Baseball forecast: Good races, less mayhem

But don't worry, it wouldn't be baseball season without some discord and corruption.

Topics: Baseball,

It’s almost baseball season and fans aren’t pissed off at baseball. What a refreshing change!

Last year at this time, baseball fans were wondering what was in it for them. Commissioner Bud Selig had waited mere hours after the thrilling completion of one of the most exciting World Series ever to announce that two teams were on the chopping block. The kids call that a buzz kill.

One of those teams was later revealed to be the Minnesota Twins, a historically successful franchise that had been unable to talk the state’s taxpayers into building it a new stadium to replace the one taxpayers had built 20 years earlier. The Twins were and are owned by a good friend of Selig’s, a billionaire named Carl Pohlad, who would pocket $120 million in the “contraction” deal.

Meanwhile, a strike threatened to wipe out the season, while owners claimed that Major League Baseball and its teams were hemorrhaging money, an argument that seemed absurd given the enormous contracts owners were still handing out to players and the fact that very rich, very smart business people were still willing to spend very large amounts of money to buy franchises. Fans found themselves calling down a pox on both houses, owner and player. Baseball’s tale of woe, designed to keep salaries in check and to persuade cities to build stadiums with public money, was refuted pretty convincingly by Forbes magazine, which unlike baseball has no stake in whether the sport is rich or poor, and eventually led to Selig sitting in front of a congressional committee and being asked pointedly, repeatedly, if he was aware that he was under oath.

The grand old game!

The 2002 season had its bumps and grinds. There was the All-Star Game fiasco, really a minor snafu that was blown all out of proportion by a huffy press, and increasingly bitter labor negotiations. But things turned out pretty nice in the end. Contraction was blocked in the courts, and the Twins, with a personable new manager and an exciting, likable team that had been built from within the organization, won their division. A strike was averted and a new labor agreement reached that included a little bit more revenue sharing than the old one, maybe even enough to help a perennial doormat team inch toward respectability, though it still won’t fix and really doesn’t even address the inherent inequities between small- and large-market teams.

And finally, the New York Yankees weren’t in the World Series, always a good thing. The Anaheim Angels, as scrappy and unlikely a bunch as you’ll ever see win a championship, won the championship in a humdinger of a Series over the San Francisco Giants, who finally got Barry Bonds to the Fall Classic, where he finally shed his career-long habit of nosediving in the postseason.

As 2003 opens Sunday night in Anaheim, the focus is mostly on the playing field, and ain’t that just the damndest thing.

The Philadelphia Phillies were one of the big stories of the offseason, waking from a decade-long torpor to sign slugger Jim Thome and acquire top starter Kevin Millwood from the Atlanta Braves for a backup catcher in a Braves salary dump. The Phillies, who play in the largest one-team market in baseball, benefited from years of mismanaging that good fortune. Their incompetence had turned them, incredibly, into a “low-revenue” team, and thus eligible for a revenue-sharing payout. They used money collected from teams that had succeeded in smaller markets, such as Cleveland, not only to sign Thome, the big free-agent prize of the winter after his Cleveland contract expired, but to overpay for mediocre third baseman David Bell.

Only in America!

Another big story was the Boston Red Sox hiring 28-year-old Theo Epstein as their general manager, the youngest in history. Epstein then did two interesting things. He hired Bill James, the father of modern, sophisticated “stathead” statistical analysis of baseball, as an advisor, and he let closer Ugueth Urbina and his 40 saves go, announcing that the Sox would take a “closer by committee” approach.

The idea that dominant closers are way, way overrated is bedrock gospel in the world of sabermetrics, as Jamesian analysis is called. If the save statistic isn’t the most meaningless in all of sports, it’s certainly in the running. A setup guy protects a two-run lead by coming in with the bases loaded in the eighth and retiring the side, but the save goes to the charismatic, dominant closer who waltzes in, heavy metal blaring on the P.A. system, to start the ninth. And the closer gets the big money. Why? Lots of saves!

