King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

American League preview: The return of the A's, Jim Thome and the Eastern Division prediction of "not Yankees."

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The 2006 baseball season is opening under a dark cloud in the wake of terrible news. Boston Red Sox reliever Julian Tavarez has said he will no longer speak to the media.

The well-traveled right-hander is angry because someone had written that the reason Tavarez punched Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Joey Gathright in the face after a play at the plate Monday, setting off a brawl, was that Tavarez was upset over having pitched poorly. He’d faced five batters, retiring one, hitting one and giving up one hit. Two reached on errors.

“I wasn’t pitching well? It was one hit, two errors and they write down those things?” Tavarez said. “I’m done with the media. No más.”

Baseball, being the great game it is, will somehow muddle through this crisis, although rest assured, Mr. Beat Writer who cost us a year’s worth of Julian Tavarez quotes, the rest of us will hunt you down and make you pay.

Oh, and also, a bestselling book details Barry Bonds’ alleged steroid use for several years starting in 1999, with damning details about other players’ alleged use.

And commissioner Bud Selig, who like most baseball establishment figures and fans tacitly approved of the performance-enhancing-drug explosion from the mid-’90s on, is under pressure to conduct a damned-if-you-do investigation into Bonds as the slugger stands poised to pass Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time home run list.

Play ball!

It almost feels dishonest to write about baseball without a long steroids preface, but you don’t need me to tell you how to feel about Barry Bonds, the home run chase and the PED issue at this point. There’s plenty more time to get into all that anyway. The task at hand is an American League preview, with the National League to follow Thursday.

And that means it’s time for this column to indulge in a tradition almost as old as baseball itself, in the sense that four years is almost as long as a century and a half in the scheme of plate tectonics and such. That tradition is: Picking someone other than the New York Yankees to win the Eastern Division.

As usual, I think the Yankees are more or less the favorites in the East, though both they and the Boston Red Sox look vulnerable and the Toronto Blue Jays are on the rise, making the division a little more wide open. But the real reason I pick against them is twofold.



First, the Yankees have won the division for eight straight years. One of these years, they’re not going to win it, and I’ll be damned if that’s the year I give in and pick them. Take a wild guess who I’m not going to pick to win the National League East in Thursday’s column.

The other reason is that I’m an honest person who is kind to animals and small children, mostly, and I deserve to see the Yankees not win their division at least once before my grandchildren swindle me out of my pension.

A.L. West

1. Oakland Athletics: Man, what a pitching staff. The question is whether the A’s can score enough runs. They were sixth in the league last year, and they’ve added Milton Bradley. If he can put together a full season without self-destructing, if Eric Chavez can rebound from a down year — for him — and if Bobby Crosby stays healthy, then yes, they can score enough runs.

Because everybody in the world is picking the Angels, I’ll take the A’s to win the West. But you know who’s really good? The …

2. Los Angeles Angels: Pretty much everybody in the world is picking the Angels. Have you heard? And with good reason. A solid starting rotation — as long as Bartolo Colon stays healthy at the top of it — and a good bullpen will keep them in the hunt, and Vladimir Guerrero is in the heart of the batting order.

On the other hand, there are a whole lot of Garret Andersons and Darrin Erstads and Edgardo Alfonzos expected to contribute a lot to this team.

All sorts of big-time talent is on the verge of breaking through to the big leagues, and if it does this year, if guys like Casey Kotchman and Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis are having big years in Los Anahangeles this summer, the Angels are your World Series favorites. Too much Orlando Cabrera, or a key injury or two among the pitchers, and this is a wild-card team and first-round loser at best.

3. Texas Rangers: All kinds of offense in a hitter’s park, but, like their National League cousins the Colorado Rockies, they just can’t seem to put together a pitching staff.

The Rangers have brought in ERA champ Kevin Millwood and former National Leaguers Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla, who have both had occasional success. It won’t be enough, but with Mark Teixeira and Michael Young leading the way, the Rangers will score a lot of runs, even on the road.

4. Seattle Mariners: Let me get this straight. The Mariners were lousy last year, so in the offseason they went out and got Jarrod Washburn, Carl Everett and Matt Lawton?

OK, it’s not quite that bad. King Felix Hernandez will be with the big club for a full year — a year during which he’ll turn 20. The M’s signed Japanese All-Star catcher Kenji Johjima, and live-armed reliever Rafael Soriano returns from Tommy John surgery. But it’s going to be another long year in a tough division.

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A.L. Central

1. Chicago White Sox: Your World Series champs have one of the best starting rotations in the game, and they’ve added slugger Jim Thome. If he’s healthy, which he wasn’t last year in Philadelphia but has been so far this spring, he’ll help a lot.

Barring injuries, there’s no reason to think the White Sox won’t be at least as good in 2006 as they were in 2005. I realize I’m backing the White Sox to do something they’ve never done in 105 years in the American League: Repeat. I did the same thing in 1918 and it didn’t work out then either, but I can’t help myself.

2. Cleveland Indians: This rising team got hot just as the White Sox got cold last summer, and the Indians almost pulled off a historic comeback before finally stumbling in the last week. Since then, they’ve lost Millwood and Bobby Howry, which is a lot of pitching.

Bob Wickman is a lot of pitching too, about 250 pounds of it. Counting on him as the closer for another year is not something the Indians wanted to do, but they’ll have to.

Led by young stars Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta, and perhaps by rookie Andy Marte if Aaron Boone gives way at third base, the Indians will hit. Whether they can hit enough, or get just enough pitching, will be the big question.

