I know I've written my share of posts discussing the holidays I don't like, the holidays I don't understand. This post is all about a holiday that isn't, but should be. When I'm president, I will make this day, Opening Day, a national holiday. Baseball is just that important.
Workers should be free to go to the park, even though their team is playing a day game. School children should run the basepaths of their neighborhood diamond, freed from the shackles of learning (I doubt I'll use that phrase again). Our heroes should be paraded in front of a national audience. CBS should play The Sandlot, The Natural, and Field of Dreams back-to-back-to-back in a continuous loop, and ABC should play the same three in reverse order. Americans should take a day to relax, grab a 'dog and a beer, root for the home team, and speculate on the season to come.
So it is with great joy that I kick off my first pre-season speculation post!
First, a disclaimer. I don't know the answers. Despite my uncanny success in predicting past winners for all the major sports titles, you should not use my predictions as gambling advice. Or at very least, you shouldn't get angry and litigious after betting your car on my picks. I've looked into baseball a bit this year, and I know what some others are saying, but I'm just a punk kid with too much attitude who loves the game. And keeping that in mind, here are my predictions.
East: I like the Marlins. They picked up Carlos Delgado in the off-season and already had a terrific core. They won the World Series two years ago and they looked good last year. With a strong group of young pitchers they could go far. It's tough to pick against the Braves, who always manage to win, but this is finally the year someone else takes the division crown.
Central: Just like last year, the Cardinals bats will power them to the top of the Central. The Cubs should give the Cardinals a better push than they did last year, but St. Louis will hold off the charge. They've added Mark Mulder from Oakland's staff which should bolster their pitching, and their amazing offense will keep scoring runs all the way to the play-offs.
West: This is the division I most dread predicting. I liked the Dodgers, but they lost some key players in Adrian Beltre and Steve Finley, and I don't think that they'll be able to overcome those loses. The Giants are always a strong, deep team, but Barry Bonds is out for an extended period, and while they have people to fill the holes, I think that loss is too significant to overcome. I also think that this is the year that age takes its toll on the Giants, and before the end of the season a whopping (and exaggerated) 19 of their players will be on the DL with rheumatoid arthritis. This leaves me looking at the Padres as my favorite team in the West. I've been keeping an eye on them the last couple of years as they've slowly put together a good group of players. This team has developed together, much like the Twins, and I think this is the year they grab hold of West.
Wild Card: Again, it's tough to pick against the Braves. And so I won't. I also like the Cubs, but I foresee a marvelous choke in the last week or two of the season, extending the Braves play-off run.
MVP: I'm going to go with Albert Pujols, who I like because Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado, both of the Marlins, will be in competition for the same votes. If either one of them rises significantly ahead of the other look for Pujols to be upset in the MVP race.
Cy Young: Tim Hudson of the Braves. Hudson is a terrific pitcher who took position as the ace among aces on Oakland's staff. Moving from the AL to the NL should help him even more.
Rookie: Another tough call, especially given my limited knowledge. I'm taking Garret Atkins, on the premise that it is easier for position players to win rookie of the year honors. He's filling a hole left by a long-time veteran (Vinny Castilla), and if he steps up that'll make it look all the more impressive.
East: I sure like Boston, defending World Series Champions, but I sure like New York even more. The Yankees should be the more dominant of these two giants, winning more consistently the games they should. This is an improving division - the Devil Rays and Baltimore both look better than last year, and should both pose more of a challenge to the East's top tier. The Yankees will handle these obstacles better with their all-business approach, and Boston will have to settle for second.
Central: It's a good time to be a fan of the Minnesota Twins. They're set to win their fourth-straight division title. Much has been made of the improved Indians and Tigers. Both teams improved significantly from the year before, but look for both to disappoint. Cleveland improved 12 games from '03 to '04, and Detroit picked up a whopping 29 games from their '03 total. Adding even another 10 games to either total (which would put Cleveland at 90 and Detroit at 82) would be a tremendous feat, and one I don't foresee happening. Remember, the Royals saw tremendous improvement in '03 but back-slid last year. All three of those teams should hover around their '04 totals. The same goes for the White Sox, who may fall even further than they did last year. The team is trying to transition from being a power team to a speed and defense model, an uncertain process. They've got a good manager in Ozzie Guillen, but I don't think their plan will take this year, so look for them to slide into fourth, not far behind Detroit. Cleveland should land in second, but they'll be a good dozen or so games behind the Twins.
West: I like the Angels. I'm never confident about picking the AL West, because with only four teams they play more games against each other, giving each team more of a chance to carve out their own place. Seattle, Oakland, and even Texas could all get hot and make a push, but I see the Angels repeating.
Wild Card: Boston. They're too powerful, and they've spent too much money, to miss the playoffs. They'll go out an get any piece they need, to get another shot at the World Series. Now that they've ended their curse we've got a second "evil empire" on our hands, and this year they've got a firm grip on the last play-off spot.
MVP: Always a tough call, but I like one of two players. Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels will probably win the award because he's a respected veteran, but watch for Joe Mauer to get a lot of chatter when the season ends. He could be the dark horse in this race.
Cy Young: Johan Santana. This is the easiest pick in the list. He's looked dynamite ever since he regained his health last season. A full season of health could see him win at least 25 games this year.
Rookie: Sticking with the position-player theme, I'm going to give the nod to Jason Bartlett. His offense isn't in question, and offense will win a Rookie of the Year award. He'll be capable defensively, and steal some bases, both which will help his case.
NLS: Marlins over Padres, Cardinals over Braves
NLCS: Marlins over Cardinals
ALS: Twins over Red Sox, Yankees over Angels
ALCS: Twins over Yankees
World Series: Twins over Marlins in 5
As a closing note, I'd like to say that I know I'm a Twins fan and horribly biased, but that I've made my best, unbiased, effort in these picks. I really believe that the Twins are the best team in baseball this year. I thought they were better than their playoff performance last year (they were close against the Yankees and had bested the Red Sox in the regular season). This year the breaks will go their way. I'll probably put up another "Year of the Twins" post a little later, so keep an eye out for that.
2005 looks to be a good year. Baseball is back, strong as ever, with great storylines and players to follow the entire season. So on Opening Day, kick back, enjoy some good food, watch a baseball game, and get used to it - soon enough it'll be a recognized holiday. Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, and Play Ball!
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks