Are They for Real? Ranking Every Surprise MLB Team's Chances of Playoff Success

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 18, 2020

Are They for Real? Ranking Every Surprise MLB Team's Chances of Playoff Success

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    Buy or sell the Miami Marlins?
    Buy or sell the Miami Marlins?Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Almost a month in, perhaps the least surprising thing about Major League Baseball's shortened 2020 season is that it's full of surprises.

    For instance, what are we to make of the unlikely contenders who've popped up so far?

    We've endeavored to answer this question by sizing up the playoff chances of eight teams that have unexpectedly established themselves in the expanded American League and National League playoff races. This involved looking at what they've done and what challenges still await them.

    We'll start with the biggest playoff long shot and make our way to the surest thing.

    Note: Stats and records are current through play on Monday, August 17.

Detroit Tigers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Record: 9-11 (4th in AL Central)

    Granted, the Detroit Tigers aren't winning more often than they're losing. But given that they lost 114 games in 2019, it's shocking to seem them so much as flirting with .500.

    As for how the Tigers have gotten to this point, it's easy to notice JaCoby Jones' star turn to the tune of a 1.015 OPS and five home runs. Likewise, Spencer Turnbull is authoring his own breakout with a 2.78 ERA through four starts.

    And yet it doesn't bode well that these Tigers have allowed 17 more runs than they've scored.

    Neither their offense nor their pitching staff—the latter of which features a starting rotation with an MLB-high 7.42 ERA—is particularly good. Even if top prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning rescue the club's mound staff, there isn't much hope for an offense that just lost slugger C.J. Cron to knee surgery.

    Factoring in that the Tigers haven't even played the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins yet, their already crooked road to October doesn't figure to get any straighter.

    Chances: 15 percent

Texas Rangers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Record: 10-11 (3rd in AL West)

    The Texas Rangers weren't a long shot coming into the season. Yet they did look destined to be an also-ran in a stacked AL West, and their 3-8 start did little to dispel that notion.

    But thanks to their recent 7-3 run, the Rangers are now third in the division and in the running for one of the American League's eight playoff spots.

    Texas' best hope of keeping this up is located on the mound. Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson have combined for a 2.17 ERA, while Mike Minor is shedding his early rust. Led by the overlooked Jonathan Hernandez, the Rangers also have some good arms in their pen.

    Their offense, though, started slow and hasn't exactly gotten hot even during the club's hot streak. Joey Gallo and Todd Frazier have shouldered too big a load, and it's frankly hard to discern where they might get help from.

    The Rangers' schedule won't do them any favors, as it still calls for 17 games against the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros. So while their odds have improved, they're still an underdog.

    Chances: 30 percent

Miami Marlins

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Record: 9-7 (2nd in NL East)

    With six losses in their last eight games, the Miami Marlins' time as the early darlings of the National League may already be coming to an end.

    It's also possible, however, that we haven't seen these Marlins at their best.

    After all, they're only now welcoming back many of the players who had to go on the injured list as a result of the club's coronavirus outbreak. Most notably, that includes Sandy Alcantara for their mound staff and Miguel Rojas for their offense.

    Alcantara's return can only boost a staff that's already surviving with a 4.03 ERA, and the same will be true of Caleb Smith and Jose Urena when their time comes. After Rojas, Jorge Alfaro's pending return will help a subpar offense that needs as many pick-me-ups as it can get.

    Yet perhaps the biggest thing working in the Marlins' favor is how much volatility there is elsewhere in the NL East. It's so bad that there really are no "favorites" anymore, which gives them a real shot at finishing second or even first.

    Chances: 40 percent

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Record: 12-11 (3rd in NL West)

    The Arizona Diamondbacks won 85 games last season, so it shouldn't be all that surprising that they're in the mix for a playoff spot in 2020.

    Rather, the surprise has to do with where they are now relative to early in the season. After a 3-8 start, they've gone 9-3 to pull a game over .500.

    For this, they can mainly thank an offense that's produced 80 runs over its last 12 games. That's likely a truer reflection of Arizona's offensive quality than the club's early returns, as any lineup that has Ketel Marte and Starling Marte at its heart should be this good.

