March 31, 2002
American League Predictions
Our best guess at 2002's winners and losers
The Yankees could be good for 105 wins after clearing out some of the deadwood late last fall. Grady Little holds things together in Boston despite Pedro Martinez's ailments, but the Bosox fall just short of winning the wild card. The Orioles and Devil Rays play "How Low Can You Go," with Syd Thrift's veteran savvy enabling the Orioles to undertake Cam Bonifay's considerable contributions in Tampa Bay.
New York 104, Boston 95, Toronto 73, Baltimore 69, Tampa Bay 68
There are two really good teams here, two really bad ones, and one in the middle that looks to me like it's dropping down towards the bad ones. The Yankees are going to be very tough to beat this year, absolutely loaded all over the field. The Red Sox desperately need a healthy Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra if they are going to have any chance of taking the Yankees or even the wild card. The other three teams all have serious pitching problems, aren't much better when they're hitting, and are in for a long season of beatings from New York and Boston.
Ho hum, another year, another Yankees division title. They've reloaded, and no one else has stepped up to match them yet. For the Red Sox to have any chance at all, Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra both have to be back at full strength, which seems like a tall order. Given the state of the farm system and the circus accompanying the new ownership, this looks like a team that is a year or two away from a massive decline.
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, look like a team that could be on its way up very soon, but isn't there yet. Next year perhaps. The Devil Rays don't seem to have much clue about what they're doing, but at least now they're playing the younger guys who have some development potential. About all that gets them this year is a trip out of the cellar, mainly because the Orioles really have no clue what they're doing (Jerry Hairston batting leadoff?) and their farm system is awful. Unfortunately for folks in Baltimore, this looks like a very long, very barren stretch.
The Yankees blow their division wide open by the All-Star break, making it look something like the 2001 version of the AL West, but without the kick-ass team in second place. Grady Little does a masterful job handling Pedro Martinez, keeping him healthy for 28 starts and 195 innings, while Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez come back at either 80% effectiveness or 80% health each. Trot Nixon is the best hitter in the league against righties, and it's all still not enough to do anything more than hang on the fringes of the wild-card race.
The Blue Jays find a taker for more than one of their outfielders, shipping Shannon Stewart and Raul Mondesi out of town for marginal prospects who aren't laden with massive contracts. Carlos Delgado is back, but the Toronto rotation doesn't take a step forward, and they hover right around the .500 mark, ending just above with 83 wins. The Devil Rays build the most surprising rotation in the league after a rough April and May, with Paul Wilson, Joe Kennedy, and Dewon Brazelton all in the upper quartile of league starters at the end of the season. Unfortunately, they're also three of the better hitters on the Rays, who manage to win 69 games, easily outdistancing a truly horrendous Orioles sinkhole for fourth place in the division. Baltimore does discover some hope on the horizon in the form of a healthy and effective Matt Riley in a midseason call-up, and Brian Bass accelerates his game and becomes a Grade-A prospect.
New York 100-62
Exactly zero surprises here. The Yankees are the best team in baseball, a tribute to their willingness to proactively fix holes before they develop. The Red Sox simply don't have the offense to give New York a challenge. Be patient, Blue Jay fans: your time is coming.
This boils down to the Yankees and the two pairs. The Red Sox should finish ahead of the Blue Jays, but the Sox are terribly combustible. Whoever finishes third is going to be closer to #2 than the second-place finisher will be to the Yanks, but I don't think the Jays will go out of their way to finish second, while I think we can expect all sorts of panicky scrambling in Beantown to assure themselves the prestige of doing so.
I'm going to be a dull plodder and pick the Devil Rays ahead of the Orioles, again, but that's stubbornness, the off chance I'll be right about it one of these years. More basically, it's because I don't think that the Orioles have hit bottom, while the D-Rays seem to be making some modestly sensible choices about who to play.
New York Yankees: Men on base all over the place.
Boston Red Sox: Pedro Martinez is mostly healthy, good enough to give the A's a run for the wild card.
Toronto Blue Jays: Roy Halladay wins 18. Vernon Wells, Felipe Lopez, and Eric Hinske are decent, but they fall too far behind in division and wild-card races and deal Shannon Stewart and Chris Carpenter.
Baltimore Orioles: The fences come in, exposing the pitching staff as the worst in league.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Toby Hall makes them realize they've been hyping the wrong guys, but the rest of team is the '79 A's.
