For me, each baseball season is nothing if not a journey of enlightenment. Each year I enter into it like some wide-eyed, apple-cheeked young man from a John Irving novel, and I leave it wiser and more usefully dispassionate (albeit with not so many complicated romantic entanglements in my wake).
The 2005 season was no different: I learned some things. After going back over our AL and NL staff picks, I was chagrined but not surprised to learn that I’d make some fairly galling predictions. So in the name of accountability and self-flagellation, let’s revisit the dumbest of these sooths and figure out what we can learn from them …
- The White Sox will finish fourth in the AL Central.
It’s difficult to blow it worse than this. I underestimated what a strong, balanced rotation in front of a highly capable team defense can do for a team. Considering the run-inflating nature of U.S. Cellular, the Sox had the best run-prevention unit in the AL. Bullpen vicissitudes also favored the Sox on just the right year, Ozzie Guillen did a masterly job of handling the staff, and Jermaine Dye hit better than I thought he would.
My pick in the Central was the Twins, but I didn’t grasp the difficulty Justin Morneau would have in coming back from his endless litany of maladies. Considering his relative youth and the severity of his health concerns, that was a misplay on my part. I also didn’t realize just how much awfulness Terry Ryan would countenance in the middle infield.
- The Astros will finish fifth in the NL Central.
Coming into this season, I saw the Astros as a team with a wholly inadequate offense, an overworked relief ace and a rotation rife with age and health issues. I even, gasp, picked them to finish behind the Reds. Roger Clemens may have been 42 on opening day, but don’t count on sudden decline from an inner-circle Hall of Famer with strong peripherals. I can be forgiven for not anticipating that Andy Pettitte would craft his best season at age 33, coming off serious injury and pitching half his games in a park that’s thoroughly hostile toward left-handed pitching. Also, while I’ve long been bullish on Morgan Ensberg, I can’t say I expected an MVP-caliber offering from him.
But win the Astros did, thanks mostly to the best one-two-three rotation punch in the annals of the game. The real surprise, as mentioned, is Pettitte. For years, he’s been a good starting pitcher whose value was inflated by the Yankee imprimatur. This season, however, he achieved unadulterated excellence. Account for the way Minute Maid squarely benefits right-handed batters, and Pettitte was, in my mind, the best starting pitcher in baseball this season.
- Jim Thome will finish second in the NL MVP balloting.
There are old-player skills and then there are old-player skills. In Jim Thome‘s case, his skills should be eating cat food and regaling us with hard-won tales of Omaha Beach. Thome, for years, has racked up walks and strikeouts by the bushel, run the bases like Peter Boyle against a blocking sled (1-for-8 in steals during the current millennium) and played vomitous defense at first. Throw in injuries, and is it really any surprise that he tanked in his age-34 season? As I should’ve known, players of his profile can decline in a hurry.
In fairness, I certainly didn’t expect him to actually be the second-best player in the NL, but I did expect him to rack up oodles of homers and RBI for a playoff-bound team. Throw in the print media’s predilection for folksy white guys, and I figured on a high vote tally. The lesson: beware of lumbering corner defenders in their mid-30s. You’ll also notice above that I referred to the Phillies as “playoff-bound.” This bring us to …
- The Braves will finish second in the NL East.
Much has been made of the Braves’ reliance on youth this season. It’s been cast as a credit to the organization that they were willing to grant such vital roles to unproven talents like Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans, Wilson Betemit, Brian McCann and Blaine Boyer.
However, this strikes me as more necessary improvisation rather than carefully designed battle plans. The Braves entered 2005 with every intention of running Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi out there for, ideally in their eyes, 140-plus games each. That this didn’t come to pass is indeed a happy accident for Braves fans, but it was the team’s intentions that led me to predict their demise for, I believe, the third straight year. Things, of course, didn’t turn out that way. Francoeur posted the second-best VORP of any NL rookie hitter, and Betemit and Langerhans provided solid numbers at the plate and, respectively, positional flexibility and strong defense in the outfield.
This I promise: I’ll never again pick against the Braves in the NL East until after they lose it. Leo Mazzone’s gone and Rafael Furcal will likely follow, but it’s a historical imperative that the Braves will take the flag just the same.
- Eric Chavez will win the AL MVP award.
Perhaps it’s time we come around to the idea that Eric Chavez is going to soldier on as a very good player and that superstardom will forever elude him. I was sold on his breakout potential in 2005: he was 27, he had slugged at least .500 in four straight seasons, and he was coming off far and away the best plate-discipline indicators of his career. Instead, Chavez responded with the lowest OBP of his career and his worst SLG since he became a full-time player.
Chavez has notable platoon weaknesses, and at times, despite occasionally strong walk rates and an organizational mandate, he can be a profoundly undisciplined hitter at the plate. I once had it in my head that he’d have a run of .300/.400/.600 seasons, but it’s becoming less likely that he’ll ever achieve those numbers, even for one year. Chavez is still a quality ballplayer, but when he’s your best hitter your team will have trouble scoring runs.