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Which Team Will Surprise in 2019?

March 27, 2019
One of my longest running articles for this site has been an annual effort to try to predict which team will surprise us during the coming baseball season.
The idea for this series was cribbed from one of Bill’s old Abstracts, which identified several positive indicators for teams going into the season. I’ve used a list of indicators to look at all of the losing teams from a season, and see which ones have the best chance to surprise us.
Every year I promise that I’ll do a more comprehensive study of the question at some point. I’m happy to report that I’ve finally started that study this year, but it’s a much bigger challenge than I anticipated, and I’d like to do it some justice. So you’re going to have to wait for that one.
In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a surprise team for 2019.
Our track record for this project has been pretty hit-or-miss. Some of the better predictions:
-          In the first year I attempted this, I selected the Cleveland Indians, who were coming off a 69-win season in 2010. They won 80 games in 2011, a net gain of eleven.
-          In the second year, I picked Kansas City, who improved from 71 wins to 72, which is not a success. But one of the other picks was Oakland, who jumped from 74 wins to 94, a gain of twenty wins.
-          The Angels, coming off a 78-win season in 2013, were the selection in 2014. They won 98 games, a gain of twenty. That same year I selected the 74-win Brewers as a team to watch in the NL. While Milwaukee didn’t reach the playoffs, they contended through the summer, and improved their overall record by eight wins.
-          The Mets were our selection in 2015. They improved by just eleven wins (79 to 90), but that was good enough to win the division. They got all the way to the World Series before losing to Kansas City. That’s probably the most impressive prediction we’ve had: the Nationals were heavy favorites going into the season.
-          The Phillies were our pick last year: they improved by twelve games. Oakland was the AL team: they improved by twenty-two games. We liked the Braves, too, though we couldn’t pick them because we had selected them a year earlier, and I don’t do repeats. The Braves jumped from 72 wins to 90, netting a division title.
Over the eight years I’ve tried this exercise, I’ve singled out fourteen teams. Three have improved by 20+ games. Four more have improved by 10+, and another improved by 8. Only one team declined: the 2016 Miami Marlins, who dropped from 79 wins to 77. We’re doing a’ight.
The process isn’t rigorous, and I don’t want to get buried too much in the weeds on the process this year. I’m working to create a rigorous process, but it’ll have to wait.
I considered all of the teams who posted losing records last year…all except the Phillies. The Phillies were our selection last year, and I don’t think it’s any fun to repeat selections. Besides, no one in the baseball world would be surprised if the Phillies won the division in 2019. They’re a very good team, and  not useful in a discussion about surprise teams.  
So let’s take one last jump into the volcano, and predict a surprise team for 2019.
*             *             *
The Minnesota Twins will surprise baseball in 2019.
I hadn’t thought about the Twins. I had a hope that the Reds would show up as the surprise team, or the Kansas City Royals. The Twins didn’t really blip on my radar as a good surprise team.
But the Twins tick more boxes of positive indicators than any other team. They’re not extremely overwhelming candidates to surprise us, but they’re not bad. We’re taking Minnesota in 2019.
The three indicators favoring the Twins are:
1.       They were pretty good in 2017.
2.       They were pretty good during the second-half of 2018, and,
3.       They have a decently-rated farm system. 
Breaking those down:
1.       Minnesota won 85 games in 2017, finishing a very distant second to the Cleveland Indians. They dropped to 78 wins last year, so while they were down, they weren’t that far down. The Twins have been a .500-ish club for a couple years, not gaining any ground on Cleveland but not floundering, either.
2.       They were 44-50 in the first-half, but after scuffling out of the gate in April (9-15 record), Minnesota played .500 ball through the rest of the season:
May: 13-15
June: 14-15
July: 14-13
Aug: 14-14
Sept: 15-13
That, my friends, is what consistency looks like. It’s not as compelling (or as exciting) an indicator as a team going on a 22-5 run over the last weeks of the season, but at least the Twins know how to split their contests.
3.       The Twins don’t have the best farm system in the majors, but they have one of the better systems, rated in the top-ten by most minor league analysts. They have some talent bubbling up, though no one on par with Vlad Guerrero Jr. or Nick Senzel or Garrett Hampson.
The Twins do have talent. They have perennial breakout candidate Bryon Buxton, who’s had a terrific spring this year. If the past is any kind of precursor, that means we can look forward to a sub-.200 average, and some terrific defense.
Minnesota has a legitimate ace in Jose Berrios, as good a candidate as anyone to break out and win a Cy Young Award. They have a quietly excellent bullpen. They have some young hitters who could take a step forward this year. They have no players like Mike Trout or Kris Bryant or Ronald Acuna…no one who seems likely to emerge as an MVP candidate…but they don’t have significant gaps on their roster.
And they have Willians Astudillo, who is perhaps the most interesting player in baseball right now. In case you haven’t heard of tortuga, he is a Venezuelan player with the approximate body shape of Pablo Sandoval, and an incredible penchant for almost never striking out or drawing a walk. He had 97 plate appearances in the majors, and struck out three times. He walked twice.
His batting line was .355/.371/.516.
Astudillo had a robust winter, narrowly losing the Venuzuelan Winter League MVP vote to Delmon Young. He played catcher, third, second, centerfield, leftfield, and pitcher in the majors last year, and was fantastic at everything except the pitching stuff.

