Which Team Will Surprise in 2011?

March 12, 2011
 
Every year, a team surprises us.
 
Last year it was the Padres…no one thought that Padres, who had posted a 75-87 in 2009, were going to challenge for the division in 2010. But they came out like gangbusters, stayed ahead through the summer, and fought the Giants all the way down to the last weekend. They didn’t win the division, but they almost did.
 
And…the Reds were a surprise. They went from 78 wins to 91 wins, wresting the NL Central from the St. Louis Pujols. They improved by thirteen wins, the same jump that the Padres had. No one expected that.
 
Those aren’t huge jumps….improving by thirteen games isn’t a staggering leap forward. The Diamondbacks improved by thirty-five games from 1998 to 1999, which is far more dramatic than what the Padres did. The Rays jumped thirty-one wins from 2007 to 2008. The 2006 Tigers improved by twenty-four games. So did the 2002 Angels.
 
Who can we expect to surprise us this year? What team will shock the baseball world in 2011?
 
In his Baseball Book, 1990, Bill listed a few indicators for teams that might improve in the following year. Borrowing heavily from his list (he’ll get it back, I promise), here are fourteen questions to ask, that will determine whether a team will improve on the coming season:
 
-Are the hitters young or old? Are their best years to come, or are their best years behind them?
-Are the pitchers young or old? Are their best years to come?
-Did the team improve during the second half of the season?
-Did the team do well during August/September?
-Assuming that the team posted a losing record: did the team do well the year before that? Is there a recent history of success?
-Did the team’s AAA organization do well?
-Did the team’s AA organization do well?
-Did the team underperform their Pythagorean W-L record?
-Does the team have good management? Do they utilize talent well?  
-Is the team’s division open for challengers?
-Did the team acquire new talent in the off-season?
-Is the team getting significant players back from injuries?
-Does this team have clear and present talent?
-Does this team have a story for how it will be successful?
 
You can use this list on any team that you’d like: if you’re a Royals fan or a Pirates fan or a Cubs fan, you can access all of this information in about the time it takes to toast bread. 
 
Some of these measures are objective: a team is either young or old. A team either has a strong September or a weak one. A team underperforms their Pythagorean W-L record, or a team matches that record, or they over-perform that record.
 
But…some of the metrics are subjective: how do you decide if a team has good or bad management? What constitutes clear and present talent? Is Alex Gordon clear present talent? How about Chris Carter? And what’s this business about a ‘story’ for success?
 
The Surprise Team for 2011
 
The Milwaukee Brewers won just 75 games last year. I would be very surprised if they don’t surpass that total. By adding Greinke and Marcum, the Brewers should contend in 2011. I don’t think they qualify as a ‘surprise’ team: it wouldn’t be a surprise if they won the NL Central.
 
The Florida Marlins went 80-82 last year. Like the Brewers, the Marlins were a sub-.500 team last year, and like the Brewers, the Marlins should be very competitive this year. They do extremely well by the metrics listed above: they are a young team with obvious talent. They play in a tough division, but they are a good team. They could win: I’m not picking them as my surprise team this year because a) they won 80 games last year, which is quite a lot and b) I always pick National League teams. I figure it’s time to give a look at the American League.
 
So…my surprise team for 2011 is…. (drum roll)…the Cleveland Indians.
 
Going through our list of questions:
 
Are the hitters young or old? Very young. Last year, the Indians had the youngest average age of their hitters in the American League, at 27.2. Their best years are ahead of them.
 
Are the pitchers young or old? Again, very young. The Indians had the second-youngest pitchers last year, at 26.3.
 
Did the team improve during the second half of the season? Yes. The Indians were 34-54 prior to the All-Star break (.432 winning percentage). After the break the Indians played almost .500 baseball, posting a 35-39 record.
 
Did the team improve during August/September? In August the Indians went 10-18, which isn’t a good month. But they were 16-14 in September/October, their best month of the year.
 
Assuming that the team posted a losing record: did the team do well the year before that? Is there a recent history of success? No…no they did not. The Indians were actually slightly better in 2009 than they were in 2010. The current team does not have a track record of recent success.
 
