In my National League preview Thursday, I mentioned -- OK, bragged about -- how I've managed to pick either one or two division winners out of six in each of the last three years.
"Fer gosh sake!" writes reader Wayne Bryant about my record of futility. "Two of the six winners are pre-printed on the card! You just have to choose the other four."
He's referring to the Braves and Yankees, who I refuse to peg as Eastern Division champions each year, and who win the Eastern Divisions each year.
I go against the Braves because one of these years they're not going to win their division, and I'll be damned if that's the year I go back to picking them. I go against the Yankees because I'm an honest man who's lived a good life, and I deserve to see someone other than the Yankees win the A.L. East.
Bryant points out that I finally gave in this past season and vowed to pick the Patriots to win every playoff game they play until they lose one, and suggests I do the same for the Eastern Division titans.
I'm not going to do that -- because let's face it, what's a daily columnist without tired schtick? -- but I'll come halfway and pick the Minnesota Twins to win the A.L. Central. I've been picking against the Twins for several years now too, not on behalf of any principle but because they always look sort of just-OK to me and I think someone in that awful division will step up.
But they never do. It's kind of chic to think the Indians will this year, but I've had enough. The Twins, who look just-OK to me, to win 90 and take the division!
American League West
If you look at all the different preseason publications on your favorite newsstand, you can find the A's, Mariners and Rangers in second, third and fourth place in any order you like. Pretty much everybody's picking the Angels to win the division.
I think it'll be a tossup between the Angels and A's, and, mostly because everyone else is picking the Angels, I'll take the A's, who -- just in case you take my picks seriously -- I should tell you are No. 2 in the complex calculus of teams I root for.
The A's, as you know, traded away two-thirds of the Big Three from their starting rotation, sending Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder to the National League and holding on to the least of the trio, Barry Zito. The thinking seems to be that this will devastate Oakland, which for all the talk of Billy Beane's genius this and "Moneyball" that, has excelled because of those three arms.
Well, they played a big role, but they weren't the whole show, and in trading away Hudson and Mulder the A's got back Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz. Not glamorous names, but those guys can pitch, and Calero and Cruz, plus dynamite-looking rookie Huston Street, should make the bullpen a lot better than the one that contributed mightily to Oakland's collapse last year.
It will help if Octavio Dotel is better than last year, which might be asking a lot.
Haren and Meyer haven't done it at the big-league level yet, but there's reason to believe they will. Rich Harden can throw too. There's not a lot of offense here, even with the addition of Jason Kendall, but there should be just enough. Maybe this will be the year when the rest of the world realizes how good Eric Chavez is.
The Angels have some pitching too, a terrific bullpen led by Francisco Rodriguez, who has finally been handed the closer's job now that the fading Troy Percival is off to Detroit. It's the starters who are a little shaky. Bartolo Colon had a rough first year in Anaheim -- excuse me, in Los Angeles of Anaheim -- while Kelvim Escobar had a nice one. But he's 29, was that a fluke?
Colon is still young and he's a good pitcher. Escobar had struggled in Toronto, but last year was the first time he was ever put in the starting rotation and kept there for a whole year. I think they'll both be fine, and the Angels will do that thing they do, scoring more runs than it seems like they ought to with the hitters they have.
They'll go down to the wire with the A's in the West and, not to give away the ending here, win the wild card.
The Mariners added a bunch of bopping when they signed Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, but considering they play in a pitcher's park, they really ought to have better pitching. That always seems to be true of the Rangers. A surprising performance in 2004 and patently ridiculous talk that this is finally, really, finally the year for Chan Ho Park notwithstanding, it's true again this year.
Last year's finish: Anaheim, Oakland, Texas, Seattle
Predicted '05 finish: Oakland, Los Angeles of Anaheim, Seattle, Texas
American League Central
The Twins are kind of a low-rent Braves. Guys leave, but Minnesota keeps coming up with new ones to replace them. Not that the guys leaving the Twins -- Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie this year, Eddie Guardado last year -- have exactly been the equivalent of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine leaving at once.
