|Wednesday, April 2
Sox will be hot while Angels, Giants will cool down
By Rob Neyer
A word about predictions ...
Specifically, my predictions for 2003.
Without even making the effort to be different, I came up with a couple of things that would seem, on their face, pretty unlikely.
First, I've predicted that neither of last year's World Series teams will even reach the postseason this year (which hasn't happened since 1994, when neither the Blue Jays nor the Phillies had a prayer of making the playoffs even if there hadn't been a strike).
And second, I've predicted that the Red Sox will win the 2003 World Series (the Red Sox haven't won a World Series since 1918).
Let me start with the serious prediction, that neither the Angels nor Giants will even earn a postseason berth in 2003, let alone repeat as league champions.
I'm not saying the Angels and Giants won't be good; they will be. I just don't think the Angels will be as good as the A's or the Red Sox, and I don't think the Giants will be quite as good as the Diamondbacks or the Cardinals.
There's a lot to like about the Angels, and topping the list is their collective age. Or lack thereof. Among the nine Angels regularly in the lineup, only Tim Salmon might be considered over the hill. And he's not exactly a doddering old geezer.
But I just don't think the Angels can again do what they did last year.
As a team, the 2002 Angels batted .282, five points better than anybody else in the league. Batting average is less consistent than on-base percentage and slugging percentage, because a not-insignificant percentage of batting average is due to luck. Meanwhile, 10 American League teams drew more walks than the Angels, and nine American League teams hit more home runs.
As a team, the 2002 Angels batted .290 with runners in scoring position, better than anybody else in the league.
I'm not saying the Angels didn't deserve to win last year because they relied on batting average and clutch hitting. I'm saying that an attack based on batting average and clutch hitting isn't likely to continue at the same pace.
And then there's the pitching. Jarrod Washburn's a good pitcher, but 1) he was a little over his head last season, and 2) he's not completely healthy this season. Kevin Appier is living on the edge, and in serious danger of falling.
Add it all up, and I expect the Angels to win 88 games rather than the 95 it'll probably take for a legitimate shot at the postseason.
There's a lot to like about the Giants, too. Barry Bonds is a pretty good player, and there's every reason to think that new Giants Edgardo Alfonzo, Ray Durham, and Jose Cruz will prove useful. But as Nate Silver points out, it's very difficult to overstate the impact of losing Jeff Kent. We tend to think in groups: there's Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, and then there's Jeff Kent and Bobby Abreu and Edgardo Alfonzo and Ray Durham and 50 other real good players.
Except Jeff Kent is a lot better than "real good" (so is Abreu). Jeff Kent's been incredible for the last three years, and replacing Kent with Durham costs the Giants three or four wins. Do they get those wins back with Alfonzo replacing David Bell and Jose Cruz replacing Reggie Sanders and Marquis Grissom replacing the stiffs (Kenny Lofton notwithstanding) who played center field last season?
And then there's the pitching. Do you see anybody in that rotation who's likely to pitch better this year than last year? Jason Schmidt, perhaps. But the rest of them ... Damian Moss, who essentially replaced Russ Ortiz in a cost-cutting move, didn't thrive in Atlanta and isn't likely to thrive in San Francisco. We know that all Kirk Rueter does is win, but his peripheral numbers suggest that this year he'll be lucky to win more than a dozen or so games. Ryan Jensen is JAG (Just Another Guy), even if he does keep throwing that knuckleball. And while I'm thrilled, as a baseball fan, to see rookie Kurt Ainsworth replace Livan Hernandez, rookie pitchers can be expected to take their share of lumps.
Oh, and there's also the bullpen. Even if we assume that Robb Nen comes back in a few weeks and pitches like Robb Nen, the bullpen's not going to be as good as it was last year. And finally, there's the manager. I know a lot of people think Felipe Alou is the greatest manager since Casey Stengel, but I think it's hard to make a good case that he's better than Dusty Baker. Or, more to the point, as good as Dusty Baker.
There's something else ... Felipe Alou apparently thinks that Neifi Perez can play. Alou says, "My concern is Neifi Perez. On Opening Day he will not be in the game. That's the way it is."
That's a concern? Brian Sabean's not too worried, though. According to him, "He's a valuable asset, and Felipe has talked with him about the situation. He will get him more than 300 at-bats by resting guys and keeping them fresh, especially in day games after night games."
Among all the things that could go wrong for the Giants, nothing could go more wrong than Neifi Perez getting more than 300 at-bats. And while I think it's doubtful that he actually will see that much action, the possibility alone should make us drop the Giants a game or three in our projected standings.
Add it all up, and I expect the Giants to win 87 games rather than the 90 it'll probably take for a legitimate shot at the postseason.
"All that makes sense," you might be saying, especially if you don't live in California, "but why in the hell would you pick the Red Sox to win the World Series?"
Because I can, and because I want to.
Look, it's not really a huge stretch. ESPN.com polled 27 "experts" -- writers and editors, mostly -- and 15 of the 27 predicted that the Red Sox would either win their division (five votes) or the wild card (10). And I wasn't the only "expert" who sees the Red Sox going all the way; ESPN.com Fantasy Games guru Brandon Funston and Diamond Mind Baseball's Tom Tippett also picked the Sox.
But the truth is that winning the World Series isn't about being the best, it's about being the luckiest. Yes, I know the 1998 Yankees were the best team, and of course they won the World Series. But weren't the 2001 Mariners also the best team? Well, they nearly lost their Division Series before getting crunched in the ALCS. I thought the Angels and Giants might actually have been the best teams in their leagues last year, but they both needed a bit of luck to get where they got.
So if you make me pick a World Series winner, then I might as well have some fun. I think the Red Sox are going to win something like 100 games, and I'm not going to not have fun just because it's been 85 years since the Sox got lucky.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.