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March 30, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Learning From the Past

by Joe Sheehan

Yesterday was the deadline for the staff of Baseball Prospectus to submit their predicted standings for the 2000 season, an exercise that is usually met with equal parts seriousness and whimsy. You can see the results here this weekend, and about all I can say for sure is that everyone predicts all 30 teams to finish the season. With the way rosters can change and the element of randomness present in any baseball season, it's hard for even the most well-informed analyst to be on firm ground beyond that.

OK, we're pretty sure the Angels will be lousy. But after that....

I won't share my picks for 2000 in this space, in part because I haven't made them yet. What I did do, though, is go back to the picks I made one year ago, for the 1999 season, in an effort to see what mistakes were made and learn from them in looking ahead to the current year.

Let's get the most enjoyable gaffe out of the way. In both Baseball Prospectus 1999 and the Web site predictions, I picked the Twins to win the American League wild card. They fell just shy, finishing with the worst record in the American League. In retrospect, I was far too optimistic about 1) young pitchers with lousy strikeout rates and 2) Tom Kelly.

While Eric Milton developed as expected, everyone else the Twins ran out behind Brad Radke, save Joe Mays, was brutal. Mike Lincoln, Benj Sampson, LaTroy Hawkins...none of these pitchers had the step-up year that I envisioned, the kind of year that was key to my predictions of success. I let my enthusiasm over their potential--and the comparison to the 1989 Orioles--cloud my better judgment. I didn't get any help from Kelly, who chose Doug Mientkiewicz over David Ortiz and continued to manage his roster as if the Little League "everyone plays" rule was in effect.

So the lesson here is to not be overly optimistic about the development of a young team. The '89 Orioles were the exception, not the rule, and even they didn't win anything.

It's interesting to note that I used this rationale to justify picking the A's to finish last in the AL West, expressing doubt about Art Howe's ability to get Eric Chavez and Ryan Christenson sufficient playing time. The A's, of course, made a great run at the wild card before falling back in mid-September.

The A's got some very good performances out of veterans last year, people like John Jaha, Matt Stairs and Tony Phillips. If there's a consistent blind spot in the work that we do, it's placing too much emphasis on youth and deriding or even disregarding the potential of older players. The Twins didn't have any older players to mix in with their youth movement, while the A's did, so when their young core of Chavez, Christenson, Ben Grieve and A.J. Hinch struggled, they were getting production elsewhere. In retrospect, the roster balance that the A's had--and the Twins didn't have--was probably a significant factor in their success.

As mentioned above, things can change a lot in a few months. Attempting to forecast those changes is folly, but that's just what I did in looking at the National League:

"The Cardinals have had enough pitching injuries to warrant an investigation into workplace conditions by OSHA, yet I still see them as the wild card. This team is going to generate huge amounts of revenue at the ballpark, making them a strong candidate to add salary at mid-season. Look for the Redbirds to make at least one major acquisition this summer, and maybe two if the second-base situation remains a problem into July."

It made sense at the time, but the idea that we can predict what MLB front offices--who hardly make optimal decisions in low-pressure times--will do when the heat is on is laughable. The Cardinals didn't make any major moves last year, playing much of the season with holes behind the plate, at second base and in the outfield. The team that was aggressive at mid-season--the Reds, in picking up Juan Guzman--ended up missing the wild card by the slimmest of margins.

There are a lot of mistakes we take the mainstream media to task for, and it's important to note that we have blind spots and biases of our own. Accounting for them is important in evaluating what could happen over the next six months. There are some valuable lessons amidst the wreckage of my crystal ball, and I'd like to think I can keep from repeating them this season.

Except, I really like the Royals' offense...and if the Expos can just find a middle infielder with some on-base skills...and the Blue Jays have to acquire a starting pitcher during the season, don't they?

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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