Still. The Twins have the best starter in the league, Johan Santana, one of the best relievers, Joe Nathan, a fine bullpen and a solid lineup, with relative youngsters Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Mauer a big part of it.
After Santana and Brad Radke, the starting pitching's a little iffy, but it shouldn't matter in this division. Where it'll matter is in the playoffs, where the Twins have gone 6-12 since 2002 while losing three of four series.
You could make an argument for the Indians, Tigers and White Sox in any order between the first-place Twins and the last-place Royals, and I'll put them in that order. The Indians and Tigers are both moving in the right direction, though I think the optimism in both places is a tad overstated.
I think the Indians are coming, but they played over their heads last year and aren't quite ready to contend. The Tigers have done a great job of transforming themselves from a 119-loss toxic-waste dump to a club that might be just good enough to hang around for part of the summer. That's great in the immediate aftermath of 119 losses, but will look less so as time goes by.
The White Sox are headed downhill, and might even rival the Royals for last place. Kansas City's Zack Greinke went 8-11 with a 3.97 earned-run average and nearly a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year as a 20-year-old rookie. In certain circles, he's thought to be the next pitching superstar, which brings up the musical question: What team that doesn't play in Kansas City will he be pitching for in 2010?
Last year's finish: Minnesota, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City
Predicted '05 finish: Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City
American League East
Here's the big story. Yankees vs. Red Sox, the rivalry that towers above all others these days. They'll start the season playing each other, Sunday night on ESPN, and if this season goes like the last two, they'll end it playing each other too in the A.L. Championship Series.
The Red Sox's rally from a 3-0 deficit to win last year's ALCS over the Yankees ranks somewhere above the cure for polio in the view of Hub fans, and for some it even ranks above the subsequent World Series sweep of the Cardinals.
I defy you to find a publication that isn't picking New York and Boston one-two in this division, usually in that order, with the runner-up taking the wild card. I'm picking the Yankees and Sox one-two also, but not in that order. and not just because I refuse to pick the Yankees.
The Red Sox were probably the better team last year. The Yankees' record was one and a half games better, counting the playoffs, but I think that can be explained by the random bounces of a season. That is, let those same teams play a season another 20 times and the Red Sox would come out on top in all but a few.
For more on this subject, Keith Woolner has done a fascinating study in Baseball Prospectus that shows how randomness plays a role in the standings. "The moral of the story," he writes, "is that even 162 games is still a fairly small sample ... The actual differences between teams are often too small to overcome the noise of a single season's worth of games."
Anyway, the Sox did beat the Yanks head-to-head 15-11, including playoff games. And while Boston looks more or less the same, its biggest worry being a post-championship hangover, the Yankees are starting to look a little creaky. I know I've been saying that for a while now, but I'm saying it anyway.
The Yankees still have a killer lineup. You can't go too far wrong with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada carrying your offense, even without a big year from Sheffield, who is 36, banged up, under steroid suspicion and due for one of his patented bouts of discontentment.
But the sell-by date is past for Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams, Tony Womack's good 2004 in St. Louis was a late-career fluke, Jason Giambi is a big ol' question mark -- though a slimmer one -- and the bench, including the picturesque Ruben Sierra, is pretty worthless.
Then there's the pitching staff. You may have heard that the Yanks traded for Randy Johnson this winter. He's 41, and he was great last year, and he'll probably be great this year, but his age has to catch up with him sometime, and every year there's a chance that this'll be the year.
Kevin Brown is 40, and his age has caught up with him and slammed him into a concrete wall. Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright were both signed after one big year in the National League that I don't think either will ever duplicate.
Mike Mussina is still pretty good, though, and of course the same is true for Johnson. Mariano Rivera still comes out of the bullpen, which overall has a chance to be quite good.
I'm not saying the Yankees are a bad team. They're a good team. I'm just saying a lot has to break right for them to beat the Red Sox or win a tough wild-card race against the Western Division runner-up. And a lot broke right for them last year.