The AL East is pretty clear. The only competitive spot should be the battle for last place between the Orioles and Devil Rays. Can Tampa's mediocre young talent overcome Baltimore's mediocre veteran talent? My bet is no this year, but the Devil Rays do have a higher upside in this battle of the pitifuls.
Anybody who doesn't pick the Yankees to win this division has more than just a screw loose. The Yankees have a bigger edge going into 2002 than they've had in any season since the early 1960s, thanks to the offseason overhaul of their offense. Assuming at least some of their players stay healthy, the Red Sox are clearly the second most talented team in the division, and while they won't threaten the Yankees they could contend for the wild card if Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez are healthy all season. If the Sox falter, the Blue Jays have a chance to go for the wild card themselves, but it's more likely that the focus of their 2002 season will be figuring out which players are a part of the team's future.
The easiest division to call. The Yankees will shock the baseball world by winning the division handily. The Red Sox have second pretty much locked up; whether they contend for the wild card will depend not so much on the health of Pedro Martinez, but on how well Tony Cloninger is able to fill Joe Kerrigan's shoes as pitching coach. Martinez can be a great pitcher with any coach, but John Burkett can't, Dustin Hermanson can't, and Darren Oliver certainly can't.
Boring. The Yankees aren't going to reel off more than 100 wins as has been predicted in some circles, and they're finally going to face some injuries that will hurt them, but they've got the depth and adaptability to fix issues as they go. The Red Sox won't put together a good enough staff and lineup to chase the Yankees down, but should be within five games at season's end. The Blue Jays are going to be fun to watch as they put together the team of the future.
The Orioles and Devil Rays? (sigh...)
American League Central
Kenny Williams seems hell-bent on keeping the Sox from winning the division, but there's too much offensive talent on the roster for him to overcome. The biggest season-long intrigue will be in Detroit, where Phil Garner might be able to stuff enough utility players into uniforms to have nine players play nine different positions in one game.
Chicago 83, Cleveland 80, Minnesota 72, Detroit 67, Kansas City 62
Somebody has to win this division, and I don't think it will be the Royals or Tigers. I'd give this division a 10-15% chance of having a sub-.500 winner, and I'd say 25-30% if it wasn't for the unbalanced schedule. The Sox and Indians have the best offenses in the group; the Sox have the best, but their pitching staff gives me nightmares. I just don't see the Twins keeping up with what they did last year. I know I'm going against everybody's trendy pick, but I'm not worried. Kansas City looks just dreadful, with a real chance to finish dead last in both hitting and pitching this season.
The White Sox should have enough to win this division handily, although they have a history of making moves that they don't need to make and are actually counterproductive. (The Todd Ritchie deal is the latest example.) If they make a few more of those they could shoot themselves in the foot. The Twins just don't have enough offense to be a legitimate contender, although if the White Sox get foolish they might be able to sneak in there.
The crunch that's been looming for a while for the Indians has now hit, so their run looks to be over. They have too many holes to fill and the farm system doesn't have enough talent to fill them quickly. Neither of the bottom two teams is particularly good; either could implode and be truly awful. The Royals seems a little more likely to self-destruct, so I'll pick them for the bottom.
There are simply no good baseball teams in this division. The White Sox are overrated, but less so than the Twins are, who look primed for a disappointing but superficially surprising followup to their media-friendly grit campaign last year. The key players in the division are Cristian Guzman, David Ortiz, Frank Thomas, C.C. Sabathia, and Danys Baez. The Twins and Indians need both of their guys to be healthy and effective to break out; The Sox only need Thomas to be healthy and to get on base at a .400 clip. Jim Thome could be shipped out of Cleveland by the trade deadline.
The Royals have some interesting young talent and no sign that they know what to do with it. Allard Baird has not assembled a major-league roster that can seriously compete. The Tigers' stable of young arms is large enough that one of them will be an effective major-league starter, at least for a year or so. Whether it's Nate Cornejo, Kenny Baugh, or someone else doesn't really matter. Detroit has a few well-disbursed offensive bright spots, but Jose Lima and Steve Sparks both pumpkin out, and the team spins its wheels for another year.
