Who's going to win it all?
Tough question. Really tough question. And the new format makes it even tougher.
So you think it's a fun gig, trying to pick who's going to win the World Series, huh? Oh yeah. It's awesome.
Just remember, if you were going to pick last year's World Series winner, it would have been really, really helpful to know (in advance) that:
(A) A team that didn't make the tournament until its final game of the season was over -- and had to start its best pitcher in Game 162 just to survive -- was actually lined up perfectly to win it all (B) Nelson Cruz's radar screen apparently was never programmed to detect ninth-inning fly balls and (C) the rain gods wanted Chris Carpenter to pitch Game 7 of the World Series so badly that they emptied the skies over St. Louis for about 17 hours until it happened.
But heck, last year's crystal-ball work seems easy now, compared with trying to sort out this year's postseason. No dominant 100-win teams anywhere in sight. A mere 986 potential scenarios heading down the stretch. A one-game wild-card survivor series. And four lower-seeded teams opening the Division Series at home. What a minefield.
So in order to give myself the best chance of making as informed an incorrect prediction as possible, I waited as long as I could before I polled 16 general managers, executives and veteran scouts to get their wizened World Series picks. And you know what I found? Even they admit they pretty much have no clue.
"What a crapshoot this is," said one AL executive.
"In years past, it seems like there has always been a club like the Yankees that was so good, you'd be surprised if they didn't make it to the World Series," said another AL exec. "But this year, I don't feel like there's a drop-dead, go-ahead-and-take-it-all kind of club in either league."
"I don't even see how you can make any pick in the American League," said an NL exec. "Too much chaos."
Yeah, but why let that stop me from firing a prediction out there anyhow? It's guaranteed to be wrong no matter what, isn't it? Just check my track record.
So here goes. In the 2012 World Series, you will see
You should begin betting heavily on the rest of the field immediately.
So how did I arrive at these soon-to-be-ill-fated conclusions? Read on.
First off, you should know that my picks didn't go in the same direction as most of the baseball people I polled -- in part because they went in just about every direction.
What teams did the GMs, execs and scouts pick? Uh, everybody -- almost.
Eight of the 10 teams in the field got at least one vote to go to the World Series. And the only exceptions were the Orioles and Cardinals, two teams that have made it the specialty of their house to defy "expert" predictions. So on that note, I advise making World Series hotel reservations in Baltimore and St. Louis ASAP.
At any rate, just for the record, here's how they voted:
National League: Braves 4, Nationals 4, Reds 4, Giants 3, not sure 1.
American League: Tigers 5, Yankees 4, Rangers 4, A's 2, not sure 1.
Now in their defense, they had to make all these predictions with pretty much no idea who was playing whom. Or where. Or, in some cases, even when. But why let minor details like that get in the way of this annual exercise in non-clairvoyance?
And which team(s) did they pick to win it all? Here's that rundown:
Not ready to pick 1
So there you have it. I've sounded out nearly a dozen and a half of the brightest people in baseball -- and then agreed with exactly three of them. What's up with that, you ask? Well, last year, I let the experts I polled do the predicting. And they also got it wrong (Rangers over Phillies). So this year I'm following the advice of one GM who said: "It never goes the direction I pick, so pick the opposite."
Excellent idea. Now let's run through my reasoning:
Why the Giants and Tigers
In an ordinary year, I doubt I would have settled on these two teams. But this year is different. In an October that left eight of the 10 clubs in this field guessing which opponent they'd play right down to the final day of the season, I felt as if all that uncertainty, plus a flawed format, played right into the hands of the Giants and Tigers.
In a normal postseason, being the No. 3 seed is supposed to be a disadvantage. Not this year. This is the one year where it might actually be an advantage.
Not a single one of the teams with a shot to be the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds knew where -- or even when -- they were playing until the dust had settled on the final night of the season. But thanks to a format almost everybody hates -- the dreaded 2-3 Division Series alignment (for this year only) -- that madness doesn't apply to the Giants or Tigers.
Both of them knew, practically from the moment they clinched, that they'd get to open at home. And both of them clinched early enough that they could line up their aces, Matt Cain and Justin Verlander, to start Game 1, in home parks where they've been ridiculously good (9-2, 1.65 for Verlander at home, 8-3, 2.03 for Cain).
"And the other part of that," said one exec, "is that if they play a Game 5, they've got their aces coming back to pitch it. Yeah, they've got a road game. But it's a road game where the home team has to beat Verlander and Cain. And those are two guys who negate any home-field advantage."
How big an advantage is opening at home for two teams like that? The Tigers are 32-12 at Comerica Park since July 4. And the Giants are 66 games over .500 at AT&T Park over the past four years -- 69 over if you count the postseason.
"We've talked about this, about how you don't want to have to open in that park," a player on one NL playoff team said earlier this season. "That's a tough, tough place to play. It's tough to hit. It's tough to score. The atmosphere is unbelievable in a big game. It's a lot more travel. And then you've got to face that pitching staff. I know you're not supposed to care who you play. But to have to open in that place? No thanks."
