Trietley: Baseball’s losers suddenly winning

By Greg Trietley

The Orioles? The Royals? The … Pirates? Winning? When did this happen?

Combined, these three… The Orioles? The Royals? The … Pirates? Winning? When did this happen?

Combined, these three franchises lost nearly 300 games last season. But entering Wednesday, they were a combined 11-3 and were three of the five most impressive clubs in the league. That’s right — I’m grouping them in with Texas and Philadelphia.

Back in September, I envisioned a path to the postseason for the bottom-feeder of each NFL division. As it turned out — and the Buccaneers and the Rams almost did it ­— the Chiefs were the ones who made the playoffs.

Now the Royals, Orioles and Pirates are showing once again that you can’t rule anyone out before a season starts. It’s early April, so let’s spread a little hope around and dream about how last year’s baseball cellar-dwellers could win their divisions.

AL East — Baltimore Orioles (2010 record: 66-96)

I always listened to the wise Buck Showalter when he worked as an analyst. Now he’s back to managing and his players must be listening to him, too.

Showalter inherited a mess of a ball club and turned it — almost overnight — into a good one. Since he took over, the Orioles have had the best record of any team in the competitive division. Their pitching staff, which is young but promising, gave up four runs through the team’s first four games — and that’s with pitcher Brian Matusz on the disabled list.

So what’s the dream for Baltimore?

The Red Sox choke again, the Yankees underachieve, and the Orioles — yes, the Orioles — ride into the postseason.

AL Central — Kansas City Royals (67-95)

When you apply to become an official baseball fan, the first question on the exam asks for the names of five players from the consistently obscure Kansas City team. With Kila Ka’aihue and Matt Treanor in the batting order, it’s a difficult task.

Still, the Royals have scraped up some good players — even if you didn’t realize they play in Kansas City now. Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera both start. Former top-prospect and current 27-year-old platoon outfielder Alex Gordon is back up to hitting .375, so maybe he’ll turn it around as well.

The Royals don’t have the talent of the Twins or the White Sox, but they can embrace the underdog role. At their current pace, they squeak out 85 one-run wins with their closer, Joakim Soria.

AL West — Seattle Mariners (61-101)

A trendy pick to win the division in 2010, the Mariners underachieved big-time.

They hit .236 as a team. Felix Hernandez had a 2.27 ERA, yet only went 13-12 because he had so little run support. Everybody went through a year-long cold spell.

That won’t happen again. Seattle can be the poster boy for the bounce-back year and upend the Rangers for the division crown.

NL East — Washington Nationals (69-93)

So they don’t have Stephen Strasburg. Big whoop. Strasburg started 12 games last year and won five of them. His elbow injury — which will keep him out all season — will keep the media circus away. On the field, the Nationals aren’t that different. They actually had a better record before Strasburg’s call-up last June.

I don’t know how Philadelphia can falter, but Washington can’t worry about that. The Nationals just need to take care of their own business. They have some solid hitters in Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, and if they need pitching they can always ask current outfielder — and former pitcher — Rick Ankiel if he wants to move back to the mound.

NL Central — Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105)

Pittsburgh is in its 15th or so rebuilding year. A pessimist would point out that the rebuild isn’t working. An optimist, though, believes that a decade and a half of acquiring prospects for established major leaguers has to pay off sometime. If you time it right, you might make the playoffs once or twice before trading for new prospects.

The Pirates have speed and power in their lineup. They also have strong arms in the bullpen — not counting Evan Meek’s performance last week at Chicago. With three road wins already, they should surpass last year’s total by June.

And look at the NL Central. Cincinnati was the weakest division winner last season. They’re beatable. The Cubs haven’t had a championship-caliber roster in ages. Albert Pujols already looks like he’s suffering from a strained left contract negotiation, so the Cardinals will struggle as well.

NL West — Arizona Diamondbacks (65-97)

Teams shift in the NL West standings all the time. The odd constant is Arizona, which finished last in both 2009 and 2010.

The Diamondbacks, though, have Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and Chris Young, and that gives them a chance. They also acquired the all-but-perfect pitcher Armando Galarraga from Detroit, and that can’t hurt.

It’s a longshot, but with a hot streak here and a breakout season there, the Diamondbacks — like everyone else — could win.