3. Minnesota Twins: It’s hard to get excited about the Twins’ offseason moves. Finally knocked off their perch atop a weak division by a suddenly competitive set of rivals, the Twins signed leadoff man Luis Castillo, apparently buying the story that the White Sox won the Series last year by playing smallball. They also brought the Tony Batista strikeout show back from Japan.

But Johann Santana takes the ball every five days, Joe Nathan is a fine closer, and the rest of the staff has a sort of patina of adequacy about it, with big things expected eventually of youngster Francisco Liriano. If a bunch of things go right — Torii Hunter recovers fully, Justin Morneau hits, etc. — the Twins could contend for the wild card.

4. Detroit Tigers: Jim Leyland comes out of retirement to manage a team that’s moving in the right direction and has some good-looking young pitchers, but isn’t quite there yet.

I had a whole riff planned here on my new favorite player, Nook Logan, but the Bengals optioned him to Toledo Wednesday. Everyone should have a favorite player named Nook is all I’ll say for now, and yes, Nuke is an acceptable alternative.

5. Kansas City Royals: One thing the Royals are good at is saving time. Take fifth starters, for instance. With most teams, you have to wait till the fifth game of the season before a fifth starter takes the mound. In Kansas City, a fifth starter takes the ball on Opening Day! Then another fifth starter pitches the second game, another the third and so on.

But there is good news in Kansas City. The Royals signed former Cardinals Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek this offseason. That’s good news for Sanders’ and Grudzielanek’s accountants, who won’t have to get a different set of state tax forms. There wasn’t really any good news for the Royals. Well, except for one thing.

Wait, never mind. My mistake.

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A.L. East

1. Toronto Blue Jays: I don’t feel nearly as good about picking the Blue Jays to win the East this year as I did two years ago. But I’m taking that as a good omen. Two years ago, they finished last. They went out and got pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan this winter, which is OK, at least initially.

If Burnett can stay healthy, he and Roy Halladay are a formidable top two. If 30-year-old career middle reliever Ryan wasn’t a one-year wonder as a closer in Baltimore, well, hey, that’d be great. New corner infielders Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay add some pop. I don’t really know if there’s enough here to beat the Yanks, but where are we without our traditions?

2. New York Yankees: New York’s big offseason signing was Johnny Damon, who at 32 has some miles left on him, but this team just keeps getting older, and the pitching just keeps not getting better. Randy Johnson, following a lifelong pattern, continues to be only two months younger than this writer. Take it from this writer: That is increasingly not a good thing.

Even the big offense has some questions. Gary Sheffield, who’s 37, is in a walk year and therefore never more than 10 seconds away from a tantrum. Jorge Posada has caught over 1,000 games and will be 35 in August. Who knows what to make of Jason Giambi?

Just to keep it interesting, I’ll say the Yankees will be in a thick wild-card race with the Angels, Rangers, Indians, Twins and Red Sox, and that that race will be won by … the Angels.

3. Boston Red Sox: The Sox had a chaotic offseason, with general manager Theo Epstein leaving in a gorilla suit and then coming back, presumably in Dockers and an Oxford shirt. But a bigger problem is that the 2004 championship club is just kind of wearing away.

David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are still here, at least as long as the Red Sox keep not being able to accommodate his periodic trade requests before he retracts them again and declares himself happy. And they’re still hitting monsters.

But this is a team hoping for big things from old and/or injury-damaged Curt Schilling, Mike Lowell, Trot Nixon and Keith Foulke, not to mention a passel of other pitchers among whom Schilling, 39, is the kid. Don’t underestimate young Theo’s ability to make some clever midsummer moves if Boston can stay close, which I think it can do. But this looks like a third-place team.

4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The whatzisname era is over — you know, the last owner? Disgrace to the game? Anyway, his era is over and the Devil Rays actually have a ton of young talent either in the bigs or on the way soon. Vince Naimoli. That’s it.

A decent offense, eighth in the league in runs last year, figures to get better with the return of Rocco Baldelli and the coming of studs Delmon Young and B.J. Upton, who’ll start the year in the minors. Not much pitching yet, but the Rays appear poised to join the major leagues. Next thing you know, they’ll get nonhideous uniforms.

5. Baltimore Orioles: Here are three words for you. LaTroy Hawkins, closer. Here are two more: Last place.

Miguel Tejada’s a great player, Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts, if he’s recovered from an elbow injury, are very good ones. And it’ll be interesting to see what longtime Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone can do with a pitching staff that’s mediocre at best. Staying out of the cellar would be an admirable achievement.

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Here, for ease of ridicule, are this column’s American League predictions in one place.

Western Division champions: Oakland A’s
Central Division champions: Chicago White Sox
Eastern Division champions: Toronto Blue Jays
Wild card: Los Angeles Angels

American League champions: Oakland A’s.
I think I’m just rooting here, the A’s being No. 2 in the Complicated Calculus of Teams I Root For. Especially when you consider that the A’s haven’t won a playoff series since the Bush I administration. But my theory here is that if the A’s really are good enough to make the playoffs, their pitching will take them far.

I’ve used this theory before in picking the A’s, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros at various times, and I don’t think it has ever been right. So I’m counting on the law of averages catching up with both my theory and the A’s postseason results.

Coming Thursday: Equally ridiculous National League predictions

Previous column: Sports radio vs. blogs

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