I agree. So I could easily see the Giants winning Games 1 and 2 against the Reds, a team whose addiction to the home run won't be helped any by AT&T Park. Then the Giants would hit the road, where, until this week, they hadn't lost ANY of the 11 series they'd played away from San Francisco since the All-Star break (10-0-1).
The Tigers, meanwhile, floundered around for so much of this season, it was tough to remember that a half-dozen of us resident ESPN geniuses picked them to win the World Series six months ago.
Throw out the first 12 games of this season and the last 10 games, and this was essentially a .500 team (71-69) for 140 games in between. But once the White Sox let them sneak in, the Tigers suddenly began looking like a club that could be much better built for October than they were for the six months leading up to it.
"I have to admit I don't love Detroit's team, but they're not a team you want to play right now," said one NL exec. "They've got a bad defense. The bottom of their order is not very good. And I don't trust their bullpen. But good luck beating Verlander and dealing with the middle of that order."
On the other hand, it's tough to know what to make of the Tigers' ability to navigate through three postseason series because of all the uncertainty that surrounds Max Scherzer (sore shoulder, twisted ankle).
"If Scherzer is healthy enough to pitch the way he's capable of," said one scout, "they've got [Doug] Fister and Scherzer to go with Verlander, and that's a really formidable rotation. But they need that. Their middle relief is a little soft. And the closer [Jose Valverde] is a top-step guy. He scares you. So the key is, they've got to get quality starts and deep starts, in terms of innings, out of those three."
But is it safe to count on that? Not from this vantage point. So I'll take the Giants, a team whose lack of power has disguised the fact they've scored nearly 50 more runs than the Reds this season -- and have averaged an incredible five runs a game since they waved adios to Melky Cabrera on Aug. 15.
Meanwhile, almost nobody has noticed, but the Giants have been the steadiest team in baseball over the past four months. They haven't lost more than two games in a row since ending a five-gamer on July 30 (60 games ago). And that's their only losing streak of more than two in a row since May 4 (136 games ago).
"The last time I was in there, it was like they were waving a magic wand," said one scout. "They'd go to the late innings down a run, and things always seemed to work out. You look back at teams that win, and they have that quality. There's just something about them."
And we see it, too. So we're buying into the Giants and their magic wand, and that's our pick. But this is one October where it's tough to feel real Amazing Kreskin-esque about any prediction. So let's run through the case for the rest of this field:
We probably heard more upbeat talk about the way the Braves are playing than about any other team in the league. They're 20-8 since Sept. 1. They allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of their past 18 games. They have a closer (Craig Kimbrel) who struck out more than half the hitters he faced this year. They have a newfound ace (Kris Medlen) who gave up a total of nine earned runs in his 12 starts. They have Chipper Jones, who is looking for a Hollywood ending to his cinematic farewell season. So why didn't I pick them? Only one reason: I resolved early on not to pick any wild-card team -- because walking that slippery one-or-done wild-card tightrope is way too terrifying. Sorry.
Scout/exec reviews: "The way Medlen and [Mike] Minor are pitching, I think their rotation is the equal of San Francisco's. But the difference between San Francisco and Atlanta is Kimbrel." "I really like the Braves. And just because of Chipper, the best story of the postseason would be the Braves making a huge run."
As I mentioned earlier, more of the baseball folks I surveyed picked the Reds to win the World Series than any other team. Surprised? Not sure why. This pitching staff doesn't get talked about much. But the Reds allowed the fewest runs of any of the 10 playoff teams, led the league in bullpen ERA, set a franchise record for strikeouts and ran their original rotation out there to start 161 of the 162 games they played. Unfortunately, they've drawn possibly their worst possible Division Series matchup -- the Giants.
Scout/exec reviews: "I think the Giants will beat the Reds. The Reds' lineup is so right-handed. That really showed up with [Joey] Votto out. And even though he's back, I don't think he's 100 percent. So facing those Giants right-handers, I don't think they'll score enough." On the other hand, an AL exec called the Reds "the most balanced team in baseball right now. I love their blend of youth, experience, power and athleticism."
I expected more love for the Nationals. Best record in baseball. Best run differential in baseball. Led the league in ERA, starting-pitching ERA and WHIP. And once their lineup got healthy, they also led the league in runs scored over their final 72 games. You could look it up. Yeah, I heard the news about Stephen Strasburg. But this just in: They went 79-55 in games not started by Strasburg. That would still be the third-best winning percentage (.590) in baseball.
Scout/exec reviews: First, the praise: "The best, most balanced team in the league, I think." "Lots of ways to beat you. Good staff." But now let's cue the Strasburg Will Haunt Them Chorus: "Without Strasburg, I think they're actually the team with the least chance. The fact that he's not pitching in the postseason is atrocious." "Can you imagine the Tigers if they shut down Verlander or the Yankees shut down CC, where they would be? The Nationals just shut down their Verlander, their CC."
