Anybody who tells you they can accurately forecast the World Series in April is lying to you.
Bob Costas once said he was coming around to the expanded (now re-expanded) post-1994 playoff formula. “Just so long as the World Series doesn’t become ‘The MLB Finals.'” Of course it has. Of course it has actually become something a little less exalted, because you could conceivably get there after playing the artificial and utterly unfair Wild Card Play-In Game.
The Play-In Game was hurriedly designed to try to force-replicate the drama of the inadvertent Play-In-Night that ended the 2011 regular season. What could not be replicated was the fact that the 2011 games were the results of weeks of what was left of the regular season pennant race while the 2012 games featured at least two teams that had all but secured the slots weeks earlier.
You remember Robert Andino and the Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria homers from 2011. What – unless one of them happens to be your team – do you remember of either 2012 Play-In Game?
Right. A vexing invoking of The Infield Fly Rule.
If that isn’t symbolic of those two games I don’t know what is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m at peace with the wild card, even with two wild cards. I’m at peace with pitting them against each other, Gladiator Style. But the randomness of one game just erases the remaining fairness of the thing. Make it three, but throw in a little torture. Make it best-of-three, and play a day/night doubleheader in one city. If one team wins both games, they go in. If not, everybody has to travel to the other city for a night game, the next night. You retain a little of the dice roll of the compressed time frame without the strong possibility that the better team will just happen to lose the only playoff game it gets after eight months of spring training and the 247-game regular season.
I mean, there are unfair weighted variables that you aren’t going to be able to control. To my knowledge nobody’s done the research but I would suggest an unusually high percentage of playoff teams since 1997 have been the ones with the softer inter-league schedule, and inter-league has gone from a set rotating division-versus-division plan to games assigned either for maximum tv ratings or for geographical convenience.
Worse yet is the advantage teams in divisions with extremely weak clubs have for home field advantage in the first round, and especially Wild Card eligibility. The American League East contenders used to have the doormat Devil Rays to fatten up against. Now (presumably) the National League East and American League West clubs will gain immeasurably by getting 19 opportunities to beat up the Marlins and Mets, and Astros respectively. There is no such dead wood in the A.L. East and N.L. Central, for example.
So those are the caveats – and the potential fixes – for anybody trying to forecast the playoffs (not that I’m saying they should be fixed to make forecasting easier; they should be fixed because theoretically you don’t want the true best team in the game wiped out by avoidable biases).
I’ve already picked the Rays, Indians, and Athletics to win the A.L. Divisions. I’m guessing Tampa Bay will still have the best record in the league and draw the wild card winner (which I’m thinking will come one each from the East and West, and the more I look at them the more I like Baltimore again – and L.A.). In lieu of flipping a coin I’m thinking the Orioles will be the better team by then and prevail again (I know; it’s a quaint notion that the ‘better team’ would win a one-game playoff). That would set up Tampa Bay-Baltimore and Cleveland-Oakland in the ALDS. An A’s pick is an easy one; I think the Rays-Orioles would be the full seven thriller and Tampa would finally prevail. So in the ALCS two great pitching staffs meet. Tampa’s is a little greater and they get a clutch home run from – who knows? Wil Myers? – to decide Game Seven. That puts them in the World Series.
In the National I already took the Nationals (waaay out on a limb there, I know), Cardinals, and Giants. The runners-up, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, will all be very good teams (although the Dodgers could easily have switched managers by mid-season). I’m forecasting kaboom-style disasters in Texas and for both L.A. teams so I might as well go whole-hog and say the Dodgers don’t even get the Card. So that’d be Braves-Reds and I’m assuming the Braves can survive their second such game in two years. That’d set up Washington-Atlanta and Cards-Giants and I’m afraid the obvious is true in both cases: Washington and San Francisco pretty easily. And as much as I like the Giants’ team I have already suggested the Nationals are going to have one of those triple-digit years so while I suspect San Francisco could give them a seven-game series I just can’t pick against this amazingly deep team from DC.
The World Series: two great pitching staffs, two great managers, two dynasties that were built quickly. But the Washington bats will overwhelm even the Rays’ rotation, and you-know-who will be the star. This will be Bryce Harper’s year (one assumes the first of many) as the star of …your World Champion Washington Nationals.
Before resuming our previews with the American League West, a quick postscript to the selection of the Miami Marlins ahead of the New York Mets in the basement of the National League East. As if I had asked them to do this, the Marlins underscored my prediction with the promotion of young pitching prospect Jose Fernandez to help replace two injured starters, despite the fact that the move accelerates the arbitration and free agency clocks for Fernandez.
