It's time once again for the most impossible assignment of the year. Time to pick the team that's going to win the 2010 World Series.
I've been doing this for a decade now. I take my job seriously. At this point, you'd think I'd have learned I could throw just any old team out there and be wrong.
But no. I'm a glutton for punishment. Instead, I spend weeks thinking about this, asking everybody I know, studying numbers, polling people around the game -- and then I get it wrong anyhow.
So this year, I thought I'd narrow the field to a select group of teams, then ask the players to help me. What was I thinking?
"Why don't you just pick the Yankees like everybody else?" the Rays' Carl Crawford asked me.
"Too easy," I told him. "I was hoping you had a crystal ball around."
"If I did," he said, "then it wouldn't be exciting. It wouldn't be fun. We've got to keep this sport exciting, man."
Hey, we're all for that. But it was doing me no good.
"People will always talk," said Boston's David Ortiz. "I don't believe in talk. I believe in what is."
Yeah, great. Maybe I'll follow that advice this year. Just wait six months, then announce my pick on the final day of the season. Wonder if I could get away with that. OK, maybe not.
"Do you ever get these right?" the Phillies' Jayson Werth asked me.
"I have gotten them right," I replied, with the proud tone of a man who is now 1-for-10 at these prognostications (2004 Red Sox). "Uhhh, but not usually. Uhhh, once actually."
"Then don't pick us," he begged.
It was clear at that point that asking the players wasn't going to get me very far. So I thought back on all the different ways I've tried settling on my pick in the past -- and vowed not to use any of them this time around. Then it hit me.
It was time for a process America could relate to. Time to do this (ta-daaa) "American Idol" style.
Unfortunately, by the time I saw this beam of light, it was a little late to get Simon Cowell or Ellen DeGeneres over here to help. And a little too late to set up a toll-free number or hire a service to count all your texts. Sorry.
So basically, this is how it's going to work: First, we send a bunch of contestants home crying. Then we'll start eliminating the rest of the field, one by one, until America's Baseball Idol stands alone. Brilliant, huh? (All right, don't answer that.) Now here we go
Thanks for playing
Pirates, Nationals, Royals, Blue Jays, Astros, Padres, Orioles, A's, Indians.
Hey, I know this isn't fair. I know you all deserve a longer look and a better chance. There's talent here all over the stage. I'm even betting at least half of you will finish ahead of some of these teams I've allowed to move on to Hollywood. But it's a harsh world and a cruel game. So thanks for bearing with us. Please come back again next spring.
The "If" crowd
• METS: There are some big-time players here if they stay healthy. "If everything's right, they're a pretty good team," one GM said. "But it never seems to be right." Nevertheless, if the everyday lineup stays on the field and stops obsessing about the ballpark dimensions -- and if the starting pitchers not named Johan Santana rebound -- this can still be a dangerous team. But how big an if is that rotation? "Oh my God," said one scout who covered them this spring. "After Santana, they're in real trouble." In other words, sorry you couldn't play on. But next!
• TIGERS: If they could ever get to October, who would want to play them? "Remember," one AL scout said, "in the first round, [Justin] Verlander and [Rick] Porcello would start four of the five games. I wouldn't want to take my chances on that." But there are just too many questions for the judges to allow this team to stay in this competition. Back of the rotation. Rookies (Austin Jackson, Scott Sizemore) up the middle. "Too many outs in that lineup to give away," the same scout said. So sorry.
• DIAMONDBACKS: I liked this team's offseason pickups (Edwin Jackson, Bob Howry, Adam LaRoche, Kelly Johnson). So if Brandon Webb were lined up to make 33 starts, I'd be singing a different number. But the Diamondbacks would be thrilled with 25 now. And if that's all they get from him, "the Webb thing is going to crush them," one NL executive said. "If Bill Buckner and Rodrigo Lopez are going to be their [Nos.] 4-5 starters, that's 40 percent of the games where the guy they're starting won't be as good as the other team's pitcher." So better luck next year.