So the Red Sox are making a good move by getting away from that idea, but here’s the thing: I think the Boston bullpen is going to extend the illogical reign of the overpaid closer.

James has shown that the best time to use your best reliever is in the late innings with the score tied — not in the ninth with a lead, which is current baseball thinking. No one argues that a dominant relief pitcher isn’t a good thing to have. The question is when to use him if you have him. The Sox don’t have that guy. They have a collection of pretty good relievers, guys like Alan Embree and Mike Timlin and Ramiro Mendoza. So even if they stay injury free, they’ll just be, well, pretty good. People all over baseball, who are mostly suspicious of James and the wonky statheads who have grown up in his shadow, will point to Boston’s performance and say, “See? You need a closer.

James’ hiring is interesting because it puts him on the inside in a far more public way than ever before. (He’s worked as a consultant for various clubs in the past.) This has led to a raft of commentary about the sabermetric influence on baseball, also exemplified by the success of stathead general manager Billy Beane in Oakland. The thesis of these pieces usually has sophisticated statistical analysis opposed to scouting, baseball instincts and good old-fashioned horse sense. It’s a nonsensical dichotomy. James consistently talks about his role for the Sox being one in which he helps the club think about ways to address questions.

No one, other than the most fanatical of stathounds, none of whom have anything close to jobs within baseball, argues that statistical analysis should replace scouting or even managerial hunches. It’s merely one more tool in the toolbox of talent evaluation and team management. And it always has been. A century’s worth of American kids learned their first real mathematical lessons by trying to make sense of the baseball stats in the Sunday paper. Statistical analysis of baseball is as old as keeping score. The only thing that’s new about sabermetrics is the sophisticated mathematics it brings to the game.

Still, there’s the perception of rival camps, and while James, Epstein and the Red Sox will get a lot of scrutiny, also under the microscope will be Beane and his Athletics, who have made the playoffs three years running with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, but who changed managers in the offseason. Art Howe, who left to take the New York Mets job with Beane holding the door, was never Beane’s guy, something Beane wasn’t terribly secretive about. Now Beane has Ken Macha at the tiller, his own hire. Are Beane’s savvy personnel moves all it takes to build and maintain a winner, or did Howe’s calm, steady hand play a bigger role than Beane might like to admit? The fortunes of both the A’s and the defending N.L. East cellar-dwelling New York Mets should offer some clues.

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That question — manager or general manager, who deserves more credit? — was at the center of the feud between Giants manager Dusty Baker and his bosses. Baker left to manage the Chicago Cubs after leading the Giants to the Series, where the Cubs haven’t been seen since 1945. If Baker can win big at Wrigley Field, he’s every bit the manager he’s cracked up to be.

The season was supposed to have started by now, with the A’s and Mariners slated for a two-game series in Tokyo earlier in the week. That exercise in Pacific Rim merchandise sales at the expense of Seattle and Oakland fans getting to see Opening Day was kiboshed by the onset of war, but the A’s still managed to piss off their fan base by announcing that they wouldn’t be attempting to sign reigning Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada because, love him like a son and everything, they surely won’t be able to afford him. Tejada’s reaction: “Huh?” He’d been waiting for negotiations to start. His actual words were, “If they want, we can work something out.”

It seemed strange for the A’s to publicly give up on the Tejada sweepstakes before they’d even started, especially since Tejada clearly wants to stay in Oakland. It seemed strange for about a day. Then Bud Selig said the A’s need a new stadium. “A club that can’t generate a lot of local revenue is at a huge disadvantage,” he said. Aha. It’s part of a ballpark strategy: Build us one or the MVP will be wearing pinstripes next year.

Oh, baseball. It was starting to look like you were cleaning up your act. Good to see you again, old pal.

We now turn to my annual fearless and almost certainly wrong predictions. Last year, for example, I picked the Mets to win the National League East, a move that was still getting me ridiculed in my neighborhood around Thanksgiving, which reminds me to remind you: Criticize my picks before the season plays out, please. It doesn’t carry much moral authority to wait till the season’s over and then say, “Ha! The Mets?” If I was so wrong, where were you in April? Thank you.

