MLB Coverage: Four World Series Longshots

Last season it was the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s who came from off the grid, so to speak, and shocked the baseball world with a push into the playoffs and each reached the decisive game of the Division Series round before falling. Are there any such candidates for a similar stunning season in 2013?

Well, if we could say with certainty, they wouldn’t be shockers. But we can at least assess the teams at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to the early betting odds in Las Vegas. TheSportsNotebook’s preseason MLB coverage will therefore focus on the four teams with the longest World Series odds. That’s Miami and Colorado in the National League, along with Minnesota and league-jumping Houston in the American League.

Minnesota: I’m leading off with the Twins because I consider them the most credible candidate to have a surprise playoff run. Joe Mauer got his on-base percentage back up to the .400-plus levels he was producing during his MVP year of 2009 and the seasons leading up to it. Now, the Twins need Justin Morneau to follow suit. The one-time MVP at first base has teased at different points over the last two years, with stretches of hitting suggesting he might return to a level of play we haven’t seen since 2010. But Morneau hasn’t put together a good full season yet. That has to change if the Twins are to effect a turnaround.

Josh Willingham had a big year in 2012 and even if the 34-year-old can’t replicate his .366 on-base percentage/.524 slugging percentage stat line, or his 35 home runs, he’s still a solid all-around bat. Willingham is also a valuable trade chip if the season doesn’t go well. He’s joined in the lineup by young third baseman Trevor Plouffe, who showed he could hit for power last year, and now just needs to develop some plate discipline.  There is considerable pressure on the four players mentioned—Mauer, Morneau, Willingham and Plouffe—to produce, because the holes elsewhere in the lineup are substantial.

Minnesota made a nice acquisition of young Philadelphia Phillies’ starter Vance Worley, who pitched well, but was always getting angled out of work by the Phils’ veteran aces and their need to win right now. Worley has a terrific shot at building a solid career in Minnesota. The same goes for Scott Diamond, who pitched well for Minnesota last year and just needs to get recovered from an elbow injury. He may miss the start of the season, but current reports don’t have him out much longer than that. After these two, the Twins need the young duo of Liam Hendriks and Cole DeVries to build off some promising showings in limited action last year, or for a veteran like a Brian Duensing or Mike Pelfrey to show they can revive their career. The bullpen isn’t spectacular, but it has enough arms to be competitive.

The Twins Over/Under number on wins this year is 68.5. Last season I was vocal that the team would easily go Over a 73.5 number and I was vocally wrong. I’ll be a little quieter about it this time around, but I’m still going Over. And if Detroit falters in the AL Central, it’s anybody’s guess who picks up the pieces. That’s the scenario that makes Minnesota’s 60-1 odds to win the American League pennant, or 125-1 to win it all, interesting.

Houston: There’s no team that the Las Vegas oddsmakers are more pessimistic on. The 300-1 odds to win the World Series are tied with Miami for the longest, and the Over/Under number of 59 for wins is the lowest on the board. The Astros earned that pessimism with their play last year and now they have to get familiar with a new league—plus find another bat to be the DH. But all isn’t necessarily lost.

Houston has a nice group of developing offensive players. Jose Altuve is a good-hitting second baseman, while Justin Maxwell and Fernando Martinez are respectable in the outfield. Even better is the acquisition of Chris Carter from Oakland. The leftfielder posted a .350/.514 stat line in a park that’s very tough to hit. Now he comes to hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park and has a chance to really see his career take off.

The corner infield has definite potential in Brett Wallace and Matt Dominguez. With Wallace, his 26-years-old now, and I’d like to see him move beyond potential and into performance. Dominguez is 23 and merits a little more patience. If they can come through, Houston will be able to score runs.

Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Philip Humber make for an interesting top three in the rotation. All are in the 28-30 age range, so we can’t just slap the potential label on them. But each has shown enough actual performance to give some hope. Norris is two years removed from a 3.77 ERA. Harrell isn’t far from respectability. And Humber had been good with the White Sox until he pitched a perfect game last April and then saw his season fall apart. It’s realistic to think that all three of these pitchers could be respectable, and then you have highly regarded 22-year-old Jordan Lyles developing in the four-spot.

It’s the bullpen that’s going to be the problem. Jose Veras is 32-years-old, spent his career as a setup or middle relief man and has been mostly mediocre. As a reward, he’ll be the closer in Houston. Good luck with that. I’m guessing 28-year-old Wesley Wright, an arm that’s actually been effective at the major league level ends up with the job by the All-Star break.

