Our annual baseball preview section is out today, and already my in-box is filled with angry e-mails regarding some of my picks. Always cracks me up when folks read alterior motives into predictions, because as a practical matter, predictions are, on the whole, as useless as buying a lottery ticket. I mean, you might luck out now and then — see my pick of the Cardinals to win the World Series last season — but mostly it’s an exercise in, as another Bay Area columnist Bruce Jenkins puts it, being “dead wrong in public.”
Anyway, let’s start with my AL pick, because it should come with an asterisk. My deadline for choosing these teams came last Monday, and as a result I picked the Yankees to win the AL East and the AL pennant. This came with the assumption Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte would be healthy for the majority of the season, and the two pitchers atop their rotation may still be. It also came with the information, at the time, that Jonathan Papelbon would be starting for the Red Sox. Take those two factors, and I figured the Yanks would build enough of a cushion early against the bullpen-challenged BoSox that Boston would be bound for second place in the AL East. And because I feel the best division in baseball is the AL Central, I chose my wild-card from that division.
Eight days later? Well, Wang has a hamstring pull (and those things have a way of hampering guys), and Pettitte is battling a tender back. And the Red Sox have put Papelbon back in the closer’s role. That changes things a lot. Ideally, I would’ve liked to have changed my pick to the Red Sox over the Yankees in the AL East, but given the deadline constraints, and the difficulties of rearranging the design on a page (my picks also are the order in which are capsules are presented), that was a no-go. So Red Sox fans, e-mail me your anger to your heart’s content. But understand, that these picks are never personal.
As for my other picks:
AL West: A colleage joked that I’ve got a man-crush on Rangers manager Ron Washington, and I suppose it’s hard to argue in light of this pick. I chose with my heart in this division, more than with my brain. But I will say this. Texas has the potential to have three very good starting pitchers (Vicente Padilla, Kevin Millwood and Brandon McCarthy), and that’s all a team needs. I think their bullpen will be OK, and their lineup should rake. The Rangers are going to better than people think.
AL Central: I went with the Indians, because a year ago at this time, they were poised for great things. Their bullpen wound up being a fatal flaw, but Cleveland fixed that over the winter, so there’s no reason the Indians can’t resemble the team that finished 2005 with such a flourish. I think the Tigers will get to the playoffs, but don’t be shocked if they struggle out of the gate. It’s rare that everything goes right two years in a row. The Twins and White Sox will be very good, too. This is the best division in baseball.
NL East: Sorry Jimmy Rollins, until your Phils fix the bullpen, they’re not even close to the best team in this division. The Mets’ lineup and bullpen will make up for a thin rotation, and GM Omar Minaya will make a move at the deadline to help if needed. A darkhorse, especially if Tim Hudson returns to form: the Braves.
NL Central: Milwaukee is a sexy pick by a lot of people this spring, and count me among those mesmerized. Ben Sheets is healthy (for now), and Chris Capuano and Jeff Suppan bring rotation depth. The bullpen could be nasty, especially if Derrick Turnbow (in a set-up role to Francisco Cordero) has rediscovered his control. The lineup is talented, the core group is young, and essentially, this team reminds me a lot of the 2000 A’s. The Astros and Cardinals, in my opinion, have fallen off just enough. Should be a great race.
NL West: No longer baseball’s worst division. The Dodgers have separated themselves, because their speed atop the order (assuming Rafael Furcal can fully recover from his ankle injury) will creat havoc, and their pitching staff won’t need many runs. The D’backs will be right with them if Randy Johnson can stay healthy once he returns to the rotation. I love the Rockies’ lineup and youthful talent, but their pitching is always a question. The Giants could finish last, or they could be in the race — Barry Bonds, as always, will be a huge factor, as will the ability of the Giants’ trainers to keep this old team on the field. As for the Padres, I picked them last because I don’t know how they’ll score runs. Overall, though, I can see only 10 games separating first from last in this division.
I like the Mets to get over the NLCS hurdle, and then win the World Series, beating either the Yankees or Red Sox along the way.
Now keep in mind, this is a guy who successfully picked only one (Florida) or four teams in his NCAA bracket. So check back in July for the mea culpa.