In the first few weeks of the season, there’s bound to be some chaos. A bad team or two will go on a hot run, and good teams may face some early hurdles. But the expectation is that once you’re about a month and a half into the season, there will be enough of a sample size to gauge a club’s true potential.
Well, we’re at that mark — and there are some surprising squads contending with typical MLB powers.
Six teams — the Rays, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Orioles, Red Sox and Pirates — are way better than we expected. Are their starts real or not? What’s powering them? And who are the unexpected stars leading their teams to victory?
ESPN MLB experts Alden Gonzalez, Bradford Doolittle and David Schoenfield break down the unexpected contenders, how they’ve surprised us and their ability to ride this momentum into October.
We knew they’d be good, but not this good
How they’ve surprised us: By bludgeoning teams offensively. The Rays have built a reputation as a plucky franchise that, typically, is sound fundamentally and adept at maximizing matchups and overwhelming opponents with a carousel of dominant pitchers. But this year’s version also leads MLB in several major offensive categories, including home runs. The Rays have finished no better than 10th in the majors in OPS since 2014. This year, they lead there, too.
Why it could continue: The Rays play in the sport’s toughest division — the American League East. They consistently possess some of the lowest payrolls in the industry and have still won more games than all but two franchises (the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros) since the start of 2019. Winning is what they do. And this might be the most talented team they’ve ever fielded.
Why they could fade: The Rays already lost Jeffrey Springs for the year to Tommy John surgery, and now Drew Rasmussen will be out until August with a flexor strain. That’s two legitimate top-of-the-rotation starters. And though Tyler Glasnow is on his way back — and the Rays are as good as anyone at developing dominant arms — that’s difficult to overcome.
MVP of their surprising start: What might separate this Rays team from past versions is the presence of a young, budding superstar with the ability to be the best player in the game. That man, of course, is Wander Franco, the incredibly talented shortstop who, after an injury-riddled 2022, is living up to his promise in his age-22 season. Several Rays hitters are probably over-performing at the moment, but Franco has the talent to sustain this. The Rays can go as far as he takes them.
Predicted date of their last meaningful game: Sometime in November, assuming the World Series spills into the second-to-last month of the year again. Forget sample size. The Rays are clearly in the conversation for the best team in the sport — offensively, defensively, on the bases, on the mound. They do everything well. And there’s little reason for it to stop. — Gonzalez
We knew they had breakout potential, but they’ve exceeded expectations
How they’ve surprised us: The Orioles were last season’s big surprise, of course, but it seemed likely that they would take at least a mild step back. The overall trend line pointed up but Baltimore outperformed its run differential by several games in 2022 and leaned heavily on the kind of bullpen performance that isn’t easy to replicate. Then over the winter, the Orioles weren’t aggressive when it came to landing veteran foundational types.
And yet, they have once again sprinted past expectations and now have to be looked at as a legitimate postseason contender. Their players just keep getting better and not just the emergent prospects, but young second-chance veterans such as Jorge Mateo. And that unsustainable bullpen performance? The Orioles relievers have been even better in 2023.
Why it could continue: Other than the stunning performance of rookie reliever Yennier Cano, there aren’t a lot of players who are putting up what look like unsustainable numbers. It’s the opposite, really, as the O’s can hope for better production from key players such as Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez and Ryan Mountcastle. The pitching staff might get in-season jolts from injury returnee hurlers such as Dillon Tate, Mychal Givens and, later on, John Means. The upward trend of the Orioles hasn’t been steep; it’s been gradual and consistent, and there aren’t any real red flags that warn of impending collapse.
Why they could fade: The Orioles might benefit from the new scheduling formula more than any other team in the majors. But while the frequency of their encounters with division foes Tampa Bay, New York, Boston and Toronto is diminished, that’s still the biggest chunk of the schedule. And they still have to jostle with those teams — all legit contenders — for playoff slots. Even in this era of bloated playoff formats, you still can’t squeeze in five teams from the same division. Someone will get left out. As encouraging as the Orioles’ improvement has been, are they really any better than one of those four teams, if they all are healthy-ish and hitting their projections?
MVP of their surprising start: Mateo has been brilliant — hitting for power, driving opponents to distraction on the bases and shining with the glove. This is the version of Mateo we once thought we’d see someday, when he was a touted prospect, and then gave up on ever seeing after he washed out with the San Diego Padres. The Orioles have become a team whose players get better, and no one embodies their improved development processes more than Mateo.
