Somebody's going to surprise us this year. I mean, really surprise us.
Did anybody predict that the Angels in 2002 or the Marlins in 2003 would reach the postseason? Outside of California and Florida, I mean?
Remember, in 2001 the Angels went 75-87; in 2002 the Marlins went 79-83. The Angels finished third, 41 games behind the Mariners; the Marlins finished fourth, 23 games behind the Braves.
So if you're looking for a sleeper, you have to start with teams that finished a long ways out of first place, but they can't be too terrible (that is, Tigers need not apply).
But you also need some talent, right? Maybe they didn't fare so well last year, but there are veterans who suffered off-years and/or young players who could improve in a hurry. Or new players -- good players -- added via trade or free agency.
You have a team in mind yet? Right: the 2004 San Diego Padres.
There's a problem with the Padres, though. Even leaving aside the facts that they lost 94 games last season and they play in the same division with the Giants (who won 100), there's another problem: there are people who expect them to win. They qualify as sleepers because they lost so many games last season, but it's February and people are already talking about them, which (in my mind, at least) disqualifies them from true sleeper status.
I checked one of those Web sites that invites you to bet on various sporting propositions, one of which is how many games a particular team will win this season. Well, the line on the Padres is 84.5 wins. This is a team that went 68-94 last season, and the line has them improving by roughly 16 wins? Sorry, but if the conventional wisdom has you topping .500, then you're no sleeper.
So if not the Padres, then who? Looking at the 2003 standings, I see a dozen teams considered non-contenders: Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, Texas, Montreal,
N.Y. Mets, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Colorado.
Some of these clubs can be summarily dismissed because the competition is just too tough. The Orioles, Devil Rays, Rangers, and all three NL Central teams fall into this group. Also the Mets and Expos, probably. The Dodgers won 85 games last season and the Rockies should have won 77 (based on their runs scored and allowed), putting both of them squarely in the competitive camp. What's more, the NL West appears ripe for the taking. However, neither club seems to have improved this offseason -- the appointment of Paul DePodesta notwithstanding -- and it's hard to see much upside with either club, given the general paucity of real talent, young or old.
So who does that leave? I'm picking the Indians. Not to win, but to maybe win. Let's go position by position. ...
According to Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections, the four best-hitting American League catchers in 2004 will be Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek ... and Victor Martinez. Sounds crazy? Well, Martinez batted .289 in 49 games for the Indians last season. Granted, he showed little power or plate discipline, but he displayed both while playing for Cleveland's Triple-A team in Buffalo: .395 on-base percentage, .474 slugging. This guy can hit, and will.
1B: Ben Broussard
I'll admit, I used to think Broussard might become a star. This was after the 2001 season, during which he abused Double-A pitchers for three months. But Broussard had done little before then and has done little since to make us think that those three months were anything but three great months. Broussard's 27 and he did slug .443 with the Tribe last season, so he's got a pretty good shot at decency. But that's about it.
2B: Ron Belliard
By now, Brandon Phillips was supposed to be on his way to stardom. But Phillips struggled badly with the Indians last season, then somehow managed to play even worse after getting demoted to Triple-A. He's still young and he still has a decent chance at putting together a nice career, but for now the Indians are going with the veteran Belliard, who isn't great but will represent a huge upgrade over what Phillips gave them last year.
SS: Omar Vizquel
The Indians' offseason took a hit when Vizquel failed a physical, thus negating a deal that would have brought Carlos Guillen to Cleveland. Vizquel can still play, of course, but he's not what he once was.
3B: Casey Blake
Barely adequate. If you weren't a Blue Jays or Twins fan, you are forgiven for thinking that Blake was just a kid last season, when he led the Indians with 152 games, 80 runs, 143 hits, and 35 doubles. Blake was no rookie, though. As those Jays and Twins fans know, Blake's 30 and he's been kicking around for a long time. Blake's got some power, but he doesn't get on base and that means his career as an everyday player is nearly over.
LF: Ryan Ludwick
Let's face it, the Tribe's infield is nondescript, at best. But the Indians have a chance to be pretty good in the outfield. Ludwick's got OBP problems, but he's also got good power and could hit 25-30 homers if he plays 150 games.
CF: Milton Bradley
After teasing us for years, "Games" went great guns until Aug. 9, when his season ended because of a back injury. Before that, though, Bradley batted .321 with power and plate discipline, and he should have been named to the All-Star team. Bradley's always had problems staying in the lineup, but if healthy he'll be one of the better players in the division.
RF: Jody Gerut
Can the best rookie hitter in the American League prove that he wasn't a one-year wonder? Yes and no. Gerut's a talented hitter, but he's not really a power hitter; before cranking out 27 homers in 144 games last season (including 17 Triple-A games), he'd never hit more than 11 home runs in one year. Gerut's essentially a .275 hitter with enough power and patience to deserve a spot in the lineup. But his past doesn't suggest future stardom.
Three seasons into his major-league career, C.C. Sabathia is a known quantity. It's the rest of the rotation that you have to wonder about. The Indians' projected No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 starters -- Jason Davis, Cliff Lee, and Jason Stanford -- all have plenty of talent. They've also combined to win the grand total of 12 major league games (eight of them by Davis). The fifth slot might go to Jeff D'Amico, whose major league ERA since 2000 (when he pitched brilliantly for the Brewers) is 5.00. Yes, I know: this spring he's healthy. I'm sure that's what the Mets thought in 2002 (6-10, 4.94), and the Pirates in 2003 (9-16, 4.77).
So yes, this is a problem area. The Indians have a lot of good young arms, but with a lot of good young arms and a quarter you can barely buy a cup of coffee in Collinwood.
Then again, doesn't every team in the AL Central have a problem area or two (or three)?
As most of the talent drifts to the east and the west (i.e. where the money is), it gets easier and easier to win the Central. Only the Royals and Tigers made real improvements this offseason, and only one of those teams even has a chance to finish above .500.
I will be shocked if the Indians do what the Angels and Marlins did, and win the World Series. They're just nearly good enough to win 85 games and survive a postseason gauntlet that's likely to include two or three legitimately great teams. But I will not be shocked if the Indians win the American League Central. On paper, they're the fourth-best team in the division. But every year, a fourth-best-team-on-paper surprises us. And the Indians have the talent and the (lack of) competition to be this year's surprise, if they come up with a little more than their fair share of luck.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.