10 most surprising clubs, for better and worse

June 29th, 2021

Remember back in the preseason, during Spring Training, when the conventional wisdom was that at least five, and maybe more, of the playoff spots already seemed secured? Certain teams were obviously cleared for October, certain teams needed to start figuring out who they were going to give away at the Trade Deadline and the rest of baseball would just have to fight each other over the remaining scraps. Everything is always so much clearer when nothing has happened yet.

Here we are, now, nearly three months into the season, and it’s not exactly chaos … but it’s certainly not playing out the way all the consensus experts (myself included!) thought it would. Some teams are way better than we thought, and some teams are way worse. As we enter the fourth month of the year and the unofficial midway point for some teams, let’s take a look at five clubs that have been pleasant surprises, five that have very much been unpleasant ones and what might be in store for them in the second half.

Pleasant surprises

Boston Red Sox: Projection systems were hopeful about the Red Sox heading into the year, but nearly no one else was. The Sox finished last in the division in 2020, and while I didn’t see anyone having them behind the Orioles again this year, they were a consensus fourth-place team, behind the defending AL champion Rays, the surging Blue Jays and the presumably dominant Yankees. But here they are, nearly halfway through, in first place … and Chris Sale isn’t even back yet. The Red Sox haven’t flourished because of any dramatic offseason moves: If anything, they look oddly similar to last year. But their stars, particularly J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, are back to playing like stars, and they’re getting just enough pitching to hold up. Will it still hold up in the second half? The Rays sure look like they’ve got a run in them, and the Blue Jays and Yankees will likely be buyers at the deadline. But the Red Sox have gone last to first before. They might just do it again.

Houston Astros: The 2020 Astros were almost an elaborate troll job on the rest of baseball, a team that was in many ways the enemy of the rest of the sport and everyone else’s fanbases finishing the regular season under .500 … and still making it within one game of the World Series. Fair to say they’re not finishing under .500 this year. They are currently tied for the best record in the American League, with an offense that looks as powerful as some of their best teams in the pre-scandal era. But most remarkable has been the rotation, which looked bleak in Spring Training but has found all sorts of useful contributors, most notably Luis Garcia. The A’s are still hanging around, but the Astros look like the best team in this division, and suffice it to say, few were predicting that in the preseason.

Milwaukee Brewers: This is a little bit of a cheat, considering the NL Central was widely considered to be a four-team jumble, with some people even picking the Brewers to win it. But the Brewers have begun to separate themselves from the pack. The pitching is the primary reason -- they essentially have three Cy Young candidates in the rotation -- but the offense has begun to pick up of late as well, particularly Christian Yelich, who appears to be close to rediscovering his MVP form. With the mess in the rest of the division, there’s a non-zero possibility that the Brewers outpace everyone by a wide margin moving forward. Pretty good for another team with a losing record in 2020.

San Francisco Giants: What hasn’t been surprising about the Giants? It’s one thing to keep getting career seasons from seemingly every 30-something on the roster. It’s one thing for Buster Posey, Evan Longoria and Brandon Crawford to look like their old selves, but they are in fact having the best years they’ve ever had. It’s one thing to turn Kevin Gausman into a Cy Young candidate and Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto into reliable rotation mainstays. But it’s quite another to do all that in the same division as the Dodgers and Padres -- widely thought to be the two best teams in baseball in the preseason -- and not just stick with them, but actually build considerable leads over both teams. The Giants looked like they were playing for a Wild Card spot at best. They keep going like this, we’re going to have a Dodgers-Padres Wild Card Game for the ages.

Seattle Mariners: How are the Mariners doing this? You need someone smarter than me to figure out precisely how a team that has given up 43 more runs than it has scored is three games over .500. Kyle Lewis and Jarred Kelenic were supposed to be the only beacons of hope this year; neither one of them is on the roster right now. It seems rather obvious that it’s not going to last, but it seemed rather obvious that they wouldn’t be three games over .500 at this point, and yet here they are.

Unpleasant surprises

Atlanta Braves: The second Achilles injury to Mike Soroka over the weekend wasn’t just devastating; it felt like another sign that this year’s Braves team might just be snake bitten. The rotation issues the team was able to paper over in 2020 have not held up this year, and the offense, for a variety of reasons (none of which have to do with Ronald Acuña Jr.), hasn’t been able to approach last year’s success. For years, projection systems have argued that the Braves’ division dominance was about to end. This sure does look like the year.

Los Angeles Angels: All told, considering Mike Trout has not played since May 17, this should be a lot worse. But the usual issue has sunk the Angels this year: The pitching has been atrocious, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Jared Walsh has been a pleasant surprise at the plate, but no one else has been, including that .230 average Anthony Rendon is putting up so far. Obviously, the Angels have had the most glorious story in the game this year in Shohei Ohtani, who is the team’s (and maybe the AL’s) best hitter and best pitcher. So there are two slots taken care of. It’s the other 24 that are the problem. Again.

Minnesota Twins: Admit it: There’s a little part of you that still thinks the Twins are going to figure it out and go on a run. They have been so good the past few years -- postseason aside, of course -- that it is downright bizarre to see them in last place in the AL Central, 11 1/2 games out of first. But that’s what happens when your pitching falls apart, as the Twins’ has, and suddenly a team that looked built to make a run now has you wondering who might be available at the deadline. This doesn’t look like a team that needs to be rebuilt or anything: There’s still a lot of talent here. But 2021 looks like a lost cause.

New York Yankees: It is very Yankees that they are on this list at all. After all, they’re over .500, they still have a stacked lineup and they still have Gerrit Cole, no matter how you may or may not think the sticky substances crackdown might be affecting his stats. But when the Yankees underperform, as they have this year, it’s always going to feel like the sky is falling. They’re not that far out of the playoff chase, but their major problems (injuries, rotation) are not going away. The Yankees went four straight years, from 2013-16, without reaching the ALDS before making it at least that far the past three years (and 17 of the previous 18). If that happens again, the sky really might be falling this offseason.

St. Louis Cardinals: The addition of Nolan Arenado, by itself, was supposed to elevate the Cardinals above the muck in the NL Central. The problem is that the addition was just that: By itself. The Cardinals have been hit by injuries as much as nearly every other team in baseball, but their lack of depth has been exposed: Do you realize that Wade LeBlanc started for them on Monday night? And that he might just be their third starter right now? Combine that with a sluggish, morose offense, and the Cardinals are collapsing all over the place. There’s hope in the farm system, but most of the top talent won’t be ready this year, and the front office is increasingly wary of adding to a team that’s now eight games out of first and in fourth place. The Cardinals have not finished under .500 since 2007, and even that has only happened one time this century. It sure looks like that’s about to change.