Is it possible for any team in baseball today to be truly "under the radar?" It feels like it's not, that between social media and websites and bloggers reviewing every single move from every single team that is endlessly dissented, and perhaps that's true. But certainly there are some teams who got the lion's share of the attention this winter -- the Padres, Dodgers, White Sox, Blue Jays, Mets and others -- and at the other end, there were a handful of teams who have little to no chance to compete in 2021 and didn't merit the same recognition.
But in the middle, in the large swath of teams that might not be atop anyone's 2021 predictions but are surely interesting enough to be in the mix, there's more room for interpretation. This is where you can find beauty, where others may find only "a disappointing offseason" or "little chance to unseat the behemoth at the top of their division." We want to point out a few of those clubs today, because it's possible focusing on what's not right about their winter or lacking in their immediate prospects loses some focus on the things that they might do really well in 2021, that's worth watching.
We picked three such teams. They are ...
You wouldn't think that the defending American League champions could be overlooked, but you also wouldn't think that the defending American League champions would have traded away their 28-year-old ace or declined to pick up the reasonable option on a playoff-tested veteran, either. The Rays are less popular without Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, to be sure. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays got better, and the Yankees are ... the Yankees. Tampa Bay is projected to be fourth in the AL East.
Perhaps. We're not here to argue projections. We are here to argue perceptions, and we'd like to present these two points.
1) Think about what the offense could do.
Consider the 2020 Rays offense, which was OK but not great, scoring the 12th-most runs in baseball.
They did that with a miserable season from Austin Meadows, who was a 2019 All-Star (33 homers, 144 OPS+ that year) before suffering through a 2020 (positive COVID test, strained oblique, 86 OPS+) best forgotten entirely. Healthy and in shape, it's reasonable to expect more from him; he's a popular projected rebound choice to be better than average. They did that with only 76 regular-season plate appearances from Randy Arozarena, and while you wouldn't expect exactly what he did in the postseason, it's difficult to do what he's done to this point in his career and have it not turn into something. He's projected to be roughly 20% above average as a hitter.
They did that with 139 poor plate appearances from Hunter Renfroe (77 OPS+), who was cut loose after the year, with some of the weakest catcher hitting in the game and without any plate appearances from Wander Franco. The consensus No. 1 prospect had more walks (83) than strikeouts (54) in his Minor League career and did it while slugging .523, and he should see his debut in 2021. Now, it's not all "the best-case scenario will happen," because shortstop Willy Adames' underlying stats didn't support his 124 OPS+, and Brandon Lowe probably isn't a 152 OPS+ hitter. But it's not hard to see the Tampa Bay offense having some more pop this year, too.
2) The pitching staff could be really, really deep.
We're not, again, trying to spin this as "they're better off without Snell and Morton." It's not true. But it's worth noting that Morton was hampered by shoulder injuries, and that Snell hasn't pitched six full innings in a game since July 2019. Those two pitched about 17% of Tampa Bay's innings in 2020. Meanwhile, the club added Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Chris Archer and Collin McHugh in free agency, and it acquired top prospect Luis Patiño in the Snell trade. There are top-line relievers in Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo; there's a whole lot of reason to believe that Tyler Glasnow is about to have a true breakout; there's a lot of names you don't know well enough like Joe Ryan and Josh Fleming and Shane McClanahan and Brent Honeywell, and there's a ton of different looks and angles.
"We're not going to replace Blake Snell, and we're not going to replace Charlie Morton," Rays manager Kevin Cash said during Wednesday's broadcast of the Pirates-Rays Spring Training game. "But what [general manager] Erik [Neander] and his group did, we think we're going to benefit from, is we can get a bunch of really quality arms that can go out there and give us plenty of innings over a six- and hopefully seven-month season.
"We added four veteran pitchers in Wacha, McHugh, Hill ... and certainly we all know Chris Archer. And to complement them with a lot of the young guys. We saw McClanahan pitch today. We saw Fleming. Two guys we really think highly of. There will be a lot of decisions, a lot of options. Really the best way to replace those innings that were so valuable from Blake and Charlie is with an all-hands-on-deck approach."
At FanGraphs right now, the Rays have 23 pitchers projected to have a FIP of no higher than 4.99. Twenty-three! It'd sure look better with Snell out there Opening Day. But they aren't going to lack for an endless stream of high-quality arms to throw at you, either.
One of the least popular projections this year is in the NL Central, where people seem to be stunned that the Cardinals, who did indeed trade for Nolan Arenado, are not only not viewed as the runaway favorites, but they are considered to be barely better -- if at all -- than the Brewers, who had a quiet winter. That's partially about the Cardinals, because their underperforming offense was not "one Arenado away from greatness," especially after discarding Kolten Wong, but it's also about the Brewers, because they are interesting.
