Pay attention, folks, because I’m about to reveal the identity of the 2004 world champion.
Two years ago, in a column titled, "No Hope, No Faith," I pegged the Anaheim Angels as one of eight teams who had no chance of being competitive during the 2002 season. Last year, in a non-BP article (not online at this time), I reprised the concept by naming the Florida Marlins as one of just seven teams whose fans should have no hope for the 2003 season.
As you might recall, the two teams did all right for themselves.
I didn’t start out trying to make a fool of myself. The idea behind the annual column listing the teams with no hope and faith for the upcoming season stemmed from Bud Selig’s catchphrase during the 2001-02 labor negotiations. He insisted that "hope and faith" was lost for fans of as many as 18 teams, and the media picked it up and ran with the concept. I was just trying to find the teams that, looking out from early spring, legitimately looked as if they did fit that description. I suppose the fact that my conservative listing of just seven or eight teams each year has included the eventual world champions two of three times is an indication that even the most overmatched team can surprise. That should given hope and faith to all but the most destitute of organizations.
Unbowed, I’m going to run another list, this year with six teams. These are the franchises whose fans shouldn’t have any hope and faith that their teams will make the playoffs in 2004. Note that "hope and faith" doesn’t mean a good chance, or an OK chance, or anything more than the ability to dream in March. That’s what being a fan is about, right?
Let’s do this in order of hopelessness, least to most.
Devil Rays: The perfect combination of team quality and context, the Devil Rays might be a 75-win team based on their talent. Unfortunately, play in a division with the two best teams in the league, another that can lay claim to being the third-best, and a fourth competitor that spent a ton of money to upgrade the roster for ’04. There’s no chance for a miracle here. There’s not much chance for a .500 season. Seventy-six games against the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles almost certainly means a 100-loss season.
Brewers: This may be an ungenerous ranking, if only because Brew Crew supporters can take heart in a farm system that’s become pretty deep in hitting prospects. Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Prince Fielder could be the core of an interesting squad in 2006 or so. For now, it’s Ben Sheets and an offense that will have a hard time cracking 650 runs.
Pirates: The Bucs are listed behind the Brewers because they should score enough runs for another 70-win campaign. For the second year in a row, they’ve made some late free-agent signings that will keep them comfortably in fifth place, and keep decent young players in the bench and in Nashville. The lack of any organizational commitment to the decent B prospects at the upper levels–again–makes it easy to write the Pirates off. Again.
Rangers: I could have them higher, maybe right behind the Devil Rays. Forget the Alex Rodriguez trade and the three games it costs them; look at the outfield, where no one is a good bet for a .330 OBP, and a pitching staff that will lead the league in walks and hits allowed. The division is down from its 2000-02 peak, but so are the Rangers.
Rockies: If I had to pick the team on this list most likely to pull an Angels/Marlins, it’s the Rockies. There’s some talent in the lineup and the division is nothing special. I have a hard time identifying 11 pitchers, though, and the decisions to make Shawn Chacon a closer and emphasize "character players" don’t exactly leave me with great faith in the front office.
Orioles: A tough call, given that they will hit 210 home runs and could be a very good defensive ballclub. There are also some OBP issues once you get past Melvin Mora and Luis Matos. It’s just too hard to see them coming out of 57 games with the three better teams in the division with an edge on that pack. Somewhere between 78 and 85 wins seems right, and even the latter wouldn’t be enough this year.
Those six are the only teams I feel comfortable writing off completely. There are three others for whom you can make an argument:
Indians: The soft division is the only real point in their favor. If the Twins continue to play four OBP sinks while losing ground in the bullpen, they could come back to 83-84 wins, which makes everyone a contender. (PECOTA has coughed up a forecast that has everyone in the division under .500.) On merit, this is a really unimpressive Indians team, the worst since the late 1980s. They could allow 900 runs.
Tigers: Should they be in the "no-hope-and-faith category? I don’t think so, because when you evaluate this team on its merits relative to the competition–and not on 2003’s 119-loss season–you see that it’s not that much different than the AL Central pack. Unlike the Pirates’ signings, what the Tigers did with Fernando Vina, Rondell White and Ivan Rodriguez improved the team without blocking top prospects. I don’t think it’s a very good team, but again, hope and faith is about your competition, too.
Diamondbacks: A number of pitchers overreached last season. While Richie Sexson is a nice player, he could just end up replacing the production of Luis Gonzalez. LuGo’s bum elbow will have the Snakes holding their breath all year, and he can’t move to first base, a la Albert Pujols, with Sexson there. The Diamondbacks’ offense was a disaster in the second half last season, and adding the tail end of Roberto Alomar‘s career won’t change that. "Hope and faith"? I’d say no, but it’s a close call.
Everyone else, every other team in the game, can start the exhibition season with the honest belief that dreaming about October is within reason. The Expos? They’ll have an improved offense even without Vladimir Guerrero. The Reds? Injuries made them a look a lot worse than their talent last year. They’ll have the division’s best bullpen.
And if you still think the Yankees or Red Sox or Phillies will be the last team standing…well, you can’t say you weren’t warned.