Wednesday, October 3, 2007
North Siders will be the last team standing
By Jayson Stark
There are thousands of ways to look like an idiot in this line of work. Trust us. We've tried out just about all of them.
But writing columns like this opus, which predict who's going to win the World Series, might be at the top of the whole darned list.
Especially heading into an October like this one, when anyone can win.
Especially after an October like the last one, when the team that won it all (the Cardinals) was the only team everybody was convinced couldn't possibly win.
So when we tell you the Chicago Cubs are going to win the 2007 World Series, we can't help but wonder what you'll do with this invaluable insight.
Will you take it to show your friends? Will you take it to the trash compactor? Will you take it right to Vegas -- so you can bet on everybody except the Cubs?
We wouldn't blame you if you did any of the above. But we still want to assure you that we try to take this awesome responsibility seriously, so that at least we'll have good, sound, logical reasons for positioning ourselves as the King of the Idiots.
Because we're so diligent, we surveyed just about everybody we spoke to in baseball -- players, GMs, scouts, coaches, hot dog vendors -- once late September rolled around.
A lot of good that did.
Not only was there absolutely no consensus, we were amazed by how many people could tell us which teams not to pick, but had absolutely no idea which team we should pick.
"It's like the NCAA Tournament this year," laughed one AL executive. "Too many 5-12 games to pick in the first round."
We heard lots of variations on that theme. But here was our favorite response -- a response that summed up how impossible this is:
"Do me a favor," one National League GM said. "Go talk to everybody else. Then, when you're done with your survey, call me back and tell me which team nobody picked. And I'll pick that team."
Hey, that strategy would have worked great last year. But in this season's survey, every team got a vote. Granted, the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels got more than anyone else. But as soon as we started leaning toward one of those teams, the next expert we talked to would explain why we shouldn't pick it.
So rather than tell you, off the top, why we picked the Cubs, let's run through all the reasons we didn't pick the other seven teams:
|Cubs manager Lou Piniella, right, looks to lead his troops to the promised land this October.|
It won't be the Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks are one of the great stories of the season. But who the heck are they? (Go ahead. Name six Diamondbacks.) And how the heck did they outwin every other team in the National League?
On one hand, they did win more one-run games (32) than any team in baseball. And Brandon Webb can beat anybody any time. And they did find a way to win 18 games in which they scored three runs or fewer. But
They finished next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They batted 10 points lower than anyone else in the league with runners in scoring position. They committed more errors than any of the other seven playoff teams. And
Has anyone mentioned in the last 10 minutes that they were outscored for the season -- by 20 runs?
If it means anything, three of the previous four nonstrike-year playoff teams to have a negative run differential got swept in the first round. The fourth (the '87 Twins) did win the World Series -- but did it behind two dominating starters (Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven). We can't find a Bert Blyleven on this team. How about you?
It won't be the Indians
Here's another team that's easy to love. A team that went 31-12 down the stretch. A team built for October with two potential dominators (C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona) in the rotation.
A team with two tremendous set-up men (Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez). A team that came from behind to win 44 times -- including 11 times when it trailed after seven innings. But
The Indians also got stuck with a first-round draw against the Yankees, an outfit the Indians have lost to eight times in a row (0-6 this year), by a combined score of 70-24. And
Nobody but the Indians themselves seems to have much faith in closer Joe Borowski, the first reliever in history to save 40 games despite an ERA over 5.00. And
It isn't just the roster that's light on October experience. Eric Wedge is the only manager in the AL derby who has never managed a postseason game. The other three (Joe Torre, Terry Francona, Mike Scioscia) have all won a World Series.
It won't be the Phillies
It's possible you were too busy watching the Mets disintegrate to notice the team that blew by them at the finish line. But the Phillies are more similar to last year's Cardinals than you'd think.
Yeah, those Cardinals were brutal down the stretch, and these Phillies were breathing fire. But here's the similarity:
The Cardinals won the World Series last year because the team they ran out there in October wasn't the same mess that nearly blew up their season. The Phillies, likewise, had a million things go wrong. But they now have a healthy Cole Hamels, a healthy Chase Utley, a back-in-sync Ryan Howard and actual late-inning bullpen dependability (via Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero and Brett Myers). So they're a dangerous team. But
As great a job as Charlie Manuel did in motivating a banged-up team to play harder than any club in the league, let's just say there are lots of baseball people who question whether he's the best tactician in the postseason managerial field. And
No team with a 4.73 ERA has ever won the World Series. As one front-office man put it, "It's hard to believe the Phillies could win three straight series with that pitching." And
Hot as the Phillies are, they aren't even the hottest team in their own first-round series. (Colorado is, obviously.) Since the wild-card era began in 1995, 12 teams have charged into the playoffs off a finish as good as the Phillies' (13-4 or better). Not one of those teams has won the World Series.
It won't be the Angels
Here's why this postseason-prediction racket will fry your brain cells: When we first started polling, nearly two weeks ago, the Angels were the hot pick.
They were such a hot pick, in fact, they were our initial pick. You particularly sharp readers out there might even have noticed that, in the first set of Red Sox-Angels predictions posted on our site, we took the Angels.