Did the team’s AAA organization do well? Yes. The Cleveland Triple-A team went 79-65, finishing a half-game out of first place.
 
Did the team’s AA organization do well? Again, yes. The Double-A team finished 71-71, a .500 record. But the team’s Pythagorean W-L record was a solid 74-68. They have talent in the minors.
 
Did the team underperform their Pythagorean W-L record? Yes, by one win. The Indians posted a 69-93 record in 2010…their expected W-L record was 70-92. This isn’t particularly meaningful, but they were slightly better than they looked. They were a 70-win team last year…if they match the 13-game jump that the Padres and Reds enjoyed last year, that would put them at 92 to 93 wins, which could be enough to win the AL Central.
 
Does the team have good management? A subjective question, which can be broken down to numerous other questions: does the team make personnel decisions towards long-term solutions, or do they rely on stop-gate options? Does the team tend to give young players a shot, or do they prefer veterans? Does the management recognize and use talent wisely, or do they tend to misevaluate their players?
 
One team with a history of poor management is the Kansas City Royals. As of right now, the Royals have the richest farm system in the major leagues. But…they have not shown much ability at developing that talent to help the major league team.

Take Alex Gordon: I think that it is abundantly clear that Alex Gordon is a very good baseball player. But: he hasn’t been a good player on the Royals, and I’m beginning to doubt that he ever will be. After two seasons of obvious improvement, Gordon spent most of 2009 and 2010 bouncing from the major leagues to Omaha and back. He had two big injuries over those years, but when he was healthy the Royals wouldn’t let him figure out his stuff in the majors. He’ll be in the outfield this year, a move that I am decidedly skeptical about. Gordon should be primed for a big season in 2011. Right now, I wonder if he will still be starting for the Royals in May. 
 
The Royals have two talented youngsters, Kila Ka’aihue and Alcides Escobar, who are slated to be starters on Opening Day. I think how the organization deals with them will reveal a lot about the future in Kansas City. If Kila and Escobar are given the chance to play, I think there’s a reason to be optimistic about the next few years in Kansas City. If, however, the management benches Escobar in favor of someone like Omar Vizquel; if Kila spends the summer going back and forth from Kansas City to Omaha so that Jeff Francouer can get at-bats, then I think the Royals are going to blow through their current pool of talent without getting a lot to show for it.
 
Coming back to the Indians…the Indians manager is Manny Acta, who is one of the most sabermetrically inclined managers in the game. One of the positive signs from 2010 was Acta’s willingness to let the younger players, particularly the young pitchers, play. If the Indians are going to win in the coming years, it will be because some of their younger players step up and show talent, and I think that Acta is going to give them the room to do it. Fausto Carmona had two roller-coaster years in 2008 and 2009; in 2010 he was given the ball every fifth day and he pitched very well (3.71 ERA, 210 innings pitched). Justin Masterson made 29 starts…he had a 5.31 ERA over the first half, and Acta kept giving him the ball. He posted a 3.84 ERA during the second half, which is very encouraging. The Indians gave starts to Mitch Talbot and Josh Tomlin down the stretch: Acta gave them the ball and told them to make their starts. It was a smart move, as it gave both men a chance to pitch without worrying about losing their jobs. Talbot and Tomlin will be the #4 and #5 guys in the rotation: neither pitcher will start the All-Star game, but both of them have now had success pitching in the major leagues. 
 
I think the Indians have good management: they’re a young team, and I think that Acta will use the best guys he has in the places where he can get the most out of their talents.
 
Is the division open for challengers? Sure it is. The Twins won last year: they’re still a good team, but they're talking about moving Liriano, their best pitcher from last season. The Twins are hoping for Justin Morneau to come back healthy from concussion symptoms, but there is a chance he won’t be the player he was. The same thing is true for Joe Nathan: will he be healthy, or won’t he? What about the new shortstop from Japan? How is he going to fare against major league pitching?
 
