Surprises make the baseball season fun. A breakout team, a young player reaching the next level, the game changing in an unexpected way are throughlines dating back more than 100 years. In 1914, the Boston Braves — who hadn’t finished above .500 since 1902 — shook off a 12-28 start to win the NL pennant, then swept the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.
That kind of shock has become harder to find in recent years. The Red Sox have gone last to first twice this decade, but it’s more of a surprise when that tentpole franchise loses than when it wins. The Blue Jays Royals, and Pirates all broke long streaks without reaching the playoffs, but did so after building up for a year or two before breaking through. With the rules of the industry pushing teams into long rebuilding plans like those of the Astros and Cubs, each season begins with a quarter to a third of the league already checked out and thinking about the draft, the free-agent market and the next season.
So looking at the potential surprise teams of 2017 yields a shortlist. In fact, it yields one name. The Rays were the small-market darlings for a while, winning the pennant in 2008 and making the playoffs four times in six seasons from 2008 through 2013. As the core of those teams were traded away or left on their own via free agency, the Rays slipped under .500, and have stayed there for three years. Last year, they finished last in the AL East with a 68-94 mark, tied for the second-worst in baseball.
This year, though, there are the makings of a contender. The Rays project to be one of the best run-prevention teams in baseball, with a young, high-strikeout rotation pitching in front of an excellent outfield defense. Chris Archer was second in the AL last year with 233 strikeouts, a figure that marks his 30 homers allowed, 4.02 ERA and 19 losses as flukes. Archer’s underlying statistics, such as a 27-percent strikeout rate and a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, peg him as a top-tier AL starter, and he’ll have the ERA this year to match.
Behind Archer are six more starters, all under 30, and all of whom can be above-average in the majors right now. Alex Cobb, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, had a 2.82 ERA in 2013-14 before his UCL blew out. Jake Odorizzi, the last piece left from the controversial Wil Myers/James Shields trade, has a 3.53 ERA over his past two years. Sophomore lefty Blake Snell was a consensus top-20 prospect coming into 2016 and posted a 3.54 ERA in 19 major-league starts. Starting the year at Class AAA are Jose DeLeon and Brent Honeywell, No. 31 and No. 33 on MLB.com’s top-100 prospect list, ready to bump fifth starter Matt Andriese — who has been a league-average pitcher through two seasons himself — this summer. Only the Mets can match the Rays for this kind of major-league-ready rotation depth. Plus, with Kevin Kiermaier in center, and speedy new acquisitions Mallex Smith and Peter Bourjos flanking him, they can catch everything from foul line to fish tank.
We’ve seen the Rays prevent runs; the question is whether they can score them. The team did change it up a bit this offseason, bringing in catchers Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris to get offense from behind the plate, at the expense of some defense. Ramos, recovering from knee surgery that cut short his breakout season in Washington, will serve as the DH when he returns in May and then catch after the break. Norris, who doesn’t throw well but does frame pitches with skill, was the Opening Day starter. As poorly as the Rays’ catchers have hit the last few years, they’ll gain runs with the imports.
That upgrade won’t be enough for a playoff berth though. To push into the postseason, the Rays will have to get better seasons from a crop of recent acquisitions that have failed to produce. Right fielder Stephen Souza Jr., (.247/.303/.409 last year), first baseman Logan Morrison (.238/.319/.414) and DH Corey Dickerson (.245/.293/.469) combined to be worth just three wins, sabermetrically speaking, last year. The low OBPs from hitting positions crippled the team’s offense. All three players must make fewer outs to keep the offense from bogging down again.
The Rays have pitching and they have power. In a division filled with teams coming down off peaks, the Rays are positioned to leverage their young talent and their deep rotation to win a lot of games. They may not catch the Red Sox, but they will show up in the postseason as an AL wild-card team — the surprise team of 2017.
What other surprises will we see?
Biggest disappointment: The Yankees have not finished under .500 since 1992, when you were reading this article on paper with a cup of coffee that cost 50 cents. That changes this season, as a patchwork rotation falls apart and the young hitters the team is relying upon struggle to make contact. Your coffee is still going to be three bucks, though.
Most surprising player: Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP, Red Sox. Forgotten a bit due to leg injuries that have kept him off the mound, Rodriguez remains a power lefty who works at 93-94 mph and has both a good breaking pitch (slider) and a deft change-up. In just about one season’s worth of innings, Rodriguez has a 4.25 ERA and has whiffed more than 20 percent of the batters he’s faced. David Price’s sore elbow locks Rodriguez into the rotation for at least a few starts; don’t worry, he’s never leaving again.
Most likely league record to fall: There were more home runs hit last year than in any season other than 2000, with the rate of home runs per plate appearance the highest in baseball history. With more players than ever selling out for power as a way to handle power pitching and beat shifted infielders — no one’s put the third baseman in the right-center bleachers just yet — look for the league to break the all-time record of 5,693 home runs.