Then, however, stuff started happening. Kelvim Escobar came up tender. Gary Matthews Jr. had issues with his ankle and knee. Chone Figgins and Garret Anderson stopped hitting, and Anderson came down with conjunctivitis. Vlad Guerrero still couldn't play the field because of a sore triceps. Scot Shields had two more rocky outings in the last week. And
Then there's the team's No. 1 starter, John Lackey. Eleven career starts against Boston, one win -- and a 6.27 ERA. And seven of those starts have come at Fenway -- with one win and a 7.46 ERA. So
We changed that first-round prediction. We're taking the Red Sox now. As scary as the Angels might be in October if they get their act back together, we heard too many people in the last few days say things like, "I loved that team three weeks ago. I don't love them as much anymore."
It won't be the Rockies
There's no worse feeling, here in the Aspiring Nostradamus Division of ESPN.com, than to pick against a team that has ripped off a 14-1 streak in the last couple of weeks.
And the Rockies aren't just hot, either. This is one talented team. Best defensive team in the league. Best ERA in the league since the All-Star break. Second-highest scoring offense in the NL. And unstoppable at home (39-15 since June 2). But
Didn't the last two Octobers teach us that the hottest teams don't always win the World Series? It's true that the Rockies are only the third team since 1903 -- joining the 1965 Dodgers and 1960 Yankees -- to roar into the postseason with at least 14 wins in their last 15 games. But just one of those other two teams -- those Dodgers -- actually won the World Series. (That's 50 percent, right?)
And in the 12 seasons of the wild-card era, not once has the playoff team that had the best post-Sept. 1 record won the World Series -- not even that 2001 A's juggernaut that went 23-4 after Sept. 1. So beware of that team-of-destiny stuff. That and three bucks will get the Rockies over the Walt Whitman Bridge.
It won't be the Yankees
Mention the Yankees to anyone else in the playoffs, and everybody has the same reaction.
"That's the team that's definitely the most feared," one AL executive said. "If you're up five runs in the eighth inning, the game's not over -- put it that way -- just because of the quality and the depth of their lineup."
Only one team in the American League was within 100 of the Yankees in runs scored. None of the other AL playoff teams was within 20 homers of them. They have Joba Chamberlain now to suffocate you on the road to Mariano Rivera. And they've outwon every team in baseball for the last four months (72-29). But
There's a difference between being the scariest team and the best team. After all, said another AL front-office man, "We said the same thing about them last year, too." And
As good as Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte can be, "they're not unbeatable," said one scout. And after that, said another baseball man, there are "nothing but question marks" in the rotation. And
Let's remember what makes life in Yankeedom different than life on any other team: They're so consumed with defining their whole season through the events of October, all it would take is a Game 1 four-hitter by Sabathia, complete with an A-Rod 0-for-4, to bring a thousand pressurized plot lines back to life. They didn't react real well under those conditions last October. So who knows how they'd react this October?
It's not the Red Sox
So which Red Sox team are we talking about this month? If it's the team that was 80-51 a month and a half ago, feeding off the most dominating pitching in baseball, sign us up for a big vote for that team.
But if it's the team that didn't win a series against a club with a winning record after Aug. 5, the team that went 1-5 against the Yankees down the stretch, the team that got a 6.15 ERA out of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima and Eric Gagne after Aug. 1, stop this train. We'd like to get off.
That's how tough it is to make sense of anything heading into this tournament. This is the most schizophrenic bunch of playoff teams ever witnessed. And the Red Sox are as schizophrenic as any of them.
So naturally, just as we were leaping off their bandwagon, one scout told us: "If they play the way they played the last week of the season, they'll be very hard to beat -- especially in Boston. They're on a roll. They can't do anything wrong."
We picked this team to go to the World Series for 4½ months. Now we're picking them to do that again. But we can't pick them to win the World Series, because, as you might recall, we've already picked somebody else.
It's the Cubs
Why the Cubs? Hey, why not the Cubs?
"You know what?" one NL GM said. "It's that kind of year. Everybody's flawed. So why not them?"
Exactly. Especially because if they don't win it all this season, you know what that means. It means they'll have to spend an entire season next year hearing about how they've gone a whole frigging century without winning a World Series.
And how many other teams have gone a whole century without winning a World Series? None, naturally. So what more incentive could one franchise possibly need?
"That's the best reason," the same GM said. "It's impossible to go a century. Isn't it?"
Well, you'd think. Except, after all, they are the Cubs.
But these Cubs are better than you think if you stopped paying attention when Carlos Zambrano was throwing that haymaker at Michael Barrett.
Since June 3, they have the fourth-best record in baseball (63-46). That should tell you something.
They had a winning record on the road this year (41-40), and only one other NL playoff team (the Phillies) can say that. That should tell you something, too.
Their pitching was so good and so deep, they allowed the second-fewest runs in the National League (behind only San Diego) and the third-fewest in baseball (behind Boston and San Diego). That's how you win in October, isn't it?
Their manager, that Lou Piniella guy, has won a World Series. None of the other NL managers has ever won a postseason series. And "the manager makes a big difference in the postseason," one AL executive says. "Lou has so much more experience. That should be a big advantage."
We'll admit their lineup is a mystery. Even Piniella is out of explanations for why this group hasn't hit. But wait. They had the highest slugging percentage in the league in September, outhomering both the Phillies and Rockies. So at least we know they can hit.
And if October experience means anything, they can run a lineup out there in which everybody but Ryan Theriot has been there, done that.
So think it through. Why not the Cubs? That's where we're coming from.
We could be wrong about any of these eight teams. So if we're going down, why go down with one of those easy, trendy, convenient picks? Might as well go down riding the best story out there.
And if we're wrong, heck, blame us. Those billy goats deserve the next century off, anyway.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
|From lovable losers to World Series champions? Good things come to those who wait.