Making predictions in March about who's going to be playing baseball deep into October is a fool's errand. The season is so long, so many unexpected things can happen. How many of the prognosticators so prevalent this time of year were talking last spring about the A's and White Sox being the class of the American League and the Mets winning the pennant in the Senior Circuit? Who knew the Arizona Diamondbacks would win 100 games two years ago?
Not me, pal. In fact, the only time I came close to prediction perfection was in 1988, when I picked the Dodgers, Mets, A's and Tigers to win the four divisions that existed at the time. Everything was going smoothly until Detroit came completely unhinged in the last two months and lost the A.L. East to Boston by one game. Putting an exclamation point on the collapse: Lou Whitaker, the Tigers' star second baseman, tore up his knee in early September. You probably don't remember that play where Whitaker got hurt. That's because it happened when he did the splits while out dancing with his wife.
How could I have not seen that coming!
But that's the fun of baseball. As right-handed poet Joaquin Andujar noted, you can sum it all up in one word: You never know.
So I foolishly give you my numerologically appropriate nine predictions and nine observations, in the full knowledge that I'm more than likely more wrong than right, as I'm sure you won't hesitate to inform me even before Sunday's first pitch. In defense of my picks, I'd like to say this single word to the members of the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Oakland A's, Chicago White Sox, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds: No dancing, please.
Prediction 1: New York will win the A.L. East. The Yankees are beatable. Their bullpen took a hit by losing Jeff Nelson, and they're starting to get a little creaky through the lineup. But nobody in this weak division can knock them off. I like Toronto's shaky pitching and terrific lineup better than Boston's shaky pitching (plus Pedro Martinez) and good lineup (minus the injured Nomar Garciaparra) for second place, but neither is strong enough to beat whoever doesn't win the Central for the wild card. Baltimore will boost Tampa Bay out of the cellar.
Observation 1: The conventional wisdom is that the more championships you win, the harder it gets to keep winning, because of either the law of averages or, I don't know, players getting complacent or something. Well, if you've ever been to a convention, you know there ain't much wisdom around, and history hasn't been kind to this way of thinking. So watch out for the Yankees again.
Prior to the 2001 Yanks, six teams have entered a season having won three or more World Series in a row: The 1939, '52 and '53 Yankees won the Series again; the 1975 Oakland A's won their fifth straight A.L. West title but were swept in the playoffs by Boston; the 1954 Yanks won 103 games, but Cleveland won 111, making that year's Yankees the best second-place team in A.L. history; and the 1940 Yanks won 88 games and finished third, two games behind Detroit, one behind Cleveland.
Which leads us to ...
Prediction 2: The Yankees won't win their fourth straight title this year. I mean, the law of averages has to catch up with them, right? Just kidding! Their age is catching up with them, and the addition of Mike Mussina won't be enough. The Yankees will win the A.L. East, but they'll fall in the playoffs. I admit this might be wishful thinking, but I like wishful thinking. It's good for the economy. Here's the prediction: Oakland wins the pennant.
Prediction 3: If I'm picking the A's to win the flag, I guess I better pick them to win the West, so, OK, I do. But I'm not entirely convinced. I guess what I'm saying is that if they win the West, that means they didn't stumble, which means they're good enough to win the pennant. But they might stumble. They did help themselves by trading Ben Grieve for Johnny Damon, and the pitching looks good. But it also looks like it's one sophomore slump and one old-guy breakdown away from being not so good, and Jason Isringhausen is not exactly a rock-solid closer. And the new high strike zone might do real damage to an offense that depends so heavily on walks.
Seattle won't hit a lot -- I don't believe the hype about Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese phenom -- but the Mariners can pitch. (The Mariners can pitch -- it sounds funny, doesn't it? The way "The Indians are pretty good" sounded in the mid-'90s.) That should keep them close if the A's do falter. The Rangers went out and got Alex Rodriguez, but they also got Andres Galarraga, Randy Velarde and Ken Caminiti, making them real contenders for the '96 pennant. They and the Angels, in that order, will be also-rans.
Prediction 4: Speaking of the Indians: They're pretty good. I'm picking them to win the Central over the White Sox. They were terrific in the second half last year, and their lineup, as usual, will score a lot of runs. The question is whether Cleveland's mediocre and injury-plagued pitching will be better than Chicago's mediocre and injury-plagued pitching. I say yes, but only because that squirrel in Pennsylvania saw its shadow last month. What I mean is, I don't know, but they don't pay me to say I don't know. Anyway, whichever team doesn't win the Central will be the wild card.
