Which teams might be this year's A's or Orioles?
Royals, Padres, Pirates, Indians among the candidates to turn in a surprising season
When Brewers general manager Doug Melvin spoke to his players before Milwaukee's first full-squad workout in Phoenix, he offered a concrete example of why every team should have hope this year.
"I told our team, we're not going to be picked in our division. The Reds and Cardinals are going to be ahead of us," Melvin said. "But no one at this time last year was saying Oakland and Baltimore would both make the playoffs. It could be anybody."
Added Reds GM Walt Jocketty: "I don't think anyone would have predicted Baltimore and Oakland last year. I'm not sure even they would have."
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer agreed: "It's one of those things that gives you hope."
And that's the thing, isn't it? It's one thing to talk about Spring Training being a fresh start, everybody has hope, all that stuff. But it doesn't mean much unless there are teams that shock the world every now and again.
Last year, the Orioles and Athletics were the teams that came out of nowhere. Oakland improved by 20 wins to capture the American League West. Baltimore went from 93 losses to 93 wins and made the playoffs as one of the AL Wild Cards.
So which teams are candidates to emerge in 2013?
Hoyer likes the chances of his former team, the Padres, noting that just three years ago, San Diego was one of those clubs that seemed to come out of nowhere.
"I think we had the best record in baseball on Aug. 15, and if I had been sitting there at a media day in [February] 2010, they would have been asking me if I thought we were going to break 70 wins," Hoyer said. "Every year there's a team that gets hot, gets some momentum, usually gets some good pitching, and it happens.
"I think the Padres have a good chance of it. They had a really good second half. Their offense was really good. Their challenge will be that their young pitching is banged up right now. If [Cory] Luebke and [Joe] Wieland weren't out, I would have more confidence in saying they would be a team like that. And they have [suspended catcher Yasmani] Grandal out for 50 games, so it might be hard for them early."
San Diego will try to build off the momentum with which it ended 2012, going 49-37 after a 27-49 start despite a string of injuries.
"It's a good thing we got a taste of what it's like to win some baseball games," starter Clayton Richard told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Jocketty is impressed with the Royals, who went 72-90 last season.
"I think they're on the verge of turning the corner," Jocketty said. "I'd like to think of a team in the National League, but it's more difficult. In the American League, you have Toronto, but they're different because they went all-in on trades. I think Kansas City is kind of the team that will be fun to watch."
Kansas City made a big trade with Tampa Bay that added James Shields to its rotation, but the Royals also picked up right-hander Wade Davis in that deal, took on Ervin Santana's contract from the Angels and were able to keep Jeremy Guthrie.
"If we don't start winning, we're never going to be ready to win," general manager Dayton Moore told the Kansas City Star. "I can't predict we're going to win our division or whatever, but we've got to start."
How about the Indians? They lost 94 games a year ago, but adding Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Drew Stubbs sends the signal that the Tribe is serious about making a run. New manager Terry Francona, who won two World Series titles with the Red Sox, isn't conceding anything.
"You prepare, and again, I think teams that not only get out of the gate, but sustain it for a while -- it's amazing how you get confidence and how it can blossom, and some really cool things can happen," Francona said.
Don't forget the Pirates, who have quietly been making strides. In 2011, they were tied for first place as late as July 25. In '12, they were 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8. In both cases, the Bucs faded and finished fourth, but GM Neal Huntington made it clear when manager Clint Hurdle's contract extension was announced Tuesday that this team is ready to finish what it starts.
"We've made big steps as an organization [under Hurdle], and we feel like he's the right guy to take us to that next step, that final step ... to play playoff games in October," Huntington said.
Anything can happen. Nobody knows that better than A's manager Bob Melvin. That's why, when he was asked whether having the rebuilding Astros in the division was an opportunity for AL West teams to pad their records, he quickly noted nothing can be taken for granted.
"You see teams pop up and have good seasons, two or three of them every year. So you never know how that plays out," Melvin said. "If you're thinking you go into a place like that and you let down a little bit, you can get humbled pretty quickly."
Soon enough, we'll begin finding out who those two or three teams will be this year.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Alden Gonzalez, Adam McCalvy and John Schlegel contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.