The Mets’ version of Fernandez is Zack Wheeler. While Fernandez will be pitching against the Mets next Sunday, Wheeler will be opening up for your 2013 Buffalo Bisons. You can slam the Marlins all you want for the shell game they played on Florida taxpayers and for the dishonesty towards Mark Buehrle and others and for their fire sale last winter, but at least every once in awhile the Marlins try to act like they’re not a small market team. Unfortunately the Mets often do just the opposite.
Now to the A.L. West:
Los Angeles: The Angels are still as many as four starting pitchers short of a contender.
They can continue to sign the leading free agent slugger each winter for the foreseeable future, but if the pitching doesn’t come around, it isn’t going to matter.
It is certainly possible that their end of the Weird Delivery Deal with the Braves (Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden) will flourish in the American League. The trimmed-down Joe Blanton might finally fulfill his promise while not fulfilling his appetite. Perhaps Jason Vargas can pitch in a pennant race. And maybe C.J. Wilson 2011 is the real thing and not C.J. Wilson 2012. But that’s a lot of ifs to gamble on in a division where it was proved last year that great hitting cannot carry average pitching, but great pitching can carry average hitting.
The Angels’ bullpen is also anything but a thing of beauty. Last year’s gift from the Padres, Ernesto Frieri, has lost miles off his fastball this spring – and his fastball is his only major league quality pitch. I suppose investing big bucks on the injured Ryan (One Season As A Closer And Then He Got Hurt) Madson makes more sense than, say, signing Jose Valverde – but not much more. Madson’s return may be soon, but it is certainly a gamble. The rest of the bullpen has proven itself erratic.
Trust me, I do not undervalue the Mike Trout/Albert Pujols/Josh Hamilton trio (although the decline in Hamilton’s game last year was evident and should crack a little further this year). I’ll even raise it to a quartet and note that Mark Trumbo is the most underrated hitter in the division. But the rest of the Angels’ position players are adequate at best. Chris Iannetta struggled on both sides of the plate, Howard Kendrick seems to be distancing himself from his great potential, Alberto Callaspo is just sort of there, and Peter Bourjos may be a great enough glove to shift Trout to left but he’s just not an offensive threat. Erick Aybar is one of the A.L.’s better shortstops but his main contribution is batting between Trout and Pujols.
Just the Pujols, Wilson, and Hamilton deals have cost owner Arte Moreno $440,000,000 in the last 16 months. That’s a lot of money to get a second or third place team as your receipt. When it happens again this year, Moreno is going to get unpleasant. If he doesn’t scapegoat General Manager Jerry DiPoto, DiPoto will surely scapegoat Manager Mike Scioscia, and that’ll be a shame.
But that’s what happens when you spend badly. You blame the guys beneath you. And often you blame the guys you spent to get.
Texas: This could all come apart quickly, too.
Last year I asked what would have happened if a team in New York or Boston or L.A. had a) had a manager test positive for cocaine use and have his job publicly threatened by his bosses as a result, b) blown a World Series to an inferior team, c) blown the next year’s World Series after needing one more out to win it, d) revealing later that the manager chose not to put in the defensive replacement who might’ve gotten the fly ball one more out that twisted the clunky regular rightfielder into a pretzel, and e) lost its best pitcher to free agency within its own division that winter?
Let’s raise the stakes a little this year. That same New York/Boston/L.A. club has now f) lost its best hitter to free agency within its own division the following winter, g) traded the face of its franchise and the soul of its clubhouse for nothing in particular, h) sent its top prospect to the minors rather than move some pieces and displace some average talent in the outfield, and, oh by the way, just for giggles, i) permitted the icon of the sport in its part of the country to engage in a front office power struggle with the team’s general manager, and j) lose it.
Texas baseball fans are an awfully forgiving lot, I guess.
The last three-plus seasons in Arlington have topped, at least in compression of events, anything that befell the Yankees’ “Bronx Zoo” of the ’70s and ’80s, or the Fightin-Among-Themselves-A’s in Oakland forty years ago. And yet on and on the Rangers go as if nothing matters and it’ll all be better if they can just bring Lance Berkman home to Texas.
What a mess.
I think this is the year they stop getting away with it. Unless Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt rise (and Olt had a terrible spring) to banish Berkman and Mitch Moreland or maybe the Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry platoon, the Rangers are in for a season of possible non-contention. Lord knows what they do if somebody like Nellie Cruz gets hurt (put Jeff Baker in right?).
I suspect a lot of people get fired here too.
