Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Useless Attempt at MLB Playoff Prognosticating

I preface my writing with the knowledge that my predictions (for sporting picks in general) are correct slightly better than 50% of the time. Given my invested time in watching / analyzing baseball, though, my stats are only slightly better. Last season, I managed to pick four out of the six division winners and one of the wild card teams. For whatever reason, I didn't formally declare preseason picks this season. I can honestly say here's what I probably would have picked (in hindsight) had I made those choices: NL Central - Cubs or Brewers, NL West - Diamondbacks, NL East - Mets, NL Wild Card - Brewers or Cubs; AL Central - Indians, AL West - Angels, AL East - Red Sox, AL Wild Card - Tigers. As you can see, I would have missed badly on a couple of those picks, but I still would have hit about 50% overall for the postseason (if not quite in the right spots). But, enough of my backwards-looking, forward-thinking writing ... on to the future picking.

AL Playoffs
Angels vs. Red Sox
I am a major fan of the baseball that Mike Scioscia's Angels play. The team scores runs in a variety of ways (particularly adept at advancing runners and scoring runners from scoring position), and their addition of Mark Teixeira only made the offense better. In no way do I belittle the accomplishments of the Red Sox, but this Angels team is as solid as they come from top to bottom. No Josh Beckett for the starting rotation (possibly only in Game 3, at best) does not bode well for the Sox. John Lackey has had his own share of ups and downs throughout the season, but he is formidable ace of the Angels staff. I'll take the Angels in 4 games, 3-1.

Rays vs. AL Central Champ (Twins or White Sox)
OK, how confident am I in what the Rays have accomplished this season? Manager Joe Maddon is a leader in the style of Scioscia in LA, no less, and has managed to keep this team afloat, and successful, despite injuries to key offensive players throughout the season. The same can also be said of other managers, but none have done it better than Maddon. This team was expected to be better, but it wasn't expected to be the AL East champion. Regardless of who the Rays play, neither the Twins nor the White Sox will match-up well with them in a series. If the Twins make it, I think they pose the better threat (the generally one-dimensional White Sox offense is simply not the same without Carlos Quentin) but still fall short. I choose the Rays in 4 games, 3-1.

Assuming my two previous picks come to fruition, a Rays-Angels series looks quite interesting. Similar managerial styles and similar playing abilities (more or less) make this one tough to call. I lean towards the team with more depth, and overall experience, by choosing the Angels in 6 games, 4-2. My head says the Angels, but my heart says the Rays figure out a way to overcome experience. Maybe this one even goes seven games ... I'll be watching either way.

NL Playoffs
Phillies vs. Brewers
On paper, this looks like a potential mismatch in many ways. The Phillies dominated the regular season series 8-1, and CC Sabathia will start Game 2 (at the earliest) after having to start Sunday's clinching finale. The rest of the Brewer starting rotation is a mess, particularly with Ben Sheets being a big question mark. Yovani Gallardo may have been a solid starter from a year ago (before injury) ... can he really be a factor now? I'll give the Brewers' heart a factor here but not enough to overcome. My pick is the Phillies in 5 games, 3-2. (which might be generous to Brewer pitching ... Phillies bullpen can be lights out)

Cubs vs. Dodgers
In a short series, LA could play Chicago tough, but I don't think Dodger pitching can stop the Cub offense. Conversely, Chicago pitching is more than up to the task of shutting down the Dodger offense (just keep pitching around Manny). I'll go slightly out on a limb here and say Cubs coast to 3-0 sweep. Zambrano might be the only real question mark I have ... Harden, Dempster, and Lilly are solid in my book.

Again, assuming good choices in the first round, a Cubs versus Phillies matchup poses some intrigue (and likely better ratings than the alternative ALCS, which won't get much if the Red Sox aren't in it). In a longer series, the depth of the Cubs will be even more obvious, although strong pitching (Cubs) versus strong offense (Phillies) can be counteractive ... pitching still usually wins. I'll choose to see this one go longer, but I still pick Cubs in 6 games, 4-2 to make their first World Series in over half a century (since 1945).

