April 1, 2000
American League Predictions
Our best guess at 2000's winners and losers
The Yankees are the favorites again this year, though it isn't unanimous. That reflects the uncertainty we have about a team that is a year older overall, and depending on guys like Roger Clemens, David Cone, and Paul O'Neill to have good seasons. The Red Sox and Blue Jays both managed to get a first place vote in finishing second and third, respectively. We're expecting Boston's depth and Toronto's continuing maturity to make more of a race of it this year. Bringing up the rear are the Orioles (who should be luckier this year, if nothing else, after ending up with a losing record despite outscoring the opposition in 1999) and the hapless Devil Rays. Though Tampa Bay did a nifty job cornering the market in old sluggers this offseason, their pitching remains a joke and they've got a good shot at the worst record in the league in 2000.
Jeff Hildebrand:: Yes the Yankees are a year older, but there's still too much talent there for me to pick anyone else. If they don't start rebuilding in 2001 they could be in trouble though. Boston seems to be a trendy pick this year, but I just don't see it. They've got too many question marks on the pitching staff beyond Pedro and a strong but not spectacular lineup isn't enough to make up for that in a good division. They'll be a good team, but not quite good enough. The Jays have talent, but they also have a manager who will likely slag most of the young pitching staff. All the moves the D-Rays have made will improve the team some, but only about 5-10 wins worth, which still leaves them with a very expensive losing team. Lots of solo home runs can only take you so far. The Orioles seem poised to hit rock bottom. After the obvious warning signs last year, they did nothing substantial to address the aging of the team and start the rebuilding process.
Rany Jazayerli: Yes, the Red Sox. Not so much because of a leap forward by the Chowderheads - the arrival of Carl Everett and Trot Nixon's improvement should make up for some regression by Pedro and the loss of Saberhagen - but because the Yankees are getting old. Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez could lose it at any time, and while the rotation is still effective, it's too old to expect everyone to stay healthy all season. If Nick Johnson shows up in Yankee Stadium by Memorial Day, though, all bets are off. The Blue Jays' chances at postseason success this year were ruined by the tandem of Tim Johnson and Jim Fregosi; no longer can Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar be counted on to develop into aces. Camden Yards is still a retirement home, and Mike Hargrove is hardly going to change that. And the Devil Rays may have the most inflated opinion of themselves of any team outside Detroit.
Keith Law: Some see a three-team race here, but I don't see Toronto getting into it. Their pitching staff is full of questions from the rotation down to Billy (6+ ERA after the Break last year) Koch, and the offense won't be enough to overtake Boston and New York unless one of those two stumbles. The Yanks are still good, but far removed from the '98 team that set numerous win records. The rotation is older and less effective; there's no DH; Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, and Scott Brosius are all slipping into mediocrity or are already there; and left field remains an open sore. But Boston's rotation questions keep it from overtaking New York just yet, because behind Pedro Martinez are a rehab project (Ramon Martinez), a retread who topped a 7 ERA last year (Jeff Fassero), the unpredictable knuckleballer (Tim Wakefield), and a rookie who has yet to pitch effectively in the majors (Brian Rose). If the rotation works out - and they do have some alternatives - they have an excellent shot at beating the Yankees, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. As for Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the only thing to exceed their payrolls is their irrelevance.
Joe Sheehan: No, I'm not on the Interbrew payroll, and no, I'm not a Yankee hater. But I recognize that the Yankees are vulnerable offensively due to age and a lack of depth, and aside from Mariano Rivera, the bullpen isn't anything special, either. The Blue Jays have a young offense with a real nine-man lineup. There are significant questions about their rotation, most notably surrounding Chris Carpenter's health, but they have more upside than either of their competitors, and I think this is the year they break through. The Red Sox have grown from a two-man team to a three-man team, which will be enough to keep them in the mix.
The top three teams in this division could finish in any order, really, and I doubt they'll be separated by more than seven or eight games. The Orioles and Devil Rays are, sadly, irrelevant.
Derek Zumsteg: The Red Sox have a startling amount of pitching to reload with if the much-predicted injuries come, and may end up better for it. The Yankees will do much worse than last year, but still pull the division out.
American League Central
We again predict the Central to have something less than a dramatic playoff race this year, as the Indians are the consensus winners of the division. As with the Yankees, the spectre of old age beckons. The White Sox are comfortably in second; we expect some big things from their pitching staff and young hitters. The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are neck and neck for the next two spots, though we don't think they'll be together in the standings next year if they keep to their respective development plans. The Twins probably won't make it out of the basement again this season, but they have some good young hitters close to the major leagues and a pitching staff that could surprise.
Jeff Hildebrand: This looks an awful lot like a last stand for Cleveland. They should make it to the post-season again and once there, anything can happen. Chicago has an awful lot of good young players and they could make this a lot closer than most people expect, especially if Frank Thomas wakes up from his two year slumber. Detroit got their big bopper in Gonzalez, but gave up so much that they no longer have the supporting cast. If the Royals could find some pitching they'd be a good sleeper candidate, but as long as they keep screwing around with the likes of Tyler Green, they aren't going anywhere. As for the Twins, help may be on the way, but it's not here yet.