Even if Veras and Wright make an effective combo, there’s no depth in front of them. The pitchers aren’t going seven innings strong and even if they could, these relievers can’t pitch every night. If you hang with Houston through six innings, you’ll win a lot of games. That’s why I’m still going Under on their wins, even knowing that requires a 104-loss campaign.

Miami: What a difference a year makes. From being considered a legitimate World Series contender at this time last year, to 300-1 shots this time around, the Marlins have fallen hard. If they’re going to surprise everyone, a la their World Series years of 1997 and 2003, it starts with rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton. He’s hit 71 home runs in the last two years and is a bona fide star. After that, the Miami offense needs Logan Morrison to return to 2010 form when he was a good all-around offensive player. Centerfielder Justin Ruggiano had a good year in 2012, but that was limited duty (288 at-bats) and it was the first sign of anything at age 31. It smells like a fluke.

The rest of the lineup is a mix of very young—catcher Rob Brantly and second baseman Donovan Solano have potential—and very old, where third baseman Placido Polanco hasn’t had a good year since 2008 and the Marlins are hoping Juan Pierre in left can replicate his .351 OBP of a year ago.

It’s all about development in the starting pitching. Miami will count on young arms in Henderson Alvarez, Nate Eovaldi and Jacob Turner to come through, or at least give signs that they might come through in a future year. I like all three arms—whether they all come together in the same year is another question, but I think this pitching staff looks good for the long haul. For the short haul, the need Ricky Nolasco to get his career turned around, or a reclamation project like a Kevin Slowey or John Maine to be able to help. The bullpen will be anchored by Steve Chisek, who was pretty good after taking over for Heath Bell a year ago. The setup crew is anyone’s guess, but keep an eye on Dan Jennings. He’s a live young arm who had a buck-89 ERA in 19 innings last year.

The win prop number is 63.5, and I like the pitching here enough to go over. I’m not suggesting anyone run out and buy a longshot ticket on the playoffs or World Series—not in the NL East—but Miami has often played above expectations in years like this.

Colorado: Of all the longshots we’re talking about here today, Colorado is the one with the best offense. Granted, playing in Coors Field probably has a lot to do with that, but there’s a core of proven offensive talent that can hit anywhere. I refer to a healthy Troy Tulowitzki at short, Carlos Gonzalez in left, and Dexter Fowler in center. The latter is a quality table-setter and Tulowitzki and Gonzalez can both hang up MVP numbers.

Then you slide in complementary pieces like Michael Cuddyer in right field and young Wilin Rosario behind the plate. Both are a little unstable when it comes to consistently getting on base, but they do hit for power. Josh Rutledge and Chris Nelson at second and third base are each good young bats. They too, need to be more consistent just grinding out walks and getting on base, but like Rosario, they’re also young and can learn.

Todd Helton is listed as the starting first baseman, but you have to think this is it for the veteran first baseman. His production fell off badly last year and there are viable replacements. Cuddyer can play first base, and bench players like Jordan Pacheco and Eric Young are versatile enough to play anywhere. Tyler Colvin could also vie for time in the outfield and create room for Cuddyer to make a move. However when it shakes out, we’re likely looking at the end of a great career with Helton.

How many games will they win? The posted number is 71.5, the highest of the four teams discussed here. It depends a lot on the health of Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin, both of whom are coming back from injuries. In fact, you can reasonably argue that this franchise has not been the same since de la Rosa went down in the first half of 2011 with the Rockies still a solid contender in the NL West. The depth in the rotation is dependent on a young arm I like in Drew Pomeranz, along with Tyler Chatwood. Another young pitcher, Juan Nicasio, has been disappointing, but has time to turn his career back around.

Rafael Betancourt saved 31 games last year and is the anchor of a bullpen that should be pretty decent, with Wilton Lopez and Matt Belisle in front of him.

Colorado’s formula for success is simple—hit their way into games, get good bullpen work and count on de la Rosa and Chacin being healthy. If they do that, they’ll go Over on the win number and could play their way into contention. I’m taking the Over, but without enthusiasm—I’m just concerned about the likelihood of the veteran pitchers’ health. But getting to 72-90 isn’t asking the Rocks to scale Mount Everest, so I’ll take my chances.