Predicted date of their last meaningful game: Sept. 30. I already touched on the depth of the AL East but the other problem for the Orioles is the AL West, which seems likely to put two teams in the postseason bracket now between the defending champion Astros, the Rangers looking like a newly established power and the Mariners and Angels remaining good enough to make a run. So it’s going to be a smash-mouth derby down the stretch, one that goes into the final days of the season. I think the Orioles will be right there to the end but come up just short. The last day of the regular season is Oct. 1, so I’ll say the last game they play before being eliminated is one day prior. — Doolittle
How they’ve surprised us: By having balance offensively. The Rangers are getting production up and down their lineup, even with Corey Seager spending the past month recovering from a hamstring strain. Nathaniel Lowe and Adolis Garcia are still producing, and Marcus Semien has bounced back. Meanwhile, Ezequiel Duran, Josh Jung and Leody Taveras are each carrying an adjusted OPS above league average, and Jonah Heim, Texas’ 6-foot-4 catcher, is hitting out of his mind.
Why it could continue: The Rangers have been without both Seager and Jacob deGrom all month, and yet they continue to win. Their starting rotation is good, their bullpen is solid and their lineup — at least so far — looks deep. The Astros are more talented, the Mariners are deeper and the Angels have more star power, but if their two best players are healthy and right, the Rangers might have just as good a chance as anyone to take the AL West.
Why they could fade: This should be obvious: The Rangers probably won’t go far if deGrom is not healthy. They took a major risk by signing him to a five-year, $185 million contract over the offseason. Everybody in the industry knew it. The Rangers knew it, too. But they also knew this: When deGrom is healthy, he is the best, most electrifying pitcher in the majors. After a rough debut, deGrom posted a 1.35 ERA through his next five starts. But then he began nursing elbow inflammation that will keep him out at least another couple of weeks. Not even two months in, the Rangers are getting the full Jacob deGrom Experience.
MVP of their surprising start: Rangers starting pitchers finished the 2022 season with a 4.63 ERA, ranking 25th in the major leagues. It was a clear area of need for a team looking to vault itself into contention, as evidenced by the activity that dominated the ensuing offseason. But with deGrom hurt and Andrew Heaney battling through a 5.25 ERA, it has been Nathan Eovaldi — perhaps the most unheralded of their starting-pitcher additions — who has provided a major lift, sporting a 2.70 ERA through his first eight starts.
Predicted date of their last meaningful game: Sept. 22. That might seem harsh for a team already nearing a plus-100 run differential, but there are two things working against the Rangers with regard to the standings: The Astros, Mariners and Angels might hang around all year, and it is totally conceivable for the AL East to produce three playoff teams this year. I still think the Astros are the best team in the AL West, and a division title might end up being Texas’ only path to the postseason. Regardless, the Rangers’ last six series will be against the Blue Jays, Guardians, Red Sox, Angels and Mariners, twice. That’s a brutal way to end the regular season. It’s a stretch of games that will probably make or break their year. — Gonzalez
How they’ve surprised us: They’ve played well despite some key players not performing: Jake McCarthy didn’t hit and got sent down to Triple-A; Madison Bumgarner was so bad that the Diamondbacks decided to eat the rest of his contract and release him; and center fielder Alek Thomas and rookie starter Ryne Nelson have both struggled. Arizona has overcome some shaky pitching by scoring runs, primarily thanks to a league-leading batting average and some unexpected production from the likes of Geraldo Perdomo and Pavin Smith.
Why it could continue: The D-backs have two of the best players in the league in underrated ace Zac Gallen and Rookie of the Year candidate Corbin Carroll. Gallen, who had a scoreless streak of 44⅓ innings last season, reeled off a 28-inning scoreless streak over four straight starts this season. They’ve also held their own against the Dodgers and Padres, going a combined 7-7 against their NL West rivals.
Why they could fade: Is there enough in the rotation behind Gallen and Merrill Kelly? So far, no. Besides Nelson’s slow start, Brandon Pfaadt, the team’s top pitching prospect, got called up and was hammered in his first two starts, allowing 13 runs and six home runs. That could spell trouble for Arizona, as its playoff hopes may reside in the effectiveness of Nelson, Pfaadt and fellow rookie Drey Jameson.
MVP of their surprising start: Gallen. Carroll has been one of the most entertaining players in the majors with his combination of speed and power, but Gallen looks primed to improve upon his 2022 Cy Young finish, when he placed fifth in the voting. His swing-and-miss rate on his curveball has increased from 33% to 44% — no wonder he’s throwing it more than ever. That helps him rack up the strikeouts despite a fastball velocity of 93.5 mph.
