1. Myrtle Beach
Record: 45-22, Win percentage: .672, Predicted win percentage: .603
Why the Surprise: It seems silly to call Myrtle Beach a surprise team. They have been one of the most successful franchises since the first season, only once finishing below 90 wins. Personally, I am not sure General Manager Daryl gets enough credit for keeping his team competitive year after year. And Daryl really deserves a ton of credit for defying those who thought it was time for a rebuild. The surprise here is that they are putting together an incredible year despite the continued aging of their core players.
Currently, Myrtle Beach has the best win percentage they have ever achieved and are tied for first in the league. Now, of course, a lot of that has to do with having the consistently best pitching rotation. They rank 1st in ERA and Runs Against, with 4 of their 5 starters pitching under a 3.00 ERA (Kevin Bohanna is letting his teammates down with a 3.33 ERA). Their bullpen is alright, ranking middle of the pack in terms of ERA. Their incredible pitching is backed by a team that is 2nd in defensive efficiency.
The real head turner here is that they are 4th in runs scored, 8th in batting average, and 1st in home runs hit. Sal Franco is having a throwback year, already matching his home run total for 2032, and only six off his total of last year (while his average is up .40 points). And while Jesus Gutierrez’s average is down, his home run total is up and his defensive at CF is on point. I expect to see their offense slip a little, but also look for Cruz Macia to help them out when it does.
Suggested moves: It’s hard to find something wrong with the best team in the league, but it wouldn’t hurt if they moved some prospects for an infield bat.
Musings: At some point the Cy Young should be renamed the Carlos Mateo award. And I don’t think we should wait till he retires, because with the way Mateo has been pitching (sub 2 ERA currently), that may not be any time soon.
2. Atlanta Braves
Record: 40-27, Win percentage: .597, Predicted win percentage: .472
Why the Surprise: Just when we thought that Atlanta was headed towards a rebuild, General Manager Keeks surprises us all and puts his team right back in the race. Atlanta is playing like a top ten team in almost every category. In terms of batting, they are 8th in runs scored, 9th in OBP, and 2nd in home runs. Han-su Pak is killing it for them (more on him in “Musings”), but youngster Dominic Delaney is helping them out with good all-around batting and fielding. And we can’t forget about Sal Rosada, who has never had below 100 walks and is on pace for 126 at 39. When that man retires it will be a sad day for Atlanta fans.
Their starting pitching is solid but not spectacular, with their free agent signing Katsutoyo Shoji putting on a good show. And while their franchise ace Nick Moore seems to be slacking at first glance, his FIP is a startling 3.08 (1.20 less than his actual ERA). Luckily their bullpen is superb this season, with 26-year-old Dave Castellanos leading the league in saves. This shows in their 12-8 record in one-run games.
After down years in 2032 and 2033, it’s nice to see this franchise back on the right track. If they can continue to be balanced in every category, then next year it won't be as big of a surprise when they do well.
Suggested Moves: Be a player at the trade deadline. Nick Moore needs a sidekick, and maybe it’s time to get a batter who can help out this season and replace Rosado’s production going forward.
Musings: Han-Su Pak is the new face of the franchise. He is hitting .343, is on pace for 50 home runs, and is heading towards the all-time record in WAR (much to the chagrin of St. Louis Fans who still have shrines to Veloz in their houses). Pak’s motivation has often been questioned, but the trade from Cloud City has seemingly lit a fire under him. The GM of Cloud City is probably kicking himself right now.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
Record: 43-23, Win percentage: .652, Predicted win percentage: .478
Why the Surprise: So let me get this straight, there is a top 3 team named the Pirates and they aren’t based in Cloud City? If you have paid attention to the trajectory of the Pirates (they made their first playoff series last year) and some of the trades they have made, it’s not actually surprising that they are having a good year. I just didn’t think it would be this good! In fact, when I started writing this piece they were still in the honorable mention category (sorry Seattle).
So the Pirates have the best offense in the league without hitting a lot of home runs. They are first in runs scored, first in batting average, 2nd in OBP, and 2nd in stolen bases. Combine this with being top 10 in runs against and you have a contender. I want to highlight the player Sergio Gonzalez in particular. He has great range and a great arm at shortstop, and he is hitting lights out. He is batting .331/.419 and is on pace for 27 home runs. He is definitely a bright young star.
The GM deserves a ton of credit for what he has done with the team. He started with nothing and has built patiently so that he is overflowing with assets. He used some of those assets this past offseason in a blockbuster trade with Cloud City. Overall the hitters he got (Magallanes, Silcock, and Ocampo) are some of the main reasons why they hitting so well and stealing so many bases. And Katagiri, the ace they added, is doing much better after starting out horrendously. The one black spot is their closer Janssen, who needs to be taken behind the barn and shot
Suggested moves: Get some power. Take some of those excess outfield prospects and get a guy that can blast one into the stands. The team currently ranks 19th in Home Runs and I am not sure they have the personnel in their system to improve that number.
Musings: The Sea Pirates swept the Sky Pirates in their first meeting this year. Going forward, the Pirate Bowl will be an exciting series to watch, especially since so many former Sky Pirates now sail under a gold and black flag.
Honorable Mention: Seattle Mariners
Record: 34-32, Win percentage: .515, Predicted win percentage: .422
Why the Surprise: Currently the only bright spot in the Pacific Northwest are the Mariners. They are an average team this year, which is a surprise in and of itself, and a testament to the development of their young team. Their pitching will be a force for years to come (currently just outside the top 10), and they will punish a ton of teams going forward. Their batting definitely needs to improve to take that next step, but I think they are on the cusp of breaking through into a true playoff team.
Musings: The Seattle Mariners have the pitcher market cornered. I think that’s an extremely smart strategy because ultimately it means when they do trade their pitchers, they can get some serious value. I feel like this team could be a major player at the trade deadline, as they have assets that appeal to both a team looking to rebuild and a contender looking to get better.
Suggested moves: Admit that you have a problem. Take some of the pitchers that you have been hoarding and get some hitters.
Honorable Mention: St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 34-33, Win percentage: .507, Predicted win percentage: .447
Why the Surprise: The Cards are back! While their GM did reveal his intentions to compete this year, I think many were skeptical. Outside of Veloz, they had completely moved on from the players that made their team a contender. Even with their additions of Lopez and Hu, they seemingly did not have the pitching to make a big splash. It’s fantastic that they are above .500, and with the insane additions of Steven Jackson and the reigning MVP/Cy Young Ivan Torres, we have no idea how high they can fly.
Musings: Both the Emperors and the Cardinals are good case studies. The Emperors are a team that has been able to rebuild on the fly while still remaining a contender every year. The Cardinals were able to execute their rebuild in a short amount of time and are once again heading for contender status. If you are thinking of rebuilding your team, take a look at either of these franchises.
Suggested moves: This will be hard to hear, but it’s time to move on from Veloz. He will be making 37.5 for four more full seasons, and that salary can be better used for a couple of useful players. I think his contract will be the only thing holding the Cardinals back from completely turning around their team (which General Manager Beanie has done very well).