The White Sox added Adam Dunn: I like Adam Dunn, but if he helps the South Siders win, it will be the first time in his career that he’s helped anyone win anything. If Peavy comes back strong, the White Sox will have great pitching, and their lineup has plenty of good hitters. Ozzie Guillen is a very good manager: I think he gets more out of his players than any other manager in baseball. But…the White Sox aren’t locks to win the division. They’ve got a great chance, but they aren’t a sure thing.
 
I suppose that Detroit is the third team with a shot at the division. I don’t believe that the Tigers will win the AL Central, but they have a lot of talented: they have Miguel Cabrera and Verlander and Max Scherzer….that’s a good start on the year.
 
But…there isn’t a clear favorite here: the door is open.
 
 -Did the team acquire new talent in the off-season? No. The team that exists is essentially the same team that they had last year. They did not acquire Zach Greinke or Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford.
 
-Is the team getting significant players back from injuries? Yes. Three players.
 
Carlos Santana will be the catcher this year. Santana posted a Mauer-esque .401 on-base percentage in 46 games last year. He was on a pace to have a All-Star-level season last year…it is reasonable to think that he will be one of the five best backstops in baseball in 2011. There is a chance he will be the best catcher in baseball in 2011. That’s good news for Cleveland.
 
Asdrubal Cabrera missed most of 2010, and it seems like everyone has forgotten just how good he was in 2009, when he posted a .308 batting average with 42 doubles and a 3.7 WAR. Cabrera is just 25-years old this year: he won’t be a superstar in 2011, but he will be a solid producer.
 
Lastly, Grady Sizemore might come back. After two years in an injury-induced tailspin, there is some (hesitant, deservedly) optimism that Sizemore can return to the elite form of 2005-2008, when he was one of the very best players in baseball.
 
The Indians scored 646 runs in 2010, ahead of just Baltimore and Seattle in the American League. If Santana and Cabrera come back healthy, and Sizemore manages to play 130 games, the Indians should score many more runs in 2011.
 
Does this team have clear and present talent?
                                       &nbs​p;       
Shin-Soo is the most talented player on the team. Actually, he’s one of the ten most talented players in the American League, but no one seems to notice it. Sizemore was an excellent player. Santana will be an excellent player.
 
Beyond that trio, the Indians have a few goodplayers: Chris Perez is a solid closer. Justin Masterson and Fausto Carmona are good pitchers. Asdrubal Cabrera is a fine shortstop. Travis Hafner can still hit. Carlos Carrasco could be a good pitcher: Carrasco might be the most important player on the Indians this year.
 
If the Indians played in the AL East, I don’t know that they’d beat anyone. I don’t know that Cleveland is a better team than Baltimore, or Toronto. I don’t think that Cleveland would get far in the NL East either. Or the NL West.
 
But they play in the American League Central: they might not have the talent to compete with the Orioles, but they’re not far behind the Twins or the White Sox or the Tigers. They could win the division.
 
Does this team have a clear story for how it will be successful?
 
Say the Indians do win the division in 2011. Do we know how they’ll do it? Can we see the story as it has to unfold, or is it beyond our sight?
 
Take the Reds last year: they were a young team in a division that had one strong team (the Cardinals), and a lot of teams that weren’t going to be strong. The Reds had a lot of young players who looked poised to breakout. You could have looked at the Reds in April of last year and thought: if the rotation comes together, if the Cards fail, if Votto has a big years and the other outfielders step up…they could win it. None of that was outlandishly impossible. Votto did have a good year…no one was surprised by that. The outfield and the pitchers came together. The Cardinals folded down the stretch. You could’ve seen it happening.
 
Contrast that to the Orioles this year. The Orioles need some of their young players to break out, and they need the likes of Derrick Lee and Vlad Guerrero and J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds to have big years. They need the Red Sox to again catch the injury bug. They need the Yankees to lose. They need the Rays to lose. They need the Blue Jays to lose. That’s probably too much. It’s not a realistic story.
 