There will be a huge gap between second place and third, which I think Detroit, even without injured catcher Mitch Meluskey, will win over Kansas City, in case you care, which means you live in Detroit or Kansas City. And that you might need to get out more. The Royals will score some, but when your best pitcher is -- if you don't know, I'm not gonna tell you, and you don't know, do you? -- you're not going anywhere. The Twins will finish last, and any year when the World Series is not played in the Metrodome is a pretty good year.
Observation 2: Actually a question. Am I the only one who thinks that unless Mike Sirotka's injury debilitates him permanently, sending him to Toronto for David Wells was a bad idea for the White Sox? Chicago traded a pretty solid 30-year-old left-hander for a pretty solid 38-year-old left-hander. (Those will be their ages by mid-May.) The White Sox say they needed Wells, who has vast and successful postseason experience, to take that next step, winning in October. But the starters were fine in the Sox's three-game sweep at the hands of Seattle last year: 19 innings, eight runs, seven earned. That's a 3.32 ERA. Two of the starts were good enough to earn a win. The problem was that Chicago scored three runs in the last two games. How does Wells address that problem?
Observation 3: I don't know how long this suddenly overused term has been around, but I've only been hearing it recently: inning eater. That's a No. 4 or 5 starter who can be counted on to give you plenty of innings, which saves your bullpen. Those innings might not be so good -- think of the Angels' Scott Schoeneweis (7-10, 5.45 ERA, 6.3 innings per start last year) or the Mets' Steve Trachsel (8-15, 4.80, 5.9 innings for Tampa Bay and Toronto) -- but, by golly, they're innings! This is thought of as a compliment, which tells you all you need to know about the state of pitching these days.
Prediction 5: St. Louis aside, the National League Central looks like baseball's weakest division. The Cardinals shouldn't have any trouble walking away with it, but there are some intriguing possibilities here. With the unbalanced schedule, an also-ran that has a decent year could fatten up on all those games against weak division-mates and win the wild card.
Everybody in the division has reason to be optimistic -- that's what spring training is for, after all. The hip prediction is that the Astros will rebound from their weirdly awful 2000 and make the playoffs. Maybe so, but I kinda like Cincinnati. I'm always intrigued when a team throws over one of those old-school, revolving-door managers (Jack McKeon in this case) for relatively fresh blood (Bob Boone, who managed Kansas City for two-and-a-half years). Plus, the Reds hit reasonably well last year even while Ken Griffey Jr. and Sean Casey struggled. Unless Griffey's hamstring injury plagues him all year, there's every reason to assume they'll both bounce back. And Cincinnati's pitching isn't half-bad, although -- Osvaldo Fernandez? -- it's a little thin. I'm picking the Reds as the wild card, just, you know, to have something to do.
The Pirates and Brewers are both in new ballparks, which sometimes gives a team a little goose, and both have go-getter new managers. (Pittsburgh's Lloyd McClendon is in his first year, Milwaukee's Davey Lopes his second.) Either team might surprise people. And the Cubs, with a happy Sammy Sosa, healthy pitching and a pretty good manager (Don Baylor), could be a middle-of-the-pack team if everything goes right. Of course, everything never goes right at Wrigley.
Observation 4: The Brewers and Pirates can sit in their new ballparks and think about teams that have gotten a boost from a new home in the past decade -- the Giants, Mariners, Rockies and Orioles -- and say, "Why not us too?"
Observation 5: The Brewers and Pirates are dreaming if they think their new ballparks are going to be some sort of magic bullet to improve their fortunes right away. Just look at the Astros, Tigers, Marlins and Rangers in the past decade. Not to mention the Louisville Colonels, who, as if I had to tell you, fell from ninth place to 11th in the National League after moving from the old Eclipse Park to the new one in 1893.
Observation 6: Nobody calls ballparks "stadiums" anymore. The rigorous standards of official nostalgia -- which officially ain't what it used to be -- dictate that any building where big league teams play must look like it was built in the teens (only with luxury boxes) and must be called a ballpark, not a stadium. I don't think I ever once heard a person use the word ballpark to refer to an actual building (as opposed to a metaphorical one, as in "Give me a ballpark figure") until I was close to 30. Now, everything's a ballpark. I miss stadiums. Dare I say it? I'm nostalgic for stadiums.
Observation 7: Teams that tailor their roster to their ballpark have a much better chance of winning if they have a big ballpark. Or even a big stadium. That's because big-ballpark teams build around pitching, defense and speed, and that wins more games -- home and road, regardless of the ballpark -- than home runs. Good for the Rockies, who have abandoned their strategy of stocking their launching pad of a stadium with home run hitters. That always seemed pointless to me. If your stadium creates home runs, why do you need to get home run hitters? Get guys who can do other things. Your stadium will do the rest. And that way you'll win some road games too. Detroit and Seattle have new digs that favor pitchers. Watch out for them in the coming years.
