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Which will be surprise teams in 2008?

Which will be surprise teams in 2008?

Since hatching Central divisions and expanding its playoffs in 1995, Major League Baseball has been catering surprise parties. Balloons, noise-makers, even the occasional ticker-tape parade.

Each of the 13 postseasons since, with one exception (2005), have included at least one team coming off a losing record the season before -- a total of 24 teams having crashed the party, so to speak.

For many, the leap was fantastic: Eleven of them improved by 20-plus games from one season to the next to get into the playoffs, topped by the 1999 Arizona D-backs' 35-game turnaround.

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Clearly, in the baseball wilds, there are always snakes in the grass.

So who will be the surprise team of 2008? We don't know. Hello ... that's why it's called a surprise.

But, we've got our suspicions.

No. 1 on this hunch list are the Cincinnati Reds. It might be a bigger surprise if they don't ambush.

Start with the new manager, who already has the track record of a CPR sharpie for revivals. Dusty Baker has taken two previous jobs, both times engineering dramatic U-turns in his first season.

In 1993, he took over the Giants coming off a 72-win season and drove them to 103. Ten years later, he moved to the Cubs, who'd won 67 in 2002, and led them to 88 wins and the NL Central title.

Maybe part of Baker's secret is picking his spots. He got to San Francisco the same time as Barry Bonds. He went to Chicago when the prodigious Mark Prior approached his first full season in the rotation.

If so, that's just another endorsement of the Reds. Baker turned down several overtures last summer, preferring to stay in his TV makeup until the right offer came along. For him to feel this was right should make the Queen City feel all right.

Then, Baker again has the NL Central, baseball's land of opportunity. Its last two champs have combined to go 13 above .500. Ninety games against teams in this division could be a chew-toy to any underdog.

Does he have the bark to take a bite out of the league? Oh, yeah: Slugging Adam Dunn, 30-30 dynamo Brandon Phillips and Ken Griffey Jr. key a lineup that ranked third in the NL with 204 homers. Baker can't keep Junior healthy, but if he is, Baker will get out of him his best season since he landed in Ohio, inspired by the opportunity to play on a winner for only the seventh time during a 20-season career that has a good chance of leading to Cooperstown.

Meanwhile, Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo form a potent 1-2 atop the rotation. And the Reds count on having snapped the leash that bound them to 34 saves, second fewest in the NL, while blowing 28 other opportunities, tied for most in the Majors.

Ranking high in both categories was Milwaukee, thanks to the guy who now is in Cincinnati's kennel, Francisco Cordero, whose 44 saves were instrumental in getting the Brewers over .500 for the first time in 15 years.

The Reds have been under .500 seven straight. We see a pattern.

At least, Cincinnati is trying to regain past glories, as are some other teams stuck in a rut. Only one team wears the scar of never having had a winning season. To make it worse for the Tampa Bay Rays, their 1998 expansion twins, the Arizona D-backs, just appeared in their fourth postseason.

Time to settle some scores? The rest of the AL East is concerned. In fact, Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi has frankly branded the Rays a team "no one will want to face."

But why stop at .500 -- the Rays haven't been closer than 11 games to that -- as a major surprise? We keep looking at Tampa Bay's new uniforms and seeing "Mets" scrawled across the chest.

The Amazin's averaged 56 wins in their first seven seasons, then broke loose for a World Series title in the eighth. And they did so without any major roster additions; a young team simply grew into it.

Heck, the Rays are ahead of that pace, with a season average of 65 wins. OK -- they also have the company of a division perhaps not as accommodating to having its world turned upside down.

Still, it could be graduation time for the guys who've endured growing pains together for years -- Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Jonny Gomes and, health willing, Rocco Baldelli.

Ricciardi hits the nail. No team will eagerly enter a Tampa Bay series, knowing it is certain of seeing at least part of the top of the Rays' rotation, Scott Kazmir, James Shields or Matt Garza.

To tie it all together, Tampa Bay has brought in its own bullpen therapist (see: 2007 Reds). While trailing the Majors with 28 saves last season, the Rays lost 42 games in which they held a lead -- not too firmly, evidently. Enter Troy Percival, of whose 324 career saves 316 came in the presence of manager Joe Maddon, while he was an Angels coach.

They've shed the "Devil" from their name, but when it comes to nipping at the upper crust, they could now be sting Rays.

Finally, a nomination for a team that has hardly been absent from recent main stages. However, given the Twins' offseason, little is expected of them, except to just go away for a while and hibernate.

By midseason, the AL Central could be wishing for that. Talk about being lulled to sleep -- shedding 81 starts and 33 wins (Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Garza) and an All-Star center fielder (Torii Hunter) certainly hums a lullaby in frontrunners' ears.

It could be a decoy. The Twins know all about on-the-fly adjustments without losing much altitude. They once totally turned over their pitching staff between winning World Series in quick succession (1987 and 1991).

Bill Smith is new in the GM seat but has been a member of the Minnesota front office for 22 years, and he knows the drill.

"We've had to turn our roster over every four or five years," Smith says. "We've been down this path. We're not afraid to do it. We have faith in our scouting and our farm system to produce talent that if we reach that point, we do it."

And still have plenty of bullets left: Any lineup with Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer and Delmon Young won't be soft. Ex-Astros Mike Lamb and Adam Everett could perk up the left side of the infield (where the 2007 starters contributed six homers and 68 RBIs in 982 at-bats).

Yes, the burden is on the pitching, where the Twins have had the most attrition. Reclaiming a healthy Francisco Liriano and holding onto 40-save closer Joe Nathan is a start. And who knows what Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and Philip Humber will do with their opportunities?

They could be the guys lurking behind the couch, poised to leap up and yell, "Surprise!"

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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