The journey to the 2009 parade floats begins here, begins now.
And that's OK with the riders of the 2008 parade floats.
They know you can't freeze time. They know you can't stop the earth from spinning. They know the party must end and the new journey must begin.
"After the celebration, after the parade, I was like, 'All right, that's done. That's over,'" said Jimmy Rollins, shortstop/oracle for that Phillies team that won it all last October. "There's no looking back now. That's in the past. There's still so much more out there to get done."
But the champs are not the favorites to win it all again. Not in an era in which, over the last nine years, eight different teams have won a World Series, 14 different teams have played in one, and 23 of the 30 teams in baseball have played at least one postseason game.
So who is going to win the 2009 World Series? This is the annual column in which we make our bold prediction, a prediction that seems so logical -- and is just about guaranteed to go wrong. But it has never seemed harder to make that pick than this year.
"It's actually easier," one scout said recently, "to eliminate teams than it is to pick a team."
Bingo. The more we thought about that observation, the more dead-on it felt. So that's exactly what we're going to do here. We're going to stage our own little April Lunacy tournament. We're just going to keep eliminating teams until there's only one standing. So get out your pairings and join us for a very special 2009 edition of MLB Survivor:
No. 1 seeds: Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Phillies
No. 2 seeds: Mets, Cubs, Dodgers, Angels
No. 3 seeds: Twins, Diamondbacks, Braves, Cardinals
No. 4 seeds: Indians, Brewers, A's, Reds
NIT Field: Tigers, White Sox, Blue Jays, Giants, Marlins, Rockies
Not this year: Royals, Rangers, Orioles, Mariners, Padres, Pirates, Astros, Nationals
Before you Tigers and White Sox fans start banging out your e-mails, let's just make this announcement: You've got a case. We acknowledge there's probably a scenario for them, and as many as two dozen teams, to contend.
But we had to draw the line somewhere. So we polled a bunch of people all over baseball, and this is where we drew it. If your favorite team didn't make it into our brackets and it winds up winning the World Series, you know where to find us in seven months. We'll be happy to send apologetic e-mails to every one of you. But for now, this is our field. So let the lunacy begin:
1. Red Sox vs. 4. Reds
This rematch of the '75 World Series would be a fun nostalgia trip for Carlton Fisk and Joe Morgan. But this is where we wave adios to the Reds. They're everybody's favorite NL dark horse this year, with their core of rising stars and a deep pitching staff. But our method here is to examine each team's fatal flaw and decide exactly how fatal it really is. And the Reds' fatal flaw is this: They never replaced the offense of Adam Dunn and Junior Griffey.
"How are they going to score?" one NL scout wondered. "Who's going to hit the ball over the fence? If everything holds together and their kids make big jumps, I could see them sneaking in as a wild card. But that's if everything goes right. So win the World Series? They're just not there yet."
2. Mets vs. 3. Cardinals
Endy Chavez and Jeff Weaver won't be joining us for this reunion of the 2006 NLCS warriors. But it's one of the most fun of our first-round matchups. Nevertheless, we're taking the Mets. Most of our panelists weren't sold on the Cardinals as bona fide contenders, even though, as one scout put it, "they always seem to find a way."
Our group couldn't even agree on the Cardinals' fatal flaw, because they have so many potential fatal flaws -- from "who's the closer?" to "not enough offense around [Albert] Pujols" to "short on pitching across the board."
"For them to [make the playoffs], Chris Carpenter has to throw 200 innings," one AL executive said. "Anything short of Chris Carpenter returning to form, and they just don't have enough starting pitching."
1. Phillies vs. 4. Indians
This is another compelling matchup, but we'll take the Phillies. The Indians have big upside, but "they're more of a spoiler team than a win-it-all kind of team," one scout said. "So many things have to happen."
