Monday, March 27, 2006

Baseball's Opening Day Less Than Week Away ... Hopes Renewed for New Season

Baseball fans are the eternal optimists of sports. Every season begins with the renewed hopes that this will be the year -- the division is their team's to win, the playoffs are in reach, and a World Series is in the cards. Of course, with the exception of the wild card being added just over the past decade, there are only three divisions in each league to be won, and eight spots make the playoffs out of 30 possible teams. Unfortunately, the odds are slightly worse for a National League team (16 teams for 4 spots) versus the American League (14 teams for 4 spots), but the odds are roughly the same (1 in 4 or 25% ... about 30% in the AL). Do you bet the farm on a 30% or less chance? Compared to the NFL (6 of 16 in each conference - nearly 40%) or the NBA (8 of 15 in each conference - more than half at 55%), the odds are not nearly in the favor of being a playoff team.

Inevitably, some teams (like the KC Royals or TB Devil Rays of the recent past) have been eliminated seemingly before the first month of the season was over. Having a much longer schedule than every other major sport -- at 162 games -- makes Major League Baseball success a grueling task. The longer schedule may give some teams unrealistic hope to turn things around, but, invariably, the streaks of bad luck only seem to be perpetuated over time and the cracks of a team become gaping holes.

The favorites going into this season pretty much read like the "who's who" of the most recent seasons. Breaking down the respective divisions is a pretty easy task, although expectations don't always match the final outcome (e.g. my beloved Reds back in 1990 for example).

AL East:
If you don't start by talking Yankees and Red Sox here, you haven't been paying attention. Although the Blue Jays are making some noise with off-season moves, the teams in New York and Boston are getting the typical nods as the favorites. From top to bottom, this division is probably the most talented and deep, making success that much more difficult when it comes to the playoffs. It's doubtful the Orioles or D-Rays have enough to stick with the big boys, but maybe one of the two could be better than expected. Only one of the bunch can win the division and a second is probably a favorite for the wild card spot. I will go out on a limb here and say the Blue Jays can exceed expectations and sneak into that wild card spot. The Yankees will do their typical thing and win the division yet again.

AL Central:
Arguably, this has been the most exciting division in recent years with a rotation of winners, and it produced last year's World Series champion, the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox are probably the team to beat again, and the rest of the teams will battle for potential runner-up. That's not to say that the Indians or Twins can't compete, but their odds are better for making a run at the wild card for the league. If the AL East doesn't beat them to it, the Indians or Twins could snatch that wild card spot if not make the White Sox sweat a bit in earning this division. Forget about the Tigers and Royals ... more same old, same old.

AL West:
The wild, wild west ... where the small-market exploits of the Athletics continue to prove that it takes more than just money to be successful. This division manages to produce playoff-worthy competition over the years, and the A's have the pitching talent to do it again. It's hard to say if the Angels can challenge the A's here, but they might. A wild card from the West is unlikely with the loaded decks in the other two divisions.

NL East:
You cannot talk about the East without talking about the Braves. Do they ever lose this division? Maybe the loss of pitching coach Leo Mazzone will have some lingering effects on the pitching staff, but the rest of this division looks too weak to be serious competition for Atlanta. Enough said.

NL Central:
Baseball's biggest division, with six teams, has a pretty talented pool of teams. If recent history holds true, the top teams will remain the top two from this division: the Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals made the WS two years ago, while the Astros did it last year. Both teams lost to those darned Sox teams (Red and White, respectively) ... but this just might be the year for one of these two to crack the code and win the whole darned thing. Word on the street has been that perennial division also-ran Milwaukee just might be a contender this year ... now that would shake things up, to say the least.

I am a bit partial to my Reds in the Central, but I am realistic enough to know that Cincinnati lacks the pitching to be a real contender here. I DO believe they are better than the last place team, though, as I keep seeing predicted for them. Put them somewhere around mid-pack, but the offense has a lot of firepower to score some runs. Combine the lackluster starters with the extra run support ... either equals lots of high-scoring losses or possibly surprising wins.

NL West:
This used to be a fun division to watch but lately seems to produce the team that gets knocked out of the playoffs with relative ease. It is questionable as to which team will step up to win the division that no one seems to want to win, but the Dodgers seem to be a favorite, if not for the Giants and their great "Bonds question mark" hanging over the team. An average division will produce an average champ will little hope to be league champion.

It is a dangerous prospect to say who will win in the playoffs when they don't start until October and a whole season is yet to be played. Let's go out on a limb and then edit this post to look like a genius later (just kidding)...

East: Yankees [and Blue Jays for Wild Card]
Central: White Sox
West: Athletics

East: Braves
Central: Astros [and Cardinals for Wild Card]
West: Dodgers (or maybe Giants, doesn't really matter)

League Champions:
Athletics (just because I want someone new) and Astros (a second chance)

World Series:
Astros, for redemption from last year

Best of luck, Cincinnati Reds ... you're going to need it.

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