuries have played a key role in that slow start. Madson has started the season on the DL, Jered Weaver is currently out with a broken elbow and Albert Pujols continues to combat Father Time.

    But slow starts have also been an issue. Mike Trout looks to be in a sophomore slump, hitting .286 with one home run, one stolen base and 13 strikeouts. Hamilton has looked like a bust so far, hitting just .216 with 17 strikeouts.

    You'd be hard pressed to find a team with more talent than L.A., especially in the AL West. However, it's also a team that has struggled to find chemistry.

    Until things fall into place all at once, the Angels are sure to disappoint once again.

2. Barry Zito

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    It's crazy to think that "Barry Zito" and "ace" were relatable terms. Ever since Zito signed with San Francisco, nothing's been further from the truth.

    In seven years with San Francisco, Zito has compiled a 60-69 record and 4.41 ERA across 174 starts.

    In 2013, it looks like the 34-year-old is working under the mantra of "better late than never." Across two starts, Zito has been nearly perfect, going 2-0 without giving up a single run.

    He's worked 7.0 innings in both starts, and he has managed to keep his walks down.

    These starts haven't been against weak competition either. His first came against St. Louis, and the second against Colorado.

    In his career, Zito has generally been a slow starter, going 20-27 with a 4.40 ERA across 62 starts between March and April. Those numbers make this fast start seem even more bizarre.

    Who knows if Zito can keep things up for a whole season, but for right now, his play can certainly be classified as "surprising."

1. Injuries to Major Stars

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    Injured players are a part of the game, but 2013 has taken that to a whole new level. This week especially, as there's been an influx of players added to their teams' disable lists.

    For many teams, the season started off on a bad foot. Big-name players like David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Brian McCann have all began their seasons on the DL.

    Not to mention how beat up the Yankees are to kick off the year (Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, to name the high-profile ones).

    Then there's been the early injuries to star players: Jered Weaver's broken elbow, Zack Greinke's collarbone and, of course, Jose Reyes' severely sprained ankle.

    And that's still skipping over injuries to players who may not be stars but are still instrumental to their teams' success (Jonny Venters, Yoenis Cespedes, etc.).

    While you always expect injuries in the game, you never expect them to pile up like this—especially so early in the season.

    With many contenders struggling out of the gate, early injuries will play a pivotal role in their success this season.