Likewise, neither the Reds nor the White Sox can attribute their turnarounds to huge free-agent expenditures. Last winter the Reds spent less than $4 million to get shortstop Orlando Cabrera, outfielder Jonny Gomes and infielder Miguel Cairo. (They did invest $30 million in Cuban free-agent Aroldis Chapman, but he has yet to appear in the big leagues.) The White Sox spent less free-agent money ($5.8 million) than every club except Cleveland and Florida, giving modest one-year deals to reliever J.J. Putz, infielder Omar Vizquel, catcher Ramon Castro and outfielder Andruw Jones.
The Reds have not been as fortunate as San Diego with rotation stability, having to work around injuries to Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey and the fatigue of rookie Mike Leake. While they have improved their run prevention, their run production has jumped even more markedly—Cincinnati leads the league in runs—largely because of healthy seasons from first baseman Joey Votto (next page) and third baseman Scott Rolen. In particular, the Reds have bullied the four losing teams in their division, going 29--11 against the Brewers, Astros, Cubs and Pirates.
Both Cincinnati, which finished 2009 on a 27--13 run, and San Diego, which closed 23--13, can point to last season as the beginning of their turnarounds. But serendipity also helps make a Cinderella, be it a run of good health for starting pitchers, an upswing in relief pitching—one of baseball's most unpredictable elements (the Padres' pen, for example, has ranked 1, 7, 25 and 1 in the majors in the past four seasons)—or, in Cincinnati's case, a division with little resistance.
"There are surprise teams that are built on high draft picks and planning," says one G.M., "and others that just have a special year. I love San Diego, but it could be one of those special years. Like the Brewers [in 2008], most of these teams get one year, then it's five or six waiting for another window. Don't kid yourself. The large markets still have a huge advantage. The small markets can't sustain it."
It is true that surprise teams have little staying power. Magical seasons with stable rotations, lockdown bullpens and uncanny clutch hitting—the Padres hit .274 with runners in scoring position, .244 without—tend not to repeat themselves. Of the 30 teams that morphed from losers to elite, only six returned to the postseason the following year, and those six were flush with money, ranking no worse than ninth in payroll.
Ah, but why worry about next year when you can dream on this one? When this week began, the Rangers (having built an 87-win foundation last year), Cincinnati and San Diego—combined postseason series wins the past decade: 0—all held first-place leads of at least 3½ games. The surprise party is becoming an annual event. This year's participants should enjoy it while it lasts.