Which Surprise Team is Most Likely to Stick Around?

The first 2 months of the baseball season has produced quite a few teams rebounding from poor 2011 seasons. Some of these teams, like Miami, went out and spent big to turn things around. Other teams saw internal improvement from 2011, like the improvement of Adam Jones, leading to more runs scored, fewer runs allowed, and more victories. Let’s take a look at the chances for the 3 biggest turnaround teams of 2012, starting with the biggest surprise of all, the Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore Orioles – 2011: 69-93 .426 winning % / 2012: 32-24 .572 winning %

The Orioles struggles a year ago could entirely be placed on the pitching staff, which allowed nearly 60 more runs than any other club in the American League. This season, Baltimore has improved to rank in the middle of the AL in runs allowed, and it has really paid off in the win column. The O’s added Jason Hammel from Colorado and Wei-Yin Chen from the Nippon Pro League in Japan, with both pitchers providing an immediate impact. Hammel has broken out, going 6-2 with a 2.97 ERA with a near-elite K/9 rate (8.8). Chen dominated the Red Sox last night to keep Baltimore in 1st place in the AL East, and improved his record to 5-2 with a sub-3.50 ERA. He fools hitters by mixing his deep repertoire of pitches, leading to plenty of batters caught looking. The bullpen, led by Jim Johnson, has also been airtight, posting the lowest ERA in the American League at 2.48.

The offense ranked right around league average a year ago, and is once again ranked 7th in the AL. Adam Jones has really blossomed in his age-26 season, hitting .307/.354/.582 with 16 homers and 35 RBI, and Matt Wieters has provided excellent power and defense behind the plate. If the O’s can find a way to get Nolan Reimold healthy, and he starts to hit like the .261/.338/.445 hitter he’s been during his career, Baltimore will be able to fix its biggest problem in the lineup, left field.

Baltimore’s biggest problem is that they play in the toughest division in baseball, the AL East, where all 5 teams are above .500. This makes any potential run to the playoffs difficult because they will have to outlast 4 other teams who have deeper and maybe more talented ball clubs. If the O’s want to make it to the playoffs this season, they will probably need to make an impact trade, potentially Carlos Quentin or Zach Greinke, to upgrade their roster, otherwise I think another 2nd half swoon is in store. In fact, it may have already begun, because Baltimore is just 4-9 in their last 13 games, and has really struggled on offense. I don’t like Baltimore’s chances of staying in the race.

Miami Marlins – 2011: 72-90 .444 winning %/ 2012: 31-25 .554 winning %

No team in baseball has gone through more changes over the past year than the Miami Marlins. They have a new name, logo, stadium, a newfound willingness to spend, a loud-mouth, crass manager, and the wins (and fans) have begun to follow. Miami had a rough start to the 2012 season, with Ozzie Guillen drawing a suspension for his comments about Fidel Castro and a slow start in the win column. The team has since turned it on, led by Giancarlo Stanton, who pounded 12 homers in May, and is hitting .298/.374/.576. Hanley Ramirez has also found his homerun stroke, hitting 11 so far, and the Marlins have used their excellent team speed to their advantage, ranking 1st in the NL in steals, but otherwise the offense has been stagnant. And that’s a scary though for other teams around the NL.

If Gaby Sanchez, who was demoted to the minors after hitting a putrid .197/.244/.295 in his first 36 games, can find his stroke the Marlins would really begin to start hitting. Logan Morrison has also had a very slow start, hitting .221 with just 4 homers and 15 RBI. Maybe he should focus more on his game on the field than his Twitter account off of it. The Marlins only rank 12th in the NL in runs scored and could use another big run producer like Sanchez or Morrison in the middle of the lineup.

Pitching has really carried Miami in the early going, and the Marlins have gotten excellent value off of the scrap heap from Carlos Zambrano. Big Z has really found a groove pitching in Miami, going 4-3 with a 2.91 ERA. His success has been primarily due to his ability to keep hitters of the bases, allowing only 6.5 hits per 9 innings, an elite rate. Mark Buerhle and Anibal Sanchez have also been better than average starting pitchers, and Josh Johnson is beginning to find his groove. Johnson has pitched at least 5 innings in 6 straight starts while allowing 3 runs or fewer, and has gone at least 7 innings in 3 of those outings.

If Heath Bell can get going out of the bullpen, and one or two more bats starts hitting in the middle of the lineup, the Marlins have the potential to be a scary team, and one that nobody will want to face in the playoffs. I like their chances of staying competitive throughout the entire 2012 season, and I still believe that they are a favorite to win one of the two Wild Card spots.

New York Mets – 2011: 77-85 .475 winning % / 2012: 31-26 .554 winning %

The 2012 Mets have ranked as one of the luckiest teams in baseball, outplaying their Pythagorean win total by 4 games, which is what baseball-refernce.com considers luck. The team has gotten contributions from everyone all over the field, and the 2012 season has been a very positive one for David Wright and Johan Santana, but the team’s likelihood of sticking around isn’t very good. They don’t seem to have anywhere near enough pitching to compete, ranking 3rd to last in the NL in runs allowed, but as long as the offense keeps humming they will compete night in and night out.

The Mets success can be mostly attributed to the offense, which has improved from 6th to 4th in runs scored in the National League. David Wright has been absolutely murdering the baseball this season, hitting .359/.461/.578 with 7 homers over the moved-in Citi Field fences. This could be the 5-time All-Stars finest season yet, and he looks spry in the field on defense as well. Rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis has provided solid support, ranking as the Mets’ 2nd most valuable hitter this season, and the Mets have one of the best utility players around in Scott Hairston. The team has also embraced the sabermetric, walk-heavy approach, ranking 1st in the NL in walks and 3rd in OBP despite only ranking 8th in batting average.

The pitching staff has been hot-or-cold depending who is on the mound. The Mets have an excellent top of the rotation, led by R.A.Dickey (8-1 2.69 ERA) and Johan Santana (3-2, 2.38 ERA). The rest of the rotation has been a mixed bag depending on the outing. Dillon Gee and Jonathan Niese have a tendency to get themselves in trouble, posting ERAs above 4.00, but both have solid K/9 rates above 8. The bullpen has been a disaster so far, with 3 of the 4 most used relievers posting ERAs solidly above 4.00, which is below average for a fireman. Bullpens are fairly easy to shore up, and a smart acquisition or two around the trade deadline could position the Mets as a dark horse contender. I don’t think this team can make the playoffs, but I think they have plenty of talent, enough to finish with a .500 record, and the Mets are building some nice things for the future.

While Miami was expected to compete due to the importation of front-line talent and a return to form of Hanley Ramirez, the other 2 teams, Baltimore and New York, have come out of nowhere after being widely picked to finish dead last in their respective divisions. Miami has the best chance to make some noise and grab a playoff spot the other way, but I wouldn’t count out the Mets or O’s just yet. Even if both teams begin to slump, they have probably done enough early work to improve on last year’s result, which is no small feat in the Eastern divisions. Ozzie Guillen, Terry Collins and Buck Showalter have been able to turn around woebegone ball clubs in just 50 games, now the difficult task will be sustaining that hot start through the stretch run to make a run for the pennant.

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