I am rooting very hard for Astrudillo to get a chance. Baseball’s biggest problem is too many strikeouts and too many walks, outcomes that are uninteresting to a fan because they a) take too long, and b) end without action. If a player out of nowhere can find success with a contact-reliant approach, it might shift the paradigms of the sport away from its steady lean towards the three true outcomes.
It is a longshot, but Willians Astudillo could change the game. I hope he gets the chance.
Taking a wider view: the AL Central is a good division to try and sneak a pennant. I don’t include that factor in my considerations, but it’s true. Every other division in baseball has a few teams that you could reasonably imagine making a run in 2019. The AL Central doesn't: they have Cleveland, and then they have a bunch of teams that might do something. You could throw a dart at a board with the White Sox, Royals, Tigers, and Twins, and any team you hit would be an interesting candidate to surprise us. Our process says it’s Minnesota this year.
No team shows up as a particularly compelling candidate in the National League. The Mets are the closest among the losing teams, but I’m not picking them because a) I don’t think they’d really count as a ‘surprise’ team, and b) I’m not convinced they have much of a chance in the crowded NL East. So we’ll leave the NL out of it, and go with one selection for 2019.
Go, Twins, Go.
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments and questions on this site. He very occasionally tweets at DavidFlemingJ1.

COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

Even a broken clock is correct twice a day, SayHey.

I'm pleased, of course, but in hindsight it's not shocking that:

a) a surprise team has come out of the AL Central, and,
b) it's the Twins.

The division really had one 'strong' team coming into the year (Cleveland), and the Tribe seemed a little...wobbly? If you had to pick a team to pass them, the Twins looked like the best candidate.

That wasn't a factor in my choosing a surprise team, but it's not an astonishing turn of events in retrospect. Sports Illustrated made the same prediction, which I hadn't realized until after I posted the article.
2:58 PM Jun 5th
You're looking like a genius.
6:44 AM May 20th
I hadn't realized that SI had picked the Twins. They also do pretty well by the 538 baseball projections, too.
10:07 AM Mar 29th
Dammit: I wuz just gonna use the Twinkies as my big prediction to improve in your previous article.
1:43 AM Mar 28th
Sports Illustrated picked the Twins to win their division. However, your pick gives me more cause for optimism. Being a Twins fan I hope you are right. It could be a fun year in Minnesota. I will try not to get to excited until they are actually a few games above .500 and competing.
9:26 PM Mar 27th
I like the Mets chances to jump 15 wins or so, maybe wildcard.

They tied for the best division record in the second half, 38-30, and we didn't lose anybody significant. We added All Star caliber players in Lowrie, Ramos, Cano, Diaz and Familia.

I've seen the widespread opinion that we have the Top Three SPs, the occasional opinion that we have the top rotation period, and a repeated suggestion that the bullpen might be tippy top.

We have a lot of position flexibility and a bunch of veterans at AAA.

And, as importantly, we seem to have a GM in a hurry, a guy that is going to make moves when we develop holes.

Now, if I were doing this exercise I would start by looking at the divisions, and you picked a dandy. The NL East might make history by the Marlins losing 125 games....
6:40 PM Mar 27th
The indicator might be right, that the Padres are logically still a year away. But I can also see that they just added what, five players who upgrade their frontline talent?

Machado of course, and Tatis, and Urias at second base, and Paddack looks like he'll be terrific, plus Mejia behind the plate gives them one of the league's better catching tandems with Hedges.