I think the Indians have a believable story for how they can win the division in 2011:
 
1.      They need at least two of their three MVP-caliber players (Choo, Sizemore, and Santana) to play like MVP’s.
2.      They need their good players to be healthy and productive.
3.      They need the pitching to do okay:
4.      They need the other teams in the division to struggle.
 
None of that is impossible, or even terribly improbable. Choo and Santana will be very good this year, and Sizemore is still young enough (28 years old) to regain his place among the game’s elite. The good players on the Indians, the guys like Cabrera and Hafner, should still be good players. As for the pitchers: plenty of young rotations have taken a dramatic step forward from one year to the next, and I think Acta has positioned his pitchers to do just that: all of the Cleveland starters had success at the major league level last year: now they can build on that success.
 
As for number four: maybe Morneau doesn’t come back, or Liriano hurts his arm. Maybe Ozzie Guillen gets fired for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Maybe Paul Konerko doesn’t have an MVP-level season. Maybe Miguel Cabrera misses 30 games this year because of his drinking problem. Maybe Max Scherzer struggles a bit.
 
Is any of that unbelievable? No….it’s not. It’s improbable, but it’s not completely impossible. You could see it happening. I can see it happening.
 
I think the Indians will surprise the baseball world in 2011.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (25 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveFleming
On Santana being a surprise MVP candidate...he was playing MVP-level baseball before he was injured last year, so it's not surprising that he's continuing to do that. If the Indians win the division (or contend), the voters will look at the guys who 'turned' the team around.

I would think Santana's odds of winning the MVP award are probably comparable to, say, the odds that Mark Teixeira wins the award.
5:10 PM Apr 27th
 
MarisFan61
Update:
Dave lookin' pretty good with Cleveland (13-5).
"Whoever" said Baltimore (8-9), not so much. :-)
12:50 AM Apr 21st
 
MarisFan61
....and if we want to add surprise AWARDS:

You talked about CARLOS SANTANA.
He's got a shot to be one of the greatest surprise MVP's ever, doesn't he....
2:40 PM Apr 12th
 
MarisFan61
P.S., BTW: The O's don't play the Red Sox (not for a while anyway), they play my Yanks!
I'm not sure how much I'll be rooting for them to make me look smart. :ha:
2:58 AM Apr 11th
 
MarisFan61
Dave,
Believe it or not, I came back on here to help toot YOUR horn!
i.e. to say that *your* pick was looking dam good too!
I see that you beat me to it.
And I don't blame you!

I know that horn-tooting isn't considered classy, but when it's worthy horn-tooting, I'm all for it.
I've remained disappointed for 26 years (and counting!) that Bill never tooted his horn on his great call that the Cubs in '84 were a dead set-up to be a surprise/miracle team.

So.....how about it, Bill? :-)
It has to have been one of the most remarkable forecasts ever, about anything.
2:56 AM Apr 11th
 
DaveFleming
Don't toot your horn too soon, Marisfan....the Indians are in first place, too. If the Orioles manage to sweep the Red Sox, I'll start believing.
2:54 AM Apr 9th
 
MarisFan61
So..........anyone else now wanna say "Baltimore"?
I told y'all, this was almost too easy!

We oughta have follow-up on these things, with 'scoring'..... :-)

(P.S. If we did, this might be my only 'win.')
1:27 AM Apr 5th
 
rgregory1956
I assume that most people are expecting a better season from Jeter this year. Are we going to be surprised if he in fact has a better one?

If most people expect the Pirates (or Nationals or RedSox or Brewers) to have a better season, are we supposed to be surprised if in fact they do have one? Seems like an odd definition of "surprise" to me.
4:23 PM Mar 22nd
 
Richie
So of all the teams you expect to not be better, the Orioles are the team you least expect to not be better? And that makes them your pick for 'surprise team'?