As always, I stand fearlessly alone in sports journalism in organizing this sort of thing West to East.

American League West: Everything went absolutely butt-naked crazy right for the Angels last year. They had one of those campaigns where pretty much everybody had a career year, and they finished four games behind the A’s before getting hot in the postseason. One could argue that with a full season of John Lackey and World Series sensation Francisco Rodriguez, they’ll be better this year. I’ll go with the A’s starting trio of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. The Seattle Mariners won 93 games last year and finished third. They could be good enough to challenge if everything goes right for them and the A’s falter, but I think they’re on the slide, and losing manager Lou Piniella won’t help. On the plus side, they’re not the Texas Rangers. Predicted finish: Oakland, Anaheim, Seattle, Texas — exactly the same as last year.

American League Central: A lot of the cool kids are picking the Twins to go all the way. “Save for a few morons, the Twins are everyone’s pick to win the Central,” writes Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated. Well, count me as a moron because I’m going with the Chicago White Sox. I’m just not a believer in the Twins. Things kind of went perfectly for them too last year, and they still only won 94 games, despite playing in by far the weakest division in baseball. They were a mediocre 44-42 against everyone else. This year the Sox, who are rounding into a pretty nice club, especially if Frank Thomas bounces back and young third baseman Joe Crede lives up to his billing, will offer a stiffer challenge. Predicted finish: Chicago, Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City.

American League East: This is less a division than a place for me to work out my personal issues. The Yankees are still the best team, but gosh darn it, I’m a decent, honest person who’s kind to children and animals and notices when his wife gets a haircut. I deserve to see the Yankees finish second before I die! George Steinbrenner, impatient that his club has failed to win the World Series for two years running, is starting to act like the old George Steinbrenner, criticizing one of his cornerstone players, Derek Jeter, for no particular reason. And a good percentage of that platoon of starting pitchers is pretty old and rickety. The Red Sox, despite that bullpen thing, will win the division — come on, I give to the food bank! — and the Yanks will take the wild card. The Blue Jays are improving, but a year away. And every year, to give myself something to do, I predict the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will finish ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in fourth place. Someday, I’ll be right. Predicted finish: Boston, New York (wild card), Toronto, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.

National League West: Another annual ritual for me is predicting that the Arizona Association of Retired Persons, er, Diamondbacks, will break down with injuries. I’m always wrong about this. The average age of the Snakes is 93. They keep signing guys in their very late 30s to long, lucrative contracts. They’re nuts. I give up. They’re my pick to win the West, not least because I don’t think there will be much competition. The Giants overhauled, and I think not for the better. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ success weighs heavily on the health of Kevin Brown and the health and effectiveness of Darren Dreifort. No, thanks. Predicted finish: Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, San Diego.

National League Central: The St. Louis Cardinals won this division by 13 games last year, and they still have a formidable lineup. But that pitching staff. Tony La Russa held it together with chewing gum and twisty ties last year, but can that be done two years running? I don’t think so. The Houston Astros are a popular choice here, but I’m going to take a flyer on Baker and the Cubs, not so much because of the manager, though his leadership will be big, but because of their young, talented starters. Cincinnati might do that hang around and then fade thing. Predicted finish: Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee.

National League East: Picking the Atlanta Braves not to win their division has been a sucker’s bet for a dozen years, but I’m putting my money down. The Braves bungled their offseason budget, gave Millwood to the Phillies for a bag of sunflower seeds, then, charmingly, complained that the economics of baseball that had benefited them for a generation “stink.” For that, they get to finish behind the Phillies, who were decent last year, with a sturdy bullpen, and who have added Millwood and Thome. The Mets, my old friends, will be better than last year but still not very good. Predicted finish: Philadelphia, Atlanta (wild card), New York, Montreal, Florida.

World Series: Oakland over Arizona.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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