NOTE: This is the beginning of a new, occasional series I'll be doing taking on off-topic subjects on sports and thing non-sports except for politics and religion. I'll keep it in the FanPosts and simply note a new one in Sprints so as to keep them from taking up front page space.
My favorite day of the year has arrived: Opening Day. There's a certain feel to Opening Day in Major League Baseball that isn't matched by the opening night of college football. If I had to choose my favorite between the two sports, I couldn't. I've always said baseball is my first love and college football my passion, but picking one over the other is impossible. Division winners in bold, wild card teams in italics.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Like many baseball fans, I had penciled in the Yankees to be much better than they were last year after they went out and bought -- I mean, acquired C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.
Then, I visited a Spring Training game and picked up the offseason magazine for the home team (the Orioles), in which Jim Sundra pointed out that Mike Mussina -- now gone -- won 20 games last year. Is Sabathia better, more consistent and younger than Mussina? Yes. But throw all those things and all your sabermetric measures into the mix, and you're still not going to get much better than a 20-win season from C.C.
Burnett won 18 games last year. Before that, largely because of the injury bug (and playing for the Marlins, but mostly injuries), Burnett won an average of 7.7 games a year. And he's started more than 25 games just four times in his nine full major-league seasons. (He was a late August call-up in 1999.) Pitched more than 200 innings? Three times.
Sundra was most off-target in his tamping down of expectations for Teixeira, mostly going witth the "NY pressure" aspect and saying a 61-point difference in batting averages between Giambia and Teixeira is "not as great as you would expect." Well, yeah, it kinda is. And while Los Angeles is not New York in terms of media attention, Teixeira should be able to handle it. What the Yankees can't afford from Teixeira (and what Sundra didn't mention) is the kind of slow start the first baseman had last year. As late as May 18, he was still batting .247/.335/.411. His batting average didn't crack .280 until June 8 and didn't stay there consistently until late July.
There are a few promising young players, like Xavier Nady. But no one knows what to make of Robinson Cano anymore, and the lion's share of the big names in the batting order look like the best lineup in baseball -- in 2003. The best days of Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada are behind them. A-Rod begins the season on the disabled list, with a return date that seems uncertain.
As for the rest of the pitching staff? Chien-Ming Wang comes back, which is like another off-season pick-up for New York. But Andy Pettitte turns 37 this year and hasn't won more than 15 games since 2005. His WHIP, BAA, SLGA and OPBA are also elevated over the last few years. And Joba will be -- what, exactly? Do we know with any confidence? Are we even sure he'll still be starting when June begins?
So, the Yankees aren't that much better than they were last year. Are they eight games better (pace off division title) or six games better (pace off wild card)? In relation to Tampa and Boston, I'd say no.
1. Red Sox
4. Blue Jays
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
The rest of the round-ups won't be as long as the East.
Here's the thing about the AL Central: All we know for sure is that someone will win it. I'm pretty sure it'll be Minnesota. Beyond that, I'm guessing, though the KC thing is based on a hunch.
5. White Sox
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
You could be forgiven for forgetting that this division exists, given the fact that the Angels won by 100 games last year. (Okay, it was only 21.) But there are rotation questions, and while K-Rod might not be as good as he was last year this season, the replacement will still be a step down. The lineup is just good enough to beat out the As.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Not change; more of the same.Yes, the Mets have a shiny new bullpen, but I'm not sure how useful that will be when having Mike Pelfrey as the second starter is about as good as you can do. The divison won't go down to the wire this year, because the Mets will lose it by at least five games. They will win the wild card, because ... well, read on.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Luckily for the rest of the division and the league's other wild-card contenders, the Reds are managed by Dusty Baker. Otherwise, they would be even more dangerous than they already look. And as much as Tony La Russa has done in the past, he still has a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro. Label me "not sold." The Brewers lose Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and Prince Fielder will soon be due a gazillion dollar contract. The Astros still can't score runs, and the Pirates are, well, the Pirates. Chicago wins by default.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
The most offensively challenged division in major league history might actually even be more devoid of punch this year. But the Dodgers have one of the best rotations in the division -- the Diamondbacks and the Giants are also in the mix -- and by far the best offense. So they win again, but not by much.
I see the win totals in the American League being Red Sox, Rays, Twins, Angels, making the division series Red Sox vs. Angels and Rays vs. Twins. The RED SOX win in five, the RAYS in four.
In the National League, it's probably Phillies, Cubs, Mets, Dodgers, so the series are Phillies vs. Dodgers and Cubs vs. Mets. The PHILLIES sweep Los Angeles and the CUBS finally win their first playoff game since 2003 as well as their second and third, but only after a five-game series and a choke by the Mets.
LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
I still like the RAYS to beat Boston, but only after an epic seven-game series that could be one of the best ALCSs since -- well, since last year, actually.
In the NLCS, I think it's another titanic struggle between the Phillies and the Cubs, and I'm not sure who wins, to be quite honest with you. I think the CUBS are just a touch better -- and I'm being a shameless homer. And if there's some kind of jinx for that -- well, Al's already messed us up, so I might as well join in. Besides, intentionally picking the Cubs not to win hasn't worked, so I might as well go this route.
CUBS over Rays in six.