- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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My friends around America have been checking in all week. Obviously, they knew this column was coming.
"Which poor team are you going to curse this year by picking it to win it all?" they ask.
Well, "hahahahaha" should be my correct response, because obviously they don't recall the sage nature of last season's predictions columns. So let me refresh their memories.
Preseason prediction: A Tigers-Cardinals World Series (came within a game of happening). October prediction: A Giants-Tigers World Series (Bingo).
So rumors of the imminent demise of this year's picks are clearly emanating from the hysteria-mongers in our audience. Please ignore them. I'm now awaiting my membership card from the American Association of Psychics and Mediums. Should arrive any minute now.
But if, for some bizarre reason, I do mess these up, you can't blame me alone. I had help.
Since it's Elite Eight weekend, I asked 18 executives and scouts to nominate their baseball Elite Eight -- the eight teams with the best shot to win this year's World Series. Their nominations will lead to the Big Prediction, later in our show. So let the countdown begin
The Sweet 16?
Now we all know that more than eight teams in this sport are capable of winning the World Series. So it was no shock that the voting was all over the map.
• Fifteen different teams got votes. I was stunned that the Orioles weren't one of them. The most underrated team in baseball when you see it up close.
• You know this is shaping up to be an all-time crazy season when the Red Sox get zero votes and the Yankees only get one. I remind you we've never had a season in the wild-card era where both of those teams missed the postseason. Obviously, people across the sport now believe that's more than just possible. It's likely.
• The Phillies also got only one vote. That would come as a shock to them. But too many questions remain about age, depth, defense, health and Roy Halladay. "I have a hard time putting the Phillies on that list," said one scout, "because I'm just not sold on Halladay and the back of that rotation."
• The Royals got as many votes (two) as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies combined. Who knew! "[James] Shields and [Wade] Davis make a big difference," said one exec.
• The A's got three votes. I thought they'd get more. "I think they can finish ahead of Texas," said one scout. "They're lying in the weeds. Again."
• The Rays got 5½ votes (the half-vote coming from a voter who couldn't pick just eight teams). I expected them to get more, too. "[Joe] Maddon's a magician," said an NL scout. "I just don't see enough offense to put them in the Elite Eight."
• The Cardinals were the toughest NL omission. They got seven votes. Good chance they'd have made the cut if not for all their key injuries (Chris Carpenter, Jason Motte, Rafael Furcal, David Freese). "People don't talk about how fragile their position players are," said one exec.
• The Rangers were the toughest AL omission. They actually finished tied with the Dodgers for the eighth spot, with nine votes each. But I made an executive decision to include the Dodgers, just because they're so intriguing, and because the Rangers "just aren't as good a team as they have been," said one AL scout. "I question their pitching, their loss of power and their no-Michael Young chemistry issues." Nevertheless, don't write them off too hastily.
• For two decades, it's felt as if the best teams in baseball were always in the American League. But maybe not this year. We wound up with five NL teams in our Elite Eight and only three from the AL. In fact, a couple of voters included only two AL teams on their entire list. One even said: "I don't see any team in the AL East that can win the World Series." Incredible.
• Oh. And one more thing: If it tells us anything about the sport, the Nationals and Reds got nominated by every voter, and the Tigers by all but one. So I'm not sure that means those teams will win. But they're definitely built to win.
And now, our Elite Eight. Just so you know how this works, I'll be saving the World Series entries for last:
Why they'll win: In case you hadn't noticed, they're all in. Heck, in the history of all-in-ness, there might never have been a team more all in than this. They have a $217 million payroll. They can run a Kershaw/Greinke/Ryu/Beckett rotation at you in a short series. They have a bunch of potential impact bats in Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and (one of these months) Hanley Ramirez, with the dazzling Yasiel Puig lurking. And as one NL scout so eloquently put it, "they've got more money than anyone. They can go buy anything they need to buy in July. So it's hard to keep them off the list." Exactly. Maybe the most fascinating team in the sport.
Why they might not: One after another, the folks I polled talked about how much this mix of players and personalities basically terrifies them. Among the reviews: "They're like an All-Star team, except they'll be together for 162 games. Can that much money and that much ego fit together on one team?" "Too many stray pieces thrown together for me." "Not the kind of team you'd think you'd see for $220 million. They're like the land of misfit toys." "A lot of different personalities and a lot of different injuries. I just don't see it working." And, finally, "They scare the hell out of me," said one exec. "But if they win 97 games, I'd totally believe it."
