The surprise teams of the 2013 MLB season

Bob Levey

Note: These teams probably won't surprise. But we say that every year.

A bad team will contend in 2013. That is, a team that you think of as bad right now will contend in 2013. It happens every year.

Every year. And by August, it will all seem so rational. "Oh, well, sure, if you told me that Jason Hammel was good out of Colorado, and that Miguel Gonzalez was going to appear from out of the mists, and …" and you'll get used to the idea of a bad team contending. The wait-'til-August bit works with all 30 teams, too. Eleven months ago, the Nationals were little more than an intriguing team in a crowded division. They didn't have much of a shot, though. Not with the Phillies around. By August, you had the script revisions memorized.

So our job today is to look at the five worst teams in PECOTA's playoff odds and build a path for them to reach the playoffs. Because every team in baseball has a way to make the playoffs. The Astros make the playoffs in four of the 1,000 simulations that Baseball Prospectus runs, but, by gum, those two teams result in quite the alternate-universe party.

How do you get there? Well, you can assume they outperform their Pythagorean record by ten games, like the Orioles last year, for one. But that's kind of cheating. Starting with the fifth-worst playoff odds in the business …

5. Rockies - 4.8%

The obvious: Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have to stay healthy, and they have to hit.

But even that sells the idea of a worst-to-first team short. The 2009 Giants had exactly one hitter worth a damn, Pablo Sandoval. He led the team in walks that year, no foolin'. So if you had to construct a path for the 2010 Giants to make the playoffs, it would start with Sandoval repeating his year. Except he didn't come close. He had a down year, and he didn't play much in the playoffs.

Still, you start with Tulowitzki. If he's a six-win player (like he was from 2009 to 2011) instead of a zero-win player (when he was on my fantasy team), the Rockies have a head start that the other teams on this list can't match. And Carlos Gonzalez would need to be the 30-homer guy from 2010 instead of the 20-homer guy from the last two years.

For all of the flogging the Rockies have taken (and rightfully so) for their weird pitching machinations, they have a rotation filled with pitchers of moderate promise. Jorge De La Rosa was quite good before his elbow injury. Jhoulys Chacin is one of those if-he-could-just-throw-strikes kind of arms, and Juan Nicasio has always maintained good strikeout-to-walk numbers between a couple of unfortunate injuries. The only reason Drew Pomeranz still isn't a top prospect is because he lost his rookie eligibility.

Pick two of them to have good years and another one to be okay, and they're a lot closer to acceptable than you might think.

4. Orioles - 4.8%

It's kind of funny to make the case for the Orioles to be the Orioles of 2013. Just do what you did last year, fellas! Win every extra-inning game and play Buck Ball in the close ones. Can't be that hard, right?

With the Orioles, though, it's less about what they have to do, and more about what the rest of the division does. In the PECOTA simulations, there were probably simulated seasons where the Yankees completely and utterly collapsed. And in those seasons, the Rays were good. Or the Jays. Or the Rays and the Jays. Or even the Red Sox. Or all three. And in the simulated seasons with a Rays collapse, the same permutation happened with different teams.

It's almost like double work with the Orioles, then. Start with the three players in the lineup who were formerly top prospects: Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Manny Machado. Guess that one of them will hit like a fringe MVP candidate, and that one of the other two improves substantially. Then have the pitching stay healthy and come within spitting distance of what they did last year.

Focusing on the Orioles' Pythagorean record kind of sells them short, actually. They did so much futzing around with the pitching staff to find Hammel/Chen/Tillman/Gonzalez up front -- especially when Hammel was injured -- that it's almost not fair to compare them with the gaggle of different arms that started for them last year. They're probably the fourth- or fifth-best team in the division, but they're not a bad team. And "not bad" becomes a contender every single year.

3. Marlins - 1.7%

Here's where you start getting into "All that needs to happen is everyone plays much better than you expect!" territory. Giancarlo Stanton is a star, and he can do star things. Maybe a prospect or two busts out. Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi could both be kinda good, and they could be the unexpected, A's-like front of the rotation. Henderson Alvarez has two last names, and that counts for something.

