In 2011 the Baltimore Orioles won 69 games. Oakland was only slightly better with 74 wins. Neither win total is particularly impressive. Last year, though, both teams climbed from the depths of misery to the playoffs. Oakland won the AL West, and Baltimore easily claimed a wild-card berth. Despite the challenges of building a winner in the major leagues, a turnaround of that variety is far from uncommon. Teams that make those moves can be wildly profitable for bettors who can spot them early — they can deliver real value until the public notices they are a much-improved team, and they can offer real value in the futures markets as well. Here is a look at three teams that have the potential to jump to the top of the standings like Oakland and Baltimore did last year. What stands out is that all three of these teams are in the American League. There is plenty of potential there, while the cellar in the National League is just a depressing place to be right now:
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Toronto Blue Jays
This one is so obvious it is almost insulting to include them here. Last year they won 73 games. Right now they are favored to win the World Series. All that changed was that they had one of the great offseasons in baseball history. Their rotation is unrecognizable. They significantly upgraded at manager. The infield and outfield both improved. So did the bullpen. If all goes well — and it has been 20 years since it did for Toronto — then this has a chance to be a very special team. There is significant risk involved, and I don’t see any value in betting them on the futures at this point, but I am bullish. I certainly doesn’t help that the Yankees and Red Sox both had rough offseasons, Tampa Bay seems to have lost a step, and it seems unlikely that the Orioles can match their performance from last year. For once, being in the AL East isn’t an insurmountable curse for the Jays.
The Indians have been creative and aggressive this offseason, and I think it could really pay off. If nothing else, it certainly signals a new attitude for a team in desperate need of one. The hiring of Terry Francona is a very good move. He also has a more legitimate payroll to work with. That was evident when they added Michael Bourn — a move that excited the fanbase and caused a surge in season ticket sales. The more significant move, though, is potentially acquiring pitcher Trevor Bauer from the Diamondbacks for very little. He was the third overall pick in 2011 and is dripping with potential. There are obviously some issues with him — rumored to be a challenging attitude — or the Diamondbacks wouldn’t have given up with him so soon. Still, he’s a special talent, and his pickup is an excellent gamble that has a chance to change the fortunes of this team in the long term. To really compete, this team will need a miraculous recovery from one or more starters, but there are plenty of candidates. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez can and must be much better than last year, and it would really help if a longshot gamble like Scott Kazmir or Dice-K paid off in a real way. If that happened this will be a team to watch. At 40/1 to win the AL they are an intriguing longshot.
The Mariners paid handsomely for Felix Hernandez, but I love the move. It shows that they are serious about contending in the long term, and it removes the biggest distraction facing the team over the last few years. Plus, it ties up the best pitcher in baseball for the rest of his productive career — hardly a bad thing. King Felix can lead this team to major heights if some offseason gambles pay off and if the young talent is ready to step up. They badly need offense, and the addition of Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Mike Morse presents plenty of options — though it’s not clear where they will all play. More exciting, though, is the impressive number of young potential stars. Jesus Montero should step up this year and may not have to stay behind the plate where he isn’t at his best. Catcher Mike Zunino, the third pick in the draft last year, has made a splash early in his pro career and could soon be ready to free Montero up. Dustin Ackley has had a chance to acclimatize, and he should be dramatically better this year. Starting pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton all have the potential to be impressive, with Hultzen having the best chance of being ready early. Relying on youngsters is scary, but there is a whole lot of talent here so anything could happen. The AL West is tough this year, but the addition of Houston means that there are a bunch of very winnable games out there. At 40/1 to win the AL, the Mariners are only slightly less attractive than the Indians.
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