Houston: It could be worse. They could’ve actually decided to go with Fernando or J.D. Martinez in right instead of Rick Ankiel and Brandon Barnes (which would’ve made their debut in the American League the dreaded – I apologize in advance – Two-Martinez Launch). There is the Jose Altuve Experience, which is nice. Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell show glimmers in the outfield and Brad Peacock tries to recover from a bad year in AAA by stepping down a notch into the Houston rotation.
But this is going to be a grim season for a franchise that was in the World Series only eight years ago.
I do hear nice things about the back-up catcher, Carlos Corporan. He was stinging the ball in Florida, which belies one blog’s identification of him as the perfect Astro: no-field, no-hit.
I don’t mean to pile on, but while these new Astros uniforms have to be better than the 2012 versions, the attempt to merge the ’62-64 Colt 45s shirts with the ’70-71 Astros shirts doesn’t really work. The Houston franchise has an extraordinary heritage of great shirts: the 1965-66 Astros “Shooting Star” jerseys, the 1975 acid trip pullovers, and maybe best of all, the gunslinger unis from the original team. Remember, they didn’t drop the name “Colts” out of some sort of sense of inappropriateness – it was a purely business decision based on a dispute with the gun manufacturer, and a desire to capitalize on the astronaut program as it crested in the second half of the ’60s.
Seattle: I’m conflicted on whether the Mariners are capable of stepping up into contention or near it.
The critical off-season offensive improvement (the acquisition of DH Kendrys Morales from the Angels) blocks off the escape route for Jesus Montero’s stunning incapacity to catch. The likely critical mid-season all-around improvement (the promotion of 2012 top draftee and catching wunderkind Mike Zunino) would seemingly force Montero to the bench. If somebody would just take Montero aside and say, ‘Hey, you and your once-in-a-generation opposite field power on the high fastball? You don’t have to catch any more. Maybe you could see if you could play first base, but, honestly, just spend all your time in the batting cage,’ the kid might approach a triple crown.
Bringing Michael Morse back was a great move and Justin Smoak had an outstanding spring. But Dustin Ackley still has come nowhere close to his advance billing, and the team is relying on Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders to help drive the offense. Ackley is a career .243 hitter, Gutierrez is a .256, Saunders a .220. And apparently either Gutierrez or Saunders is going to lead off with the other batting second. Gutierrez’s lifetime On Base Percentage is .308 and Saunders’ is .283.
This makes pitching discussions somewhat academic, although it is curious that with these waves of young pitchers in the system – the Hultzens, Paxtons, and Walkers – the rookie who makes the rotation is Brandon Maurer, who two winters ago was pitching in the Australian League, and there was a need to sign Joe Saunders. The bullpen might be Seattle’s unexpected strength with Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor coming into their own.
But you have to hit a little and the Mariners seem intent (squeezing out Montero, putting out-makers at the top of the order) on not doing so. I can’t see them pushing upwards even as the Angels and Rangers collapse above them.
Oakland: So – to reprise our indexing from the Rangers’ entry – nobody believed in a) Yeonis Cespedes, b) Bob Melvin, c) the Oakland bullpen, d) Josh Reddick, e) the kid starters, or f) their ability to stay in contention. They merely jerry-built a line-up that started churning out runs in the second half and not only stayed with Texas but surpassed them with a mid-game rally on the final day. With a little luck and a little more experience they might have knocked off the Tigers in the Division Series.
And as the 2013 A.L. West is previewed, the A’s still aren’t being taken seriously.
No, I don’t think Eric Sogard is going to hit .444 nor Josh Donaldson slug a homer every 20 at bats, as they did in Arizona. But Cespedes is a beast, and that 23/82/.292/.356/.505 (and 16 SB) line – with the now comparatively low 102 strikeouts – was just the warm-up offered by the man’s first season in this country, and he could easily win an MVP award now or in the near future. The line-up is strengthened with parts added like Chris Young, Jed Lowrie, and John Jaso (and if Sogard were to hit .274 they’d be ecstatic). The rotation has Brett Anderson added back into the mix, evidently in fine fettle, and even more power arms like Evan Scribner and Pedro Figueroa joining the now-experienced likes of Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in the pen.
It’s a good team with a good manager. I’m biased towards him – he’s one of my favorite friends in baseball. But what I can tell from his players, they rely on Melvin’s rare combination of an encyclopedic knowledge of the strategy of the game, his calm leadership, and his always-unexpected wry humor. That Reddick could “pie” him after the season-ending win underscores the sense that he is not a part of them but nor is he apart from them – and that is the highest compliment players can offer a manager.
The division: I like the A’s to consolidate 2012 and add to it. Even in collapse the Rangers and Angels will give them a fight with L.A. finishing second and Texas third. Seattle will verge on contention but never quite reach it. The Astros are even money to lose 110 games.