The celebration continues in Houston after this column picked the Astros to finish fourth in the Central Division in Wednesday's National League preview, all but guaranteeing them a second World Series appearance in three years.
Alert riot control in Baltimore and Dallas: We're headed to the American League, home to a majority of baseball's best teams and players despite a minority of teams.
I have a complicated theory about why this is, by the way.
Coincidence. Just one of those funny blips that happens when 30 up-and-down cycles are going on at different rates.
OK! Next subject. The American League, moving from west to east, just like the sun. Wait, not the sun. Like Keith Hernandez. That's what I meant.
2006 finish: Oakland, Los Anahangeles, Texas, Seattle
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who because of the fight over their name like to refer to themselves as just the Angels, with nary a reference to place, are the overwhelming pick to win this division.
I don't mean picking the Angels to win the West. I mean that no reference to place thing. You follow a link to a newspaper's Web site, and you're trying to figure out where the newspaper's from. It's the Record, or the Press, or the Valley News or something. And you're all, "what valley?" You click on "contact us" and there's just an e-mail address. No reference to place anywhere. Drives me nuts.
Just me, huh?
So everybody's picking the Angels because of their pitching. Check out this rotation: John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Bartolo Colon, Ervin Santana, Kelvim Escobar. Pretty nice, and even nicer when you consider they turn the ball over to a bullpen that features Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields.
Whichever of those starters you figure is No. 5, that's a hell of a fifth starter. But hang on, the fifth starter at the moment is either Joe Saunders or Dustin Moseley; the two are replacing the injured Colon and Weaver. That's the thing about banking on pitching in this offensive era. A lot of things can go wrong with pitchers.
Colon is coming off a lost season and a shoulder injury. Weaver's had a rough off-season and will start the year on the disabled list. Escobar hasn't been a model of consistency in his career.
It would be nice if the Angels could point to a robust offense to take the pressure off the pitching, but the Angels spend a lot of time and money on bad ideas. Garret Anderson hasn't been even a league-average hitter since 2004, and even league average isn't good enough for a left fielder. Chone Figgins' middle-infielder bat shouldn't be anywhere near third base.
The Angels already regret the Gary Matthews Jr. signing because of his being named in a human growth hormone investigation. They'll regret it for on-field reasons once the season starts and he goes back to being Gary Matthews Jr., as opposed to the guy who put up those career-year numbers in Texas last year.
The Angels are flush with kids, including Howie Kendrick, who should establish himself as a star at second base, and Brandon Wood, the shortstop phenom who should take Figgins' job by the All-Star break. But it'll come down to the pitching holding up, and that's a thin string to hang onto.
Which throws the division open for ... who? The Oakland A's, I think, though I'm happy to admit I might just be rooting here. I also root for the San Francisco Giants, whom I picked to finish last in the N.L. West, so draw your own conclusions, but at least you're entering this deal with your eyes open.
The A's will win if their pitching holds up. Ha ha! Specifically, ace Rich Harden needs to get on the mound and stay there, something he hasn't been able to do since 2004, which was the only time he was able to do it.
The rap on Oakland is that they won't be able to replace Barry Zito and Frank Thomas, both lost to free agency, but I don't buy it. Mike Piazza could be better than Thomas.
His numbers last year were fairly modest: .283 average in 126 games, with only 22 homers, a .342 on-base percentage and a .501 slugging average. But he played half his games in offense-killing Petco Park in San Diego. On the road he hit .332, with a .372/.564 obp/slg. And this year he won't have the wear and tear of catching.
A healthy Harden and even a partial bounce-back from Esteban Loaiza or Joe Blanton should make up for Zito. The A's can also hope for improvement from Eric Chavez, Dan Johnson and newcomer Shannon Stewart and healthy seasons from Bobby Crosby, Mark Ellis and Milton Bradley.
No way all of these things happen. It's not even likely half of them will. But it's not crazy to think enough of them will to make up for the loss of Barry Zito and Frank Thomas.
The Texas Rangers are expecting a lot of bounce-backs too, most spectacularly from Sammy Sosa, but also from Brad Wilkerson and Hank Blalock. They're also pinning a lot of their hopes on a young pitching staff that, beyond solid vets Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla -- OK, solid's not the word for Padilla but he had a nice year in '06 -- has no track record.
