Outside of Arlington: From Outta Nowhere

Last week, I looked at five teams that are turning into huge disappointments, given the hype and the fanfare surrounding them. I figured I should look at the other side of the coin this week and look at five teams that were expected to be cellar-dwellers, but instead are turning heads and making people question their pre-season Vegas picks. These teams are either leading their division or are at least showing “those that know the game” that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Yes, baseball is a long season. There’s no way of knowing whether this type of success is going to hold up over the course of another four months. Look at 2014’s Milwaukee Brewers. They were in first place, either alone or tied, from April to August. The Major League season starts in April. It ends in September. Five months the Brew Crew was at the top of the NL Central, only to see it all collapse in a brief, three-week stretch from August to September that could not be overcome by the time the Bernie costume was hung up for the last time. Are these teams destined for that? Who knows? They could either be out of contention long before September, or in it until a heartbreaking finish. There’s that glimmer of hope that exists right now, though, that they could be playing past September.

5. Texas Rangers 27-26, 3rd in AL West, 6.5 games back

Is it a little homer-ish of me to put your Texas Rangers in an article labelled “Outside of Arlington”? Yes, but you can’t deny that given the way the team has played lately, with an injury list second only to last year’s team, JD’s crew is giving the rest of baseball a warning shot. Right now, 5.5 games behind Houston seems daunting (because are they ever going to stop? More on that later…), they’re only a half-game back of second place Los Angeles. If you’re into tracking this kind of thing this early in the season (I usually wait until after the trade deadline), they’re only a half-game out of a Wild Card spot. For a team that went 6-14 in April, resulting in a national writer call for a fire sale, that’s pretty ridiculous.

The Texas team, led by Jeff Banister in the Captain’s chair, went on an offensive tear after that fateful off-day signaling the end of the first month of baseball. The sweep in Houston did wonders for the team’s cohesiveness and confidence, and Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo started to find their swings. Delino DeShields began forcing his name into the lineup every single day by being more a spark plug than anyone could have ever imagined (although he still needs to give up #7). The team’s best stretch came on the road in Boston, New York and Cleveland – along the way, they picked up some cat named Josh Hamilton, who has already been worth his price tag. Third place? Sure, that doesn’t sound attractive on paper. But as we’ve already seen with the teams in last week’s article, paper doesn’t always predict. Hashtag Never, Ever Quit.

4. Tampa Bay Rays 28-26, 2nd in AL East, 1 game back

This is the team that lost Joe Maddon. They didn’t have much else coming into this season, so when the Rays brought on the youngest manager in baseball, Kevin Cash, expectations were pretty low. One of their key relievers, former closer, Grant Balfour had been dealing with his father’s death in Australia during Spring Training and had been DFA’d by the team shortly after the season started. Behind Evan Longoria, the Rays’ most potent offensive weapon was Asdrubal Cabrera. After that, the drop off was steep.

Yet, with Brad Boxberger holding down the back end of the bullpen, the emergence of Tim Beckham, and Steven Souza, Jr., and that signature “won’t go away” stubbornness, the Rays are right in the thick of things. Perhaps it’s that manager Kevin Cash, only five years removed from his playing days, is on the same level as his players and can relate to them more. Maybe it’s that rotation, fronted by Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi (the other guy in that Wil Myers deal), backed up by that bullpen, with Boxberger and Jake McGee and Xavier Cedeno. Or maybe, it’s just that the Rays, always that team that sneaks up on you at the end of the season and makes you realize that there’s still a full 162 (sometimes one more) games to be played.

3. New York Mets, 29-25, 2nd in NL East, 1/2 game back

Meet the Mets, indeed. While the big buzz coming out of Spring Training was how best to manage one Matt Harvey, the lurking conversation was that the “other New York team” might actually be good this year. The biggest black hole for the team was the defense in the middle of the infield, a combination of Wilmer Flores and Daniel Murphy that many pundits said could not possibly be part of a playoff team. If you looked around the rest of the diamond, however, the Mets look pretty good. Even factoring in the possibility that The Captain, David Wright, might not return this year, it looks like Terry Collins’ team might be able to float by with Eric Campbell and Ruben Tejada at third base until the trading season approaches. If New York can hang with the Washington Nationals for another month, Sandy Alderson might be persuaded to go grab a person for the left side of the infield.