Sure, they can always go out and get help at the trading deadline, but if the help they need is starting pitching, who's out there who can help them? The best pitchers in their contract year who don't figure to be playing for a contender that will want to keep them for the stretch run are probably Jose Lima, Jason Johnson, Kenny Rogers and Tony Armas. In a word: No thanks.
The Red Sox lost Nomar-replacement shortstop Orlando Cabrera and replaced him with Edgar Renteria, which I'd call a modest improvement, and lost Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe from the rotation, replacing them with Matt Clement, David Wells and Wade Miller.
That might be roughly a wash too, given how little value Lowe had. Wells will be 40 in May and is always a health risk, and Fenway Park has been unkind to him over the years, though not terribly so. But if he can stay upright, he's still got that pinpoint control, and last year in San Diego he kept the ball on the ground, a good strategy for Fenway.
Clement is nothing special, but with this lineup, the most powerful in the league last year and essentially unchanged except it figures to have Trot Nixon for the whole season, the Sox don't need special. Miller's rotator cuff has kept him off the mound since August, when he was an Astro. He's talking about a comeback in May. Even if he comes back in July he'll be a bonus if he can take the ball consistently.
Keith Foulke is one of the game's better closers, and the bullpen should be good enough, better than that if the flyer the Sox took on Matt Mantei pays off.
And of course you can't talk about the Red Sox without mentioning Curt Schilling. He's 38 and coming off that famous bum ankle, but, not unlike Johnson, it's best to assume he'll be one of the best until he proves otherwise.
So, what about the rest of the division? The Orioles would appear to have the best chance to knock on the doors of the top two, though it'll probably be one of those faint knocks, where you look at your roommate and go, "Did you hear something?" And then you both sit real still for a minute rather than just going to the door and looking.
If you got up and looked you'd see Sammy Sosa happily slugging away as part of a big offense, and no pitching.
For years I picked the Devil Rays to finish fourth in this division, just for the hell of it, and last year they finally did it, going absolutely nuts and winning 70 games. Of course, I had the team they'd pass wrong, figuring it would be the Orioles when in fact it was my pick to win the division, the Blue Jays, though I don't know why you'd want to bring that up.
The Devil Rays have some fun players, especially Carl Crawford, the currently injured Rocco Baldelli and phenom shortstop B.J. Upton, who'll start the year at Triple-A but won't be there long. But they're headed back to last place, behind the Jays, whose hideousness last year was as much the result of injuries as bad management. The Devil Rays are all about bad management.
Last year's finish: New York, Boston, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Predicted '05 finish: Boston, New York, Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay
I hate to pick anybody to repeat at anything, but I'm going to go with the Red Sox to win the pennant again. It's probably wishful thinking on my part, since nothing would boost page views like a Red Sox-Cubs World Series, but that's what I've cornered myself into predicting.
The winner? A repeat for the Red Sox, and the official dawn of a new age for Sox fans, one in which they'll accept nothing less than a championship.
Here are my American League predictions in one place for ease of ridicule:
Western Division: Oakland A's
Central Division: Minnesota Twins
Eastern Division: Boston Red Sox
Wild card: Anaheim Angels
A.L. champs: Red Sox
World Series champs: Red Sox
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Final Four: The Streak lives [PERMALINK]
Speaking of bad predictions: In each of the last three years, I have missed completely in my picks for the NCAA Tournament men's semifinal games. It's a pretty stunning achievement when you think about it: 0-for-6.
In 2002 I figured Oklahoma would beat Indiana. Whiff. I thought Kansas would take Maryland. Wrong. In 2003 I picked Marquette over Kansas and Texas over Syracuse. Whiff and wrong. In 2004 I had Duke over UConn and Oklahoma State over Georgia Tech. Whoosh!
I wasn't crystal clear about it in 2001, but I think if you read carefully I seemed to be picking Duke over Maryland and Arizona over Michigan State, which were both correct. Even a blind something something acorn something.
I have Illinois winning the whole Tournament in my bracket so of course I'll pick the top seed to beat Louisville. I'll take North Carolina over Michigan State on the other side. Will the Streak continue?
Previous column: National League preview
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