OK, not on offense, perhaps, though Christian Yelich seems like a slam dunk to bounce back from a disappointing 2020. But on defense, yes, because, Lorenzo Cain is back, now they're the ones with Wong gobbling up baseballs at second base, and they just added a truly elite defensive outfielder in Jackie Bradley Jr. The fielding could be spectacular, and that's a big deal for the pitching, which is currently projected to be the seventh best (tied, anyway) in baseball. Do you think about them that way? Why not?
Some of it is obvious, or should be. Josh Hader has been one of baseball's elite arms for a few seasons now, and Corbin Burnes' 2020 breakout (sixth in the Cy Young, with a 2.11 ERA) seems the result of some pretty notable pitch usage changes, not a small-sample fluke. You might say the same for NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams; while it's true that he threw only 27 innings, his "airbender" changeup was so dominant that so long as he's healthy, there's no reason to think he won't be excellent. Throw in Brandon Woodruff -- 3.41 ERA with 234 strikeouts in 195 1/3 innings in 2019-20 -- and the Brewers have four of the better pitchers in the NL leading their staff.
Except ... it doesn't stop with them. No one pays attention to swingman Freddy Peralta, but all he's done in his three-year career is strike out 258 in 192 2/3 innings. (He's reportedly working on a new slider to go with his dominant fastball.) Because Brent Suter doesn't throw hard, no one noticed that he had a 38/5 K/BB mark last year, and he has a 2.16 ERA from 2019-20. Veteran Josh Lindblom was just OK in his return to the Majors -- a 3.87 FIP looked better than a 5.16 ERA -- but he's been working all winter not on improving his spin rate so much as improving the efficiency of that spin, ideally leading to better movement. We won't talk our way past Adrian Houser's 5.30 ERA other than to point out his sinker was one of the most valuable pitches in baseball last year.
Plus, is there any better manager in the game at handling a pitching staff than Craig Counsell? The Brewers may not hit enough this year, because the lineup, particularly the left side of the infield, is dreadfully thin. But in a weak NL Central, the arms are fascinating enough that it still might get them back to the playoffs.
No, the Giants aren't winning the NL West in 2021. They're not finishing second, either. FanGraphs gives them a 0.1% chance to win the division and a 0.1% chance to win the World Series, which sounds right; the Dodgers and Padres are that good. If you're asking why we should care about a rebuilding team that finished 29-31 last year and hasn't had a winning season since 2016 and is shockingly old despite all of that, well, fair enough. To get to what the Giants are doing, at least for now, you've got to look past the wins and losses. You've got to look at the smaller process improvements that might lead to greater things.
Like, for example, how they've managed to unearth career Minor Leaguers or underperforming Major Leaguers and find value from them. Look at Mike Yastrzemski (137 OPS+ with San Francisco), Alex Dickerson (143 OPS+) and Donovan Solano (121 OPS+), all acquired in barely noticed deals. Or, look at how Jarlin Garcia was claimed on waivers and then allowed one earned run in 18 1/3 innings, or how pitchers Drew Smyly and Kevin Gausman arrived in 2020 and each found themselves improved.
The Giants are quickly developing a reputation as an organization that can make players better, and it's not just newcomers. As the Athletic wrote in November, "The Giants’ hitting improvement in 2020 was more than dramatic -- it was historic," and short-season concerns aside, it was. They were the third-worst offense in 2019, then tied for sixth best in 2020. In 2019, they had the 13th-highest strikeout rate; in 2021, they are projected to have the second lowest. That's partially about the players they've imported, like Tommy La Stella; it's partially about the in-house approach changes. As a team, they chase less and hit the ball hard more often and on the ground less. Which is to say: exactly you want.
Even with the return of Buster Posey, the arrival of La Stella, Jake McGee, Alex Wood, Aaron Sanchez, Anthony DeSclafani and more experience from second-year players Joey Bart and Mauricio Dubón, it won't be enough. Not this year, anyway, because the Dodgers and Padres are arguably the two best teams in baseball. But 2021 isn't the point, either. The point is to keep improving the talent level and building up the depth. The point is that after this year, if they choose to do so, they'll be free of about $100 million worth of Johnny Cueto, Brandon Crawford, Belt, Posey and Gausman, with Heliot Ramos and Marco Luciano on the way. It's not about 2021 for the Giants in the standings, but that doesn't mean you can't see the plan here. It's already happening, if you know where to look.