Why they'll win: They just sneaked into the top eight by half a vote. But c'mon. Look at the talent on the field. Who in the AL East has more talent than the Blue Jays? "They're clearly the most talented team in that division," said an NL exec. "Offensively, they're head and shoulders better than the rest of that division." And here's one scout's review of that rotation: "Josh Johnson's been awesome. [Brandon] Morrow can be great. [Mark] Buehrle's still Buehrle. They've got Cy Young (R.A. Dickey) at the top of the rotation. And [J.A.] Happ has been really good. I know they wanted [Ricky] Romero to make it. But after the way he threw this spring, if you're trying to win, you've got to start Happ."
Why they might not: Hey, we've all seen this movie too many times. Does the team that "wins" the offseason ever win the World Series? Well, it could happen here. But it's hard not to wonder about the back of this bullpen, about health and whether it means anything that there are so many ex-Marlins who were part of last year's Miami debacle. "A lot of these teams we're talking about are built with winners, guys who know how to win," said one scout. "That's the culture Toronto's got to get. And I'm just not sure they will."
Why they'll win: Why do they always win? Because that's what they do. They pitch it. They catch it. They have a tremendous manager and coaching staff. They're always prepared. They know Buster Posey will find a way. They have big hopes that guys like Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford are ready to take major leaps. "They just out-baseball you," said one NL executive. "They know who they are. They know what they have to do to win. Then they just go out and do it."
Why they might not: The Giants are trying something that almost never seems to work: They brought back essentially the identical team that won last year. Barring a last-minute move, 21 of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster played on last year's team. And one of the four who didn't is Andres Torres, who is -- what else? -- an ex-Giant. So it's fair to ask if the lightning can strike the bottle exactly the way it did last time around. It's fair to ask if Angel Pagan will ever have that season again. If Marco Scutaro can be an everyday difference-maker at 37. If Tim Lincecum will ever be a dominator again. If Pablo Sandoval will stay healthy. Etc., etc. People around baseball ask those questions. But they still buy in to what this team does and how. "Someone has to dethrone them before they can ever come off the list," said one NL exec. "They find every way to win."
Why they'll win: Step right up and watch them mash. Trout, Aybar, Pujols, Hamilton, Trumbo, Kendrick, and on and on. That's three potential MVPs before you hit the 5-hole. "Very hard lineup to get through every night," said one exec who saw a lot of them in Arizona. "Scary," said another. The other clearly elite area of their team: outfield defense. How many balls will Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton run down that the average outfield won't? The Web Gem committee can't wait to find out.
Why they might not: Let's put it this way: Joe Blanton was the Angels' best starting pitcher in spring training. Their prospective closer, Ryan Madson, never made it into a game. And their new free-agent left-hander in the bullpen, Sean Burnett, had such a rough spring that one exec said: "Makes you think the Nationals had to know something." So this team has to outscore people to win. And must stay healthy. "The thing that keeps coming to me over and over is that the team most likely to disappoint is the Angels," said one exec. "They roll out superstar after superstar in that offense, and they have pitching. But this is a team with no depth. A lot of people will pick them on the basis of star power. But if they turn out to be the talented L.A. team that falls apart, it wouldn't surprise me."
Why they'll win: So many ingredients here that could lead to big things -- four everyday, star-caliber players 25 or younger (Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman). Only one everyday player in his 30s (Dan Uggla). Left-right balance and thunder from the top of the lineup to the bottom. The best closer in baseball (Craig Kimbrel). The potential to unfurl the first all-20-20 Club outfield in history, in Heyward, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton. "Getting all these guys at this point in time," said one AL scout, "it has a chance to be the perfect storm."
Why they might not: For all the talk about their tremendous additions, the subtractions are just as significant. There was that Chipper Jones guy, their leader and best player right to the end. There were Martin Prado and Michael Bourn, who made them go in more ways than one. There's the injury to Jonny Venters, who might never be the same, and the uncertainty about Brian McCann's health and future. So as one NL scout put it, "they're going to be fun to watch. I just don't know how much better they are." And then there are all those strikeouts. FanGraphs projects seven different Braves to whiff more than 110 times. And their team seems bound for more than 1,300 strikeouts -- a figure no World Series team has ever reached. "I like the Braves," said the same scout. "Just way too much swinging and missing for me."