Prediction 6: The Rockies still won't win the N.L. West. Neither will the Diamondbacks, who are too old, the Padres, too undermanned, or the Dodgers, who are the Dodgers. That leaves the Giants. A lot of people are calling this the toughest division, but unless the Giants' pitching is ravaged by injury or something, they shouldn't have much trouble repeating. On the other hand: The last time the Giants repeated anything was 1936-37, when they won back-to-back pennants. But they're the pick here. If they have an off-year, 85 wins might take this division. Maybe Colorado after all.
Prediction 7: The Atlanta Braves will win the division. There, I said it. Everybody in the Western world knows the Braves will win their 10th straight division title, and everybody's saying so, and when they do win, the Braves players, you watch, will talk about how nobody respected them all year. The Braves don't look as overpowering as they have sometimes looked over the past decade. John Smoltz, Javy Lopez, Eddie Perez and Chipper Jones are all hurting to various degrees, Kevin Millwood hasn't been able to get anybody out in spring training and this team still hands the ball to noted unstable person John Rocker in the ninth inning. And get this: The Braves, the pitching-loaded Braves, actually have perennial nine-game winner John Burkett in their rotation, and not as the No. 5 guy.
But who's going to beat them? The Mets? Maybe. Bobby Valentine's teams have a way of winning around 90 games regardless of preseason expectations, so if the Braves underachieve, the National League champs might sneak up on them. But New York will miss Mike Hampton. Replacement Kevin Appier's 15 wins last year somehow don't equal Hampton's 15. And aside from Mike Piazza, who is one game closer to old age every time he takes his place behind the dish instead of moving to another position, and maybe Al Leiter, the Mets don't look too inspiring. They'll get a bunch of wins from playing the Phillies and Expos a lot, but so will the Marlins, who are young, talented, hungry and better than you think. The Marlins, the Mets and the second-best team in the Central Division (I'm saying Cincinnati) could have a pretty entertaining race for the wild card.
Last year the Phillies were the worst hitting team in the National League, had the worst bullpen and finished tied with the Cubs for the worst record in baseball. And yet that doesn't really do justice to how bad they were. This year, they look worse. Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro alone ought to be enough for the Expos to finish ahead of the Phillies, which ought to be a real thrill for all 487 fans in Montreal.
Observation 8: Imagine if there were no such thing as a wild card. There might be a pretty decent pennant race in the National League between good teams, like the Braves and Giants, Braves and Cardinals or Cardinals and Giants, depending on how you want to imagine the league being aligned, or in the American League between, say, Oakland and Chicago or Cleveland and New York. Remember pennant races? The first requirement for having them: no wild cards. If it's not possible for the second-best team in the league to miss the playoffs, there can't be a great pennant race, defined here as a race between the two best teams in the league, with the loser eliminated.
Prediction 8: Ever mindful of the ability of Tony La Russa's teams to lose in the postseason, I'm picking the Cardinals to survive the playoffs and win the National League pennant. I think Mark McGwire will get to 600 homers this year, and that it'll be his last hurrah. That doesn't count as an actual prediction, though, if you're keeping score. Even without Big Mac, the Cards are the pick.
Prediction 9: Oakland over St. Louis in the World Series. A "small-market" (as in, the fourth largest market in the country) team triumphs by beating its old manager, who led them to two stunning Series defeats a decade ago. I'm still using that shaky logic here that the A's might not win the West, but if they do, they're the team to beat in the postseason. Really, if you say it enough times to yourself, it starts to make sense.
Observation 9: Soothsaying about the World Series in March makes me feel like one of those bogus "futurists" who tell us what life's going to be like 50 years from now. I really have no idea what I'm talking about, of course, but who's going to check up on me? By the time the season ends, no one will remember that I foolishly had the Indians beating out the White Sox, or the Reds winning the wild card. And anyway, the beauty of the Web is that I plan to bribe a copy editor to go into the archives at the end of the season and correct this story with the real winners.
Just in case that doesn't work, here are my predicted standings in easy-to-ridicule format.
A.L. East: New York, Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore
A.L. Central: Cleveland, Chicago (wild card), Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota
A.L. West: Oakland, Seattle, Texas, Anaheim
N.L. East: Atlanta, New York, Florida, Montreal, Philadelphia
N.L. Central: St. Louis, Cincinnati (wild card), Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Chicago
N.L. West: San Francisco, Colorado, Los Angeles, Arizona, San Diego
World Series: Oakland over St. Louis
But as Joaquin Andujar should have said to Lou Whitaker: You never know.