Brewers, Twins ready to surprise

After a third straight second-place finish, general manager Kenny Williams bagged the all-or-nothing offense and went for speed in the offseason. But the White Sox are going nowhere fast if the rotation can't carry them.

ESPN The Magazine's assessment in picking the Chicago White Sox to finish fourth in the American League Central in 2005.

Our friends at the magazine weren't exactly out of the mainstream when they undersold the sleeker, faster White Sox in 2005. Sports Illustrated predicted that the Sox would finish third, with the following caveat: "Unless an iffy rotation produces, small ball translates to a fall in the standings."

Preseason predictions are like old yearbook photos: It's rare that you can look back and not feel at least a shred of embarrassment.

Your hair looks ridiculous. The clothes are out of style. And really, how could you have predicted Atlanta would miss the playoffs just because Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan were manning the outfield corner spots?

Every year brings pleasant surprises in baseball. Certain teams find a way to stay healthy or get unexpected help from the minor leagues, as the Marlins did with Dontrelle Willis in 2003. And winning leads to better chemistry, which leads to more winning. In 2002, the Angels came together to win the wild card, steamrolled New York, Minnesota and San Francisco in October, and celebrated with the world's shortest trip to Disneyland.

So which teams have the potential to spring surprises in 2006? We surveyed executives throughout baseball and received a variety of responses. Part of it depends upon your definition of "surprise."

There was positive sentiment expressed on behalf of Oakland, but the Athletics won 88 games last year and added Esteban Loaiza, Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas this winter while the Angels were relatively stagnant. Look for Oakland to be a trendy pick to supplant the Angels as AL West champion this season.

Toronto? After spending $102 million on A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan and trading for Troy Glaus, the Jays won't have the luxury of sneaking up on anybody. Texas? Nice lineup, but the Rangers' ability to make a quantum leap could hinge on how persuasive they are in luring Roger Clemens to Arlington for one more go-round.

Two executives told us Detroit has serious dark-horse potential. "Jim Leyland is one of that handful of difference-maker managers," said a National League executive, "and they have some talented young pitchers." Also, the Tigers' everyday lineup could be very good if Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen stay healthy and Pudge Rodriguez regains his focus.

In the National League, the Pirates are at least intriguing because of their young pitching, and the Dodgers will be better because they can't be any less healthy. But not everyone is sold on Dodgers GM Ned Colletti's offseason moves. "They're still sort of a mishmash," said an NL executive, "and I'm not sure they have enough pitching."

Our choices for 2006 surprise clubs both play in the heartland and both begin with "M." Check back in October to see how smart we were.

NL surprise pick: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers came relatively close to stealing a postseason berth a year ago. On Sept. 16, they were five games behind Houston in the wild-card race. Then they dropped three straight to the Astros and the focus turned to reaching .500 for the first time since 1992 -- Pat Listach's Rookie of the Year season.

The Milwaukee franchise ranked third on ESPN.com writer Jim Caple's "misery index" behind Cleveland and the Cubs, so it's hard to overestimate what the Brewers' 81-81 finish last year did for the collective mind-set in town.

"It's something we needed to accomplish for our fans," said general manager Doug Melvin. "It was a huge building block for us."

New owner Mark Attanasio has given the organization a sense of energy and purpose, and manager Ned Yost appears to have learned all the right lessons in his tenure as a coach under Bobby Cox in Atlanta. The Brewers also considered it a positive sign when franchise hero Robin Yount returned to be bench coach and tutor the team's young infielders. Yount wouldn't have wasted his time if he thought the Brewers were going nowhere.

While the consensus is that Milwaukee lacks the pitching to contend, that discounts Melvin's ability to find arms and pitching coach Mike Maddux's ability to work wonders with them. Last year the Brewers entered spring training with two established starters, Ben Sheets and Doug Davis, and the unproven Mike Adams as their projected closer, and they still ranked second in the NL in strikeouts and fifth in ERA.

Derrick Turnbow developed into a 39-save monster with some tinkering from Maddux, and the league batted .160 against Matt Wise and his devastating changeup. Chris Capuano was baseball's most anonymous 18-game winner. And Davis ranked seventh in the league with 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings -- more than Clemens, Josh Beckett, Burnett and Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter.

Now Maddux will try to resurrect Dan Kolb, who blossomed as Milwaukee's closer in 2004, imploded last year in Atlanta, and is back in his comfort zone as a setup man with the Brewers.

If the Brewers hope to flirt with 90 victories, it's imperative that they keep Sheets, their No. 1 starter, off the disabled list. Sheets missed September with a torn muscle in his upper back, but recently resumed throwing and should be full strength in spring training. The big question is whether he'll play in the World Baseball Classic. As a former Olympic Gold medal winter, Sheets is anxious to participate; the Brewers are a tad antsy about it.

Melvin made some incremental upgrades over the winter. The Brewers traded Lyle Overbay to Toronto and acquired outfield depth with Gabe Gross, a nice prospect in lefty Zach Jackson and another starter in David Bush. The Brewers envision his putting up Bronson Arroyo-like numbers out of the No. 5 spot.