Bob, no one defines 'surprise team' that way but you. Which is perfectly alright. But put your idiosyncratic definition upfront where we can see it right away, and so know we're talking about different things. Otherwise we naturally assume 'same phrase, so must mean same thing'.
10:42 AM Mar 20th
 
rgregory1956
But, Dave, isn't that exactly the point? I expect the Indians to be better this year; I expect the Nationals to be better this year; I expect the D-Backs to be better this year. I expect the Pirates to be better this year. So how can they be "surprise teams"? I DON'T expect the Orioles to be better this year. It's just that of all the teams I don't expect to be better, the Orioles seem to have the best chance of surprising me. THAT'S why they are my pick for surprise team.
8:45 AM Mar 17th
 
DaveFleming
Baltimore played the Yankees today...okay, okay: it's one game. And it's spring training. But Baltimore collected ONE hit against the Yankees. This during a Nova start...No-Go pitched six perfect innings. The Orioles lost 10-0.

I would like the Orioles to do well this year, but I am not convinced.
2:24 AM Mar 17th
 
jbdominicano
If they have a 13 game jump, they'll just win 83 games, not 93. Very skeptical about Dave Fleming's prediction
9:02 PM Mar 15th
 
rgregory1956
The thing about picking a surprise team is that it's supposed to surprise. Surprise teams always play above their heads, and the teams that we think are supposed to win their divisions either get old in a hurry or have numerous, catastrophic injuries. I'm not saying the Orioles are a great team, but I can envision a situation where they get good, better years from unexpected players, the Yankees get old really fast and the RedSox stay injury-prone. If the Orioles can improve by 25 wins and either the Yankees or RedSox under-perform, they'll be in contention for the wild card. That'll make 'em a surprise team.
10:10 AM Mar 15th
 
MarisFan61
.....and I don't know either.
But their ceiling isn't 80-something wins, it's higher.

I'm not saying I'd *bet* on them to beat out the Red Sox, Yanks, and/or Rays, not to mention whoever else will be up there for the wild card, but IMO it's not that hard to imagine a scenario where they would.

BTW: I think I've said this before, but I want to say it again because it doesn't get said enough:
I don't think Bill ever gloated nearly enough about having written, in advance of the 1984 season, that the CUBS, who had seemed terrible, were an absolute set-up to be a "miracle team" that year -- AND THEY WERE.
In fact, as far as I ever noticed, he didn't gloat at all.

That's just not right. :-)
2:06 AM Mar 15th
 
DaveFleming
Right....I like the changes that Baltimore made this year, but a) a lot of those changes are short-term solutions, and b) some other teams in the AL East also had interesting offseasons.

I think Baltimore will be much improved...I don't know that it's enough to win the division, or a Wild Card.
1:53 AM Mar 15th
 
Richie
"Is the division open for challengers" suggests that a 'surprise team' has to also be a contending one. An 83-win Indians team would likely contend. An 83-win Orioles team very, very likely wouldn't.
7:01 PM Mar 14th
 
MarisFan61
Correction: I see that BOB is picking them too.....
6:40 PM Mar 14th
 
MarisFan61
I'm surprised at how nobody seems to take BALTIMORE seriously.

I would have thought a fair number of people would pick them wholeheartedly to contend.
But it seems nobody is even thinking of them as a "surprise" team.

That surprises me. :-)

In a way I suppose it's impressive; people aren't being fooled by a fluke run that happened when Buck came.

But was it really a fluke? Is this maybe a reverse-reverse fool situation, where we've become so sophisticated that we just write off any significant possibility that it was for real.

So, I pick Baltimore, and I think it's almost too easy. Because....I think the *possibility* of them being real good is so predictable they we shouldn't be allowed to take them as a surprise pick.
6:38 PM Mar 14th
 
DaveFleming
To Ventboys: I would be really happy if the Bucs jumped up 20 games...

I'm a Red Sox fan, but beyond that, there are a few teams that I've always felt a weird affinity towards: the Pirates, Twins, and Rockies. I wonder if that's true for most baseball fans: you have your team, and then you have a few other teams that you root for, in case your real team struggles. I suppose that Yankees fan are less prone to this sort of thinking.

