At this time of the year, almost every team in baseball is optimistic about its chances to make a run in the postseason. For that to happen, a lot of things have to go right, and that includes some combination of good health, a shrewd midseason acquisition and a little
At this time of the year, almost every team in baseball is optimistic about its chances to make a run in the postseason. For that to happen, a lot of things have to go right, and that includes some combination of good health, a shrewd midseason acquisition and a little bit of good luck.
And when you mix in those variables, you usually get some unexpected results.
In 2014, the surprise team was the Royals, who shocked the baseball world with a trip to the World Series. And in 2015, that club was the Mets, who rode a couple of key midseason trades and some fantastic young pitching to the National League pennant.
Who will be this year's version? Here are three nominees.
The adage "pitching wins in October" was certainly on display during the 2015 World Series, with the aforementioned Mets -- and their three-headed, flame-throwing starting-pitching dragon -- pitted against the Royals' indomitable bullpen.
If you believe pitching is the ticket to short-series success, then you cannot help but feel optimism about the Tribe, whose rotation is stocked with four A-quality arms. The Indians' rotation led the game in strikeouts and K/9 rate (8.9) last season, excelling behind its dominant quartet.
The 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber still qualifies as the staff ace. Despite experiencing some regression in '15, the right-hander nonetheless struck out an astounding 245 batters.
Behind Kluber is Carlos Carrasco, the owner of some of baseball's best stuff, coming in the form of a fastball, curveball, changeup combination. Young Danny Salazar has a sky-high ceiling, too, and he could take the next step in 2016 with improved strike-zone command. Meanwhile, Trevor Bauer -- the third overall pick of the 2011 Draft -- is still scratching the surface of his development and appears ready to take the next step toward success.
Cleveland's bullpen is unheralded but quite formidable, as closer Cody Allen and company finished second behind Kansas City in AL reliever ERA last season.
On the offensive side of the game, the Indians' bats really sputtered in 2015 due to lineup imbalance and struggles from key cogs such as Carlos Santana. But with two-way stud Francisco Lindor set for his first full year at shortstop, the Indians -- much like last year's Mets -- should be good enough to make major noise down the stretch.
Chicago White Sox
Like their AL Central foes, the White Sox also boast an impressive cavalry of arms. Once again, the South Siders' staff is led by left-hander Chris Sale, last year's AL strikeout leader with a whopping 274 whiffs. True, Sale saw his ERA rise more than a full run from 2014 to '15 (from 2.17 to 3.41) in part because of porous team defense, but he nonetheless remains dominant and could be in for a lofty wins total thanks to his club's offseason additions. This winter, the Sox added All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier, center fielder Austin Jackson -- one of the best bargains of the free-agent season -- and veteran Jimmy Rollins, who could join defensive specialist Tyler Saladino to form a dynamic duo at the shortstop position.
Of course, Sale is not the only White Sox arm who will benefit from the revamped lineup. Jose Quintana is among the most underrated starters in the game, having posted an ERA below 3.52 in each of the past three campaigns.
Meanwhile, young southpaw Carlos Rodon -- the third overall selection in the 2014 Draft -- made a positive impression during his rookie effort in '15, improving his command as the season progressed and showing an ability to overpower right-handed hitters as well as he does batters from the left side of the plate. Given his upside, the 23-year-old has a solid chance to join Sale as the left-handed leaders of a postseason-worthy squad.
The club also appears to be in better shape in the bullpen, with a healthy Nate Jones returning to join Jake Petricka and Zach Duke as bridges to dominant closer David Robertson.
The White Sox are undeniably an improved team, and now the question is whether the Adam LaRoche saga will be a rallying point or divisive moment. No matter what, this club will be interesting to watch.
At this point of the article, you should not be shocked by what you are about to read. The Nationals -- last year's biggest underachievers -- have as good a chance as any club to rebound behind the strength of their starting staff. In fact, the team in the nation's capital also boasts a solid offense led by the otherworldly Bryce Harper -- the top player in MLB.com's Fantasy Player Preview -- and enviable organizational depth.
Coming off a campaign in which he threw two no-hitters, right-hander Max Scherzer returns to lead a rotation replete with swing-and-miss arms. Slotting behind Scherzer will be Stephen Strasburg, the first overall pick of the 2009 Draft, now set for his final season before free agency. The immensely talented right-hander had bouts with ankle, neck and oblique injuries in '15, but he finished the year in pristine fashion, posting a 1.90 ERA across his final 10 starts.
Washington's rotation will be filled out in formidable fashion, with 22-year-old Joe Ross -- arguably the club's best pitcher from his callup last June until the end of August -- joining rebound candidates in Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, with the latter name a candidate to join Scherzer and Strasburg to form a triumvirate of arms with 200 K's apiece.
Washington's biggest questions will look similar to the ones answered by the 2015 Mets: Will the roster hold up on the health front? And will the club have enough offensive firepower?
Additionally, the Nats will have to ensure that harmony remains in the clubhouse following a year of unfulfilled promise and in the face of a restless fanbase and ownership group that is expecting improvement after investing $150 million on team payroll.
Jim Duquette is an analyst for MLB.com.