It remains to be seen how much Corey Koskie can contribute as Milwaukee's everyday third baseman. But Koskie came cheap, and he frees up Billy Hall to be a super-utility player and provide insurance in the event a regular goes down for an extended period. "We look at him as our Chone Figgins," Melvin said.

The Brewers also are counting on their kids to give Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins the necessary help offensively. In a perfect world, Prince Fielder will approximate what Ryan Howard did in Philadelphia last season. Shortstop J.J. Hardy had one homer and a .560 OPS before the All-Star break, but showed impressive mental toughness while hitting eight homers and posting an .866 OPS after the break.

Rickie Weeks slumped down the stretch, but it was later revealed that he was playing with a torn ligament in his thumb. Weeks underwent surgery in October to repair the injury, and should be fine.

Logic says the Brewers' breakthrough, if it happens, won't come until 2007 at the earliest. But the gap is closing in the NL Central. The Cardinals replaced Matt Morris, Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek with Sidney Ponson, Juan Encarnacion, Larry Bigbie and Junior Spivey. Houston hasn't upgraded its offense much and might not have Clemens. And the Cubs have plenty of questions, as usual.

With all due respect to the division's proven clubs, Melvin isn't shying away from the heightened expectations in Milwaukee.

"People didn't really take us seriously as a wild-card contender last year, whether it was because of our $42 million payroll or because we were the Brewers," Melvin said. "But we want the expectations to be higher. We've raised the bar here."

After 12 years of watching the Brewers do the limbo, Milwaukee fans will regard just about anything as an improvement.

AL surprise pick: Minnesota Twins

Twins general manager Terry Ryan revels in his anonymity. When his peers named him the Sporting News Executive of the Year in 2002, Ryan looked as if he might die of embarrassment.

But nothing was more embarrassing than last year, when Ryan's team underachieved and responded with some very un-Twin-like behavior. Minnesota pitchers groused about the lack of offense. Torii Hunter took a swing at Justin Morneau in the clubhouse, and reliever J.C. Romero lashed out at manager Ron Gardenhire. The hits just kept on coming for an organization that prides itself on team play and professional comportment.

"We had a lousy year, and I'd be the first to tell you that," Ryan said. "I'm just hoping for a mulligan."

The good news is the Twins won't be burdened with excessive expectations in 2006. They've been written off as a third-place club behind the White Sox and Indians, even though Cleveland might have taken a significant step backward this winter.

It's all about offense -- or a lack thereof -- in Minnesota. Two years ago the Twins scored 780 runs while winning 92 games. Last year they ranked last in the AL with 688 runs, for an assortment of reasons. It didn't help that Hunter broke his ankle crashing into the Fenway Park wall, or that Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer encountered some unwelcome growing pains amid the hype.

When the Twins did their postseason inventory, backup catcher Mike Redmond (.311 in 148 at-bats) might have been the only player to surpass expectations.

Ryan did what he could to upgrade the lineup, given the usual financial constraints. The Twins pursued Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza before signing Rondell White as DH. Ryan also added power threat, Japanese League refugee and noted on-base liability Tony Batista to play third.

"Statistically, the people in 'Moneyball' books and Sabermetricians won't like what they see," Ryan said. "But if you put him in the 7-8 hole and he gives you 20-plus homers and 80-plus RBI, I think that would probably be OK."

The most significant change will be in the No. 2 hole, where the Twins added Luis Castillo of the Marlins. It's iffy whether Castillo's balky legs can hold up on the Metrodome playing surface. But if he can stay ambulatory, he'll be a major improvement over what Gardenhire ran out at the position last year. Castillo led all big-league second basemen with a .391 on-base percentage. Minnesota's seven second basemen ranked 22nd, and were 27th in OPS.

Shortstop remains a question, although Ryan says the Twins are more concerned with how Jason Bartlett, Nick Punto or Juan Castro plays defense than the production they generate out of the ninth spot in the order. In right field the Twins will most likely replace Jacque Jones with Michael Cuddyer, who hit .310 in September, or Jason Kubel, who was ticketed for big things until he blew out his knee in late 2004.

Ryan shrugs off speculation that Kubel's rehab is behind schedule. "He's fine," Ryan said. "He's right in the picture, with a chance to help us improve our offense."

So why are the Twins dangerous? In a word, pitching. They've got Johan Santana, Brad Radke and Carlos Silva at the front end of the rotation, Joe Nathan at the back end of the bullpen, and enough arms in between to be competitive almost every night provided they catch the ball up to typical Twins standards.

In spring training they'll take a long look at rookies Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, who has been labeled a young Santana. When the Brewers were shopping Overbay in November, Melvin tried to pry loose Liriano or Baker from the Twins only to meet with stone-cold resistance.

"He has great stuff," Melvin said of Liriano. "He has the ability to be a Dontrelle Willis."

Just because few people are predicting it in February doesn't mean it can't happen in August. That's why they call them surprises.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.