And then there's the new closer, Eric "Countdown to the Disabled List" Gagne.
Michael Young and Mark Teixeira are an awfully nice place to start, but things start to look shaky after those two. If all the maybes come through, if Sosa, Blalock and Wilkerson make like it's 2004 -- the last year all of them or any of them were any good -- the Rangers could score enough runs that they could bring Charlie Hough back to pitch and it wouldn't matter.
Ichiro will spend his first full year in center field for Seattle, and it's a walk year, so it could be his last year in Seattle, though that's a little hard to picture. Also hard to picture: The Mariners contending. Still some things worth watching, though.
Felix Hernandez, who was supposed to be what Jered Weaver turned out to be last year, will try again, and he figures to succeed. His 4.52 ERA last year was deceptively high. His peripheral stats were pretty good, and let's not forget this: He won't be able to buy his first legal Rainier beer until the end of next week.
I think Adrian Beltre will build on his strong second half last year and finally turn in a full year as roughly the player the Mariners thought they were getting when they signed him in 2005. The Mariners also have a promising young middle infield in Jose Lopez and Yunieski Betancourt, who both have room to grow, but could also both end up being just two more middle infielders bouncing around the league.
Predicted finish: Oakland, Los Anahangeles, Texas, Seattle (sound familiar?)
2006 finish: Minnesota, Detroit (wild card), Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City
See, this is what I was saying about that up-and-down cycle thing. For years, the A.L. Central was the worst division in baseball. The Twins used to win like 16 games and walk off with the championship. Now it's the best.
Last year, the super-groovy, extra-double-hipster, party so freakin' cool you don't even know there's a party never mind where it is pick to win the Central Division and maybe even the American League was the Cleveland Indians. They went 78-84.
This year the chic but not cutting edge, pretty rockin' but it's in People magazine so how hip can it be though it's still a pretty cool pick to win the Central Division and maybe even the American League is? The Cleveland Indians.
They were unlucky last year. Their Pythagorean record, a measure of what their record should have been based on runs scored and allowed, was 89-73. An 11-game swing between reality and Pythagoras is huge, three games bigger than Oakland's eight-game difference, and five games bigger than anybody else's.
The problem was the Indians played .409 ball, 18-26, in one-run games, which tend to come out about even. They were even worse in one-run games in 2005, going 22-36, .379 on their way to 93 wins and just missing a playoff spot. History says their record in these affairs should move toward .500, which it did, but barely. It's reasonable to expect it will go north again, and the Indians will be better for it.
But they have to get better on the field too. Their bullpen was a disaster last year. They've tried to fix it with a bunch of veterans, and you can decide for yourself if "Joe Borowski, closer" sounds like a winning formula.
The Indians do have an ace in C.C. Sabathia, a promising young Zito-lite lefty in Jeremy Sowers, and some solid guys like Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee, if Lee can stay healthy and rebound from a down year. They also have transcendent talents in center fielder Grady Sizemore and designated hitter Travis Hafner, and a just-below-that talent in catcher Victor Martinez, whose defense is a problem.
Also a problem: Shortstop Jhonny Peralta falling off a cliff after a fine 2005, and former phenom third baseman Andy Marte struggling. If those two come around and the pitching falls into place, this is a team that could burn out Pythagoras' calculator.
It'll need everything to fall in place, though, because there's plenty of competition. The Detroit Tigers stood roughly pat after winning a pennant, though they did add Gary Sheffield, who'll D.H. If his wrist is OK and he didn't get old while he was sitting out last year, he'll help. This is an old offensive team, with Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, injury-prone 31-year-old shortstop -- that's old for a shortstop -- Carlos Guillen, Ivan Rodriguez, Placido Polanco and Sean Casey. The average age in the starting lineup is old.
But the pitching is young and powerful. A lot of the Tigers' late-season fade last year had to do with these young studs surpassing their previous career highs in innings pitched, a point at which youthful pitchers tend to fall apart. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman, both just 24, could be as potent a 1-2 punch as anybody's, and Nate Robertson, who had his best year in '06, isn't far behind.
If Kenny Rogers has another good year in him, all the better, and there's dynamite coming out of the bullpen in Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney. Don't be fooled by that second half last year. The Tigers were good, and they should be good again. I'll take them for the wild card, which means I'm going against the popular idea that the wild card won't come from the league's best division because the teams beat up on each other so much. The wild card came from the best division last year, after all.
