(Seriously, how do you lose to the Maple Leafs one night and then shut out the Rangers the next? Oh right, you're the Sabres and you're maddeningly inconsistent.)
For weeks now, I've been wanting to do a baseball preview, but the closer I get to completing it the harder it gets to finish. There were a few things I realized once I started to write it and I feel I should get two of them out of the way right off the bat.
1) World Series winner predictions are dumb - Everyone knows who the favorites are in April. You don't need to read this blog post to know that the Red Sox and the Phillies are the two best teams in baseball right now, so obviously they're the favorites to meet in the World Series. This goes for really every sport. The percentage for how often writers get championship predictions right has to hover somewhere around 10%. And the times that people get it right are usually when it's the most obvious. But with in baseball, it seems particularly foolish to try and predict the winner when the playoffs are still six months away.
2) Mentioning injuries is worthless - Injuries can trip up any team at any time. The Yankees, theorhetically, shouldn't have a team that can make it from start to finish without breaking down constantly, but two years ago they won the whole thing with an average age of 42. Conversely, we all know there's at least one team out there that is going to lose one of it's best players when he accidently gets his hand slammed in a door or pull's a muscle playing with his kids. Baseball has some of the weirdest injury stories out there. So there's no point in saying X team needs to stay/get healthy to win, because they all do.
So now that I've told you predictions are useless, let me go ahead and tell you what I think is worth watching for this season...
This is an easy one. With the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the offense should not be a problem. And with Lackey, Bucholz, Lester and Beckett ready to toe the slab, the starters should have no trouble keeping them in games. The only area anyone could forsee being an issue is the remodeled bullpen. On paper, it's one of the strongest in the league. But anyone who follows baseball knows that just because you were successful with one team in a certain role does not necessarily mean that success will transfer smoothly to another team. Still, as long as someone - Bard, Jenks or Papelbon - can figure out how to close games, they're a favorite to win the World Series.
Best Storyline: "Idiots" Reunion Tour in Tampa
Some people might find this stupid, but I've always enjoyed following the careers of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, albeit for very different reasons. Following Damon in recent years has been out of spite. If you had to listen to obnoxious Yankee fans talk up a guy who until a year or two before they had hated with every fiber of their being, you'd look for reasons to knock the guy down a peg too. But to his credit, he's been incredibly consistent throughout his career. And as for Manny, well, he's Manny. Now you'd think neither of these guys would have anything left to prove after careers that include 5 World Series rings, but somehow they've found themselves in Tampa feeling like they have to show the league they've got something left. Combine that with the Rays' uncanny luck and you might just have a recipe for a surprising season. I'm not saying I'd bet on it, but with the Yankees' rotation problems and no other clear favorite for the Wild Card spot, I wouldn't be stunned if the Rays made a run for it, spearheaded by their hungry new vets.
In the words of one of my all-time favorite pro-wrestlers, Ric Flair, "to be the man, you have to beat the man". And for the last three seasons, the Minnesota Twins have quietly dominated the AL Central. After Mauer and Morneau, most people probably can't name two players on their team, Plus, no rotation led by Carl Pavano is going to strike fear into anyone. But until I see another team make it to the end of the regular season in the 1-spot, I'm fitting the Twins for the Central Crown.
Of course, the race will probably neck and neck right up until the closing weeks like it always is. As long as the Tigers have Justin Verlander in their rotation, they'll be competitive and the White Sox's upgrades of Adam Dunn & Jake Peavy should also make them a legit threat.
Best Storyline: Ozzie Guillen
Until he's forced to hand in his lineup cards, Ozzie Guillen will be my favorite manager in baseball. Year after year, he's the most honest, colorful man in the league. As a fan of sports, we're all forced to swallow cliches, deflections and vague responses from athletes, managers and GMs, so it's always refreshing when you find someone who's willing to be open. And if they just happen to be Ozzie's kind of open, then it's all the more entertaining. For example...
"I'm not a quitter. When I want to quit, I'll do a lot of stupid things and make sure they fire me and get paid."
"That kid (Dustin Pedroia) should be in the circus and I have to walk him to face someone else. He should be riding some horses and I have to walk that kid. It’s very weird when you walk a guy who is 4-foot-11."
"(Showalter) never even smelled a jock in the big leagues. Mr. Baseball never even got a hit in Triple-A. I was a better player than him, I have more money than him, and I'm better looking than him."
Here's hoping he's got plenty more where that came from.
This is a tough one to call. While the Rangers are obviously the returning champs, they've also lost the ace of their rotation and may have created a rift in the locker room with Michael Young. Still, it's hard to look at the Oakland A's or Los Angeles Angels and see a huge threat to their chance at repeating as division winner. Both the A's and Angels have a lot of potential, but neither team has a real great player in any category. And speaking of the exact opposite, the Mariners have two potential Hall of Famers in Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Ultimately this division will come down to pitching and my money is on the group that got themselves into the championship round last season.
