Taking the plunge on predictions
Cards, Twins will prevail; Rays, Padres to meet in Series
Two-thirds of the way into the season, the predicting game ought to be easy. With an embarrassing amount of statistical data -- and a little thing known as the standings -- readily available, every guess is an educated guess, and incorrect guesses are all the more glaring.Yet here we are on Aug. 9, and we're still having trouble with this soothsaying stuff. While nearly half the teams in the Majors can safely be counted out of the divisional and Wild Card races and the true contenders have been identified, five of baseball's six divisions are simply too close to call. With that said, what we intend to do is take a good, hard look at the contenders and use all the clues readily available to make the best possible October predictions we can muster. And then we're going to brace for the seemingly inevitable embarrassment of watching none of the below come true. AL EAST
Yankees (69-41): The Yanks need a healthy and effective return to the rotation by Andy Pettitte, who is throwing bullpen sessions as he makes his way back from a strained groin. And they need to more effectively bridge the gap from the starters to Mariano Rivera. The recent acquisition of Kerry Wood should help in that regard. Even with what might classify as "down" years for Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, this club is loaded. Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher are having career years, CC Sabathia (two recent losses aside) is a beast at the front end of the rotation and Rivera defies his age. Rays (67-44): The Rays already have four double-digit winners (all under 30 years old) in their rotation in David Price, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann and James Shields. The Rays' current five-game losing streak doesn't inspire much confidence, and if Niemann's recently uncovered shoulder woes persist, that spells real trouble. But Tampa Bay might have the second coming of Price, a 2008 September callup who helped guide a deep postseason run, in Jeremy Hellickson. Obviously, the Rays need to get Carlos Pena back quickly, they can ill-afford any more game-changing catwalk conundrums at Tropicana Field, and pitching coach Jim Hickey can't send any more relievers to the DL through wrasslin' matches gone wrong. Red Sox (63-49): While it seems the Red Sox have placed everybody but the Fenway Park organist on the DL, they do have enough pitching (thanks in large part to Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester) to stay alive, especially with Josh Beckett back. Dustin Pedroia's eventual return will aid the lineup. In any other division, the Red Sox would not be written off yet. And it's still too early to write them off in the East. But a lot has to go right for Boston in division play. Prediction: The Yankees outlast the wily Rays to win the division by one game. "Catwalk" remains a four-letter word in Rays fans' lexicon. The Red Sox ultimately can't dig out from their slow start and injury troubles. AL CENTRAL
White Sox (63-48): Once over their distraction of tracking the Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup title, the White Sox got hot, and they've staked claim, however tenuous, to the division lead. They countered the substantial loss of Jake Peavy to a season-ending injury by adding Edwin Jackson. Though their offense has obvious holes, they are second in the AL in stolen bases and fourth in home runs. They have a bit of a closing conundrum, as Bobby Jenks has been roughed up in the second half. Twins (63-49): They've stayed alive, despite Justin Morneau's concussion and Joe Mauer's power loss and shoulder issues. They hope to get Morneau back soon, and the recent acquisition of Matt Capps boosts a bullpen that, to its credit, did not disintegrate after the Spring Training loss of Joe Nathan. Manager Ron Gardenhire has pulled the switches in these situations before, and his Twins teams have an uncanny ability to hang in there until the bitter end. Tigers (54-57): They're done. Prediction: This will come down to Game 163. It has to. That's the new tradition in the Central, after all. And while much of this prediction hinges on Morneau's return, the Twins will find a way to repeat. AL WEST
Rangers (64-47): With a 7 1/2-game lead, we feel comfortable suggesting the Rangers have this division in hand. The question is not whether the Rangers will win their division, it's how far can they advance in the postseason. The acquisition of Cliff Lee, obviously, is a major X-factor. Lee and C.J. Wilson form a dynamic 1-2 punch, and a lineup featuring Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero has plenty of punch itself. On paper, this could be a dangerous club come October. Of course, there are legit concerns about the condition of Hamilton's knee, Guerrero's subpar second half and Ian Kinsler's strained groin. A's (56-54) and Angels (56-57): It feels a bit foreign to be writing off the Angels at this juncture, but the frustration that has been their 2010 season was best illustrated by Torii Hunter's outburst in Detroit the other night, which cost him a four-game suspension. The A's have the youngest (and arguably best) rotation in the AL, sparked by Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, but that won't be enough to overcome the sizable gap between them and the Rangers. Prediction: The Rangers finish what they started in the division, and Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg get an early return on their investment. NL EAST
