You know who predicted the otherworldly rise of the 2021 San Francisco Giants? Nobody. Most people didn’t believe it even when it was halfway or even three quarters of the way done.
The preseason PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus saw a 75-87 season on the horizon. The Giants won 107 games, dethroning the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West title and stealing the San Diego Padres’ thunder as the presumed challenger. That, to put it lightly, was unexpected.
The Giants’ existence makes us wonder, naturally, whether there’s a team with a similar surprise up its sleeve in 2022. And frankly, most years the answer is no. The early 2010s Baltimore Orioles and mid-decade Kansas City Royals teams seemed to store projection-beating juju in their bullpens. PECOTA actually did see something in the 2021 Giants — spotting about a dozen above-average hitters in line for some playing time. The team accentuated that by coaxing career years from many of them and by utilizing platoons to put them in the best position to succeed. The 2022 group is again projected to fall in line behind the Dodgers and Padres, but we're going to let that play out again before ruling on how anomalous 2021 was.
In general, the numbers are the numbers for a reason. Trying to anticipate an unsung club following in San Francisco’s footsteps is essentially trying to predict the unpredictable. But there is usually something totally unforeseen that emerges in a summer of baseball. So let’s survey all the teams with sub-.500 projections and give ourselves three chances at a hit.
PECOTA projection: 77-85, 10.1% playoff odds
Count this partially as the narrative play. With the Minnesota Twins signing Carlos Correa and the Chicago White Sox riding high, the Guardians are certainly being overlooked. That is their own fault — quick, name your favorite offseason move — but spending and hype are not the only things that produce winning baseball teams.
Acknowledging the unnecessary thrift and moving past it, this franchise has a recent history of extreme competence. Last season was the first under manager Terry Francona where the club finished under .500 — and Francona missed about half the season with medical issues. He is back now, as are his clubhouse powers and extreme strategic habits. One of those habits? A constant pursuit of the platoon advantage.
Cleveland has the potential to platoon at three different spots should that prove advantageous. It won’t necessarily make better players of the extremely ramshackle group currently backing superstar Jose Ramirez in the lineup, but it could bring out their stronger suits. They also have some reinforcements coming. Contact-hitting outfielder Steven Kwan looks poised to make the roster after an offseason that saw him leap onto the FanGraphs top prospect list and charm projection systems. Several other potential contributors rank highly in the ZiPS system’s assessment of prospects, and there’s a chance Cleveland sees untapped potential in relatively recent trade acquisitions like speedy center fielder Myles Straw.
The pitching staff, lead by 2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and triple-digit-cutter-flinging closer Emmanuel Clase, already had the look of a competitive unit. (I’ll bet you did not realize that Cal Quantrill had a 2.89 ERA in 149 2/3 innings last year.)
This front office has repeatedly churned out surprisingly good pitchers. If the development success starts to bleed into the hitting department even a little bit, the Guardians could be in line to contend.
PECOTA projection: 78-84, 15.1% playoff odds
If you look around baseball for the best segment of a supposedly bad team, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better answer than the Marlins’ starting rotation. In a positively Cleveland-ish pattern, Miami has established itself as a legitimately good developer of pitching talent.
Sandy Alcantara has Cy Young-level stuff and proved himself as a 200-inning workhorse in 2021. Rookie of the Year runner-up Trevor Rogers posted a 2.64 ERA and more than 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his first full season. Behind them are a lot of good, young options — including injured former top prospect Sixto Sanchez — some of whom may be traded for hitting help as the rotation sorts itself out.
The hitting help … would probably be needed to truly contend. Adding Avisail Garcia and Jorge Soler in free agency helps, but they are complementary bats on an actually good team. Catcher Jacob Stallings, acquired from the Pirates in a trade, is also a very smart addition, but perhaps more so for how he will help get the most out of those talented pitchers.
The Marlins’ best-case scenario would involve Jazz Chisholm taking the extreme talents that helped him square up Jacob deGrom’s best fastball and employ them more consistently game to game. That’s certainly possible for the infectious middle infielder who just turned 24. They would also need someone else to take a leap. The best candidate is probably Jesus Sanchez, a 6-foot-3 outfielder who — like Chisholm — has struggled to make contact consistently.
PECOTA projection: 72-89, 3.1% playoff odds
Wait a second, you might be thinking, the Cubs just blew up their team eight months ago. And you’d be correct. The core that defined this team during and after its curse-breaking World Series run was mostly shown the door in a whirlwind week of trades last summer.
Left in its place? Willson Contreras, the excellent catcher, for one. Beyond him, the lineup consists mostly of second-tier or second-chance prospects (Frank Schwindel, Patrick Wisdom, Clint Frazier, Rafael Ortega) and veteran stopgaps (Yan Gomes, Jason Hayward, Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Villar).
But the front office, led by Jed Hoyer since Theo Epstein’s departure, has planted immediate seeds of contention. This is the parallel to the 2021 Giants. Everyone expected San Francisco’s Farhan Zaidi to burn the team to the ground when he took over as president of baseball operations. He declined to do that, partially because the players in place weren’t in much demand. The Cubs had a few highly sought after stars, and they moved them, but the timeline of the moves never pointed toward an extended run in the cellar.
Diminutive hitting machine Nick Madrigal will assume everyday second base duties. Marcus Stroman and his bowling ball sinker joined in free agency to bolster a rotation built (on the cheap) around inducing weak contact. Solid lefty Wade Miley arrived off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds. Frazier, the Yankees castoff, typifies a Giants-y move the Cubs made plenty of in seeking out potentially untapped talents to try while they have the roster space.
Most exciting was the team’s deal to bring in Seiya Suzuki, a superstar slugger of Japan’s NPB. Disappointing showings from other Japanese hitters give cause for pause, but projections adore Suzuki. Really, really adore him. If algorithms could blush, Suzuki would be inspiring some hot-faced equations. FanGraphs’ system is spitting out a .287 average with 30 homers, a .387 on-base percentage and 10 steals. PECOTA counts as modest for projecting him to bat .275 with 24 homers and a .901 OPS.
The pitching provides … fewer reasons to be excited. This staff will be led by Kyle Hendricks coming off the worst year of his career, and it could feature David Robertson (yes, the 37-year-old former Yankees star) as closer. It will rely on ground balls and aging arms more than anyone would advise. It is probably a fatal flaw.
Yet sometimes, something changes enough to turn probability on its head. If the Cubs are in the race in July, don’t be surprised if they make a full chase of it.