When we left off of baseball five months ago, the Boston Red Sox had just won the World Series, the most amazing thing that's ever happened anywhere in the world since the beginning of time etc. etc., unless Boston's come-from-behind win over the Yankees in the A.L. Championship Series was.
Since then it's all been about steroids, as you may have heard. But now it's spring. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming and the perfect emerald blanket yadda yadda American pastime pop of the leather and crack of the bat fathers sons smell of hot dogs endless possibility of a clean scorecard time is here.
Where have you gone, Enzo Hernandez?
OK, steroids. Check. Lyrical ode to spring. Check. Where have you gone line transposed humorously to an obscure player of more recent vintage than Joe DiMaggio. Check. Let's get to this column's annual fearless and almost certainly wrong predictions.
Last year, I correctly predicted exactly one (1) of the six division winners, down from two (2) in 2003, and matching the one (1) correct pick in 2002. I'm really bad at this, but at least I'm consistent lately. In 2001 I went wild and got three (3!) right, but that was before I decided on principle not to pick the Yankees or Braves to win their divisions.
We'll look at the National League first, and then turn to the American League Friday.
National League West
We're about to see the difference Barry Bonds has made for the Giants these last few years as he starts the season on the shelf, nursing a bad knee and trying to puzzle out why so many people are so happy about his misfortune.
His teammates can't be among those happy about it. They've got enough problems, what with so many of them still trying to collect back pay for their service in World War I. The Giants are old, is what I'm trying to say, and they responded to that problem this offseason by going out and getting older, not even counting the fact that the holdover players have gotten a year older, as is their wont.
The Giants probably should have rebuilt about three years ago, but they've been shuffling and shuffling, trying to keep the team in contention for as long as Bonds keeps putting up stratospheric numbers. No sense paying Bonds all those dineros to put up a 1.400 OPS for a losing team. The future has been now for a long time. Well, the real future showed up when Bonds bonked his knee on a table last month, and it's not going to be pretty for a little while.
That leaves this weak division open to the Padres and Dodgers, who are both on the upswing. While the Dodgers, who have a smart general manager and a loaded farm system, are going to benefit the most in the long run, I think the Padres will sneak in and take the division this year.
San Diego's still stuck with big contracts and little production from Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin, and remember when Sean Burroughs was going to be a star? But the Padres rely on solid pitching, led by Jake Peavy, who had a breakout season last year and won't turn 24 until the end of May, and closer Trevor Hoffman, who came back from shoulder surgery last year and was dynamite. Petco is a pitcher's park too.
The Dodgers lost Adrian Beltre, who either finally put it all together or had his freak career year last year, and they dumped Shawn Green on Arizona. Instead they have J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent, who is starting to make me feel old because he's 37 and starting to fade and I covered him as a college freshman.
And it's kind of like that for L.A.: A lot of questions. Is Jeff Kent still Jeff Kent or did moving from San Francisco to Houston mask the start of his decline? Can Drew stay healthy for an all-time-record second season in a row? Will a move to the National League, or success in last year's postseason, turn Derek Lowe into an effective pitcher? Hee Seop Choi: Is he ever going to live up to his promise? Eric Gagne's knee? Jeff Weaver?
The Dodgers aren't an inspiring team at the moment, but if things break their way, they could be a 90-ish-win team, which would probably be enough to win this division. And they can afford to get help if they need it at the deadline. I'll take the under, that everything won't break their way, but they could be in the wild-card mix, and look out in the near future.
The Diamondbacks, coming off an injury-riddled, 111-loss season, turned over the whole team. You may have heard about Randy Johnson going to the Yankees, for example. The big pickup, in that same trade, was Javier Vazquez, who absolutely imploded in the second half last year. The thinking is he'll be happy to escape the Bronx and return to the National League.
Arizona also got Russ Ortiz, Troy Glaus, Shawn Green, Royce Clayton, Craig Counsell -- I could go on. The Diamondbacks will certainly be better than last year's 111-game losers, but a good rule of thumb is that if Shawn Estes is in your starting rotation, you have a ways to go.
