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Play Ball!

      The 2008 baseball season is finally here. These are my predictions:

 

National League East


 


      Led by Johan Santana and a diminished version of Pedro Martinez – both in terms of innings pitched and talent – the Mets still have the arms to top the division. Atlanta, though, has old hands Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and an improved bullpen. Third baseman Chipper Jones and first baseman Mark Teixeira anchor a lineup that’s better than that of the Mets, who’ll need a good year from first baseman Carlos Delgado to stave off the Braves.

 

      Philadelphia has the most balanced lineup in the league but can’t match the starting pitching of the Mets and Braves. The Phillies did bolster their bullpen with the addition of Brad Lidge (acquired from the Astros). Washington has the division’s best stadium in new Nationals Park, and underrated manager Manny Acta will get his players to land above the Florida Marlins.

 

      Marlins fans are suffering through yet another dismantling of their team and can only wonder when baseball’s best offensive shortstop will be traded. Compare Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez’s 2007 numbers to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Amazingly, both had 639 at-bats, but Ramirez outpunched Jeter -.332 average (Jeter, .322); 29 home runs (Jeter, 12); 89 RBIs, (Jeter, 73) and 51 stolen bases (Jeter, 15). So pencil in the Marlins for last and even though they’ll be last in attendance, they may be first in profits as the team collectively earns less than A-Rod.

 

National League Central

 

      The Cubs topped this division last year with only 85 victories and have enough punch to do it again. Their pitching is only adequate but no worse than that of other clubs in the Central. Milwaukee lost free agent closer Francisco Cordero to a better offer from the Reds and signed has-been closer Eric Gagne for the role. The Brewers’ young hitters will score runs but a leaky bullpen will give up a lot as well.

 

      Cincinnati should be the dominant team in the division by next year as top-notch prospects gain experience. Houston has a good young outfielder in Hunter Pence but not much more to brag about and will have a hard time bettering last year’s 73-89 record.


      St. Louis won’t match last year’s 78-84 record, and even if Albert Pujols stays healthy, the Cards may shuffle to the bottom. Pittsburgh has a great ballpark but the league’s worst team. 2008 will be the 16th consecutive season the Pirates will finish under .500 (tying a major league record).

 

National League West

 

      Arizona has strong starting pitching and good enough hitting to finish on top. Colorado has Matt Holliday and a better lineup but can’t top the pitching of the Diamondbacks. Los Angeles has a mixture of veterans and good young players, so new manager Joe Torre has the tools to compete.

 

      San Diego has better pitching than the Rockies and Dodgers, but not enough hitting. San Francisco has the worst lineup in the league and at times the defense makes it look like Harpo and Groucho are in the field. Without Barry Bonds, the Giants won’t even match last year’s dismal 71-91 record.

 

American League East

 

      The Yankees are a more talented and settled team this year. A-Rod is signed and the young pitchers proved they can win often in the big leagues. Second baseman Robinson Cano got better as last season wore on, hitting .343 with 57 RBIs after the all-star break.


      Boston is blessed with good starting pitching, great relievers, and strong hitting. Even though boppers David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Manny Ramirez combined to hit 391 home runs over the past five years with the Red Sox and there are a couple of other pesky hitters in the lineup, I’m going with the Yanks to top the division.

 

      Toronto is a good team that should be better this year. Adding veteran infielders David Eckstein and Scott Rolen improves the offense and Roy Halladay tops a pitching rotation that could beat the Yanks and Red Sox more often this season. Outfielder Vernon Wells had a bad shoulder last year (.245, 16 homers), and his numbers should be much higher this year. Look for a three-team race for the top spot.

 

      Tampa Bay might just be good enough to beat out most National League teams for the top spot. The Rays have several players tagged for stardom and should be even better next season. Baltimore needs to get better at several positions before it can compete in this tough division.

 

American League Central

 

      Detroit started the season missing leadoff man Curtis Granderson, who often started games with a double or triple. When their star center fielder returns from a hand injury and gets his timing back, the Tigers will be back to winning more often. Even though closer Todd Jones is not as dominant as others in the division, the Tigers will get better as the season wears on and their two top set up men, relievers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya come off the disabled list.

 

      Cleveland is a tough, experienced team and would dominate any division in the National League. But a talking fish from Monsey tells me the Tribe will finish behind Detroit, and Boston will take the A.L. wild card spot. It will be a tough off-season for Indians fans if free agent pitcher C. C. Sabathia signs elsewhere, and especially hard to take if Detroit lands him. (The Tigers are swimming in cash after selling 2.6 million tickets before the season even began.)

 

      The White Sox upgraded their offense with shortstop Orlando Cabrera (.301 last year with the Angels) and outfielder Nick Swisher (22 homers for Oakland), but Chicago’s pitching isn’t as strong as Cleveland’s or quite as good as Detroit’s.

 

      Minnesota will try to compete without Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. Twins fans showed they were behind their newcomers by trekking through seven inches of snow to fill the Metrodome with its largest opening day crowd in 15 years. The Twins always seem to come up with nobodies who end up becoming somebodies.

 

      The Kansas City Royals outplayed the Tigers in the season’s opening series, proving they aren’t pushovers and can beat any club at any time.

 

American League West

 

      Seattle has five good starters and some solid finishers. Even though the lineup led by Ichiro Suzuki isn’t as good as the Angels’, the Mariners have enough to land on top. Los Angeles won six more games than Seattle last year, and the Angels have added Torii Hunter’s bat and glove. On paper, this is the best club in the division but games aren’t played on paper. On the field, I’m going with the Mariners.

 

      Texas has some good prospects but they’re mostly in the low minors and if they ever make an impact, it won’t be for several seasons. Oakland has some good pitching prospects who may make an impact as early as late this season. The Athletics are clearly a club on the rise; look for the rich clubs (Yankees, Mets, Tigers, Red Sox), to make a pitch for some of the A’s pitchers as the season wears on.

 

*     *     *

 

      So, I’m picking the Mets, Cubs and Diamondbacks to top their divisions in the National League and the Yankees, Tigers and Mariners in the American League.

 

      My wild card picks are the Braves in the National League and the Red Sox in the American League.

 

      The last time the Cubs won a World Series was one hundred years ago, in 1908; the last time the Cubs participated in a World Series was in 1945. Both times they played Detroit.


      Will it be the Cubs and Tigers in this year’s Fall Classic? Will the two New York teams play each other? Will only one New York team make it? If so, which one?

 

      I’ll give you my World Series choices and winner next month.

 

      Which teams are you picking?


 


      Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.   

About the Author: Author, columnist, and public speaker Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and worked for a major league team, becoming the first Orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring. His column appears the second week of each month. He can be reached in his suburban Detroit area dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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