The Minnesota Twins: Also good. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer form a middle of the order anybody'd like to have, and everybody'd love to have Johan Santana, the best pitcher in baseball. They could get their chance if Santana plays out his walk year unsigned.
The problem is there isn't much to the lineup after those three. A bigger problem is that Santana's sidekick, Francisco Liriano, will miss the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and the rest of the rotation is a whole lot of throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. The Twins brought in Sidney Ponson this spring, and I think I can just stop typing right here and you'd get the picture.
There's some good young talent here, Matt Garza and Boof Bonser and Scott Baker and Glen Perkins. But except for Bonser at times last year, none has a major league track record. If two or three of those guys come through and the bullpen, led by Joe Nathan, is as strong as it looks like it will be, the Twins could win this division again.
The White Sox made the papers when Baseball Prospectus pegged the 2005 champions to win 72 games. Outrageous, the Chicago media barked, and maybe it is, but maybe it's not.
This is, quite simply, a team that's getting older and not getting better. I am one of a I think a fairly large crowd that believes you don't get better by adding Darin Erstad to your roster. At least as large a crowd believes just the opposite, because Erstad's gritty and he used to play football at Nebraska and he had a couple of really nice years toward the end of the century right before this one.
If Mark Buehrle bounces back from an awful year -- and there are no indications so far that he will -- and if Jose Contreras reverses the aging process, and Javier Vazquez has a bounce-back year, and none of the aging stars like Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko and Jim Thome and Tad Iguchi starts to show his age, and A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Crede stay healthy, and the bullpen holds up ... big breath ... the White Sox will be good. Could happen. But this is a tough division for all those ands.
And the Kansas City Royals. Listen, I mean this: Things are looking up in Kansas City. Ownership is letting general manager Dayton Moore do his thing, and his thing has been to jettison most of the roster since taking over last year.
Super-prospect Alex Gordon takes over at third base, moving last year's revelation, Mark Teahen to the outfield. First-round pick Luke Hochevar is on the way. Shortstop Angel Berroa has finally, crazy huge contract and all, been shipped out to the minors. The Royals even signed a big-time free agent. It was Gil Meche, who almost certainly won't earn his $55 million over the next five years, but at least the Royals are trying.
To say the future is bright in Kansas City is to overstate wildly. But for the first time since George Brett was in baby-blue rompers, there is a future.
Predicted finish: Cleveland, Detroit (wild card), Minnesota, Chicago, Kansas City
2006 finish: New York, Toronto, Boston, Baltimore, Tampa Bay
It's good to have traditions. Every year this column picks the New York Yankees not to win the A.L. East, and every year the Yankees win the A.L. East. They've won it nine times in a row now, and they'll probably make it 10 this year.
I like to think I'm a good man who's led a productive life. I give over $50 a year to charity and help little old ladies across streets whether they want to go or not. It seems to me I should be able to see someone other than the Yankees win this division before I die. Maybe not.
The Yankees will have plenty of offense again. So they lost Gary Sheffield. Big deal. They lost him for most of last year and didn't even blink. They still have one of the best hitters of the last quarter century -- this will be news to fans in the Bronx -- in Alex Rodriguez, plus Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon. This is a team so powerful that Robinson Cano, a legitimate slugger, hits eighth, and legitimately so.
As always, the question is whether the Yankees can send enough ambulatory pitching to the mound to get the job done. The answer has been yes so far. Randy Johnson is gone but Andy Pettitte is back to fill the aging lefty slot. Chien-Ming Wang will start the year on the shelf with a pulled hamstring, but figures to return and be solid, though he could regress a bit from last year. Mike Mussina appears to be going strong, and Japanese import Kei Igawa will hold down a spot.
Much has been made of the fact that Carl Pavano will be the Yankees' Opening Day starter, but that's just a product of the way days off have lined up this spring, and ...
WHAT?!??! Carl Pavano's the Opening Day starter?!?
The Boston Red Sox are the pick. If the patchwork bullpen can get the job done in front of Jonathan Papelbon, returned to the closer role this week after a camp-long game of footsie with the idea of making him a starter, and if David Ortiz doesn't turn into Mo Vaughn, the Sox could be much improved from their disappointing 2006.
