Last year, it was the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics...
These two teams more or less shocked the baseball world in 2012. Every analyst, expert, and executive expected those two teams to be absolutely out of the running during the 2012 season. Both teams were very young and inexperienced, and regardless found a way to win 90+ games en route to playoff appearances.
Predicting who will end up coming out of nowhere and winning way more games than expected is an inexact science, but I am going to do my best to do just that, giving you three teams who could rise up from the ashes and see themselves in the 2013 Postseason.
American League: Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals
But wait...the American League Central?
Many pundits, and casual fans, consider the American League Central division the weakest in baseball. The Detroit Tigers have been the division's powerhouse for the past couple seasons with no signs of slowing down after signing Torii Hunter and Anibal Sanchez this offseason. However, there are two teams, if things go right for them, that could realistically challenge the Tigers for the division, or the very balanced AL East and AL West for the Wild Card.
Realistically speaking, there are five teams in the AL East that are potentially good enough to make the playoffs if things go right for them, and three teams in the AL West. These teams will all be beating each other up for a division crown, while one of these two teams, the Royals or Indians, will be beating up on the weaker AL Central teams to rack up their win total, so it's feasible to see one of these two teams wind up with a Wild Card berth.
What has to go right for the Indians?
The Indians are a team that had a surprisingly busy offseason. They appeared to be on the rebuilding edge as they shipped off Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati, but also signed free agent outfielders Nick Swisher and (unexpectedly) Michael Bourn, while also acquiring Trevor Bauer, a starting pitching prospect with a high ceiling. With Bourn at the top of that lineup, he will be giving pitchers fits at the plate and on the bases, providing the middle of that lineup: the likes of Swisher, Carlos Santana, and the newly signed Mark Reynolds, with plenty of opportunities. Their bullpen could potentially be lights-out, their problem is their rotation.
Their rotation is full of potential. At the top there is Ubaldo Jimenez, a pitcher with a 2010 so stellar you could have made an argument for him being the best pitcher in the game. He has struggled since being acquired by the Indians in 2011, and needs to turn it around and show he can keep his walk rate down and strikeout rate up. Justin Masterson needs to show that he is the pitcher he was in 2011, and Trevor Bauer needs to put together a solid rookie season in the rotation. If those things happen, expect the Indians to be in the mix for the AL Central and a Wild Card.
What has to go right for the Royals?
The Royals had an expectedly busy offseason. Promising their fanbase they'd improve their rotation, they went out and acquired Ervin Santana from the Angels, James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays, and signed Jeremy Guthrie, who had a stellar stint in Kansas City this summer, to a three-year deal. With what appears to be a solid rotation and solid bullpen, the attention turns to the health, and productivity, of their lineup.
The player I think is most important to the success of the Royals is Eric Hosmer. Hosmer put together a Rookie of the Year type campaign for the Royals in 2011, only to see himself really struggle in 2012. He needs to bounce back and be a huge force in that lineup for the Royals to be successful, especially to offset to the absence of Wil Myers, who will likely have a Rookie of the Year campaign for Tampa Bay this year. Salvador Perez, an über talented catcher with a very high ceiling, needs to stay healthy all year, and put up the numbers he's put up during his healthy stints for a full season. If they produce, they will be awfully tough to beat in 2013.
National League: Arizona Diamondbacks
This team is getting overlooked by just about everybody in baseball, and I think that's a huge mistake.
The Diamondbacks put together an awfully unorthodox approach to their 2012-2013 offseason, shipping off their best pitching prospect in Trevor Bauer, and their best player in Justin Upton. Arizona put together mediocre seasons in 2012, but I expect them to be in the thick of the National League playoff hunt.
What has to go right for the Diamondbacks?
Honestly, in my opinion, not a whole lot. This team is pretty well balanced. You look at their pitching staff, and sure, they lost Trevor Bauer, but their rotation depth is easily one of the game's deepest. Ian Kennedy, Brandon McCarthy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, and then one of Daniel Hudson, Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs, or Josh Collmenter. This team may have lost Trevor Bauer, but they have pitching depth worth bragging about, and their bullpen is also relatively deep through trades this offseason (Heath Bell, Tony Sipp). In my opinion, guys like Jason Kubel and Cody Ross have to replicate their 2012 numbers, Paul Goldschmidt needs to take a step forward in his offensive development, and Adam Eaton and Didi Gregorious need to have passable rookie campaigns, and this team will be right there in September.