By: Joey Schneider, KCOU Sports
As pitchers and catchers reported to their Spring Training sites on Thursday, a new Major League Baseball season begins to hit full swing. Many teams embraced the opportunity to shake up their rosters over the offseason, paving new expectations that could provide surprises in this year’s upcoming season. But as many baseball fans know, for better or for worse, sometimes the surprises aren’t always as what we expect.
In 2014, the Kansas City Royals posted a Spring Training record of 12-16, reassuring many observers that the team would miss the playoffs for the 29th consecutive year. However, Kansas City thrived under low expectations, quietly climbing their way to the first Wild Card spot with a record of 89-73. The Royals almost unraveled one of the best Cinderella stories of baseball history, winning their first eight playoff games between Oakland, Los Angeles and Baltimore, before losing in a seven-game World Series to the playoff enriched San Francisco Giants.
Even though the Royals fell short of their first World Series in three decades last October, the team showed plenty of resilience, courage and sacrifice to put together one of the most successful postseasons ever from a non-champion. Keeping this type of underdog mentality often proves tough in the modern era of baseball, but five teams have the potential to make a Royals-esque run in 2015.
1. San Diego Padres
Clearly boasting one of the most anemic offenses around baseball in 2014, the San Diego Padres wasted no time confronting last year’s flaws. The team rejuvenated their lineup with several big bats, including Justin Upton, Matt Kemp and Derek Norris among others. Not to mention, they acquired a loyal Royal just weeks ago, signing pitcher James Shields on a four-year deal to anchor a young pitching rotation. It may be hard for the Padres to take off immediately, given that they share a division with two perennial playoff contenders in the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. But many newcomers have valuable playoff experience that could guide the Friars in pressure-filled situations, giving San Diego a reasonable chance to eclipse the .500 mark and earn an NL Wild Card spot.
2. Chicago White Sox
Other than their 2005 World Series championship, the south-siders of Chicago haven’t had much to brag about in recent years. In Robin Ventura‘s third year as manager, the White Sox finished fourth in the AL Central standings with a 73-89 record. But there is reason for optimism, especially when working around young stars Jose Abreu and Chris Sale. Luckily, the White Sox made several moves over the offseason to complement this dynamic duo. Their starting lineup has improved with the additions of under-the-radar hitters Adam LaRoache and Melky Cabrera, while the team brought back pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the Windy City’s forgotten team. The AL Central will be a dog fight all year, but these improvements could help the White Sox compete for an AL Wild Card spot, if not the division.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
Predicting the AL East winner for the upcoming season is like trying to lick your elbow. It’s nearly impossible to choose a division winner with confidence when the former powerhouse New York Yankees have lost valuable pieces to retirement, the Boston Red Sox go into the year with a top-tier starting pitcher and the Baltimore Orioles have lost pop from last year’s lineup. This is exactly why the Blue Jays factor in as spoilers. Although Toronto’s only big offseason acquisitions were catcher Russell Martin and third baseman Josh Donaldson, it adds great experience to an offense already featuring sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The Blue Jays only went 39-37 in division play last year, which could considerably affect their playoff chances and fate as an underdog for 2015.
4. New York Mets
While they haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, the New York Mets have shown great poise and patience during their rebuild. Last year’s 79 victories tied them for second in the NL East and marked their highest win-total since 2010. The team will heavily rely on pitching to carry them afloat, owning a rotation that features the like of last year’s Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom. Zach Wheeler and Bartolo Colon also showed upside last year, but most importantly 2013 All-Star Matt Harvey figures to return from Tommy John surgery during the season. The offense features veteran bounce-back candidates David Wright and Michael Cuddyer, complemented with improving hitters Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda. The Washington Nationals are easily the best team in the NL East, but there’s no denying the Mets hold the depth to follow right behind them and earn a Wild Card birth.
5. Kansas City Royals
It’s almost ironic for the Royals to fall into this category, but it makes perfect sense. The team will undoubtedly carry high expectations after last year’s postseason push, which provides a great chance to prove doubters that last year’s success wasn’t a fluke. The loss of James Shields will allow the Royals to be more elastic with their pitchers. Perhaps sophomore Yordano Ventura doesn’t possess the charisma of Shields yet, but the short-term additions of Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen give the Royals more pitching depth in the case of a meltdown. The bullpen and offense both worked as strengths last year, so they are structured fairly similar to the Royals’ playoff team. Kansas City will pull off another surprising run if they can sustain success against strong teams, as they barely squeaked into the postseason with a 25-24 record against 2014 playoff contenders in the regular season.