It may as well be an annual baseball tradition. Each year an MLB team or two emerges as a contender after being written off as a likely loser months earlier.
The Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics have all reached the playoffs following surprise seasons within the last couple of years. Before that, the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies pulled it off.
So what team will be next?
To find out, Sportsnet polled a dozen MLB executives including general managers, assistant GMs and scouts. Those polled listed a variety of teams in both leagues, but one team was mentioned more often than any other. Watch out, the San Diego Padres could be this year’s breakout team.
Here’s Sportsnet’s complete guide to 2014 sleeper teams:
NL West Sleepers
San Diego Padres
The Padres weren’t a particularly good team last year, when they went 76-86. They didn’t have a particularly splashy off-season, either. But executives say they could be really good in 2014 — potentially winning as many as 90 games with a shot at a Wild Card berth.
Why the optimism? San Diego’s rotation of Andrew Cashner, Josh Johnson, Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and Eric Stults has a chance to be really effective. They have a potentially strong bullpen, especially after adding Joaquin Benoit. As for their lineup, Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin may be the only star contributors, but the likes of Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso and Jedd Gyorko could help San Diego score enough to contend.
There are no guarantees here, especially in a competitive division led by the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers. But the Padres have the pieces in place to contend if they get enough breaks over the course of the next six months.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants will contend if their starting pitching improves in 2014. After adding Tim Hudson to a rotation including Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, the Giants should have the arms to improve considerably upon an 86-loss season.
The Diamondbacks gave up a lot of talent over the winter, but they added Mark Trumbo, Addison Reed and Bronson Arroyo. One exec describes them as ‘stacked’ and expects them to stay in contention all year. Another expects the work of GM Kevin Towers will push the team over the .500 mark after back-to-back 81-81 seasons.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels signed Albert Pujols two winters ago and landed Josh Hamilton last year, so they’re no strangers to pre-season hype. So far it hasn’t amounted to a playoff berth, but the Angels should score a ton of runs in 2014. They have questions at the back of their rotation with Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs all projected to start. Even so, executives expect this this group to improve on last year’s 78-84 mark.
Toronto Blue Jays
Between injuries and poor performances, the Blue Jays had an unexpectedly poor season last year after being tabbed as World Series favourites. Yet some executives say there’s reason to anticipate some positive regression with players such as Melky Cabrera and Brandon Morrow capable of bouncing back.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals won 86 games last year, so they aren’t a traditional sleeper team. But they upgraded over the winter, adding Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. Executives expect those additions will improve Kansas City’s lineup and reinforce a pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs in the American League last year. In the eyes of one scout, they’re the best team in the AL Central, the Detroit Tigers included.
Execs expect the Nationals to improve upon last year’s 86-win showing in a big way. They’re viewed as a serious post-season threat after adding right-hander Doug Fister and bolstering their bench. A 95-win season is not out of reach in Washington, which will benefit from a relatively beatable schedule.
New York Mets
The Mets have their sights set on 90 games. It’s ambitious, but one high-ranking executive says this team could surprise us. They have lots of young pitching, with more on the way soon, which could allow this team to contend in 2014 if everything breaks right. It also helps that MLB executives don’t view the Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins as serious threats.
The Rockies could surprise some people if they keep their position players healthy, since pitching prospects Eddie Butler and Jon Gray could make an impact later in the year.
No one expects the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros to post anything close to a winning record in 2014, but some believe they aren’t going to lose 100 games again, either. Executives also pointed to the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers as teams poised to surprise. The Orioles and Indians aren’t sleepers anymore, but both clubs have managers capable of getting lots out of their rosters in Buck Showalter and Terry Francona, respectively.