September 4, 2007

The Crystal Ball Predicts All Eight MLB Playoff Teams

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I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we are about to enter the most exciting time of the year for sports fans. College football is off and running (with two-time Div 1-AA champion Appalachian State dethroning No. 5 Michigan in the Big House), the NFL season (thank the good lord) is finally upon us and Major League Baseball has reached its stretch run. Life is good. Although I love football as much as the next guy, I would be doing myself a disservice if I devoted my first true column to anything other than the game that I am borderline obsessed with: baseball. With just under a month left in the regular season, I couldn’t resist giving my predictions for the eight lucky teams who will make it to the Promised Land.
AL East
Coming into the season, this was the Boston Red Sox’s division to lose, and they have done nothing to disappoint the Fenway Faithful. After the Evil Empire stumbled out of the gates, Boston was able to build a massive lead which the Yankees haven’t been able to (and will never be able to) recover from. Don’t be fooled by the Yanks’ recent sweep of their arch rival this past weekend, the fact of the matter is that the Red Sox have the best team in baseball. With a rotation anchored by Beckett, Matsuzaka and Schilling, one of the best bullpens in the AL and an offense which never stops producing runs, a 6.5 game lead will just be too much to squander (even for the Red Sox). They will end the Yankees’ stretch of nine straight division titles and lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
AL Central
A couple of weeks ago, this division looked like it could go down to the wire. But since then, the Cleveland Indians have gone on a tear (winning nine of their last 10) while everyone’s trendy pick to win it all this year — the Detroit Tigers — have been devastated by injuries and are struggling to play .500 ball since the All-Star break. It seems like every time the Tigers get a couple of guys off the disabled list (like Kenny Rogers, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney) another one goes on (most recently Gary Sheffield, not to mention Kenny Rogers again). Plus, I think the Indians have actually underachieved for most of this year with guys like Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore playing well below expectation, and they still have a 5.5 game lead. This one’s locked up.
AL West
Once again, what looked to be a tight race has suddenly turned into a landslide. The Seattle Mariners have been overachieving all year, and I am shocked they have been able to stay in the race for this long. I mean, they have one starting pitcher with an ERA below 4.00 (Felix Hernandez). The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim not only have the best name and unofficial mascot (rally monkey) in all of baseball, they also have the best team not named the Red Sox. Kelvim Escobar and John Lackey, with a 2.99 and 3.26 ERA, respectively, pack the best 1-2 punch in the game.
AL Wild Card
It is amazing to me that people still continue to doubt the Yankees. Sure they only have a one game lead on the Mariners and the Tigers are lurking (only 2.5 games out), but who cares? The Yankees are the Yankees because they always find ways to win. They’ve won nine straight division titles, Derek Jeter has made the postseason in every season donning the pinstripes and they have the most championships of ANY professional sports team EVER. Sure, their starting rotation is mediocre at best and the bullpen is terrible besides Mariona Rivera and rookie phenom Joba Chamberlain, but winning is a way of life for this franchise. I would pick them even if they were still two games back; they’ll win the wild card in comfortable fashion. If you need proof, look no further than the fact that everybody’s favorite ex-GM and current ESPN baseball expert extraordinaire Steve Phillips picked the Tigers. Kind of like how Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz would resurrect the 2002 Mets, huh Stevie?
NL East
After the Phillies swept the Mets in a crucial four-game series last week, things started to look interesting. But the Mets have the perfect blend of talented position players (Reyes, Wright and Beltran) and experienced pitching (El Duque, Pedro Martinez) to hold off the Phils and Braves. Just as they seem to do every year now, the Phillies will finish tantalizingly close but have nothing to show for their efforts. What else can you expect from the first professional franchise to lose 10,000 games?
NL Central
Baseball’s most competitive division is also its worst, and it will be a battle of attrition to the finish line. As good of a story as their comeback is this season, the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals don’t have anywhere near the ability to make a late push. No, Rick Ankiel will not be their savior; not with a roster that more resembles a AAA team than anything else. The Milwaukee Brewers have a wealth of young talent led by soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun and future NL MVP Prince Fielder, but I think the squad is just too inexperienced to pull this one out. So I guess I have to give it to the Cubs by default (and believe me, as a die hard White Sox fan for over a decade, very few things pain me more). Their rotation is just too good from top-to-bottom for the lovable losers to mess this one up. Now everyone in their best Will Farrell/Harry Carey voice say, “Cubs win!”
NL West
The San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks are both great teams and it should be a tight race. But if there is one fundamental truth to baseball, it is that superior starting pitching almost always wins over the course of the grueling 162 game season. Although the Padres sport several everyday players who have no business playing in the major leagues (Kevin Kouzmanoff I’m calling you out), starting pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Young are just mowing people down this year. I’m going with the pitching and the experience of the Padres over the young potential and chemistry of the Diamondbacks.
NL Wild Card
Before ace Cole Hamels went down a couple of weeks ago, I would have picked the Phillies’ explosive offense to lead them to the postseason. But at this point, the Diamondbacks’ three-game lead in the wild card will just be too much for a rotation employing the services of 65-year-old Jamie Moyer to overcome. With every other team four or more games back, this race should be over soon as well.