There are a few teams that I am utterly ambivilent towards: I've never felt any strong emotion about the Reds...were you to scan my articles, I think they've gotten less attention from me than any other team in baseball. I just....I don't think about them ever. I have a blind spot about the Reds.
3:54 PM Mar 14th
 
rgregory1956
Like you said, Dave, a 13-win improvement is not unusual. And it's really not unusual for a last place team to move up 13 wins. Almost every other year or so, a team will improve by 20 or more wins. My best guess for a 20-win improvement is the Orioles. Or the Mariners. And if everything goes right for them, so could the Phillies. I'd love to see a superstar team win 117 games! The perverse part of me is really rooting for Joe Blanton to win the Cy Young Award.
10:01 AM Mar 14th
 
slideric
This represents baseball's hold on the fans,hope springs eternal. As for me go twins. Nice piece.
8:55 AM Mar 14th
 
ventboys
Dave, how about a board bet? I say the Indians don't improve by 13 games. You say that they will. PUT IT ON THE BOARD!!!!

I would make the same bet about the Pirates (with me being the optimist), and like you I might go 20 games.
4:28 AM Mar 14th
 
DaveFleming
My point about the thirteen wins isn't that I expect the Indians to improve by that many wins: I only meant to communicate that improving by 13 wins isn't at all rare. The Indians would have to improve by 20 or more wins to clinch the Central in 2011...I think that there is a possibility that they will exactly that.
4:08 AM Mar 14th
 
Richie
You have me convinced, Dave. However:

As vent pointed out, you misadded the Indians' 13 extra wins. It would only get them up to 82.

For all his sabremerit, I recall that Manny Acta supposedly lost the Washington Nationals' clubhouse. And was fired for that. As BillJ has stated, the one and only indispensable talent for a manager is keeping his players' respect. Not that Manny can't, but apparently he's 0-for-1 in doing so.

Thanks again for the article! :-)
12:09 AM Mar 14th
 
ventboys
In descending order, here are the teams that I feel have a chance to improve by 13 games this season:

12- Oakland (would need 94 wins)
11- Colorado (96)
10- Boston (102)
9- Kansas City (80)
8- LAA (93)
7- Cleveland (82)
6- Baltimore (79)
5- Seattle (74)
4- Milwaukee (90)
3- Washington (82)
2- Arizona (78)
1- Pittsburgh (70)

I believe very strongly that the Pirates will get to 70, and maybe even up towards 80. They are a team that is very much on the rise, but obviously you ain’t picking a team to “surprise” by going 75-87…… Arizona, same thing. They should win around half their games this year as long as their much improved rotation stays healthy…... The Nats are better than people think. I would take some odds, and say that it’s not impossible that they win more games than the Phillies. I’m not PREDICTING it, of course, just saying that there’s a chance…….. Milwaukee, they are all in for this year, but gambling on good health from a stars and scrubs roster (not going well so far)……. Seattle, they stink. 74 wins is above any reasonable projection…….. Andy McPhail has done amazing rebuilding jobs before, so the O’s would be a terrific pick to surprise, but not in that division, not this year. 79 wins, though, it could happen……. Cleveland I think you covered. 13 wins wouldn’t get them to 92, though. That would be 82…….. The Angels have expectations, if not realistic hopes…… KC, as you said, is loaded at the minor league level. Some of those guys are going to be All Stars, though (as you also said) probably not with the Royals. You didn’t mention Moos Tacos, who will be up in June and be this year’s Mike Stanton……… nobody predicts 102 wins from anyone, but Boston is capable if they stay reasonably healthy, even in that division……… Colorado has the pitching, and the defense. Will they get consistent hitting from the spear carriers?......... Oakland isn’t likely to win 94 games, but they have terrific young pitching and some interesting hitters in camp.

Looking at that list, and stipulating that you have to have an AL team, Cleveland is as good of a pick as any, but I don’t see it. Their pitching is about 6 arms deep, and even those arms come with some question marks. I think that you underrate the rest of the division. There are three teams that look, on paper, at least double digit wins better than the Indians. My guess is that they win 75. Good article, though, of course. Are you going to do some player previews this year? Those are fantastic, fun, and interesting.

4:01 PM Mar 13th
 
 
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