Last season’s condensed Major League Baseball season, combined with an expanded playoff, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a challenge, but it also created a lot more unpredictability and excitement than a typical 162-game season generates.
Several teams that made the playoffs would qualify as “surprises.” The Miami Marlins were widely predicted to be among the worst teams in baseball in previews before the season started, but somehow managed to finish two games above .500 in a loaded division and make the playoffs, even if they had a –41 run-differential.
Three young teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox, and San Diego Padres, all exceeded expectations by making the playoffs a bit sooner than expected.
And an old team, the Houston Astros, were a game away from the World Series, nearly pulling off a comeback from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to the Tampa Rays before losing game seven in a season that Houston was widely expected to fall out of contention.
MLB decided against continuing the expanded playoff format that allowed several of those teams to get into the postseason last season, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially some teams that could exceed expectations and contend. Here are five to watch as the season approaches.
Philadelphia Phillies: Philadelphia was fourth in the National League in runs scored last season, and their starting pitching was also strong. Their bullpen … was not. Philadelphia had one of the worst bullpens in baseball, but addressed it in the offseason by adding Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler, and Tony Watson.
The Phillies only had a –5 run-differential last season, which was the second-best in their division. A three-game losing streak to end the season probably cost them a playoff spot.
Philadelphia has a legit MVP candidate in Bryce Harper, and they’re the type of team that should dramatically improve its odds at the playoffs by playing a full season rather than a condensed one.
Milwaukee Brewers: Christian Yelich is a 29-year-old former MVP who just could not get going at the plate last season. He hit just .205 for Milwaukee. The Brewers finished fourth in the NL Central, but just two games behind St. Louis and Cincinatti.
Yelich is a good candidate for a bounce-back season, as his age and production prior to last season, along with the fact that he doesn’t really have a significant injury history, should have him back hitting around .300 with his customary power.
Beyond Yelich, Milwaukee has two great starters in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, and they upgraded their defense with Jackie Bradley and Kolten Wong.
Lastly, playing in maybe the most mediocre division in baseball means it won’t take much to break through and exceed their performance last season.
Washington Nationals: Injuries and slumps prevented the Nationals from getting back to the playoffs last season to defend their 2019 World Series title, but a lot of the stars from that team are still around and should have Washington competitive again.
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin might be the best top three in the rotation in the division (other than maybe the Mets). They also added Jon Lester to add depth behind that top three.
The offense should also be solid. Juan Soto and Trea Turner are stars, and they added Kyle Schwarber’s power to the lineup as well.
The Nats finished last in the NL East last season, but their 301 runs allowed were actually second in the division. If they can keep everyone relatively healthy, look for them to threaten for the division title again.
Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox probably won’t contend in a loaded AL East, with the Yankees and Blue Jays both improved and the Rays likely to still hang around in contention despite losing key players from their World Series runner-up.
But the Red Sox have Alex Cora back as manager, and they also have young stars who under-performed last year in Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez. All three should have bounce-back seasons.
Boston’s pitching is shaky at best, but if they’re even average, Boston should be much more competitive than last season.