Cleveland was another club that had our panel divided about its most fatal flaw. Is it the dependability of new closer Kerry Wood? "He has to prove he can close in the American League and that he can stay healthy," one panelist said. Is it skepticism about the likelihood of Travis Hafner's bouncing back after shoulder surgery and a miserable spring? "He's crucial," one front-office man said. "They're a different team when he's a force in the middle." Or is it, as we see it, major rotation questions? "Carl Pavano is their No. 3 starter," one scout said. "That's enough to scare me."
2. Cubs vs. 3. Braves
The Braves are probably the best team in the National League that nobody seems to be talking about. But the Cubs are the deepest, most talented team in that league. So as improved as the Braves' pitching may be, this is where we send them home. We heard observations like this about Atlanta over and over:
"I have to wonder about their ability to score enough runs. Guys like Casey Kotchman and Kelly Johnson have to have career years," one NL scout said. Another scout said: "I just don't think they can score enough runs to win. Their outfield's not good enough offensively for me." And one more: "They didn't have enough offense with [Mark] Teixeira. So where's the offense coming from without him?"
1. Yankees vs. 4. Brewers
This would be a really fun series -- if only CC Sabathia could pitch for both teams. But CC is a Yankee now, as you might have heard. And that sums up exactly why the Yankees get to keep playing and why the Brewers don't have enough arms to survive without him.
"They had CC and [Ben] Sheets last year and barely got in," one panelist said. "So I just don't know how they have enough [pitching] to get in without them." Another panelist said the Brewers' rotation isn't even their biggest issue: "I'm assuming Trevor [Hoffman] will get back eventually, but he'd better. That bullpen is not championship-caliber. And they're not real good defensively. So a lot has to happen."
2. Dodgers vs. 3. Twins
There's no tougher series to call on our entire bracket sheet than this one. The Dodgers have significant pitching questions. But we're still awarding them this series, because we're just not sure what to expect from two of the Twins' biggest difference-makers -- Joe Mauer and Francisco Liriano.
Liriano still has his moments. But the Twins lack a true ace, and unfortunately, he doesn't look like Johan Jr. anymore. "I'd love to have him," one AL executive said. "But he isn't the Liriano of a couple of years ago." Meanwhile, no one knows what to make of Mauer's mysterious back problems or when he's coming back. And "if he's out," said the same exec, "it changes the dynamics of that division dramatically."
1. Rays vs. 4. A's
These teams have been the plucky, low-budget inspirations of the 21st century. But when we size them up heading into this season, there's just about no case you can make that Oakland is better than the Rays. In fact, the sole reason we put the A's in our Sweet 16 is that if the Angels' pitching is so beat up that they can't win the division, Oakland looks like the only other team in the AL West that could.
But remember: If the A's get off to a rough start, Billy Beane will trade Matt Holliday by July 4. So they need to explode out of the gates. And their pitching just doesn't seem formidable enough or healthy enough to make that possible.
"If Dallas Braden is their Opening Day starter," one scout said, "I don't know how you can argue they can win the World Series."
2. Angels vs. 3. Diamondbacks
With all the starting pitching they can run out there, the Diamondbacks are certainly intriguing -- but not intriguing enough to beat the Angels.
"That lineup has major contact issues," one of our panelists said. "The inability of one-third of that lineup to make contact is noxious. You've got one guy [Mark Reynolds] who strikes out 200 times, and two other guys [Justin Upton and Chris Young] who could strike out 170 times. You just can't win that way."
The Elite Eight
1. Red Sox vs. 2. Mets
We're now down to eight teams that are all eminently capable of a rendezvous with ticker tape. But they're all flawed. And in this case, the Mets' flaws look more fatal than Boston's. When our panelists look at the Mets' rotation behind Johan Santana, they see trouble.
"Start with Oliver Perez," one scout said. "Game to game, you still don't know which one is going to show up. He's a guy who really needs someone like Pedro around to keep him on track. [John] Maine has had a so-so spring. His velocity is not anywhere near what it was last year. And Livan [Hernandez] -- whew. That could be a catastrophe."
