American League Darkhorses

TheSportsNotebook’s MLB spring training previews have included separate articles on the ten teams in the American League who either made the postseason in 2013, were right in the race to the end or at least should have been the race to the end. That leaves five darkhorses left on the board.

What’s listed below are the five American League darkhorses and their betting odds to both win the World Series, along with their Over/Under on the win props. We then offer a few brief comments on what might need to break right. I’ve chosen to focus on the positive with these teams because the track record tells us we can assume the negative. Thus, it makes sense to keep our eye on what might make break the mold.

One thing that doesn’t make sense is that two of the teams that got separate previews have World Series odds amongst the darkhorses. The Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians are each disrespected enough to be among these five in the eyes of Las Vegas, although not in the eyes of TheSportsNotebook. A true darkhorse offers both long betting odds and a recent track record of disappointment, and these are the five that qualify.

Toronto Blue Jays (50-1, 79.5): I like the way Colby Rasmus stepped up and slugged .501 last year. The 27-year-old centerfielder, whose career has been a roller coaster, has the talent to stabilize and be a regular contributor to a lineup that already includes Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes. The Jays need for third baseman Brett Lawrie to follow suit and start performing up to the expectations that accompanied him into the major leagues.

Download Red Sox Revival from Amazon today

Starting pitching is a problem, but if you can envision R.A. Dickey or Mark Buerhle having one big last hurrah season, that could change the equation for Toronto. Buerhle’s been settled in for a while as more a steady innings-eater than anyone who’s likely to have a huge year. Dickey is a different story. I wasn’t surprised by his struggles last year, but his 4.21 ERA still wasn’t terrible and if the veteran can get his knuckler to dance for one last ride, the Blue Jays can get in the race.

On paper, I look at this team and see at least one that could get a little bit over .500 if not make the playoffs. But with the schedule that includes 72 games against the AL East quartet of Boston, New York, Tampa Bay and Baltimore, it’s tough to see Toronto breaking in. And if the starting pitching collapses—a realistic possibility—than the house of cards really tumbles. Consequently, I’d lean to the Under.

Chicago White Sox (50-1, 74.5): The South Side of Chicago is witnessing a massive renovation project, the kind old Richard Daley Sr. might have overseen, as he made sure the work fell in the hands of the right contractors. At least the White Sox have some pitching going for them, with Chris Sale at the top of the rotation. If Felipe Paulino and Jose Quintana come through, Chicago will have a genuinely solid rotation.

What they aren’t going to do is score a lot of runs, unless a whole lot of kids all come through together. I suppose it’s not unheard of, but nor is it something you bet on happening in March. The transition from Paul Konerko to Jose Abreu at first is symbolic of what’s taking place in the lineup as a whole.

You know in spite of this, I’m going to lean ever so slightly to the Over 74.5. The reason is simple—I do think the starting pitching is going to be pretty good and I think this team is going to play hard. That can at least get you into the high 70s for wins.

Seattle Mariners (50-1, 81): The Mariners made the big offseason splash when they signed second baseman Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees. There’s no question Cano is going juice up an offense that was terrible last season, but he’s going to need some help. The candidate to step up would be Justin Smoak at first base. I’m not optimistic, but we’ve hit this theme for three years now, and the most we’ve seen is Smoak hit 20 home runs and slug .412 last year. But that was a tiny amount of improvement, and at 27-years-old, it’s not unreasonable he could still bloom.

Seattle can pitch, with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, although the latter is dealing with a hand injury and questionable to open the season. If this was an amateur men’s league that played a couple times a week for seven innings, these two alone would have been enough to win a bunch of 2-1 games.

Unfortunately, when you want to win with pitching, it doesn’t do a lot of good when your bullpen is awful, and Seattle’s was just that in 2013. To that end, the Mariners added Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney. I suppose it’s odd that a team with a bad bullpen acquired a closer off a bad year, but Rodney was spectacular in 2012.

I still have to go Under 81. The offense has too many question marks, I don’t consider Cano a real leader and if Iwakuma can’t replicate his performance of last year, things could get ugly. The Over/Under for this team is a straight referendum on whether they’ll have a winning season and I say they aren’t very good.

Minnesota Twins (125-1, 71): Joe Mauer is switching from catcher to first base, which will help the long-term health of the player the franchise has tied up so much money in. Minnesota is also still hanging on to veteran outfielder Josh Willingham who has nice power, and I’m surprised hasn’t been dealt at either of the two last July 31 trade deadlines. Jason Kubel, a veteran DH, can also hit, as can young third baseman Trevor Plouffe.

Can the Twins get starting pitching? That’s going to depend on a top three of Ricky Nolasco, Kevin Correia and Phil Hughes, who gets a second chance at a career in the rotation after inconsistency in the Bronx. This is an interesting top three, and it’s feasible to see them all coming through and Minnesota having a winning season. The flip side is that “interesting” isn’t a word managers like to hear when it comes to the foundation of their pitching staff.

I’ve gotten burned on being optimistic about this team the past two seasons, but I am still going Over 71. In this case optimism doesn’t mean any more than saying they’ll go 72-90

Houston Astros (250-1, 62.5): I really like young second baseman Jose Altuve, and left fielder Robbie Grossman is another everyday player with some promise. Chris Carter, the first baseman/DH, has nice power and needs to improve his plate discipline and on-base percentage. I like young starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, and that the team went out and signed legitimate major league veterans in centerfielder Dexter Fowler and starting pitcher Scott Feldman.

The mere fact that we utter the sentence “signed legitimate major league veterans” still underscores how bad this lineup is top-to-bottom. The Astros are getting better, but they’re starting at somewhere below the bottom of the barrel. The 62.5 win number is really a question that asks whether or not this team will lose 100 games again. The answer is still yes.

If these five teams were a division of their own, Toronto would be the best of the group. But in the real world, the Blue Jays’ chances of making the playoffs in the AL East might be even longer than everyone else’s. While I wouldn’t actually predict any of these teams to make the postseason—final picks will go up Monday morning prior to the first pitches of Opening Day—if I had to take a flyer on a surprise entrant in October, it would be the White Sox.