Really, though, the Marlins are right about where dreams go to die. Placido Polanco is hitting second, and Justin Ruggiano is hitting fifth. You try building a contender out of that.

The bullpen might be good. And as the Orioles showed last year, that makes up for a lot of shortcomings if deployed correctly. So give me Stanton going nuts (seven or eight wins above replacement), one of the random young hitters to break out, Polanco miraculously staving off the cruelties of nature, and competent pitching led by two of their best young arms.

Just, uh, don't put money on it, even if the odds account for that one-percent chance. I think the 1.1 figure is too high. The Marlins are pretty bad, everybody.

2. Twins - 1.5%

All the young pitching, all at once. Pretend Vance Worley, Trevor May, and Kyle Gibson all go A's. Alright, maybe just two of them. Then two of the other options (Mike Pelfrey and Scott Diamond, say) eat innings and provide value. It wouldn't be too hard to get used to Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau powering a good offense again, so an unrealistic path to the playoffs would start with the pitching.

Right now, that pitching has Kevin Correia in the #2 spot, with Liam Hendriks and Brian Duensing rounding out the rotation, according to MLB Depth Charts. Which isn't good. Building a path to the playoffs with those exact pitchers would start with a sentence like, "Okay, first, you have to assume there's a radioactive spider in the clubhouse. Then …" But the Twins have some interesting arms in the system, at least.

And Rich Harden! Don't forget about Rich Harden in Twins camp. I don't care if you're a Tigers or White Sox fan, you'd love to watch Rich Harden lead a surprising Twins rotation to the promised land. C'mon, now.

1. Astros - 0.4%

Okay, first, you have to assume there's a radioactive spider in the clubhouse. Then …

My first draft had the words "epidemiological crisis" in there. The second had "return of Glenn Davis, riding a horse made of brilliance and pure flame." The third was just a drawing of otter babies because I was procrastinating. Oh, Astros.

Except, hold on for a second. Jordan Lyles was a top prospect, rushed to the majors before he could drink. Maybe we're reading too much into his early struggles. Lucas Harrell was quite good last year. Bud Norris wasn't, but he's always had the intriguing strikeout numbers. We're not that far removed from Erik Bedard being a good pitcher, either.

So it's the pitching that gets them there. Yeah, the pitching. And when one of them goes down, Alex White or Jarred Cosart takes over.

Then Jose Altuve has an MVP-type year. Matt Dominguez's defense is so good, that it doesn't matter that is OBP is barely over .300. Jason Castro builds on his good season. The Pena/Carter/Wallace middle of the order has a post-Moneyball renaissance, with dingers and walks all over the place.

The bullpen is solid, led by Jose Veras. They come in earlier than most bullpens, and they preserve nearly every lead.

And on the last day of the season, backup catcher Carlos Corporan hits a walk-off grand slam off Mariano Rivera to win the Wild Card. A rivalry is born. A division is won. A headline of "Corporan Punishment!" goes up on Dogs, cats living together.

Maybe not. But in two out of every thousand simulations that Baseball Prospectus does, something happens like that. And it will happen for a team this year. Not the Astros. Not the Marlins. But someone. Maybe the Mariners or Padres, or maybe the Mets or Pirates. By August, it will all make sense, and you'll wonder why you didn't see it coming before the season started.

Four out of every 1,000 times, the Astros make the playoffs every time. It's just science. And for the other four teams, they have even better odds. It's February. Don't waste your time in the comments quashing other people's nascent hopes and dreams. Pick one of the five up there and construct a path to the playoffs for them.

Hey, it could happen, even if you are absolutely sure (and right) that it won't.

Edit: The first version of the article used Baseball Prospectus's adjusted playoff odds, which are the odds of a team making it to the LDS. I edited it to use the playoff odds, which are the odds of a team making the Wild Card game. See? The Astros just *doubled* their playoff chances!

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