Why they'll win: There's not nearly enough talk about how good this team is. Projected to lead the league in runs scored. Shin-Soo Choo puts the lineup pieces in place. Joey Votto is "far above everyone else in the league as a hitter," said one rival exec. Jay Bruce is coming off back-to-back 30-homer seasons at age 26. Brandon Phillips is a legit All-Star on both sides of the ball. With Aroldis Chapman reinstalled as the closer, "they're devastating at the end of the game." And this is about as good a defensive team as it gets. So the Reds "remind me a lot of the Nationals," said one scout. "A good team. Deep. Athletic. Maybe not the same star power in the rotation, but a real good staff. Not a real weakness on this team."
Why they might not: It's tough to raise many questions here, now that Votto is healthy again and the Chapman controversy is finally defunct. But scouts who covered the Reds this spring still aren't sure if Choo can handle center field, or what happens if he can't. And then there's this: "Last year, they got 161 starts from their five main guys in that rotation," said one exec. "That's not going to happen again. They're going to have to use their (pitching) depth a lot more." The average NL team used 10 starting pitchers last year. Do the Reds have 10 to turn to if they deal with just a normal amount of injuries and issues? Their season could hang on the answer.
World Series runner-up: Detroit Tigers
Why they'll win: They made it to the World Series last year. They're better this year. You want charisma? ESPN just ranked the top 500 players in baseball, and the top two were both Tigers (Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander). You want pitching? Their rotation has swing-and-miss machines like Verlander and Max Scherzer at the top and so much depth that Drew Smyly (4-0, 3.38 ERA this spring) couldn't even pitch his way into it. And you want crooked numbers on your friendly neighborhood scoreboard? The Tigers should be the proud owners of the best lineup in baseball, with Torii Hunter in the 2-hole and the return of Victor Martinez. "They're just going to bludgeon people," said one scout. "They're going to kill mediocre pitching. There are going to be a lot of nights you play them and you're into your bullpen by the third inning. They remind me of those old Indians teams in the '90s -- except on those teams, there was no Verlander."
Why they'll lose the World Series: Star-studded and talented as the Tigers are, they're still a little too one-dimensional for some people's tastes. "They can swing the bats, but if you really break them down, they're slow," said one exec. "They're not very athletic. I don't like their defense. And there are questions about their bullpen." Now you have to admit that's a lot of issues for a World Series team. Can you envision their lineup and starters covering up those issues? Absolutely. But I can't say I like this team more than the last team on my list. So ladies and gentlemen, the envelope, please.
And the winner is the Washington Nationals
Why they'll win: Uh, what can't they do? They can mash. They can run. They can score. They can strike you out, early or late. They catch the ball all over the field. They've added a true center fielder (Denard Span) and a proven closer (Rafael Soriano). They're ready to unleash Stephen Strasburg to go win a Cy Young and dominate from Easter to autumn. And they've got Bryce Harper, nurturing an obsession to be the best player alive. "I think they're going to win 95 games," said one scout who covered them all spring. "And I think they're going to win the division."
But even that wouldn't be enough for this team. The manager, that ever-reserved Davey Johnson, has already raised the bar to "World Series or bust" heights. And that would ordinarily seem like crazy talk in a city that hasn't seen its baseball team win a postseason series in 80 years. But Johnson's players don't seem shocked, fazed or pressured by that talk in any way.
"My reaction," laughed Jayson Werth, "is, basically, no (bleep). Not many people would say it. But you've got to be thinking it. And I concur. Of course."
Why they might not: All spring, I asked people if they could identify even one significant area of weakness on the Nationals. I'm still waiting. "None whatsoever," said one NL scout. "Maybe they could use a left-handed matchup guy in the bullpen. But they're so good at the end of the game, it doesn't really matter."
Another scout's take: "The only thing that could undo these guys is health. That and maybe the transition to going from the hunters to the hunted. I've seen what they've had to say about that. They don't talk like it's a big deal. But it's one thing to say it. It's another thing to actively have to go through it and have everybody putting the target on their backs and coming after them. When you remove all the bravado and the big talk, then you see how it really is."
Yeah, maybe he's right. But what I see is a team that actually seems to like the idea of being the hunted, not the hunters. To the wrong group of guys, Davey Johnson's win-or-bust talk could have wreaked all sorts of pressurized havoc. To this group, it just feels as if that talk has turned into the franchise's mission statement.
"We've got the right manager for this team, really the perfect manager," Werth said. "So if we don't win, it'll be on us. It'll be our fault. And I think everybody's okay with that. I know I'm ready. I'm looking forward to it. I think everybody is."
And so, by the way, am I. I'm looking forward to nailing yet another set of fearless predictions. Just like I always do.
A single pitch has yet to be thrown in the 2013 season, but we already know who's going to win it all. And it's the