Rany Jazayerli: It's the Indians again, but for the first time in years, a scenario can at least be envisioned where, if the Indians suffer some key injuries and everything goes right in Chicago or Kansas City, the Tribe end their season in September. That scenario becomes less likely if Kenny Lofton really is ready to play sometime in April. Chuck Finley has been targeted for a fall by some of us - okay, Joe - for years, but I think it would be foolish to write off any pitcher who struck out 200 men in 213 innings last year. The White Sox need Kip Wells to walk in and be their ace this season if they expect to contend, and big improvements from Sirotka and Parque would be nice too. The Royals have the most young talent in the division, if not baseball, but they also have a front office that likes Brett Laxton more than Jeremy Giambi and Jorge Fabregas more than Sal Fasano. Miracles can happen, but never bet on a team that doesn't know its Ass from its head. The Tigers need to lay off the crack pipe; they're not that good, and they likely to be even worse over the next few years. The Twins? At least LeCroy is here, and Cuddyer and Restovich are on their way. Be patient.
Keith Law: Closer than you think. I was tempted to put Chicago on top, just to make a point, but I don't believe this is the year. In 2002, Cleveland could end up fighting just to finish in fourth, but they still have enough ammo to pull out 90 wins and take the division. Chicago, Kansas City, and to a lesser extent Minnesota are putting the elements together for a 2001 playoff push: Good young rotations, some young hitters with plate discipline, and established cores with power. Each team has flaws that could keep it from reaching 85 wins, but one team will finish within five games of Cleveland. Detroit, for all the hullabaloo about the Juan Gonzalez deal, took a bad team and made it worse, then added the ineffective Hideo Nomo.
Joe Sheehan: Oh, OK, I guess I'll go with the Indians. More fun is deciding what order the next three teams, all on the upswing and and all with at least a chance of being 2000's Oakland A's, will finish in. The White Sox have Frank Thomas and the most pitching depth, so they're my pick for second. At the risk of inspiring a special "Get Sheehan" edition of Rob & Rany on the Royals, I'll go with the Twins over Kansas City for third, on the notion that Terry Ryan will do less harm than Herk Robinson. The Tigers have a nice new ballpark.
Derek Zumsteg: Peter Gammons' slobberings to the contrary, the Indians are not the best team in baseball. I see the White Sox and Royals continuing to improve to make this year more interesting and the division's future brighter.
American League West
We like what's happening in Oakland, and we like it even more after Billy Beane got the better of the Royals twice since spring training started. (Well, all of us except Rany...) The Athletics are younger and have more pitching depth than the defending champion Rangers, who need big years from older players this season. The Mariners have been marching to a different drum since giving Woody Woodward the boot, but losing Ken Griffey really hurts. In last place we have another consensus winner, as none of us can see the Angels doing anything productive this season.
Jeff Hildebrand: Gee, wasn't it just a year ago that everyone was pointing out how the big money teams like the Angels were forever going to be trampling the poor weak sisters like the A's? Fortunately front office savvy still counts for a lot, and the A's have it in spades. This year the young talent on the field matures enough to win a good close race with the Rangers. Texas did a good job of renewing themselves through the Gonzo trade and a comparison to the '94 Braves who slipped slightly while putting the pieces in place for further years would be a reasonable one. Seattle's problem will be the same as it always is, namely Mt. Pinella erupting (and the pitching staff taking the brunt of the explosion). As for the Angels, well they're owned by the right corporation, although there is some debate as to whether Mickey Mouse or Goofy would be a better mascot.
Rany Jazayerli: This could be a great three-team race, but the A's have the breakout potential of Chavez and Grieve, a full season of Hudson, and some improvement from Appier to look forward to. The Mariners were the favorites before they traded Griffey, and even without him, they have a chance if they get someone to play left (releasing Hunter is a good sign) and if Sasaki is as good as everyone claims he is. But no team with Lou Piniella and young pitchers at the back of the rotation can be expected to finish first. The Rangers are going to miss Gonzalez this year, but they might not be the favorites even if they had kept him. A rotation so dependent on Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver doesn't frighten anyone, and neither Rodriguez nor Palmeiro should be expected to duplicate last season. Unless all of their youngsters come through - certainly not an impossible scenario - this is a distinctly average team. Which is a damn sight better than what they have in Anaheim, where they have one franchise player, a half-dozen malcontents, and one legitimate pitching prospect - whose health record is worse than Evel Knievel's.
Keith Law: The majors' best race, one that could include three teams with five games to go, is here. Oakland is the choice because of all the walks and power and a significantly improved pitching staff, but the defense has to be a huge concern, and none of the starters are locks for ERAs near or below 4. Texas is in a breather year--they'll be better in 2001 when the kids have another year of experience under their belts--but could still sneak in 90 wins. Seattle didn't do itself any favors in the Griffey deal, and their rotation could implode at any time from Mount Lou's abuse last year, but there's still a lot of talent there in all departments. With a better manager, they'd be the favorites. Anaheim is listed fourth because I can't list them eighth.
Joe Sheehan: The Rangers were part of the state of Texas's clean sweep of this winter's "Best Trade" honors, swapping one year of Juan Gonzalez for cheap solutions in right field, at second base and in the bullpen. While we all know how much it helps them beyond 2000, most people don't realize that they're a better team right now for having made the trade. The A's are the trendy pick, but teams who show marked improvement in one year often slide back the next. I think it will be hard for the A's to get to the 90 wins it's going to take to win the division as they contend with less production from John Jaha, Matt Stairs and Randy Velarde, plus a rotation sporting three guys--Omar Olivares, Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier--who you can hear ticking. The Mariners are going to hang around .500, and the Angels are going to play baseball in Anaheim and cities around the country.
Derek Zumsteg: As a ligament-less Freddy Garcia is helped off the field after his third consecutive 140+ pitch outing to increase his toughness, Lou Piniella stands on the mound at Safeco Field, looks to the bullpen, which is belching greasy black smoke up into the blue-grey summer sky, and realizes that for the last three years, fans haven't been yelling 'Looooouuuu', they've been booing him. In the visitor's dugout, Art Howe allows himself to smile.