The Rockies have embarked on a youth movement. We'll check back on them in a couple of years and see what their new strategy is then.
Last year's finish: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado, Arizona
Predicted '05 finish: San Diego, Los Angeles, Arizona, San Francisco, Colorado
National League Central
Nobody picked the Cardinals to win this division last year (except me). I mean, nobody had any idea (except me) how good they'd be. They raced into the lead and cruised to 105 wins and the pennant, surprising all of the prognosticators (except me).
This year everybody's picking the Cardinals to win the N.L. Central. Except me.
Even with the addition of ace Mark Mulder, I think it's too much to expect that so-so bunch of starting pitchers to overachieve for a second straight year. The Cardinals are good but old in the outfield, and the new double-play combination of Mark Grudzielanek and David Eckstein doesn't look like a winner.
The Cardinals can fall a long way and still be a contender, though, so I'm picking them to beat the usual deep field for the wild card.
I'll do what I did two years ago and take a flier on the Cubs, though it's less of a flier this time. Remember: While I've picked only four division winners in the last three years, I've nailed the N.L. Central winner three years in a row.
There's a lot of hand-wringing over spring injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, but even if those two miss some time, this is a pretty solid team. Don't forget, last year Wood and Prior missed about 20 starts between them and the Cubs still won 89 games, one more than they won in their magical 2003.
Sure, they've lost Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, but I don't think Alou's a good bet to repeat his big '04, and Sosa's on the fade. Nomar Garciaparra, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Corey Patterson: This team will hit. The bullpen's a big question. A bigger problem than Joe Borowski breaking his arm after winning the closer's job is the fact that Joe Borowski won the closer's job.
But it wouldn't be a flier if everything looked all cushty-mushty, would it? Now that the Red Sox have shown that teams that never win can actually win, why not the Cubs? I'm picking them to win the pennant.
The Astros are the other team that's been at the top of this division in recent years, but I think their moment has passed. They still have pitching that will take them a long way. Roger Clemens will still be winning Cy Youngs when he's 90, and Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte can chuck the ol' spheroid as well. Brad Lidge is a pretty good closer.
But this club lost Kent and Carlos Beltran over the offseason. Jeff Bagwell is just a smoldering husk of what he used to be. Craig Biggio seemed to halt his long, slow slide last year at age 38, and the move from the outfield back to second base at least returns him to a position he can actually play at a professional level. But he's not what he was either. Lance Berkman will start the season on the disabled list, still healing a knee he hurt playing flag football.
The starters will keep them in the wild-card mix, but nothing more.
That leaves the traditional Rest of the Division, the Reds, Brewers and Pirates.
The Reds are interesting, as usual, with all those slugging outfielders -- including human injury report Ken Griffey Jr. -- plus Sean Casey, and a whole lotta questionable pitching. But they did go out and sign a check for Eric Milton this offseason, kind of a fun idea, spending money on a decent pitcher.
Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Harang, Paul Wilson, Brandon Claussen, Danny Graves. The rest of the Reds' pitching staff is a bunch of shoulder shrugs, at best.
The Brewers and Pirates don't seem as hapless as they have over most of the last decade, but also don't seem close to contending.
Last year's finish: St. Louis, Houston (wild card), Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee
Prediction for '05: Chicago, St. Louis (wild card), Cincinnati, Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh
National League East
The Braves, OK? The freakin' Braves. Now go away.
Wait. Come back. Every year I pick someone other than the Braves, and every year they win the division again. I want to throw up my hands, say the Braves will win for the 14th straight time and be done with it.
But I can't. One of these years they're not going to win the N.L. East, and I'll be damned if they do it in a year when I've finally given in and picked them to win. So I soldier on, determined, grim, looking to Philadelphia, Miami and New York for help. Never give in. Never, never, never, never.
Every year the Braves appear to have a perfectly good excuse not to win. They lose Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, say, or are "forced" by the economics of the game to trade Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada -- remember when that looked like the Phillies robbing the Braves?
