Surprise possibilities abound heading into 2014
Past few seasons show dark-horse candidates could make unpredicted playoff runs
No one is picking the Milwaukee Brewers to win the World Series. So let's begin there. Could they do it? Absolutely. If you can't get your mind around that idea, you haven't taken a really good look at the Brewers, and you haven't been studying recent history.
There's a good chance we could have as many as 22 teams within shouting distance of a playoff berth on Labor Day. For some of those clubs -- clubs like the Brewers -- their hope is to be playing meaningful games in September.
The Rays and Cardinals came from 10 games back in the final weeks of the 2011 season. Thirteen different teams have been in at least one postseason series the past two seasons alone.
For a club like the Brewers, the goal is not to get buried in the first three months and then build some confidence in what they're doing. Every manager -- especially managers of clubs not expected to win the World Series -- should remind his guys that the Boston Red Sox were a nearly unanimous pick to finish last in the American League East last season.
The Red Sox didn't really argue with those last-place predictions because they didn't know how good they were. They had a new manager in John Farrell and a bunch of new players, and they had guys like David Ortiz, Jon Lester and John Lackey on a mission to reprove themselves.
The Brewers have little margin for error, and so a couple of things need to happen. One is that their stars need to perform like stars. That means you, Ryan Braun. You, too, Carlos Gomez. Same for Aramis Ramirez, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza.
The Brewers need plenty from their younger guys, too. Scooter Gennett is important. Khris Davis as well.
Jim Henderson needs to be reliable in the ninth inning, and then if all that happens, if the stars are stars and the kids are all right, the Brewers have a chance to hang right in there in the National League Central.
And then there are the Giants.
Virtually no one is picking them, but only a fool would overlook them. Let's say that Tim Lincecum re-emerges as a dominant pitcher and that Ryan Vogelsong returns to his 2012 form.
All of a sudden, you're looking at a team with a starting rotation that could carry the Giants deep into October.
Here's a more challenging one:
The Phillies are built for today. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has kept his veteran core players together, hoping for one more magical run. Even his offseason acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett reflect a win-now philosophy.
Let's say Ryan Howard discovers his power and Jimmy Rollins is his old dazzling self and Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Chase Utley all get it going.
The Phillies aren't as good as the Nationals and aren't going to finish in front of them in the NL East. But if the old guys have another run in them, and if they somehow steal one of those NL Wild Card berths, who knows what can happen?
The Royals aren't a terribly popular pick, either. But if you look at them from a certain angle, if you see the glass as being half-full, it's easy to project them into the postseason. They've got the basics covered. They've got the best defensive team in the game by miles. They've got a bona fide No. 1 starter in James Shields and a tremendous bullpen.
If they can keep catcher Salvador Perez on the field, and if they get solid seasons from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, the Royals are capable of rolling right into the postseason. Thanks to parity, these possibilities aren't just fun. They're also reasonable.
Unlike last spring, almost no one loves the Blue Jays. But the Blue Jays came out of Spring Training feeling good about things, and in the AL East, where they're a nearly unanimous pick to finish last, their goal is to get R.A. Dickey back to what he was in 2012 and to get a bunch of quality starts from Drew Hutchison, Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle.
If those things happen -- and it's not ridiculous to think they might -- the Blue Jays might just have a chance. In the AL East, they're the longest of long shots, but that's what the Red Sox were in 2013.
And here's one more: the Mets.
General manager Sandy Alderson had a nice offseason in adding Bartolo Colon, Chris Young and Curtis Granderson. Now he needs his homegrown starting pitchers -- Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Zack Wheeler -- to have breakthrough seasons. He also needs his No. 1 prospect, right-hander Noah Syndergaard, to be productive when he returns to the big leagues.
The Mets, like the Phillies, aren't going to finish in front of the Nationals, but they're an interesting team, and with Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Juan Lagares, they've got the potential to get better during the season.
(If they find some spare coins for shortstop Stephen Drew, they'd be a much easier club to pick, but that's another story.)
Now for the big picture. There are six teams that would surprise no one by winning the World Series. That would be the Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers in the NL and the Tigers, Rays and Red Sox in the AL.
But that's it.
This has been an odd Spring Training, with clubs like the Rangers, A's and Braves hit hard by injuries and giving the playoff races a different look.
Still, at least 16 other teams think they're good enough to be playing October baseball, and if some of those clubs -- for instance, the Brewers -- are in the mix in September, they could ride energy, momentum and newly found confidence into October.
Recent history tells us that at least one of those unheralded clubs is going to surprise us. But we've seen enough to know it can happen and that we shouldn't be all that surprised. All we should do is enjoy watching how it plays out.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.