Oh, yes: Underneath all the other aromas and odors that have become all too familiar over the long, stale winter months is a mixture of scents that touch something deep down in the soul-- something all but forgotten, until it stirs anew. The blood quickens and thrums, the mind stumbles out of a cloying fog that it was too dulled to know it was in, and you begin to walk around with an extra, um, spring in your step. The mixture is of freshly mown grass, of dirt so paradoxically clean it gives a whole new meaning to the word "earthy." It is of leather, and oil, and pine tar; analgesic... and Human Growth Hormone.
Yea, the equinox is past, your clocks are an hour fast --which begs a question: If we're only going to use Standard Time for four months out of the year, can we really call it Standard
Time?-- and your mad brackets are in shambles. The Bush administration is covering up, and making no secret that they're dummying up, and when Alberto Gonzales speaks, he rambles. And just to make sure you're well-primed and in the mood, on the shelf sits Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. (Excuse me for a minute while I giggle like a little girl on nitrous.)
In short, it must be spring.
Yes, ladies and gents, friends and neighbors, houses and tents, it is the season of rebirth and renewal. More importantly, it is the season of Baseball. So, like the six foot, two hundred seventy-five pound delicate flower that I am, I have shaken off my late winter malaise and gone a-hunting for wild Game: National League depth charts.
I must confess: What I found disturbs even me. After careful examination of the relative strengths, weaknesses, and middling adequacies of the fifteen teams (I didn't bother with the Washington Nationals, for reasons I will soon discuss) in The National League, I have come to the confidence-shaking conclusion that, in many ways, this season's pennant race will look an awful lot like last. There's something about that that bothers me: Either the status of most teams around The League has remained mind-numbingly quo, or I am carrying too much of last year's biases over to this year. That's something you might want to bear in mind while I break down the playoff races...
We'll begin in the East
. The overall character of this division --particularly of the teams at or near the top-- is one of awesome everyday lineups with big question marks in the pitching department. Let's count 'em down...
(5) Washington. The experts are all saying this team will be so bad that it'll reach historic proportions. I'll take their word for it. When I went looking for the Nationals' depth chart, I found that they hadn't finished it yet.
There's symbolism in that. This franchise is, after all, owned by MLB itself (you bet your [donkey] I'm looking right at you, Bud). I guess Joltin' Joe Girardi-o had a point when he said that no matter where you put them, no matter what you call them, they are still the Montreal Expos. Actually, he was being kind: The Expos were better than this.
(4) Florida. Speaking of Joe, Girardi had the Marlins in the playoff race last year for far longer than they really deserved. He did it with Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera and a couple of guys named Smoke and Mirrors. He also benefited from the overall parity (great mass of mediocrity) that characterized The League last year. This year, I think we'll see a wider gap between the haves and the have-nots.
(3) Philadelphia. Yes, I've heard the hype. And --who knows?-- maybe I'm underselling them, but I just don't trust the Phillies' pitching.
(2) Atlanta. Overall, the Braves have better pitching than the Philly fellas. Their everyday lineup isn't as flashy as the other two contenders, but it's solid.
(1) New York. The everyday lineup is stacked. While the starting rotation is a big question mark, I think it'll hold together well enough. The Metropolitans' real edge is their bullpen. It's the best in the division.
On to the Central
. If you wanted to be positive, you could say this division is one of texture and subtlety. On the other hand, you could also say that aside from a couple of bright spots, it's a bastion of mediocrity, and it's entirely fitting that much of the middling portion of The League is in the middle of the country...
(6) Cincinnati. Oh, they'll hit their share of home runs, but will there be anybody on base? My math says no. The Reds' top three starting pitchers could probably be adequate if they were on another team. As it is, it's going to be a long, hot summer in Porkopolis.
(5) Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that they will so often be over-matched, the Pirates will be a likable team. Too bad nobody in Pittsburgh will notice.
(4) Chicago. My, my: 100 years is such a nice, round number... Don't you think?
(3) Milwaukee. Another likable team. This one has more talent and depth than the Pirates, and more people will notice, too, but ultimately the Brew Crew will be on the outside looking in.
(2) Saint Loo. Make no mistake, here: The Defending Champions will contend. It'll be tough to repeat, though.
(1) Houston. I'm leapfrogging the Astros into first place on a hunch. My original analysis of the two contenders actually favored the Cardinals --especially their starting pitching-- but I'm going with my gut.
Okay, let's head out West
. There is some very good pitching out here, which could tighten the race somewhat, but in the end I think it will come down to just two horses. If you've paid any attention at all this off-season, then you already know which two I'll be talking about...
(5) Colorado. Another rocky season for the Rockies.
(4) Arizona. The Diamondbacks are an x-factor. Good pitching, but with a lot of young unknowns in the everyday lineup. They could stay close until late in the season and then fade to third or fourth, or they could stumble early and never really be in the race.
(3) San Francisco. I heard that the Bay Area Retirement Home All Stars have actually gotten older
. I didn't think it was possible. Then again, maybe I heard wrong (old age, y'know).
(2) San Diego. Last year, the Padres edged out the Dodgers for the division title by a tiebreaker. This year's race will be close, too. The Friars have good starting pitching and the best bullpen in The League, but their offense is monkishly spare.
(1) Los Angeles. If I heard right, the Trolley-dodgers will become the Cactus League's newest member next spring-- half a century after leaving Brooklyn. That has nothing to do with anything, but then again I've seldom been accused of having a point. I'll say more about the Dodgers in a moment.
Now, then: The Wild-card
race. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be read into the record and duly noted by all that I do not
have a very good track record when it comes to picking the Wild-card. Oh, I do okay with the Divisional races, but the Wild-card... not so much.
The way I see it, there will basically be seven teams competing for four playoff spots. Alphabetically, they are the Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Mets, Padres and Phillies-- pretty much like last year. Assuming I correctly predicted the Division Champions (Astros, Dodgers, Mets), that leaves the Braves, Cardinals, Padres and Phillies competing for the Wild-card. I believe the first three are all viable candidates (I still don't trust the Phillies' pitching). As much to hedge my earlier hunch as for any other reason, I'll go with Saint Loo.
Now, I have been asked by One F to pick the pennant winner. Typically, I refrain from doing that. This year, though, I will go out on that limb...
This team has just about everything you'd want in a ballclub: Pitching, defense, speed, and they make good contact with decent power up and down the lineup. I predict that the 2007 National League Champions will be... the Los Angeles Dodgers.
P.S.... Bud "The Cowardly, Lyin'" Selig must go.
Labels: baseball predictions