MLB’s biggest surprises: Are these teams contenders or pretenders?

The everybody-into-the-pool vibes of Major League Baseball’s modern playoff structure certainly dashes the concept of “surprise teams.” Yet it still calls for clarity.

And with the first of America’s big three grillin’ out, chillin’ out weekends at hand, it’s about that time to separate the title contenders from the faux-tenders.

As the MLB season creeps toward the halfway mark, a look at five teams whose moderately surprising rise to contention are legitimate – and those whose hopes might turn, not unlike the leftover guacamole in your refrigerator:

Padres: Legit

Yeah, it’s silly, we know: A team whose luxury-tax payroll will touch $225 million looks pretty odd mentioned in the realm of “surprises” or “plucky little hopefuls.” But San Diego’s signal to slash, slash, slash with the trade of Juan Soto certainly turned out the lights on a payroll party that seemed to have no end.

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The bill is coming due: Soto is a Yankee, the top-shelf prospects they dealt for him aren’t coming back and $280 million man Xander Bogaerts is no longer a shortstop, no longer productive and now, no longer healthy.

But the trade to acquire quasi ace Dylan Cease wedged open a two-year window of contention, and the Padres pried it open further with the surprise deal for reigning batting champ Luis Arráez, who like Cease can become a free agent after 2025.

The result? San Diego has won 11 of 19 since the Arráez deal, nudging over .500 and wedging itself into a crowded wild-card race. Hey, it’s not easy snagging a playoff berth when your rival up the freeway pretty much has the division on lock.

Through their actions and play, the Padres have ensured themselves another loud, crowded, relevant summer at Petco Park.

Red Sox: Suspect

They have bobbed above and beneath the .500 mark five times already, with a nascent pitching staff always keeping them in games and preventing any losing streak from extending past four games.

And while they rank second in ERA and eighth in OPS in the major leagues, we’re wondering if this team might not have the goods to stick in their very high-rent district.

They’re just 9-17 against clubs with winning records, and 26-25 is simply good enough for third place in the AL East, where the Yankees lead them by nine games.

Oh, and that reminds us: They still must play all 13 games against the Yankees, plus 10 more against Baltimore.

Given that their encouraging start doesn’t yet have them in playoff position, we can’t see that improving with the schedule toughening and some outlier performances (Tyler O’Neill’s 143 adjusted OPS, say) likely coming back to earth.

Royals: Legit

We signaled our belief in these cats a few days ago, and they since went out and swept a division rival while knocking off the best pitcher in the AL to date. There simply comes a time when a team on the rise gets over the hump of conviction, which only makes them play even better.

The Royals are there, and with some vital signs that look encouraging for sustainability.

Of note: They rank fourth in the majors in runs but just 16th in home runs, with 52. You might say power doesn’t disappear, but it can slump, and with MVP candidates Bobby Witt Jr. and Salvador Perez blanketed by a contact-conscious lineup that ranks No. 2 in fewest strikeouts, the Royals are a tough out every night.

Naturally, their pitching’s staying power may tell all, but that Seth Lugo is pitching like an All-Star and Cole Ragans keeps taking steps toward acehood means a significant piece of that is in place.

Cardinals: Suspect

They’ve crawled out of the NL Central basement – or at least, were underperformed by the Reds and Pirates in recent weeks – and have joined the wild-card hopeful flotilla. They could conceivably catch the second-place Cubs this weekend, and just swept AL playoff club Baltimore.

But the patient’s vital signs are still blinking in the wrong direction.

A run differential of minus-43 means they’re actually lucky to be just 23-26. They’re 29th in runs scored, 23rd in OPS and, beneath that, 26th with a 36.5% hard-hit percentage.

Hey, Sonny Gray should make the All-Star Game for a second consecutive year, but let’s not pretend the decent and improved but far from dominant pitching staff can carry to that extent. It’s not hard to imagine the Cardinals in a familiar spot: Not so bad that it’s tempting to blow it all up, not so potent that they can be taken seriously as a contender.

Giants: Legit

To the extent that a 26-26 club can be considered legit.

A crushing season-ending injury to Jung Hoo Lee and an IL stint from Michael Conforto forced the club to roll out youngsters Luis Matos and Heliot Ramos, and Matos has been a revelation, with 19 RBI and a .460 slugging in 50 at-bats.

Blake Snell does not look like a lost cause and should get deeper and more effective in games. Meanwhile, fellow Boras Four alum Matt Chapman has been playing like an MVP the past 10 days, in Platinum Glove form on defense and on track for 25 home runs.

Should lefty Matt Harrison emerge as the man in the rotation – or, at least, a firm No. 2 to Logan Webb – the Giants have the makings of a Torture-style slog to 85 wins and an October save-the-date.

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