Braves (64-47): The names and faces on the lineup card always seem to change (10 different players have hit third, and seven have hit leadoff), but the wins have kept coming. The Braves do their best work at home, where they entered the week with a Major League-best 39-15 record. Losing Kris Medlen to potential Tommy John surgery at a time when the Phillies are hot is not a promising development. How quickly highly touted prospect Mike Minor settles into the rotation to help out Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and company will go a long way toward determining the Braves' fate. Phillies (62-49): The Phillies have endured a rash of injuries to their regulars this year, with Ryan Howard's ankle issue the latest blow. The health woes have certainly hampered the Phillies' consistency. Yet they are currently playing their best baseball of the season, and they are breathing down the neck of the Braves. The Phils obviously have a lot riding on the Roys, Halladay and Oswalt, but, more than anything, they need to get all their regulars on the field at once. Mets (55-56) and Marlins (54-56): The Mets' inactivity at the Trade Deadline was an acceptance of the reality that there's no quick fix for them at this stage of the game, but they have some homegrown talent getting a look. The Marlins have made progress under interim manager Edwin Rodriguez, but there's too much ground to be made up. Prediction: The injury-ravaged Phillies fade, and the Braves win one last division title for Bobby Cox. NL CENTRAL
Reds (64-48): Thanks in large part to Joey Votto, Jonny Gomes and Scott Rolen, Cincinnati has been the most productive club in the NL. But Rolen's been a bit banged up with hamstring issues, so that's a concern for the Reds lineup. The bigger concern might be closer Francisco Cordero's shaky control in the second half. But the Reds could get a late boost from the pending promotion of Aroldis Chapman, and they've received effective starting pitching from the likes of Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto all season. For the first time in a long time, the Reds are for real.
Cardinals (61-49): Adding Jake Westbrook to a rotation featuring Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter will obviously help the Cards, especially with the club monitoring rookie Jaime Garcia's innings. But acquiring Westbrook at the cost of Ryan Ludwick puts pressure on rookie Jon Jay to keep producing, and the loss of David Freese to reconstructive ankle surgery is not going to help what has been an inconsistent offense. The Cards will have to rely on their pitching to fend off the Reds.Prediction: In the end, experience counts. The Cardinals' deep rotation guides them to their seventh division title in 11 years, but the Reds grab the Wild Card for their first playoff appearances since '95. NL WEST
Padres (64-46): Adding Miguel Tejada and Ludwick to what had been a decidedly ordinary offense is a big help. But the Padres' bread is buttered by pitching and defense. They have perhaps the best bullpen in all of baseball, and Mike Adams just returned from the DL. Chris Young is throwing bullpen sessions and could be back for the September stretch run. Should the Padres advance to the postseason, they might have the tools to go deep. The fine folks at Baseball Prospectus have a formula for a stat they call "Secret Sauce" that measures the three elements they believe matter most in October -- a power pitching staff, a good closer and good defense. The Padres rank first in the big leagues. Giants (63-49): And guess who ranks second? Yep, it's the Giants, who are doing their part to make this one of the more intriguing division races in baseball. Like the Padres, they have a deep rotation, their bullpen has been solid and they don't kick the ball around. Also like the Padres, they've struggled with their consistency on offense. A regression by Pablo Sandoval, who has been critiqued for his conditioning, has not helped. But Aubrey Huff and Juan Uribe have helped carry the load, and the arrival of Buster Posey has loomed large. Rockies (58-53) and Dodgers (58-54): They're both far from buried, and the Rockies, obviously, have notable experience with late pushes. But the deeper pitching staffs in San Diego and San Francisco will ultimately determine how the West is won. The looming question will be whether Joe Torre can bring himself to retirement after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995. Hard to imagine. Prediction: We're going to pick the Padres -- something nobody outside of San Diego (and, to be sure, hardly anybody in San Diego) did in April. The Giants fall just short of the Wild Card, as the members of the deepest division in the NL beat up on each other down the stretch. POSTSEASON
ALDS: The Yankees overpower the Twins in the best-of-five. The Rangers (1-9 all-time in postseason play, with all games coming against the Yankees) avoid a first-round matchup with the Yanks, but are outpitched by the Wild Card-winning Rays. ALCS: The two teams with baseball's best regular season records meet, and, in an underdog story straight out of Hollywood (or, failing that, MLB Network), the Rays edge the Yanks in seven. (Admittedly, this is a prediction based on sentiment as much as statistics.) NLDS: The "Secret Sauce" starts simmering, as the Padres top the Reds. Albert Pujols powers the Cards past the Braves. NLCS: For the first time in the Division Series era, a player meets the team that traded him in the postseason. And Ludwick has the last laugh, as the Padres shock the world and advance to the Series. World Series: The finale of what has been described by many as the "Year of the Pitcher" pits two of the strongest staffs against each other. The Rays and Padres go the distance, with the Rays silencing the crowd at PETCO Park with a Game 7 victory. But that's not even the strangest development. The shock is that no one in the media complains about a Series set in St. Pete and San Diego ending in early November.