If Hosmer continues his odd year-even year pattern, the Padre infield could be one of the best in the game, to go with a strong catching group. And they have five good options in the outfield, none over 27 years old.

I think Margot and Myers will play most days, with the other three fighting over what's left until somebody gets hurt or somebody -- most likely Margot -- fails to hit and they decide they need to add some offensive oomph and live with the defense. Cordero and Reyes both played several spring games in center.

The pitching staff isn't young, really -- Paddack, Nix and Lauer are 24, Strahm 28, Lucchesi 27 -- but they have made a combined 75 major league starts. Nix doesn't look like much -- doesn't miss bats -- but the other four look like they can hold their own.

The inexperience means the Padres will need a deep, effective bullpen, and it looks like they will. They go something like 11, 12 deep, so they can (1) pick and choose a little, and (2) maybe use the depth to flip for a veteran starter. I'd say a righthander, given that the Paddack is the only good rotation righty they have, but then again, they could sign lefty Keuchel if they are willing to give up a prime draft pick. If it's me, I wouldn't (not sure Keuchel is worth a top pick), but if the rest of the team jells at that talent togehter, they might be a veteran starter or two from serious contention.
4:25 PM Mar 27th
I like the Padresa lot...I think they could really surprise us. They called up Tatis Jr., which I heartily approve of, and they have a starter named Chris Paddack who is also slotting into the rotation: you should grab him if he's still available in your pretend baseball league. Paddack had a 120-8 K-BB ratio between A and AA last year (over 90 IP), and has been better this spring (20-2 K/BB, 14 IP). He's getting a slot in the rotation, and could be terrific.

The Padres didn't do well on any of our metrics except age and farm system, but they didn't do too badly, either. They were 12-15 in August and 12-13 in September, which isn't too bad, actually. They have plenty going for them, and I'd probably take them over the other NL teams. The system liked the Mets a little more on the basis of their second-half success (the Mets were 38-30) and some other factors, but I like the Padres chances better.

I like the Reds, and thought they'd show up on the top, but they were lousy down the stretch last year...a .350 club. It's a steep climb to .550, and the Senzel injury is a blow.

KC is a VERY interesting candidate to sneak in. I'm going to be watching a lot of Royals games this year, because they have a ton of burners (BH2, Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield) and Jacob Junis. The injury to Sal Perez hurts: he is such a center to that team, and it seems much less likely that they'll have a surprise year without him. The Royals actually went 15-13 in September, which is interesting. They under-performed their expected W-L by four games.

3:48 PM Mar 27th
I think you're right about the Mets. I'm an Indians fan so I hope the Twins keep it in check but frankly the AL Central is so anemic I'm a little worried about factories closing and stuff. All 5 teams are in the bottom half of payroll in MLB and it's just not a very 'vital' division at all. So I'm almost rooting for them just to give the Indians something to think about.
3:33 PM Mar 27th
I had no idea, when I got up this morning, that I was going to read the words "Delmon Young." For that, and that alone, Dave, thank you.

Plus, of course, the twin article to your bold predictions article, my two favorite BJOL events every year. :)

I agree 100 percent. Great job.

Ok, that's done, and that's boring. Let me try again.

I do agree with you that the AL Central is the place to be if you want to improve you winning percentage, and I'll double-down on you with Cleveland. Lindor had a setback today and Ramirez is dealing with a minor injury that nonetheless required him to be carried off the field.

Ramirez is supposed to be ok, but it's a stark reminder that the Indians offense is a stars and scrubs high-wire act. If either one -- or both, for chrissakes -- is not his best, durable self, the Indians could wind up with the weakest attack in what might be a historically weak division. The pitching looks like it'll be amazing, of course, but you can't win if you can't score at ALL.

I wrote elsewhere that I'm really high on the Reds, and you mentioned them as well. I'm a little less high at the moment, because of injuries to Senzel and Gennett, but I still think they'll be interesting. The Royals and White Sox could pull off 20-win improvements, but they'd still be mediocre. Of the two, the Royals are more likely, I suppose. The White Sox are still filling half their lineup with black holes.

But the team I'd pick over all others to improve by 20 games is the Padres. They are ridiculously young, but so were the Cubs (2015) and the Braves last year. They'd need to get to 86. I'm, curious how they stacked up on your template, Dave. What is missing with them, that they didn't measure up?

3:21 PM Mar 27th
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