Best Storyline: Felix Hernandez
To me, if you don't like pitching, then there's no point in you paying attention to baseball these days. This post-steroids era we're entering is a golden age for pitching and pitching enthusiasts. And coming off of last year, no one is throwing better than King Felix. He's got a high-90s fastball late into games that he can put wherever he wants to go with a breaking pitches that buckle the best ankles in the game. Plus he plays for a team that needs him to pitch a scoreless game to have a chance to win and he can handle it. If they can scrap together some sort of offense around Ichiro to win him some games, Hernandez will definitely be in the Cy Young conversation for a second season.
Ok, so this subplot doesn't exactly sizzle, but c'mon... it's the AL West. Name one exciting player from any of those teams. I'll wait...
This will be the biggest "duh, winning!" prediction of the entire post. With the best rotation in baseball by a mile and a lineup filled with good hitters, the Phillies are the clear favorite to make it to the World Series this season. The only thing I could possibly see getting to them are the heightened expectations. This team has a higher expectation of making the World Series than the team that tried to defend as champs in 2009. It'll be up to Charlie Manuel to keep them focused. But baring any major injuries, this team will be a disappointment if they don't at least make the NLCS.
Best Storyline: New York Mets
How low can they go? You would've thought the Mets had reached rock bottom last season when they found out that their best pitcher would miss at least the first half of this season and their closer injured himself punching his baby mama's father in the jaw. But that was before the Wilpons started getting sued by some of the families ripped off by Bernie Madoff. There's some solace to be taken in the fact that new manager Sandy Alderson was smart enough to come in and immediately cut loose Oliver Perez & Luis Castillo. But this is going to get worse before it gets better for the New York Metropolitans and I'm looking forward to seeing what other crazy hijinks this team can get itself into.
This is another "duh" pick, considering the Cardinals are pretty much the team to beat in the NL Central every year. In the offseason, they added Lance Berkman to their already potent lineup and every year, resident pitching guru Dave Duncan seems to mold a top-5 staff out of whatever clay the Cardinals give him to work with. The one element that might make them a bit unpredictable is the impending free agency of Albert Pujols. Teams can waver when faced with the constant storyline of "will he or won't he" for an entire season. And if they do stumble, the Cincinnatti Reds might be right there to pass them.
The Reds came out of nowhere last season and turned a lot of heads on their way to winning the NL Central. With a stable of young pitchers and hitters who all seemingly came into their own simuletaneously, they earned their first trip to the postseason in 15 years. But with a team that's still so young and unproven, it's hard to say they'll be able to take their division two years in a row.
Best Storyline: Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols is about 9 months removed from becoming one of the wealthiest people to ever pick up a baseball bat. He's hands-down the best hitter in baseball and after this season the free agency feeding frenzy will begin. So it goes without saying that this season's storyline in the NL Central will be "where's he going to go?" Usually these kinds of storylines drive me crazy, but only because the team handling the player usually bungles the problem enormously. But the Cardinals are one of the few organizations in the league with the balls to trade one of the best players in the league. Obviously they might opt to keep him on the roster and take their chances in the offseason, but I honestly believe that if they don't feel they can resign him and don't see themselves as a World Series contender, they'll trade him before the deadline. And it goes without saying that adding Pujols to any lineup in the league would make that team infinitely better offensively. I'm not saying it's gonna happen, but if it does, I'll say I did.
I know, I know. I'm going way out on a limb picking the defending champs to retake their division. But this could be the toughest division to predict. It's easy to forget that the Giants were fighting tooth and nail just to make the playoffs in September. It was the San Diego Padres that practically led the division from start to finish until they fell apart near the finish line. Plus, the Dodgers are sure to make another run for it themselves under new manager Don Mattingly. And that still doesn't include the Rockies and Diamondbacks, both of which have been known to make surprising runs. Still, the Giants have the best rotation by far and a lineup full of streaky hitters full of World Series swagger. So if you're asking who I'd bet the rent on, I'd put it all on the G-men of San Fran.
Best Storyline: Division Race
Ok, so this is probably the lamest storyline by far, but it really is the most intriguing thing to watch for. For the last few seasons, this division inevitably comes down to the last few weeks of the season. Last year, the Giants took it in the closing weeks. The year before that, the Dodgers stormed past the field when they picked up Manny Ramirez on the hottest, steroid-fueled streak of his career. Before that, the Rockies won their trip to the playoffs on a play-in game. And since there's no breakout team besides the defending champs, it would seem this season should be no different. Look for two or three teams to be battling it out right down to the end.
Or ignore it until August and then shock me with your prediction that the Phillies are gonna win the whole thing. Either way, I'll see you at the ballpark.