Yes, it's really this bad. The White Sox are probably the most overrated team in baseball, which opens the door for any team--even one managed by Tony Muser--to ride a .500 season to the playoffs. It won't make for great baseball, but it could make for a great theater. Mystery Science Theater 3000.
I was going to pick the White Sox. The White Sox really should win this, going away. But then Kenny Williams gets you to thinking, and you have to wonder about the decisions to bring in Todd Ritchie or Royce Clayton or Sandy Alomar, and you're left with a GM who just won't get out of the way of letting the division's best collection of talent just win the damned thing. The division winner won't win more than 85 games, and that's an attainable goal for the Twins, with Ron Gardenhire cast in the Joe Altobelli '83 or Bob Lemon '78 role, and riding with the team Tom Kelly and Terry Ryan built.
Minnesota Twins: Corey Koskie slumps and the subsequent lack of run production almost costs them the division. Michael Cuddyer gives them the necessary second-half boost.
Chicago White Sox: The mirror image of the Twins: they play more 10-8 games than the Rockies do, as Frank Thomas comes back strong. Unfortunately, the pitching staff is a year-long disaster.
Cleveland Indians: The golden era is over; C.C. Sabathia gets hurt, the club falls behind early, and the rebuilding program accelerates.
Detroit Tigers: Jose Macias and Craig Paquette flop; Randy Smith and Phil Garner are fired.
Kansas City Royals: Tony Muser gets fired, Allard Baird wonders why Neifi Perez can't hit any more, and no pitcher wins 10 games.
The AL Central will be won by default, not by design. The White Sox have significant holes, but there's a lot of talent (Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, Ray Durham, Mark Buehrle, etc.) and a solid amount of depth in the organization. Nobody else in the division comes close to meeting both of those criteria, so it's their division to lose. Given the lackluster nature of the competition, they'll have to try awfully hard to do so.
The Twins also have a lot of talent, but the depth isn't there and some of the talent may take a while longer to reach its potential. Still, the Twins have the best rotation in the division, and the team and organization has enough young talent to dream of a first-place finish. The Indians, meanwhile, have almost completely demolished their once powerful lineup--Jim Thome is the only major threat left from a lineup that once reminded opponents of the '61 Yankees--without doing anything to stabilize their always-shaky pitching situation. That spells third place even in a weak division.
As far as the Tigers and Royals go, I give Detroit the tiniest of advantages this year because the organization recognized it had a problem and hired Dave Dombrowski, while the Royals sail along as if they think their organization is a well-oiled baseball machine.
Am I allowed to pick all these teams to finish third or worse? Apparently not, so I'll hold my nose and go with the White Sox. Their pitching staff looks atrocious ("What do you mean? Jim Parque and Bobby Howry are up to the high 60s on the gun these days!"), but I'll stick with the hitting-but-shaky-pitching South Siders over the pitching-but-shaky-hitting Twins and Indians. Any of them would probably finish last in the AL West.
Hope and faith lives in small-market teams owned by astoundingly rich men who won't spend money. The White Sox are going to badly bungle this season, just as they did the last, by playing the wrong players. Unless the Twins self-destruct to prove Bud Selig's point--and it's hard to pretend you're dumping salary when no one outside of Rick Reed is being paid anything outrageous--they'll sneak by into the playoffs as David Ortiz has a monster season. Their chances could be aided if they manage to solve their corner OF/DH logjam. The Indians are turning into suck but don't suck enough yet, Kansas City already sucks totally, and Detroit will break .400 to embarrass them.
American League West
The Athletics further confound Seligites by winning the toughest division in baseball despite a low payroll and the departure of the elder Giambi. Too much age at too many positions and no depth on the bench or in Triple-A costs the Mariners, who lose 23 more games than last year, yet still take home the Wild Card. John Hart wiles away the days in Texas hemorrhaging prospects in a panicked search for pitching.
Oakland 99, Seattle 96, Texas 90, Anaheim 76
Poor Angels. They don't have a bad team, and would definitely challenge for the Central title. However, they have to face three monsters who, I hope, will treat us to a monumental pennant race in September. I like Oakland's team just a little more than Seattle's, probably because their key players are younger than the Mariners' key guys; for Texas, the trouble is still the pitchers.