It was kind of shocking that nobody I polled actually picked the defending champs to repeat, or even get to the World Series. Yeah, they were the last team in. But they also lead all NL playoff teams in runs scored, OPS, slugging, batting and games scoring in double figures (16). And I can think of worse ways to start a postseason rotation than Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. But our group couldn't warm up to a team with no Albert Pujols, no Lance Berkman and an unsettled bullpen.
Scout/exec reviews: "I like their offense. I respect the way they play. I don't like their bullpen." "I don't know what to think. It's hard to expect they're going to win the kind of games they won last year. If I were ranking the five [playoff] teams in the National League, they'd be at the bottom, to be honest."
Seeing is supposed to be believing, right? So how come no one out there believes what they're seeing in Oakland? If you're still focusing on their .238 team batting average -- the lowest by any playoff team in the division-play era -- you're focusing on the wrong stuff. If you still recall that their front office was the first in baseball to light the FOR SALE sign in June, after they dropped nine games below .500, that's now ancient history. Think about the A's this way: This hasn't just been the best team in the American League since then. It's been by far the best team. If the season had started June 10 (that's 101 games ago), the A's would have finished 10 games ahead of the Rangers, 7½ ahead of the Tigers, 8 ahead of the Yankees and 10½ ahead of the Orioles. So believe, friends. Believe.
Scout/exec reviews: "I'm on board. I take them seriously. They've got better starting pitching than people think and a pretty good bullpen. But their offense is built around power. So the question is whether those power hitters will come through when they need to against good pitching." "I love watching them, but I really worry about their youth in October. They may not have enough offense. And they've had to play really hard to get in, so they could be on fumes. I know we like to say the hottest teams win. But I think that's more of an advantage with a more experienced team, like the Cardinals last year. This team has no experience."
Not much more than two weeks ago, they had that one-and-done kind of look. Then Andy Pettitte (1.62 ERA since coming off the DL) returned, and CC Sabathia (1.50 ERA in his past three starts) got rolling. And they finally put all their lineup pieces on the field at the same time. So while lots of people we polled had reservations, don't bet against the Yankees. Way too many been-there, done-it names on this roster.
Scout/exec reviews: "I can see them winning it all. It's probably a good thing when a team's bottom three hitters [Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez] have a combined 80 home runs and 195 RBIs!" "I like them. I just don't feel great about their ability to run off a bunch of great starts from their starting pitchers. And even their lineup has its flaws. In the past, when they've run into any kind of adversity in the postseason, it's been because the really good rotations control their lineup. And we've seen them come out of their game plan and press. So it will be interesting to see how those guys put together at-bats against the better pitchers."
Wait. What just happened? The "Best Team in Baseball" just careened through one of history's ugliest collapses? Five games up. Nine to play. And now they're a (gulp) wild-card team? Wow. But then again, why should we be shocked exactly? In April, May and June, this was clearly the best team out there (50-29, plus-102 run differential). And since then? They're 43-40, with a minus-one run differential. So no wonder folks we polled were all over the atlas on this team, from they can still win to I changed my mind.
Scout/exec reviews: "I know they're limping to the end, but I still think that lineup is so deep." "I still think Texas has the best team." "Totally schizophrenic pitching staff." "For that team to end up in this situation is unbelievable." "They should have run away and hid. They haven't done that. A lot of how they fare from here falls on Josh Hamilton. He can be a clunker in big games if he continues to chase so many bad pitches."
Every year this time, you hear playoff teams grumbling: "Nobody thought we could win but us." Most of the time, that's just semi-fictitious, us-against-them motivational fuel at work. But not in the Orioles' case. They've won 93 games. They're here in the Octoberfest. They've compiled the greatest record in one-run games (29-9) in modern history. They've juggled 52 players, made 178 roster moves, run 25 different pitchers out there. And it's all worked. And still, nobody believes. Tragic.
Scout/exec reviews: "They've played really, really well. Everyone they've put out there has made an impact and helped them win. It's just an amazing situation to have a team where that many players contributed to that kind of run. But I don't give them much of a chance." "What makes the American League great this year is that the two least-talented teams to make the playoffs are the Orioles and the A's, but they're also the two hottest teams. So you have to weigh which is more important -- momentum or talent. I'd love to believe in momentum. But in the playoffs, I'd rather have talent."
Hey, who wouldn't? Me, I'd rather have a telescope that could see into the future before I lay out these annual predictions guaranteed to go up in five-alarm flames. But I can't seem to find one, even on eBay. So we're both stuck with having me do it the old-fashioned way. I gather the facts. I make my picks. And now I've done it again.
All I can tell you is: Sprint for Vegas as fast as you can -- and bet on the Orioles and Cardinals.