Hope springs eternal, but this spring baseball fans have a lot more reason for hope than is usual. After an off-season of controversy and ugliness, much still unresolved, MLB’s regular season is about to begin, and its shaping up to be one of the great seasons in the game’s history. Will it be? That remains to be seen, but here are a few reasons why this campaign might just be the best ever:
-Tight races: it’s hard to think of another year with so many teams coming into the season with reasonable expectations of making the playoffs. In the AL, there’s NY, Bos, Min, Chi, KC, Oak, Ana, and Sea. In the NL, Atl, Fla, Phi, Hou, Chi, Stl, SF. All told that’s 16 teams going for 8 slots. With the unbalanced schedules, the divisional races are likely to be down to the wire affairs. Consider this: 30 years ago, of the 14 AL teams, only 2 finished within 10 games of the division winners. There’s a lot more excitement to go around these days.
-Below the elite level there are plenty of solid teams. Looking across the MLB spectrum there are only a few doormats in all of MLB. So the average level of competition is relatively high.
-Lots of talent. There are a lot of wonderful players out there. Almost every team has at least one or two who are worth the price of admission. (Why? How about the infusion of foreign, and especially Latin, talent; better–okay, sometimes illegal–training methods; better use of intelligence). And let’s remember that baseball is an entertainment business. This year, with so many good teams and good players, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had.
Okay, now for some predictions:
AL East: NY, Bos, Tor, Bal, TB.
It’s been this way for years, and as a recent study in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal suggested, you’re probably better off taking last year’s final standings as your guide for how teams will finish than going off on your own. So I’ll keep my Yanks in front, even though logic suggests that the Sox’s improved pitching (Schilling, Foulke) and defense (Pokey) will more than make up for any loss of offense, and propel them ahead of the Bombers. Toronto and Baltimore are both fine teams (that Baltimore pitching staff remains a bit dicey, however) on the rise. Tampa Bay has some exciting players (too bad none of them can pitch). Records in this division may not reach last year’s levels due to the depth of quality competition and the unbalanced schedule.
AL Central: Min, Chi, KC, Cle, Det
Despite the various losses (esp. to the bullpen), Minnesota remains my favorite here. Chicago has 2 fine starters but it’s trouble after Loaiza and Buerhle–the Ordonez ax-watch begins now. With its starting staff, KC is going to find it hard to repeat last year’s near miracle. Cleveland will be fun to watch with all of those kiddies, and Det should definitely be improved, but that’s not saying too much.
AL West: Oak, Sea, Ana, Tex
The demise of the A’s is a fantasy, though serious injury to one of the big 3 will knock them out of the running. Seattle has nice depth everywhere. Anaheim, while much improved, finished 19 games back last year. That’s A LOT of ground to recover in a division with the best pitching staff in the AL. Texas? Forget it.
NL East: Atl, Phi, Fla, NY, Mon
Philadelphia is the odds-on favorite to win a division in which they finished 15 games behind winner Atlanta and 5 back of the defending world champs. They do look good on paper, but, as with Anaheim, that’s a lot of ground to make-up, and Atlanta isn’t just going to fold. The Mets are improved. Montreal is one of the few teams that is clearly falling back.
NL Central: Chi, Hou, Stl, Cin, Pit, Mil
Which staff can stay healthy? That will be the determinant here. And if any team with Albert Pujols, Mike Morris, and Woody Williams, can be said to be a sleeper, St Louis is it. A healthier Reds may leapfrog the Bucs, but their advance will stop at 4th. Milwaukee? They raised concession prices. Enough said.
NL West: SF, Arz, LA, Col, SD
The Giants remain the class of this division. Arizona, with a recharged Big Unit, looks like it might jump the Dodgers, who lost Kevin Brown and still can’t hit. Colorado can hit plenty, but pitching is a problem. San Diego is a wild card, but with David Wells and Sterling Hitchcock in the rotation, the people at Tylenol are going to love this team.
So, to recap:
AL East: NYY
AL Central: Min
AL West: Oak
NL East: Atl
NL Central: Chi
NL West: SF
Best team not in the playoffs: Phi
AL MVP: Delgado
NL MVP: Pujols
AL CY: Martinez
NL CY: Prior
AL Rookie: Mauer, Min (Darkhorse: Crosby, Oak)
NL Rookie: Matsui, NYM (Darkhorse: LaRoche, Atl)
AL Man: Francona
NL Man: Alou