The baseball spotlight, as always, is on New York.
This year, however, it’s shining much brighter. Because of high-priced free agents signed by the Yankees and Mets, anything less than a World Series championship would be considered a failure by their fans.
The Yankees and Mets have already won the chutzpah award. The clubs asked local government for an additional $450 million in public bonds to pay for their new stadiums. That’s on top of the $1.5 billion (combined) they already received for their new cash-generating ball yards.
Besides collecting more cash this year, the New York teams have collected enough talent to win more games than any other team in their leagues. Let’s take a look at the National League first.
Based on their new bullpen additions — J.J. Putz and Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez — the Mets should be able to hold on to late inning leads the bullpen blew last year. The extra wins the revamped bullpen will provide this year should be enough to pass the Phillies.
A very knowledgeable Jewish Press reader from Brooklyn (Ph.D. with rabbinical ordination and a member of the Society of American Baseball Research) is an avid Phillies fan. He reminded me that Phillies closer Brad Lidge was 48 for 48 in save opportunities last year. That’s precisely why I’m picking the Phils to end up behind the Mets this year. I expect Lidge to blow one or two leads in 2009 while the Mets will hold on to enough victories to be number one in the N.L. East.
The Florida Marlins, led by shortstop Hanley Ramirez (.301, 33 homers, 35 stolen bases in 2008 and capable of even better numbers in 2009), should place ahead of Atlanta but behind New York and Philadelphia. But don’t be surprised if the Marlins are close on the heels of the Mets and Phils. The bullpen is solid and the starting pitching, though young (the oldest starter is 26), is good.
After capturing 14 consecutive division titles, the Braves over the past three seasons have been mediocre – winning 235 while losing 251. This year, though, they’re on track to win more than losing. The Washington Nationals, winners of just 59 games last season, will win more this year but not enough to get out of the basement. The Nats are in great shape for the June draft as they get two of the top 10 picks and also have some talent in the minor leagues.
The Chicago Cubs are far better than the other five teams in the National League Central. Milwaukee lost too much pitching to free agency to challenge the Cubs this year and will be passed by the Houston Astros. The Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates will bring up the rear and compete with each other to avoid a last-place finish.
The weak National League West is more competitive as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are all capable of topping the division. Arizona has balance, L.A. has Manny and the Giants have pitching. The Colorado Rockies will place fourth while my favorite city in which to spend February — San Diego — will have its baseball team spend the spring, summer and autumn in last place.
The American League East has baseball’s three best teams — the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. All will field better teams this year via moves made through free agency and trades and it should be a close and interesting race all the way.
I’m going with the Yankees on top — even without A-Rod in April — as they have the ability to come up with money later in the season to make any needed changes. Here’s one early prediction: The Yanks will trade for Matt Holliday, the 29-year-old outfielder now with Oakland who hit .321 with 25 homers in Colorado last year.
The Toronto Blue Jays, 86-76 last year, may see those numbers reversed this year, but they’ll still be better than the Baltimore Orioles, who at least will improve on their 2008 record.
The A.L. Central doesn’t have the best teams but it does have the best balance. With luck, a young and rising Kansas City team might win the division, but the rest of the pack — Indians, Tigers, White Sox and Twins — are all better on paper than the Royals and very capable of finishing first. It all depends on who has the healthiest pitching staff.
The Indians look like the team to beat and they shored up the bullpen with Kerry Wood. The Tigers had several pitchers hit with injuries last year and they experimented with new positions for veteran players. This year the pitching staff looks better, as does the defense. Chicago, Minnesota and Kansas City will follow close behind.
Only four teams comprise the American League West — the Los Angeles Angels (based in Anaheim), Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. And that’s the order I’m picking ‘em. It’ll be a three-way-race with the Mariners sinking early.
I’ll give you my post-season picks next month. In the meantime, send me yours.
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, is available for speaking engagements and may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com.