Thursday, April 12, 2007

Take Me Out to a Ballgame: Baseball Musings v1.0

Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I never get back.

The old song rings in ballparks all across the country during the baseball season. We take our seventh inning stretch and chant along with the lyrics. There is something cathartic about going to baseball games, but the crowd and the atmosphere play a big part in the experience.

Since the season is still young and my own writing sparse, I haven't yet had a chance to attend any games in person this year. I actually could have gone to any of the games in my hometown Reds' first homestand (from Wednesday, 4/4, through Sunday, 4/8 ), but braving the weather elements of sub-40 degree days to watch baseball in April wasn't my preference. The only good weather day happened to be Opening Day, with its 80 degree temp and sunshine, but I didn't bother to buy a ticket and stayed at work instead. Since my goal isn't really to talk about the weather in this writing (atlhough it has been a factor in this early baseball season), my musings instead are about the standings across the divisions of MLB and what can be gleened (if anything) so far.

As an editorial note, I try to be humorous at times without taking this too seriously. I might occasionally try to spark some response, so don't be alarmed at my sometimes pointed critcisms / opinions. Readers of any of my past work will know what I mean ... new readers will understand. Considering how long it was between writings, even the "old" readers are new again anyway. Enjoy...

AL East:
Most of the pundits like to believe that the baseball world revolves around this division. Boston this, New York that. Sure, the Red Sox and the Yankees spend a lot of money every year to beat each other up as well as their divisional foes, but, how many times has this division produced the World Series champion in the past six years? Once - Boston in 2004. Respectively, the other divisions have been represented equally in the other years with the NL Central (Cardinals in 2006), Al Central (White Sox in 2005), NL East (Marlins in 2003), AL West (Angels in 2002), and NL West (Diamondbacks in 2001) each getting a title. The preceding five years tell the story of why this division is the focal point, though, with Yankees' titles in four of the five (1996, 1998-2000). The Yankees have been baseball's winningest team for a very long time, and with 26 titles and counting, it is hard to imagine any team catching them for a very long time, if ever. The next closest team is the NL's best in the Cardinals with their 10 titles (only the second team to reach double digits with last season's triumph).

Are the Yankees still the team to beat? It is hard to imagine they won't contend again, considering they haven't missed the post-season since divisional series play began in 1995 with the addition of the wild card spot. This is a team that can and will score runs, but their starting rotation is definitely suspect. It is hard to believe that Carl Pavano is the anchor of the staff with the best days of both Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte probably behind them. The Red Sox are arguably the division's best, with an aging Curt Schilling anchoring along with a strong Josh Beckett and hailed newcomer Daisuke Matsuzaka (aka Dice K). I can see this one as a Boston-NY 1-2 finish, possibly with the Blue Jays as a battler for that 2 spot.

The "oh, by the way" ... the Blue Jays have the very early lead with a 5-3 record over the two .500 teams (4-4) of the division: the Red Sox and the Yankees. The Red Sox biggest struggle so far has been scoring runs (only 33 in eight games, compared to 52 each for the Yanks and Jays).

AL Central:
This division seems to be up for grabs by multiple contenders, with only the Royals seemingly out of contention from day one. The White Sox are probably the next-least-likely to be the winner of the division with seemingly enough talent offensively but lacking the pitching depth to win. It seems like the Tigers, Indians, and Twins could all see it through to the end, but Minnesota will probably not be the same without Francisco Liriano in the rotation. It's 50-50 for me in choosing Detroit or Cleveland (I like both of them as regional AL favorites), but Detroit has last year's experience to build upon. Cleveland is going to be tough and score lots of runs (in what looks like a strong offense) ... will their pitching carry them through? I'll go with the Tigers for the division and the Indians to take the AL Wild Card. Sorry, Yankees ... this won't be your year. (fingers crossed ;-) )

In early returns, the Tigers and Twins have 5-3 records in leading the division while the Indians are close behind at 3-2, only having played five games with their snow-out series at home.

AL West:
I guess the Angels are a consensus pick in the division, and while I don't always go with a consensus choice, I think I will with this team. I think the Angels' manager, Mike Scioscia, is one of baseball's best, and the rest of the division just isn't strong enough to push them. My knowledge of the division is probably weakest to boot, so I'll stick with what little I do know. Moving on...

NL East:
The New York Mets so dominated this division last season that it's hard not to go for them again. The Phillies look to be a contender up to the task of knocking the Mets off the throne, but then I am thrown a conundrum with the quick start of the Braves. While I normally would make a prediction before the season and wouldn't have seen them play, Atlanta has had baseball's hottest start. Contrarily, Philadelphia has started very poorly (2-8 versus Atlanta's 7-1 mark). It's anybody's guess what will happen from here, but I will stick with the Mets (5-3 starting mark) and their pitching as the difference-maker in the division.

NL Central:
The most parity probably exists in the Central, and as much as I don't like to admit it, only one team will probably make the playoffs from here. The West looks too good to me this year to only send one team while this division will probably send one near the .500 mark again. The Cardinals are probably the default choice as defending champ, although the Brewers seem to be getting a lot of attention. I still have a spot in my heart for the Reds, even though the experts widely pan them. I expect them to do better than the consensus but probably not well enough to win the division. I will go with St. Louis for lack of a better choice.

At this point, parity is prevailing -- three teams are tied at the top with 5-4 marks: Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. Even the bottom teams have at least three wins (Chicago and Houston) with Pittsburgh in the middle.

NL West:
I like the Diamondbacks in this one, with some power pitching and enough offense to carry the day. The Dodgers probably have baseball's best rotation top to bottom, so picking them to end up in either the 1 or 2 spot here seems probable. San Diego could still surprise, but I don't know if they have enough offense. All three teams have started off on the right foot, with the D'backs at 7-3 and leading and both LA and SD close behind at 6-3.

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