World Series
Making a pick this far out is even tougher, as I have to bank on my previous choices being right. A series featuring the Cubs and Angels would not be devoid of interest ... but I'm sure a Red Sox - Cubs matchup would draw gigantic ratings. The Angels are not likely to be quite the draw (if their 2002 WS ratings are an indication), but anything involving the Cubs, who draw on the same "inspiration" as the 2004 Red Sox did, will probably draw viewers. I truly believe this is it ... the year (100 years to the last time) that the Cubs win the series, in 7 games, 4-3. No team has gone longer between Championships (excluding, of course, franchises that have never won a title), so why not the Cubs and why not now?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

About the Reds?!? Yes, It’s True!

I haven’t written a post about the Cincinnati Reds in a VERY long time. So long, in fact, has it been that I haven’t said anything the ENTIRE 2008 season … until now. This fact remains more than a bit contradictory given that my off-site blogs have primary subjects of NASCAR (for which I have written a few things) and baseball / MLB / Reds (which I only apologize for not writing things). Given how ugly most of this season has been, I really don’t have as much need to be forgiven as the team does.

We have come to that point in the season where the role of the Reds is spoiler. Being a “spoiler” is exactly what it means … to spoil the season(s) of contending team(s). So far, so good on that front, considering that our Redlegs took 2 out of 3 (dramatically on Sunday versus closer Kerry Wood) from the front-running Chicago Cubs and now the first game of their series in Milwaukee (again a dramatic, come-from-behind effort versus Brewers’ closer Solomon Torres) on Monday night. If this team found a way to play with this much energy all season, things certainly might have been different. But, in the same vein, I doubt they would be with the former cast of characters.

Gone are both Ken Griffey, Jr. (who was going to be gone after the season anyway) and Adam Dunn (who probably was, too), who were the respective faces of the team (as evidenced by both formerly being on team scorecards, wall signs, etc.). While I admire Junior’s career as a total, his best days are behind him. Dunn still has a decent offensive career ahead of him, but his defensive liability (as well as Griffey with his aging body) was worth abandoning to bring up some newer faces. Dunn was good for mammoth homers and a solid OBP … and not much else. Junior was surviving on legacy (as further evidenced by his lack of playing time for the White Sox).

How have the Reds been producing lately? Well, the new “faces” of the team are clearly Joey Votto, who has been on fire of late, and Jay Bruce, who has had the “next great thing” label for a while now. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the whole season has been the quality starting pitching. Edinson Volquez goes without saying, with his 17 wins to date and anchoring the staff. Aaron Harang has been the unpleasant surprise, never quite recovering after his short-rest relief appearance in San Diego … even he has looked more like his old self in recent starts (and has been burdened with nearly the worst run support in the league). Bronson Arroyo has been steady and picked it up notably in the second-half of the season … finally looking like a smart decision on that contract extension. Johnny Cueto has shown the makings of a potential excellent starter next season and beyond. The fifth-starter slot still has question marks around it, but folks like surprising Ramon Ramirez or even a mentally refreshed Homer Bailey (our former “sliced bread” ace) might do nicely in 2009.

There appears to be a core to work around here. Votto and Bruce are no-brainer choices, as is my personal favorite Brandon Phillips, who deserves far more credit for his defensive abilities at second baseman than national coverage usually gives him. Jerry Hairston Jr. may or may not be in the plans for starting next year, but his versatility (much like injured fan favorite Ryan Freel) is hard to ignore. Chris Dickerson, who came with little fanfare to fill Dunn’s absence, has been nothing short of excellent to start his MLB career. The aforementioned pitching staff is finally a strength after years of being a liability. Third base and shortstop are still questionable spots, with the streaky Edwin Encarnacion who may or may not be part of the future plans and Jeff Keppinger who is a dependable, but average, choice both offensively and defensively. Catcher remains a weak position for the team, although defensively former backstop David Ross (since released) seemed more successful at throwing runners out. Ryan Hannigan may or may be the future choice (leaning towards not), but he, too, has been dependable of late. Team deadweight, like Corey Patterson and Paul Bako, just need to be let go come season’s end.

I would much rather be writing about a postseason run by my Reds, but at least I feel reason enough to be optimistic about next season not to write them off completely. Of course, I say that every year … we just haven’t seen a winner since the beginning of the century (sounds more dramatic than just the decade).

Reds – have fun being spoilers for all of those “actual” contenders down the stretch. At least give them something to think about … for next year.