May 11, 2021

Which Surprise MLB Teams Are Contenders or Pretenders?

By the middle of May, we’ve seen just enough of the MLB season to think we know how the season will unfold. At the same time, there’s just enough time left in the season for everything we think that we know to be proven wrong.

Naturally, there have been some surprises early in the season with several teams out-performing preseason expectations. But are these teams for real or will they inevitably fade the deeper we get into the season? Obviously, only time will tell for sure. However, let’s take what we think we know about the MLB season thus far and assess what surprise teams are for real and which are just pretenders.

Boston Red Sox

Nearly six weeks into the season, the Red Sox have the best record in baseball despite finishing last in the AL East during the shortened 2020 season. Maintaining that record will be difficult in a division that sent three teams to the postseason last year. But the Red Sox should be commended for taking advantage of the Yankees and Rays getting off to slow starts.

A year ago, Boston’s offense was far from the problem and the Red Sox have been even better this year. J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers all have an OPS over .900, so the middle of the order is exceptional with Martinez showing signs of being an MVP candidate. Alex Verdugo and Christian Vasquez have also been good contributors while the bottom half of the order has some potential with Martin Gonzalez, Bobby Dalbec, Hunter Renfroe, and Franchy Cordero.

Of course, the biggest reason for Boston’s turnaround has been the team’s pitching staff. Nick Pivetta has been a revelation while Eduardo Rodriguez is also performing like a frontline starter. The rest of the rotation has been solid but unspectacular, but there is also a chance that Chris Sale returns before the end of the season.

On the whole, Boston’s pitching is middle of the pack, but that’s good enough for a team that’s among the best in the majors at scoring runs.

Verdict: Contender

Kansas City Royals

The Royals have been in rebuilding mode for a few years and are perhaps a little ahead of schedule right now. Before a recent eight-game losing streak, Kansas City was first in the AL Central and looked like they might have staying power. Obviously, the eight-game losing streak is a concern, but the Royals were six games over .500 at the end of April.

Pitcher Danny Duffy and Brady Singer have been leading the way for the Kansas City rotation. Duffy has been largely average in recent years, only to look reinvigorated early in 2021. Singer, meanwhile, was a high draft pick in 2018 who looks like he’s having a breakout season.

The problem for the Royals is that the rest of the rotation isn’t getting the job done. The fifth spot remains up for grabs and there are only a few relievers in the Kansas City bullpen who have been reliable early in the season.

The good news is that the Kansas City lineup has plenty of potential and could overcome a lack of pitching. Carlos Santana and Salvador Perez have been a formidable duo while Whit Merrifield is capable of doing a lot more.

Andrew Benintendi is also starting to provide a little more, giving the Royals more lineup depth. However, Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier are both hitting under .200 while Michael Taylor has cooled off after a fast start.

If those guys come around, the Royals might be able to stay in contention in a wide-open AL Central. But with questions about their pitching as well, there might be too many variables for Kansas City to replicate its April success all season.

Verdict: Pretender

San Francisco Giants

Despite finishing just two games under .500 last year, nobody expected the Giants to be anywhere close to the Dodgers and Padres in the NL West this season. Alas, nearly six weeks into the season, it’s San Francisco that sits atop the division with the Dodgers and Padres playing catch up. In fact, the Giants hit 20 wins faster than any other NL team other than the Cardinals. 

San Francisco is probably the biggest surprise in baseball to this point but a team that might have staying power.

Thus far, it’s mostly been about pitching for the Giants. The San Francisco rotation has the third-best ERA in the NL, doing so behind an unlikely group of starters. Kevin Gausman has been even better than last year while Anthony DeSclafani has gone from the scrap heap of the free-agent market to a frontline starter. The same can be said of Alex Wood while Aaron Sanchez is enjoying a renaissance of his career. Plus, don’t forget about Johnny Cueto, who has been solid and helps give the Giants quality depth in the back end of the rotation.

Offensively, we still have some questions. Veteran catcher Buster Posey is batting .400 and looks nearly a decade younger. But how long can he keep that up? Evan Longoria has also had a great season while Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford have both heated up in May. All of those players are deep into their 30s, so one has to question whether it’s been a few good weeks or if that entire quartet can keep it going all season.

The Giants have yet to get that much from Mike Yastrzemski, Tommy La Stella, or Austin Slater, so if their veterans drop off, how will they score runs?

That being said, the Giants are getting good performances from their starting pitchers almost every game, and that will be able to keep them in contention all season after a surprising start.

Verdict: Contender

Seattle Mariners

The AL West has been full of surprises, chaotic starts, and teams that go back and forth between being red-hot and ice cold. But the Mariners have been surprisingly steady through the first part of the season and currently sit a game over .500, just 2.5 games off the pace in the division. To be fair, Seattle was only six games under .500 in 60 games last year, but few expected the Mariners to make much noise in the AL West in 2021.

While the jury is still out, Seattle’s bullpen has been good enough to keep them in contention to this point. The Mariners have six or seven pitchers coming out of the bullpen who have been consistent, which is more than most teams can say. Meanwhile, the Seattle rotation has been largely unspectacular, especially after losing James Paxton. But Chris Flexen and Justin Dunn have been surprisingly consistent while Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield have both had their moments. If that rotation continues to improve, it could end up being a great complement to a strong bullpen.

Of course, the Mariners will need to find a way to create a lot more offense. Right now, Mitch Haniger is the only regular with an OPS over .800. Kyle Seager has provided some power while Ty France has gotten hot at times. But overall, Seattle’s younger hitters have been a disappointment.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis is starting to hit, but players like Dylan Moore, Evan White, and Taylor Trammell haven’t hit at all. That’s something that has to change, and the sooner the better.

A solid rotation and an above-average bullpen won’t be enough to carry Seattle all season, so unless the Mariners get more from their young hitters, they’re destined to fall behind at some point.

Verdict: Pretender

Photo: Getty Images