This year's excuse: The Braves lost J.D. Drew and signed Raul Mondesi(!), and appear posed to open the season with both Mondesi and Brian Jordan in the starting outfield. And they're replacing the departed Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright in the rotation with Tim Hudson, acquired in a trade with the A's, and John Smoltz, who's been the closer for the last few years.
That might be an improvement even if Smoltz is nowhere near as good as a starter as he has been as a reliever, which is pretty much a sure thing. But it leaves a big hole in the bullpen, and Dan Kolb, former Brewers closer, isn't the patch. And if Smoltz flops as a starter and returns to the bullpen, it's a net loss for the rotation.
We all know the Braves will figure it out. John Schuerholz will make a trade or Leo Mazzone will do a reclamation job on, like, Blue Moon Odom or somebody, and the Braves will win 98 games and the division. But we must be on record picking against them in case it doesn't happen. Never, never, never give in.
The Phillies looked like division winners last year, won 86 games for the second year in a row, third time in four years, and finally fired manager Larry Bowa. The lineup is essentially the same as the one that was third in the league last year behind only the ridiculous Cardinals and the San Francisco Barrys. Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome are the stars.
The problem last year was the pitching, and it still is. I just don't see Jon Lieber, the big offseason signing, as the answer. Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla are fighting injuries. Cory Lidle is, not to put too fine a point on it, Cory Lidle. Good bullpen, led by Billy Wagner, but can the Phillies get to it? Maybe, and I think they'll at least contend for the wild card, but I don't think they'll win the East.
What about the Mets? They made all the headlines this offseason, picking up ex-Yankees Felix Heredia and Miguel Cairo.
Just kidding. The Mets signed the biggest free agent pitcher and the biggest free agent hitter on the market, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, plus Kris Benson, who wasn't worth what the Mets paid but is fine. So they're trying. Willie Randolph is the new manager. Braden Looper's a pretty nice closer. There's a lot of excitement.
But while there's all that, plus Cliff Floyd when he's healthy, and young third baseman David Wright, who looks like a star, there's also a lot that's not all that.
There's the double-play combination of Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes, which could be really exciting or a continuing disappointment. There's the aging and fading Mike Piazza. There's Doug Mientkiewicz playing every day. There's Tom Glavine at 39, and Kaz Ishii, who just really can't pitch. This is one of those teams that could go places if everything breaks right, but when was the last time everything broke right for the Mets?
The answer is 2000, which isn't that long ago, but I bet it feels that way to Mets fans.
If nothing else, though, the Mets figure to be the greatest National League team ever to have two guys named Kaz.
So, let's see, who's that leave? Oh, the Marlins!
Florida will get a much-needed shot of offense from Carlos Delgado, which ought to lift them from lower-middle class to middle of the pack, which is pretty good considering their stadium isn't kind to hitters. But the key here is the starting rotation. If healthy, A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett could be a 1-2 good enough to carry any team. Add in middle-to-back of the rotation guys Al Leiter and Dontrelle Willis, and what looks like a decent bullpen, and these guys can go places.
Speaking of going place: Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Washington Nationals, formerly Montreal Expos. There's not enough pitching here to make much noise, but not having to play a quarter of their "home" games in San Juan ought to by itself make for some improvement over last year's 95 losses.
They've also gone from having one of the better uniforms in baseball -- though the forsaking of the tricolor hat in an otherwise positive redesign in 1992 was a blunder -- to having one of the worst. If the USFL had been a baseball league, the Nationals look like they'd have been in it.
Last year's finish: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Florida, New York, Montreal
Prediction for '05: Florida, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Washington
I'm picking the Cubs to win the National League title on the theory that if they do win the Central Division, it'll be because their pitchers stayed healthy, and in that case, that pitching will serve them well in the postseason. I'll tell you my World Series pick Friday.
Here are my National League predictions in one place for ease of ridicule:
Western Division: San Diego Padres
Central Division: Chicago Cubs
Eastern Division: Florida Marlins
Wild card: St. Louis Cardinals
N.L. champs: Cubs
Previous column: Chief Illiniwek
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