The secret's out: These 4 teams are good

How will last season's surprise teams fare in 2021?

January 27th, 2021

The 2020 season was confusing, difficult and cobbled together at times with spit and gristle. It was still rather joyous, but it’s fair to say that given one’s druthers, that’s maybe not everyone’s ideal way for a baseball season to go down.

But for a few teams -- four, to be exact -- 2020 was the best thing that had come around in quite a while. I’m not talking about the obvious suspects. The Rays reached the World Series, and the Dodgers won it, so clearly they were both pleased with how '20 went down. I mean four teams that few expected much from in 2020, but they exceeded expectations. They might not have reached the postseason -- three of them didn’t -- but they had better seasons than perhaps even they might have seen coming.

Was 2020 the year they turned it around? Or was their success (however modest it might have been) simply a result of a strange, unprecedented year?

Here’s a look at those four teams: What they did right in 2020, what their offseason moves have been so far and what their prospects for '21 might be.

Blue Jays (32-28, third in American League East)

What went right in 2020: Toronto hadn’t had a winning season since 2016, when it lost to Cleveland in the AL Championship Series, back when it had José Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnación. The youth movement the Blue Jays invested in after that season finally paid off in 2020, with a terrific lineup -- which included seven players under the age of 30 who had an OPS+ over 100 -- and just enough pitching to make it to the postseason, before they lost to the Rays in the AL Wild Card Series.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. didn't quite yet become the superstar everybody hoped for, but that was more than made up for by the rest of the lineup, particularly Teoscar Hernández, who had a .919 OPS. It’s certainly not ideal that the Blue Jays had this breakthrough without playing a game in Toronto, but it was an unorthodox year.

What they've done this offseason: Hey, how’s a little George Springer for you? Is that enough to build on? The Blue Jays went out and got the best free-agent hitter for their lineup. Then, Toronto added right-hander Kirby Yates to its bullpen and shortstop Marcus Semien to its infield.

The Blue Jays might not even be done. Rumors have them connected to right-hander Trevor Bauer, and even if they don’t get him, they’re certainly going to be adding to their rotation somehow. The Jays are better than they were last year. They are going for it.

What 2021 looks like: For all the love for the Springer move, the Blue Jays probably haven’t passed the Yankees in the AL East just yet. But getting Bauer might push them ahead. Either way, Toronto is a serious contender in 2021, and it took the first step forward in '20. Now, the Blue Jays just have to figure out where they’re going to play.

Marlins (31-29, second in National League East)

What went right in 2020: The Marlins weren’t exceptional anywhere, but they weren’t terrible anywhere, either, and that was enough -- along with an NL East that, outside of the Braves, couldn't get its collective act together -- to push them into the postseason for the first time in 17 years. They also earned an NL Wild Card Series win against the Cubs.

The key for Miami was an exciting young rotation, led by Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo López, all of whom were under the age of 25. You might not have known the names of all the Marlins' players yet, but they made sure that, eventually, you will.

What they've done this offseason: Not much, though they do deserve some credit for picking up outfielder Starling Marte’s option. He’s a terrific player, and there are past incarnations of the Marlins that might not have been willing to pay for that option.

Miami's biggest move was the hiring of its new general manager: Kim Ng, a baseball lifer who knows the sport inside and out, but isn’t likely to sit for a long rebuild. The Marlins haven't added many players, but they haven't lost many, either. This is a postseason team that’s being sent back out there.

What 2021 looks like: The downside for the Marlins this year is that the Phillies may be better, the Nationals should be better and the Mets will be better. Miami took advantage of a weak division in 2020, one that won’t be nearly that weak this year. The Marlins can’t be just as good as they were last year to reach the postseason; they’ll need to be better.

Giants (29-31, third in NL West)

What went right in 2020: The Giants went down to the last day of the regular season fighting for a postseason berth, but they ended up losing a tiebreaker to the Brewers. That is far, far above what anyone saw coming for San Francisco, which still seemed to be in the rebuild/observational period with its new president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi.

But the Giants hung in until the end, thanks to a surprisingly stout offense, led by outfielders Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson.

What they've done this offseason: The Giants are close to adding second baseman Tommy La Stella to their strong lineup, and they've already boosted their starting rotation with the free-agent signings of righty Anthony DeScalafani and lefty Alex Wood.

There’s one other major addition to San Francisco's lineup, too: Buster Posey, who elected not to play last year, but should come back refreshed and ready to hit … and to mentor fellow catcher Joey Bart.

What 2021 looks like: 2020 looks like a little bit of smoke and mirrors: There sure were a lot of hitters on this team who had career years in their 30s. That’s pretty old for a team that’s supposedly retooling. The good news is that two of their NL West rivals, the Rockies and D-backs, remain messes. The bad news is that there are two absolute monsters in their division now, rather than one, with the Padres joining the Dodgers as top contenders.

Orioles (25-35, fourth in AL East)

What went right in 2020: It’s not ridiculous to have them here, is it? Remember, there were pundits who wondered if they’d even make it to double-digit wins in 2020. Instead, they finished ahead of the Red Sox and were honestly pretty fun to watch most of the time. (They sure got me excited.)

The keys were a better-than-expected offense and electric bullpen arms (did you actually see what Tanner Scott did last year?). The O's still weren’t contenders. But they weren’t the worst team in baseball. And that’s progress.

What they've done this offseason: Nothing major, although they signed infielder Freddy Galvis to a one-year deal. The Orioles clearly aren’t letting any forward movement in 2020 alter their long-term plan. They’re continuing to wait and build their young talent, keeping their powder dry until they’re ready to contend.

It does not appear that 2021 is a year Baltimore will consider itself ready.

What 2021 looks like: There’s reason to hope for the Orioles in the long term. But I’ll put it this way: If the O's don’t finish last in the AL East, something has gone pretty wrong for one of the other teams in this division.