Predicted date of their last meaningful game: The National League is likely to include at least one wild-card team with fewer than 90 wins — there were two last season — so that will keep any team around .500 mathematically alive with two weeks to go. Starting with their final series of August, the D-backs will have a road series at Dodger Stadium, plus two separate trips to New York to play the Mets and Yankees — before closing at home against the Astros. I’ll say they get officially eliminated in their finale at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 24. — Schoenfield
All that angst and they’re actually pretty good
How they’ve surprised us: Let’s see here. Last year was viewed as a disaster after they went 78-84, so that angered Red Sox Nation. Xander Bogaerts signed with the Padres, which angered Red Sox Nation. They needed pitching, but their big move was signing Corey Kluber, so that angered Red Sox Nation. They didn’t seem to have a plan at shortstop, which … well, you know. Expectations hadn’t been so low in Boston since the forgettable Butch Hobson years in the early ’90s. So what has happened? The offense has been really good, with Rafael Devers slugging home runs and the outfield trio of Masataka Yoshida, Alex Verdugo and Jarren Duran all with OPS+ figures above 130. The late-game bullpen with closer Kenley Jansen has also been terrific.
Why it could continue: The offense will continue to score. Yoshida has shown why the Red Sox gave him $90 million — and silenced the critics who thought the Red Sox overpaid. Duran has been the big surprise after struggling in 2022 and beginning the season in Triple-A (where he hit .195 in 11 games). His hard-hit rates have been legit, however, and he has also played well in center field. There’s also the chance the offense will get better if Triston Casas can start hitting (he’s at least drawing walks, which is a positive). As for the starting pitching: There’s nowhere to go but up, as the rotation has been among the worst in the majors.
Why they could fade: Yeah, that rotation. The best thing you can say is that Chris Sale, Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta and Kluber have made all their starts — but each has an ERA over 5.00 (and three of them are over 6.00). Brayan Bello has showcased a great arm but he has a 5.01 ERA. James Paxton made his Red Sox debut Friday, just his second start in the past three seasons, so who knows if he’ll be able to contribute. There’ll be some improvement from at least a couple of those guys, but this still doesn’t have the look or feel of a playoff-caliber rotation.
MVP of their surprising start: Call it a three-way tie between Verdugo, Yoshida and Devers, but the Red Sox made a run after a slow start when Yoshida got hurt. He was phenomenal during a 16-game hitting streak from April 20 to May 7, slashing .438/.479/.750 with 5 home runs, 18 RBIs and 14 runs as the Red Sox went 11-5 in that stretch.
Predicted date of their last meaningful game: The Red Sox finish the season with four games in Baltimore. Will those games matter? I’ll say the first two will, with the Red Sox still battling for a wild card until that final weekend. Alas, they will fall just short as the starting pitching can’t hold up and the bullpen fades just enough. — Schoenfield
Where the heck did this come from?!
How they’ve surprised us: The Pirates raced to the lead in the NL Central on the strength of quality starting pitching, daring running on the basepaths and keeping opponents in the park. They’ve had some surprising starts from veterans such as Andrew McCutchen, Connor Joe and Carlos Santana. And they’ve had real improvement from prospects and young veterans alike, such as Jack Suwinski and Mitch Keller.
Why it could continue: Well, the division may not be that great, but someone is still probably going to have to win 86 to 90 games to take it. The Pirates stashed a lot of early wins, so that’s the first step. They won without getting much from Oneil Cruz, who was injured early, and his eventual return could be a major boost just when they need it.
Why they could fade: Because they already are? After Pittsburgh won on April 29 to go a season-best 12 games over .500 (20-8), they proceeded to lose 11 of 13 games and were outscored 66-18 during those games. It’s one of those matters of perspective. If we told you before the season that the Bucs would be over .500 and leading the division heading into the second week of May, you’d be shocked. If we told you what happened after that, you’d probably say something like, “Well, that figures.” That’s still where this team is at in the rebuilding process.
MVP of their surprising start: Keller has been stellar and looks like he’s on the verge of establishing himself as a legit front-of-the-rotation starter. I feel like he was pretty good last year, too, but we missed it because the Pirates were so bad overall and his career record (12-29, 5.00 ERA) was still pretty ugly. But Keller is showing real signs of improvement this season, with more strikeouts, fewer walks and vastly improved consistency.
Predicted date of their last meaningful game: Sept. 20. If the Pirates can stay on track to make a run at .500, they should be within a stone’s throw of NL Central contention up to and a little beyond Labor Day. Right now, my simulations have the Pirates landing at around 79 wins, with the Milwaukee Brewers taking the division with around 87 wins. That gap keeps Pirates fans engaged into the third week of September, where they can say, “Hey, one hot streak and you never know.” That would make this a fine building-block season for a club looking to turn the corner soon. The Pirates have a three-game set at Wrigley Field late in the season, around the time when I could see them being eliminated, so I’ll say the middle game of that series will be it. — Doolittle