With Baltimore and Oakland now established as contenders, with young, exciting rosters and confident leadership, we won't be surprised to see them again in the pennant mix come September.
So where should we look to find candidates to show the most improvement this season? Three clubs come to mind.
Kansas City Royals: Ned Yost's bunch lost 90 games last year, and general manager Dayton Moore knew he had to do something, anything, to reverse that trend. And boy, did he ever do something. First, he helped the starting rotation by trading for Ervin Santana and signing free agent Jeremy Guthrie. Then he shored up the bench with veteran Miguel Tejada.
And then came the doozy. In December, the Royals traded their top offensive prospect, slugging outfielder Wil Myers, plus pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, to the Tampa Bay Rays for ace pitcher James Shields and young right-hander Wade Davis. Other players were involved, but those were the big names of the deal, and it was a significant moment for a franchise that is looking to make a statement in 2013.
It just might work.
Kansas City now has a reliable if not spectacular quartet of new starters, with a serious horse in Shields and plenty of innings to come from Santana and Davis. The team still has a core of young players who could jump up and have big years. For example, if first baseman Eric Hosmer improves the way the Royals thought he would last year, it wouldn't be surprising to see a 30-homer, 100-RBI season from him. The same could happen for third baseman Mike Moustakas. Limited by injury to 76 games, young catcher Salvador Perez had a small offensive sample size but could be a standout at a position where hitting is a plus. Outfielder Alex Gordon has already come into his own and Kansas City is waiting for center fielder Lorenzo Cain to do the same.
There's a good reason for optimism, which is why the Royals' brass is excited.
"We certainly feel like we're better and the rotation, potentially, is much more consistent," Moore said. "So we're obviously very encouraged there."
Seattle Mariners: Heading into Spring Training, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge expressed confidence and satisfaction in their long-term plan to restore success to a franchise that hasn't seen much of it lately. They knew they had one of the best pitchers in baseball in Felix Hernandez, and they were slowly and surely building around him. They also spoke of the great pitching prospects on the way, of the young hitters who might not have shown what they were capable of over the past two years but who learned on the big league job and would be better for it soon.
Well, soon could be now.
Spring Training statistics should never be used as a gauge for what's to come when the real lights come on, but some things seen in Seattle's Cactus League home of Peoria, Ariz., have been tough to ignore.
Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley, all of whom disappointed offensively last year, have looked better. Outfielder Michael Saunders had a promising 2012 campaign and has been tremendous this spring, winning the MVP of his pool as part of Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic and continuing his hot hitting at Mariners camp. Young pitcher Brandon Maurer has stepped up and could soon be named to the season-opening rotation. The Mariners traded for middle-of-the-order hitters Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, both of whom have displayed their power this spring.
Seattle went 75-87 last year but could be poised to leap over the .500 mark. Beyond that, who knows?
"I don't know if I can put it into words, it's that dramatic," Wedge said at the beginning of Spring Training. "If you look at all the pitchers we have in camp here and even all the position players, the guys we've got now vs. where we were a couple years ago, it's off-the-charts different. It's as dramatic as anything I've seen in a couple years' time."
San Diego Padres: Bud Black's team has it tough, being in the same division with the San Francisco Giants, who have won two of the past three World Series, including last year's Fall Classic sweep of the Detroit Tigers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the highest payroll in the Major Leagues and a new-look roster packed with All-Stars.
Then again, San Diego could be sneaky good, and there are more than a few reasons why.
Take a look at how the Padres finished last year. After going 34-53 prior to the All-Star break, they finished by going 42-33 in the second half. With youth all over the diamond, including promising infielders Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko and Logan Forsythe, plus a solid rotation and bullpen, San Diego might continue to build off last year's post-break momentum.
"I honestly think it was just the fact that we had experience with the first half," Alonso said over the winter.
"Certainly we had a lot of younger guys like myself -- a lot of rookies -- where we didn't know the system, the teams. The more we played, the more familiar we got. We felt more confident with ourselves and got comfortable in our surroundings and started playing like we know how to play."