Two great teams and two halves of a third great team. The A's and Mariners will once again walk away with the division title/wild card combination. Seattle has a bunch of players who had career years last year and so will slide this year, but you can still slide a long ways from 116 wins and still be a great team. If you were to combine the Angels' pitching with the Rangers' hitting you'd have a team to compete with them. But the Halos won't score enough and the Rangers' opponents will score too many for either to be much more than a .500 club.
The A's #5 starter could be a #2 for almost everyone else in the division. Last year, the Mariners had above-expectations years from Mark McLemore, Bret Boone, the bullpen, Mike Cameron, Paul Abbott, and got ungodly lucky in several areas. They're old, the luck will turn, and they'll settle for the wild card, four games back of Oakland, which gets marginal improvement at several spots in the young offense, but misses Johnny Damon's defense in center field.
The Rangers lead the league in three-hour games, and hangs in the race surprisingly late by bashing their way through a ton of 9-7 games before the bullpen gives out from overuse at the tail end of the season. Doug Davis and Kenny Rogers splatter, leaving a rotation of Chan Ho Park and "Not HIM again..." as the main reasons for an 85-win season on the downside, and a balanced, vicious offense keeping them above water. Hank Blalock wins the Rookie of the Year Award, and is the third-best third baseman in the AL by September. The Angels are the Angels, with not enough pitching or hitting to compete in this division. We do discover the real Darin Erstad, who posts a .288/.362/.464 campaign. Tim Salmon doesn't bounce back fully, and Troy Glaus picks a career path made famous by a left-handed-hitting third baseman who played pretty mean defense himself. The unbalanced schedule or a dominant Derek Lowe are the only things that can keep the wild card from coming out of this division.
The random happenstance of having three of the league's best four teams in the same division could create one of the best pennant races possible in a wild-card system. The Rangers' rotation is awful after Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdes, but the combination of a deep bullpen and a ridiculous offense gives the A's and Mariners a scare. Thankfully, evil is vanquished and good prevails.
I really think that the Mariners have the better balance on their team, but with the age of many of their pitchers, I expect some disappointments on their staff. The Athletics win, just barely, on the strength of their rotation, offsetting some disappointments offensively. Nobody wins 100 games in the division this year.
Seattle Mariners: Twenty games worse, but still a little better than the A's. Bret Boone semi-repeats, while other key hitters show their age.
Oakland Athletics: The offense suffers as no one has a big year to make up for the loss of Jason Giambi. The starters do it again, though, delivering the wild-card berth.
Texas Rangers: Texas heat and high-scoring games wear them down in second half. John Rocker is a model citizen but pitches like crap, while Chan Ho Park has a 4.37 ERA.
Anaheim Angels: Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon rebound, but playing the A's and Mariners so often leaves team well behind early.
There will probably be a very close race between the A's and Mariners in the AL West, and the most likely result is that both teams will make it into the postseason despite the disadvantage of playing in the toughest division in baseball. The Mariners won't be able to generate the kind of offense they did last year, but this is still more or less the same team which won 116 games last season, so 95 wins shouldn't be that hard. The Athletics, despite the loss of Jason Giambi, also have enough talent left on their major league roster to win 95 games.
John Hart has actually improved the Rangers pitching quite a lot, and their offense is monstrous, but the unbalanced schedule will keep them from making a strong run at a postseason slot. Meanwhile, the Angels' offensive performance will improve substantially in 2002 on the strength of comeback seasons by the likes of Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon and the addition of Brad Fullmer. In this division, though, a .500 season is about as significant an accomplishment as the Mouseketeers can hope for.
It's possible that these will turn out to be four of the best five teams in the AL this year. Because of that and the unbalanced schedule, it may be tough for the second place team to win the wild card.
I love this division, I really do. Any of the A's, Mariners, and Rangers could win it with only a little swing of luck. They should all win 90 games or more, even beating up on each other for much of the season, which will be awesome to watch. The A's efforts to protect their pitching staff are likely going to break the division open, though, as Eric Chavez and Jeremy Giambi have huge seasons. The Mariners will get an upgrade from Jeff Cirillo and huge drops in production from Bret Boone and Mark McLemore. James Baldwin is going to get injured, as well, but they're still good enough to make it.
Meanwhile, John Hart's big-upside team of gambles is going to score a huge number of runs. At the same time their new rotation upgrades will turn out to be disappointments. The Angels...poor guys. In the AL Central they might win the division. Here, they get to face these three monsters so often it's cruel.