"The Mets' starting-pitching concerns are real, and they have no depth," another panelist said. "That's been their thing the last two years -- no depth. If they have issues, they just don't have a lot of guys you have confidence that can come up and help."
1. Phillies vs. 2. Cubs
In our view, one of these two clubs is the best team in the National League. What exactly separates them? Health? Luck? Psyches? To be honest, on paper, we'd pick the Cubs. But in real life, we've officially sworn off picking the Cubs -- possibly for the rest of this millennium. Every time we've done it, disaster has ensued. So for that reason and that reason only, we'll go with the Phillies.
But what's the Cubs' fatal flaw? You have to search awfully hard. "I like their talent, but I wonder about their intangibles," one scout said. "Losing [Mark] DeRosa hurts them, because he was a big part of their clubhouse." Another scout, though, saw a more hard-core baseball issue to watch: "I wonder about Kevin Gregg as the closer. It's one thing saving games for a team like Florida. It's another saving games for Lou Piniella."
1. Yankees vs. 2. Dodgers
So who should throw out the first ball before a Yankees-Dodgers series? Don Larsen? Reggie Jackson? Sandy Koufax? That's actually our biggest question about this matchup, because we like the Yankees easily in the baseball half of this equation.
"I'm just not sure about L.A.'s rotation past [Chad] Billingsley and [Hiroki] Kuroda," one panelist said. "I don't know if [Clayton] Kershaw is ready to be a guy they can count on this early in his career. I've always liked Randy Wolf, but if you count on him, he can break your heart. I'm not sure about the No. 5 slot. And I don't like [Jonathan] Broxton at the end of the game. I like his stuff a lot. I'm just not sold that he's a closer."
1. Rays vs. 2. Angels
The Joe Maddon Invitational could go either way. But we're going to need to see the Angels get their M*A*S*H unit back into their starting rotation before we pick them to win a World Series -- or to beat Tampa Bay.
"There's a scenario," said one AL executive, "where they never get their pitching staff back together. [John] Lackey is out at least the first month, maybe longer. They might not get [Ervin] Santana back at all. [Kelvim] Escobar is out on rehab, so you never know about him. I just think there are scenarios where their pitching staff is beat to hell, and they can't replace everyone."
The Final Four
1. Red Sox vs. 1. Phillies
So here we are, with four teams left, and you astute readers out there will notice that three of them have to duke it out in the AL East all year. It didn't just happen to work out that way. "If you're handicapping baseball," said one of our panelists, "I think you almost have to conclude that the three best teams in baseball are all in one division."
We agree. So this is where we pull the plug on the Phillies' shot at repeating. Their lineup leans a little too far to the left. And it's hard to imagine their pitching staff can possibly stay as healthy as last year, when 88 percent of their innings were pitched by members of their Opening Day staff.
"I love the way they play, and they certainly have a chance to repeat. But they've got to maintain continuity in their starting rotation," one scout said. "Will they have enough depth if somebody goes down? Jamie Moyer won 16 games last year, and he's 46 years old. Cole Hamels pitched a lot of innings, and his elbow is a big issue." In fact, said another panelist, it might be the issue: "It's hard to come up with a scenario, if Cole Hamels doesn't make at least 25 starts, where they're successful. He's that important to that rotation."
1. Yankees vs. 1. Rays
So here we go. Three AL East teams remain. And if any of them won the World Series, would it shock anybody who's been paying attention? So how do we separate teams this good and this close in talent? We try to answer three pivotal questions:
• A) Which team has the most depth -- especially the most pitching depth?
• B) Which team has the best closer -- and the best bullpen?
• C) Which team feels most like a team, as opposed to a collection of paychecks?
We rank those questions in that order, too. So based especially on the answers to A and B, it's time to deliver the bad news to the Rays: They're out.