It’s a toss-up between whether the Mets’ offense or starting pitching has been the biggest key to this team’s success. After bringing up Noah Syndergaard, the rotation of Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Thor, Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon is pretty stout. Now that the team is going to a six-man rotation to preserve the Dark Knight’s arm and control Syndergaard’s development, the starting six (including Dillon Gee) might have the combined stamina to make it through September. Expect a couple of weeks of off performances by “the kids” as they adjust to the extended rest period, but once they get in the swing of things, that could be one of the constants of the team. Offensively, the Mets are getting clutch hits and big bombs from those they’re leaning on. Lucas Duda, firmly cemented as the first baseman, has been a huge power threat. Michael Cuddyer has added a more consistent power element to the outfield. The next month or so will bring a true test for the Amazings, as they see how they can fare without Wright for an extended period of time.

2. Houston Astros, 34-20, 1st in AL West, 6 games ahead

Seriously. These Astros. The Astros that just a couple of short seasons ago racked up 111 losses are now in first place in the AL West. Sure, the rest of the division is underperforming, but for how many years were the Astros in that spot? The time was always coming for Houston, ever since Reid Ryan took over the organization and focused on building up the farm system. It was just a matter of time before all of their kids broke down the door and started bringing the attention to South Texas. Let’s not forget the moves that Jeff Luhnow made in the off season, moves that some argued won them the Winter and have actually paid the expected dividends. The biggest flaw from 2014’s team? The bullpen. What did the team do in the Winter? They acquired Pat Neshek, Joe Thatcher and Luke Gregerson to augment the bullpen. The front office also grabbed some proven offensive power in Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus. It’s been the homegrown kids, though, that have made the biggest difference.

From the always All-Star Jose Altuve, to Dallas Keuchel and Brett Oberholtzer, to the quicker-than-expected success of George Springer and Jon Singleton, it’s been the products of the farm that have helped send this Astros team, well, into orbit. Keuchel has been on another planet, boasting a 1.76 ERA in his eleven starts and a sub-one WHIP in a bid to start the All-Star game for the American League. The right moves were made by the front office to balance veteran players with outstanding rookies and young players, which has resulted in an American League best record. Can the inexperienced players hold up through the length of a full season? That’s going to be the big question as the Astros roll along. Sports Illustrated made a call for the Astros being the 2017 World Series Champions…that time may have just come up a little sooner.

1. Minnesota Twins, 31-21, 1st in AL Central, Tied for First

The fact that SI made that magazine cover, which showed that everyone knew Houston would be a contender eventually, is what placed them at #2 in exceeding expectations. But the Minnesota Twins, who are leading the American League Central without any national attention whatsoever, are easily the biggest surprise of the year. The Twins are playing in a division where every other team – White Sox, Indians, Royals, Tigers – was considered a first place worthy team, while Minnesota was assumed to be a fifth place team, no matter which way you cut it. Here they are, though, owners of the AL’s second best record and defying logic.

Under new manager Paul Molitor, and sporting just two “star power” names in Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter, the Twins are leading the division by doing absolutely nothing spectacular. They are sitting in the middle of the pack in just about every major offensive category (ranking 5th in batting average, but about 8 or 9 everywhere else), every pitching metric, and every defensive stat. Somehow, they’ve been able to win at the right times, taking advantage of the fact that the rest of the AL Central is, in fact, underperforming. Their starting rotation, featuring Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Mike Pelfrey, and Trevor May, features the best ERA of the AL Central, which might have something to do with it, but the bullpen has been lockdown, utilizing Glen Perkins, Casey Fien(who was out for May) and Blaine Boyer to this stat: The Twins haven’t lost a game when leading after five innings. Is it the vibe? Is it being underrated? Is it the division? Whatever it is, it’s working for Minnesota. It’s working, and it’s weird.

Which team has been a pleasant surprise for you? Which of the above teams is more likely, in your eyes, to keep it up and ride their season into October? Let us know below.

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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