Pinpointing dark horses in any sport is difficult, but it’s especially tough in MLB, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots seems to widen every summer.
Occasionally, those sleepers are worst-to-first stunners like the 2013 Boston Red Sox. It’s more likely, however, the teams that sneak up on the sport’s elite come from baseball’s middle class. That middle class is shrinking, however, thanks in large part to the sport’s economic system and the recent success of a club like Houston, which set the standard for tanking.
But that won’t stop us from trying to look smart. Here are a handful of teams who could surprise their rivals in the 2021 MLB season.
The National League East is a loaded division. There’s no denying that. The Mets and Braves are both 10-1 to win the World Series, and the Nationals have superstar talent poised for a breakout. But don’t sleep on Philly, which should contend as long as its starting pitching stays healthy. The Phillies ranked sixth in MLB in starters’ FIP and third in WAR in the truncated 2020 season. There will be series when Philadelphia can throw Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin at its opponents. The Phillies should score, too, with a lineup anchored by J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins. Alec Bohm is coming off a promising rookie season, too. The big question, though, is whether the bullpen can be better than it was a season ago. The early indications are that it will be, highlighted by the Archie Bradley addition. They’ll get leads, and if they can hold them late, the Phillies will be in the mix to win a loaded NL East.
Kansas City Royals
All right, let’s go a little deeper with this one. Perhaps the biggest advantage the Royals have is the division in which they play. The American League Central doesn’t have a team like the Dodgers or Yankees or even the Braves that looks like a runaway winner. It’s a fairly wide-open division. It might be a year early for a team like KC, but there’s no denying the talent and potential on the roster. There’s some veteran leadership in Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez, with the former’s biggest strength being his versatility and the latter still being among baseball’s best catchers. But Jorge Soler has plenty of pop, as does Carlos Santana. A bounce-back season from newly acquired Andrew Benintendi sure would help, and Adalberto Mondesi is a table-setter who can fly. The question mark is the pitching, but adding Mike Minor to the mix should help a rotation anchored by Brad Keller and Jakub Junis. The floor for the staff might not be very high, but some progression for the younger guys could certainly make KC competitive. There also are some intangibles at play. Manager Mike Matheny has helped improve the culture (with big goals for his club in 2021), and we could even see this team get a shot in the arm at some point during the season if and when it recalls super-prospect Bobby Witt Jr. from the minors.
Los Angeles Angels
For starters, the Angels have Mike Trout. That seems good. The biggest issue the Halos have had in the Trout Era is a lack of pitching. Some of that has been due to incompetence and some of it has to do with bad luck. They made some intriguing offseason moves, signing Jose Quintana and trading for Alex Cobb. Perhaps both of their best days are behind them, but it should be an upgrade. Where the rotation could really see an improvement is with Shohei Ohtani. If he’s back and effective, things could get really interesting for LA, especially with how good he’s been this spring. Going out and getting Raisel Iglesias from the Reds gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen, too. The pitchers should also benefit from an elite defensive infield that was able to replace defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons with Jose Iglesias. It’s going to be hard to get anything between him and Anthony Rendon on the left side of that infield. Much like the Royals, the Angels could also benefit from a midseason infusion of youthful talent from top prospect Jo Adell. Oh, and also: Mike Trout.