They'll need at least most of their up-the-middle question marks -- newcomer Julio Lugo at short, rookie Dustin Pedroia at second, injury disappointment Coco Crisp in center and probably fading Jason Varitek behind the plate -- to come up yes, but with a rotation front of Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett, the Sox's starting pitching could be better than the Angels', and with Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew, if he stays on the field, leading the way, they should score plenty.
A lot of ifs. And looking to the future, the distressing thing for Yankees haters, even those of us none too fond of the Red Sox either, is that the Evil Empire has turned over a new leaf and joined the 21st century. The payroll has actually contracted a bit. Sheffield and Johnson were traded away for prospects, people. Prospects.
The Yankees have always been rich enough to be able to just take chances, some of which work out, the others written off. If they're going to be rich and smart, well, let's just say the rest of this division had better get smarter too.
The Toronto Blue Jays have been this column's traditional A.L. East flier, but things aren't looking so hot up north. The Jays, already third in a two-team division, don't look like they've done much to close the gap. Royce Clayton's the new shortstop. You know what I'm saying?
Frank Thomas was the big off-season acquisition, which looks like the Jays are just following the A's, where general manager J.P. Ricciardi's mentor, Billy Beane works. Signing Thomas is asking for lightning, in the form of Thomas having his second healthy, productive season since 2003, to strike twice.
Maybe this will be the year A.J. Burnett puts it all together and forms a knockout 1-2 with Roy Halladay. And B.J. Ryan has been an ace as a closer. But after that, things get bad. Let's just say the Blue Jays were probably disappointed they couldn't get Sidney Ponson into camp, but they were able to grab John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano.
These names, not to mention Gustavo Chacin, do not scream, "The Yankees dynasty is over!"
The Baltimore Orioles' assignment, as usual, is to beat out the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for fourth place. Actually, as shaky as Toronto looks, either team could set third place as a goal without being recommended for psychiatric evaluation.
Don't get me wrong. They're both pretty bad, but things are actually looking up a little in both Baltimore and Tampa Bay, which I suppose the tarpon will be happy to hear, but by Tampa Bay I mean St. Petersburg.
The Orioles have the makings of a terrific young rotation. Lefty Eric Bedard is already there, and it looks like only a matter of time before lefty Adam Loewen and righty Daniel Cabrera harness their talent. And let's not write off Hayden Penn, the organization's best prospect before his disastrous 2006, just because of his disastrous 2006. That was 19 and two-thirds innings, though it probably seemed like more than that to Penn as he backed up third and watched 33 runs score.
The O's also have Nick "Lonely Guy" Markakis, a terrific young slugger who I call Lonely Guy because he's not surrounded by bright young things like the pitchers are. Miguel Tejada's still there and still very good, but Tejada's almost 31, he hasn't missed a game since 2000, and his power numbers have been dropping for a few years, all of which adds up, I think, to the end being nearer than most people think.
The Orioles have been playing with the idea of trading Tejada for prospects for a long time anyway, an idea I heartily endorse.
The Devil Rays have the opposite problem: More talented young players than they know what to do with, and not nearly enough pitching. If the Orioles and Rays could only combine forces, they could work together, fighting evil (empires) and advancing truth, justice and the infield fly rule.
Anyway, the thing to watch here is how things shake out for Tampa's various hotshot prospects: Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes and Reid Brignac. It's also a lot of fun to watch Carl Crawford, who's just an exciting player. Also, watching the other team score a lot of runs against everybody but Scott Kazmir, should Kazmir stay healthy, can be diverting.
If the Devil Rays can turn this glut of young bats -- Rocco Baldelli and Jonny Gomes are also here -- into some arms, which is easier to talk about on the radio than to do on the BlackBerry, they could be something other than a doormat sooner rather than later. As in Kansas City, the future's not exactly shining like a thousand suns, but at least it's not pitch blackness.
Predicted finish: Boston, New York, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay
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Season predictions [PERMALINK]
Here, for ease of ridicule, are my predictions for the 2007 season, both leagues, all in one place.
Wild card: Atlanta
Playoffs: Arizona over Atlanta, Philadelphia over Milwaukee
N.L. Championship Series: Arizona over Philadelphia
Wild card: Detroit
Playoffs: Detroit over Boston, Cleveland over Oakland
A.L. Championship Series: Detroit over Cleveland
World Series: Detroit over Arizona
Previous column: National League preview
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