    But apart from Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, Arizona's pitching doesn't inspire much confidence. Much depends on having Madison Bumgarner (back) get healthy and find his rhythm, as well as whether Robbie Ray can conquer his control problems. Based on how bad those problems have been, hopes can only go so high.

    The Snakes also aren't out of the woods yet with their difficult schedule, which still includes 19 total games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, A's and Astros. It all adds up to a decidedly precarious position.

    Chances: 45 percent

Baltimore Orioles

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Record: 12-10 (3rd in AL East)

    In the context of their 223 losses across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, it's only fair to have lingering doubts about the Baltimore Orioles.

    However, it's clear by now that their offense gives them at least one sturdy leg to stand on.

    Said offense has been 17 percent better than the league average, which largely comes down to its relatively low strikeout rate and high isolated power. Nobody personifies Baltimore's offensive quality like Anthony Santander, who's hit seven homers and whiffed only 12 times.

    Unsurprisingly, a pitching staff that largely consists of no-names hasn't been as impressive. But in their low-key effective bullpen, the Orioles do have one pitching apparatus capable of keeping their offensive exploits from going to waste.

    The bad news for the Orioles is they still have 15 games left against the AL East-leading New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. But with neither the Boston Red Sox nor Toronto Blue Jays playing well and plenty of uncertainty elsewhere in the American League, their Cinderella story might indeed end happily ever after.

    Chances: 50 percent

Chicago White Sox

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Record: 12-11 (3rd in AL Central)

    As of right now, the Chicago White Sox look like a team that belongs closely tethered to the .500 mark.

    To wit, both their offense and their pitching have been just about average. Hence their nearly even (plus-two, to be exact) run differential and their barely-over-.500 record.

    But if nothing else, the South Siders' offense is likely better than it's shown so far. Whereas some players (e.g., Tim Anderson and Eloy Jimenez) are performing as expected, others (such as Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion) must have more in them somewhere.

    Though the White Sox are short on pitching depth, it's not all bad. Starters Dallas Keuchel, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease have an aggregate 3.77 ERA. The White Sox also have an excellent bullpen foursome that will be an excellent fivesome when Aaron Bummer (biceps) gets healthy.

    The road ahead still includes 11 games against Minnesota and Cleveland, plus another six against the crosstown Cubs. But if the White Sox congeal like they should, even the AL Central's second playoff spot will be within reach.

    Chances: 55 percent

Colorado Rockies

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Record: 13-9 (2nd in NL West)

    With the NL West's second playoff spot in hand, the Colorado Rockies merely need to stay where they are.

    Because this club lost 91 games in 2019, that may be seen as an iffy proposition. More specifically, even this seemingly improved version of the Rockies still attracts questions that pertain to its depth.

    Yet by far the most encouraging aspect of the Rockies' warm start is the 2.64 ERA they've gotten out of starters German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Ryan Castellani. Maybe that can't last, but improvement from Jon Gray and more offense could potentially account for any inevitable regression.

    Gray's missing velocity is a major red flag, yet Colorado's offense has already come around in August after a cold July. That's despite the fact that Nolan Arenado has yet to find his groove, which almost certainly won't last.

    The Rockies must beware the 10 games they have remaining against the first-place Dodgers. But if they can at least break even on those, they stand a good chance of holding off their pursuers.

    Chances: 60 percent

San Diego Padres

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Record: 11-12 (4th in NL West)

    The San Diego Padres were capturing hearts and minds for a while there, but a five-game losing streak has put their postseason push on ice.

    It's time to sound the alarm on San Diego's bullpen. It looked like a major strength coming into the year, but now it has a 6.48 ERA and is going to be without ace closer Kirby Yates for a while.

    The Padres should be credited, however, for not flopping even in the face of one of the league's most difficult schedules. It gets a little easier from here, as they're done with Arizona and have only three games left against the Dodgers.

    Otherwise, there's plenty to like about a Padres offense that's been 9 percent better than average even though Manny Machado hasn't heated up yet. They also have a mostly good rotation, wherein their top four starters have a 3.16 ERA.

    The bottom line is that even though the Padres have a worse record than the Rockies and Diamondbacks, they look like a more complete team on paper.

    Chances: 65 percent


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.


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