MLB Sleepers: Who will be this year’s Giants, Rangers, Reds, Rays and Padres?

Sleepers can come in a variety of forms. Not all of them win the World Series, or their division, or even make the postseason for that matter. But all sleepers do have one thing in common: They do something unexpected.

The five sleepers listed below all did something unexpected in 2010. Let’s recap.

Giants: The team that seemingly came out of nowhere to win the World Series on the strength of their young pitching and a bunch of hitters that got red-hot at the right time.

Rangers: The team that everyone knew had talent to reach the postseason but were still hesitant about predicting them to win the division.

Reds: The youngish team that everyone knew would eventually compete, but were surprised to see that “eventually” meant 2010.

Rays: The team that people knew had the talent to reach the postseason but still stuck them behind the Yankees and even Red Sox in the division.

Padres: The team that nobody thought would challenge for a postseason berth and would have been the surprise of the year had they not collapsed down the stretch run.

So who are this year’s Giants, Rangers, Padres, Reds and Rays? I’m glad you asked.

The 2011 Giants: Oakland A’s
The strength of Oakland’s club is its young pitching, led by four pitchers in Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden, who are all 27 or younger. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Giants won the World Series last year with four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner) who were all 27 or younger. The Giants also had an offense that would hardly keep opposing pitchers up at night but after GM Brian Sabean re-signed Juan Uribe and added guys like Cody Ross and Pat Burrell during the year, it was enough to be dangerous. Just like SF’s offense last year, Oakland’s bats aren’t going to scare anyone but after the offseason additions that Billy Beane made this offseason (Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus) they’re enough to be dangerous. And just like the Giants, if they can reach the postseason (where pitching matters most), the A’s might be able to do some damage.

Atlanta Braves’ Dan Uggla (R) watches his throw to first base after forcing out Toronto Blue Jays’ Juan Rivera at second for a double play during the third inning of a MLB spring training game in Dunedin, Florida, March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The 2011 Rangers: Atlanta Braves
Everyone is well aware of the Braves’ talent but few are picking them to win the NL East, even though the Phillies have more problems than people want to admit. Last year, everyone was well aware of the Rangers’ talent but few picked them to win the AL West, even though the Angels had more problems than people wanted to admit. The Braves aren’t far behind the Phillies in terms of talent and they patched one of their holes this winter with the addition of Dan Uggla. They’re more balanced than Texas was at this point last year and they obviously don’t have the same concerns about their pitching, but whether or not they’re going to put it all together this season remains to be seen. The ability is certainly there though.

The 2011 Reds: Colorado Rockies
Not a lot of people predicted the Reds to win the NL Central last year but weren’t surprised when they wound up doing so in the end. I get the same feeling about the 2011 Rockies, who many people have listed right behind the Giants in the NL West. Colorado has three superstars on its roster in Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, as well as enough talent around those players to be dangerous. What could slow the Rox down is nagging health concerns surrounding Jorge De La Rosa and Aaron Cook. But again, this team is on the cusp of making the postseason, even if only a handful of pundits are predicting them to win their division. (I could also see Colorado coming up short in the postseason when pitted against a better opponent, a la the ’10 Reds.)

The 2011 Rays: Tampa Bay Rays
Last year the Rays played second fiddle to the Yankees and Red Sox in terms of pre-season projections and this year they find themselves in a similar role. After they lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano and Jason Bartlett, the Rays are once again afterthoughts in the division. But if James Shields rebounds and Manny Ramirez is motivated, then the Rays could wind up surprising once again. The thought is that Tampa lost way too much this offseason to contend but given the question marks surrounding the Yankees and even the Red Sox starting rotations, don’t be shocked if the Rays hung around all year.

Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro of the Dominican Republic, hits in the first inning during a MLB spring training baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, March 6, 2011. REUTERS/Rick Scuteri (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The 2011 Padres: Chicago Cubs
If this is the category I get to go for broke, then give me the Chicago Cubs: a club nobody expects to compete this year. Here’s the thing, the Cubs’ starting rotation isn’t that bad. In fact, it might even be the best in the division in terms of pure production. They don’t have an ace, but they’re strong from top to bottom assuming Carlos Zambrano doesn’t wind up taking hostages at a local bank and Matt Garza makes a seamless transition from the AL to the NL (and why wouldn’t he?). The offense is definitely a concern (is there a high OBP guy on the roster?) but I love myself some Starlin Castro and I liked the addition of Carlos Pena, who might in 96 home runs at Wrigley. Yes, they’ll need guys like Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto to stay healthy, as well as a fair amount of luck. But it’s not like the NL Central is a breeding ground of MLB powerhouses so why not the Cubs?

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