It's going to be a weird season. There are five teams out of 30 that are going to start the season without a ton of hope, and they're all in the National League. Of those, one or two of them will surprise and still be relevant into the All-Star break, somehow. And of the 15 American League teams that think they're going to be relevant then, at least five of them will have sunk into the shadow world.
Every season is a weird season, now that you mention it.
But I've picked out three teams that shouldn't surprise you if they succeed. More specifically, these teams shouldn't surprise you if they succeed because of a very specific strength that people aren't praising enough right now. We know about the Mets' rotation, the Cubs' lineup, and the Yankees' bullpen. But which teams have the most underrated rotation, lineup, and bullpen in baseball?
Most underrated rotation
If you were to design your perfect rotation, what would it look like? Five aces, dummy. Okay, then, how about your perfect realistic and sustainable rotation? An unquestioned ace at the top, certainly. Youth up and down the rotation, but not the entirely unproven kind. We're talking youth with at least a modest history of major league success. Strikeout stuff, all around. You don't want to watch a bunch of dillweeds missing the plate, so you'll need some above-average command.
You should probably have someone in the back of the rotation who is a threat to break out and at least be a No. 2 or a No. 3 starter, if not an All-Star. And while the ideal rotation wouldn't have anyone recovering from Tommy John surgery, this rotation should have a pretty, pretty good reinforcement coming back in the middle of the year.
The projected rotation of the 2016 Rays:
- Chris Archer
- Jake Odorizzi
- Drew Smyly
- Erasmo Ramirez
- Matt Moore
- Alex Cobb (recovering from TJ)
It's not a rotation that is going to guarantee a postseason spot. The Rays weren't a Corey Dickerson away from scoring 800 runs next season, and they're still going to have troubles scoring. If there are any missteps from two or three of those pitchers up there, it could be a long, long season.
But if August rolls around, and the Rays are in first place behind a rotation that's much better at preventing runs than anyone else in the American League, you won't be surprised. No one will think, "Where did this guy come from?" No one will write a think piece about the Rays' devil magic. It will all make sense. Archer remained excellent, Odorizzi built on his breakout season, Smyly didn't lose his newfangled strikeouts, Ramirez stayed steady, and Moore reclaimed his talent. Or just four of those things happen, and Cobb comes in riding on a white horse, which is probably where he got his new ligament.
They're straddling the line between expected success and latent potential. Because we're not used to the entire group being collectively dominant, we're probably underrating them.
Most underrated lineup
In the beginning of June last year, the Mets were no-hit. Michael Cuddyer was hitting cleanup, Wilmer Flores was hitting fifth, and the Mets swung and missed at a lot of baseballs. Juan Lagares, Eric Campbell, and Anthony Recker couldn't help at the bottom of the order. Curtis Granderson's OBP dropped to .339, and he wasn't hitting for power. Ruben Tejada was about to start a slump that would take him to the end of the season, more or less.
The Mets had a bad lineup. It was bad because of injuries. It was bad because of unfortunate roster construction. They were going to waste their aces and slide into the sea.
Look at this normal, well-rounded lineup, then:
- Curtis Granderson, RF
- Neil Walker, 2B
- David Wright, 3B
- Yoenis Cespedes, CF
- Lucas Duda, 1B
- Travis d'Arnaud, C
- Michael Conforto, LF
- Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
It just might be the worst defense in baseball, so they'll need every last strikeout their starting pitchers can give them, but they'll also give their pitchers some run support. There's a lot riding on health (Wright's back, d'Arnaud's everything), and there's a strong potential for regression for Granderson, but if you have to drop down to the No. 7 spot in a lineup to find the 23-year-old who slugged .506 in his major league debut, the lineup is probably a quality one.
The Mets will probably hit next year, and you know they'll pitch. They'll just have to field enough to keep the gains from both. If you look at FanGraphs' statistical rankings for the preseason, they're in the middle of the pack in projected WAR from their lineup, so you can't just ignore the defense. When it comes to scoring runs, though, they should be a lot better than you might have thought at first glance.
Most underrated bullpen
Yankees Yankees Yankees bullpen fireballers three power relievers wow three closers who could've imagined Yankees shorten the game with strikeouts dominance no platoon splits wow Yankees better get to them in the first six innings ha ha Yankees trying to do that Royals thing but even better and look at that bullpen three closers a real hydra a real cerberus just wow.
That isn't to minimize the bullpen the Yankees have built. It should be a dandy firecracker of a bullpen! But there are other excellent bullpens, too. And they'll see one of them for 19 games next season. Let's say Rick Porcello is having a standard grind-it-out game, keeping the Red Sox close, but throwing a lot of pitches to do it. He's at 100 pitches through five, and he leaves with the Red Sox leading 5-4.
Here's what the Red Sox can do for the rest of the game:
6th inning: Junichi Tazawa (career 3.13 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.46 K/BB)
7th inning: Carson Smith (career 2.09 FIP, 11.7 K/9, 4.08 K/BB)
8th inning: Koji Uehara (career 2.67 FIP, 10.6 K/9, 8.35 K/BB)
9th inning: Craig Kimbrel (career 1.72 FIP, 14.5 K/9, 4.33 K/BB)
You can make an argument that Smith is untested, Tazawa is coming off a down season with his ERA thanks to being overworked, Uehara is 67 years old, and Kimbrel's strikeouts have dipped a bit. Sure. It's still a fantastic, gaudy bullpen that can enter a game early without running out. Robbie Ross isn't a shabby left-handed reliever, either, considering he doesn't have discernible platoon splits.
If the Red Sox win the AL East, something will have gone really, really right with the starting pitchers after David Price, unless their offense is even better than expected. But once they're in the postseason, when managers use off-days to push their relievers a little more and shorten each game, everyone will really notice their bullpen for the first time. It's not the Yankees or the Royals, but it probably isn't in the tier below those teams, either.