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Major League Baseball has technically been back for nearly two months now, but the fun is finally about to start.
As teams wrap up their respective Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules, we’re literally on the precipice of Opening Day. With the final week of Spring Training games taking place, many baseball analysts made their yearly predictions on who they think will make the playoffs and eventually capture World Series glory.
We all know these predictions really mean nothing, but it’s an entertaining way to spark debate as everyone waits anxiously for games to start counting again. After listening and reading countless predictions, there seems to be something missing.
In 2015, we witnessed a handful of teams that came out of nowhere to qualify for the postseason. The process of rebuilding ended a year earlier than expected for teams like the Houston Astros, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs, while nobody picked the Texas Rangers to win the American League West. If you did and don’t claim to be a Rangers fan, you’re probably lying.
Keeping with this theme, here are two teams currently flying under the radar who have the potential to surprise everyone by the time September rolls around.
With regard to exciting divisional races to watch this season, the NL West and NL Central appear to be getting most of the attention, and rightfully so. There appears to be six playoff-caliber teams for (at best) only four spots.
However, an underrated group of teams to keep an eye on is the AL Central. The Kansas City Royals are fresh off a championship and naturally have an upper hand because most of their core is still intact, but there’s no “bad team” in this division.
The Detroit Tigers spent a lot of money and seem poised to make 2015’s disappointing last-place finish a thing of the past. The Cleveland Indians and their very good starting rotation are a trendy pick to finish in first place, while the Chicago White Sox made significant upgrades to the offense in order to support their own solid pitching staff.
Where does that leave the Minnesota Twins? Apparently, it’s on the outside looking in. Their only major move this winter was signing former KBO slugger Byung-ho Park to a two-year deal, which pales in comparison to what the rest of the division did.
Would it be shocking to see the Twins finish in last place? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s definitely not a given, either.
Judging from past performance and some Spring Training stats (taken with a grain of salt, of course), Minnesota’s offense is going to be a lot more potent than last year. Brian Dozier is a potential 20-20 threat in the leadoff spot, Trevor Plouffe can slug 20 homers with 80 RBI and Park will supply an ample amount of power himself.
Most importantly, the Twins will get a full year of Miguel Sano at the plate, fresh off a 2.0 fWAR in just 80 games played last season. If Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar continue to hit and Byron Buxton shows why he’s one of baseball’s top prospects, this lineup could be a force to be reckoned with.
However, no team comes without flaws, and Minnesota has some. Last year’s defense was below average, and plugging Sano in right field is a risky proposition. Also, a starting rotation that’s led by Ervin Santana and rounded out by Ricky Nolasco could be a huge problem in a division with so many good hitters.
But hey, if they looked like a perfect team on paper, there wouldn’t be a chance of them flying under the radar. Despite last year’s flaws and a rookie manager in Paul Molitor, they finished second in the AL Central with an 83-79 record.
They didn’t make any big offseason splashes, but getting full years out of top prospects could be plenty to help them compete for a postseason berth.
This was a topic I brought up earlier in the winter, but now that predictions have further confirmed my thoughts, it’s worth revisiting.
The Marlins haven’t been good for quite some time, and with the way the Mets and Washington Nationals are currently constructed, it appears that the NL East will most likely be a two-horse race.
While it shouldn’t be shocking if the Marlins did take a larger step forward this year than expected, it all depends on health. More specifically, it depends on Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. If Miami wants to disrupt the NL East’s current narrative, these two absolutely must stay healthy and post elite numbers.
Their rotation doesn’t look nearly as good as New York or Washington, but a one-two punch of Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen is nothing to scoff at. In the lineup, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich are logical bounce back candidates with Barry Bonds on board as the new hitting coach. Dee Gordon and Adeiny Hechavarria are an underrated double-play combination, and Justin Bour and J.T. Realmuto give them much-needed length at the bottom of the order.
An interesting detail to note – and possibly the best thing working in Miami’s favor – is the polarity of the National League, and more specifically, the NL East itself.
The Marlins get the luxury of playing the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves nearly 40 times this season, with each of those clubs expected to flirt with the 70-win plateau. If Miami can beat the lesser teams and play up to the elite ones, watching them fight for a Wild Card spot could happen.
Are they likely a year or two away? Yes, but that’s what we thought about the Astros, Mets and Cubs last year, too.
Similar to the Twins’ situation, all the positives we’re currently finding for the Marlins could also end up being negatives. But again, there’d be no sleeper team potential here is they appeared to have a flawless roster.
More or less, the teams currently viewed as contenders will probably be fighting for a playoff spot once the dog days of summer hit, but it will be real interesting to see where the unexpected competition comes from around the league.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter so we can celebrate Opening Day together: @mmusico8.