"The Yankees and Red Sox both have dominant closers, and Tampa Bay doesn't have that," one scout said. "When [Jonathan] Papelbon and [Mariano] Rivera come in, you feel pretty good about winning. When [Troy] Percival comes in, do you have that same feeling? That, to me, is the big thing that's missing there -- a closer."
"Look at history, when it comes to teams like that," another panelist said. "They were a team that went on a magical ride. And if you look at the list of teams that have gained that type of ground, the next year they always give half of it back. And in the AL East, if a team backslides to 88 wins, that's not going to be enough to get them in."
The Grand Finale
1. Red Sox vs. 1. Yankees
Didn't you know it would come down to this? First, we'd like to invite Aaron Boone, Pedro, Don Zimmer, Grady Little, Bucky Dent and Mike Torrez to sit together in our VIP box for the entire series. Now let's try to sort this out.
The Red Sox are far from perfect. We acknowledge that. They're a middle-of-the-order bat short, and they told us that when they threw all those bucks at Mark Teixeira. So they've never needed David Ortiz more than they do this year.
"Big Papi is a big question mark," one scout said. "He's got to have a bigger presence and bigger production to give the rest of that lineup the confidence it can score runs. Mike Lowell has to have a better year. Jason Bay has to hit. J.D. [Drew] has to stay healthy. There are a lot of question marks there."
But now let's go back to those three pivotal questions: Who has more depth (especially pitching depth)? Who has the better bullpen? Which group feels more like a team?
We hate to break it to the Steinbrenner family, but the Yankees aren't the answer to any of those questions.
"That [Yankees] rotation is so good that it's hard to imagine a situation where their starting pitching isn't dominant," one panelist said. "But you can easily envision a situation where their options in the seventh and eighth inning aren't dominant."
"The closer is still great, but beyond that, that bullpen is very unproven," another panelist said. "[Brian] Bruney looked like a shaky guy this spring. [Damaso] Marte -- I'm not sure how much trust to put in a guy like that in a town like New York. And I'm not sure where they turn if those guys can't do it. Compare that to the Red Sox, with all the depth in their bullpen, and it's not even close."
And even in the rotation, said another panelist, the Red Sox have one subtle, but significant, advantage -- their sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth starters.
The Yankees feel more like a bunch of stars who happen to be playing together than a real baseball team.
”-- A scout
"I'd take Boston, just because of [John] Smoltz and [Brad] Penny and [Clay] Buchholz as much as anything else," he said. "And because of their pitching depth, they have the ability to go out in the second half and get whatever they need."
The Red Sox pieces also seem to fit together better than the Yankees' pieces. A-Rod's injury has already elevated to Cody Ransom to a role he was never supposed to have to assume. Now what happens if Jorge Posada can't catch regularly? If Posada has to DH, what happens to Hideki Matsui? Will Nick Swisher accept life as a bench player? Where do they turn if Derek Jeter gets hurt? Or Robinson Cano?
This is also a team with second-tier defense at way too many positions on the field. And that's if everybody stays healthy. So the Yankees' worst-case scenarios can get awfully messy.
"To me," said one scout, "the Yankees feel more like a bunch of stars who happen to be playing together than a real baseball team."
"With the Yankees, you always wonder about their chemistry," another panelist said. "If you think that's been one of their problems in the past -- and I do -- you can see where it might not be a good situation this year. And wait 'til A-Rod shows up. At some point, that black cloud is coming back. And how will they handle that?"
When you have pitching, of course, it's amazing what you can handle. But if we stack up one team's negatives alongside the other team's negatives, the Yankees clearly have the bigger pile.
So that leaves the Red Sox. They're the one team we haven't voted off this island. And that means they're our pick. By process of elimination. Literally.
Now feel free to head straight to Vegas and tell them we told you the Boston Red Sox are going to win the 2009 World Series.
Then they'll look over our record of predictions over the years, laugh uproariously for the next 15 minutes and gladly take all your money. But hey, better yours than ours.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.