• RANGERS: Colby Lewis might be the find of the year. I'll always think Vlad Guerrero has something left until he's, like, 75. And there's enough thump in a lineup that was outhomered by only the Yankees last year that they'll score plenty of runs. So if I thought Josh Hamilton would play 150 games and if I thought Rich Harden would make 30 dominating starts, I'd view this team differently. But Hamilton has never ground it out for a full season, for some reason. And it was frightening how many times I heard words like "atrocious" used to describe Harden's spring. So 'fraid not.
• REDS: Intriguing team, loaded with arms and emerging young players. So if Edinson Volquez weren't down for most of the year after Tommy John surgery, and if their two new pitching phenoms, Aroldis Chapman and Mike Leake, were closer to being ready, it would be one thing. But it's impossible to know whether Volquez will contribute anything. And Leake was still in college this time last year. And although Chapman lights up the guns, "The funny thing is," one scout said, "I didn't see a lot of guys swing and miss." So the best word I heard to describe this team is "frisky." Which, regrettably, is not a synonym for "parade." Uh later.
Cutdown to the final 10
This is where this process starts getting precarious. We're down to our Sweet 16. So there's a scenario in which every team in this group can win the World Series. But six more have to go. That would be these six, I'm afraid:
• BREWERS: There's no better middle of any order than Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder. And the signings of Randy Wolf and Doug Davis will at least give the Brewers some innings in the rotation. So The Crew is a team that could win its division. But I couldn't find anybody ready to jump aboard the Win The World Series Express. "I really think they've improved," one scout said. "But I don't think there's enough gas in this tank."
• MARLINS: This team won 87 games last year. So it's dangerous to send the Fish home, considering they top their rotation with massively underrated Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, who "looks like he's going to have a great year," one scout said. And Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Chris Coghlan are big-time offensive machines. But "the rest of their starters -- who knows," the same scout said. "And their bullpen's a mess. So are they going to win the World Series? No. But they're coming."
• CUBS: Look, here's the deal. If this were a real "American Idol" format, and you could just vote for the team you'd like to see win it all, that might work for the Cubs a lot better than, say, playing out the past century. But once again this year, they're going to be forced to play. And unfortunately for them, I've sworn off picking the Cubs for the rest of my life. I've tried it -- twice. Hasn't helped them. Hasn't helped me. So I'm done with that -- even though these Cubbies have a cushy early-season schedule, a ton of talent and no Milton Bradley to distract them. But as I was saying I'm done. And so are they.
• MARINERS: Just because I think this team won't win the World Series doesn't mean I think it can't win the World Series. Any team with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee on the payroll can win any series -- in October, in November, in any other month. But I've heard two scouts pronounce the Mariners their "biggest disappointment" this spring. They look like a thunder-free offense. And how can you not worry about Lee's abdominal injury, which could easily shut him down until May? "If he's out until mid-May, that really hurts," one exec said, "because the back of that rotation is not very good. And I just don't think they'll score enough runs."
• GIANTS: Like the Mariners, the Giants are built for October. But, also like the Mariners, they might not be built for the six months that precede October. This team has inspired lots and lots of debate among baseball men I've polled. Had a great spring and had the look of an outfit that was "feeling it," one scout said. But another called this club "the team most likely to disappoint" -- because "their defense is poor and their offense isn't good enough. So they're all pitching." Nevertheless, it's going to be awesome pitching. So sending them packing makes me nervous. But I'm doing it anyway.
• ANGELS: I'm terrified to type their name in this section. The Angels always overachieve, and I love their chances of winning the AL West again. Which means their chances of playing in October are way too good for me to lop them off this list this fast. But I'm doing it nonetheless because they're just not the same team. In the past two offseasons, they've subtracted John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Vlad Guerrero, Jon Garland and Kelvim Escobar. So how can they not feel those defections at some point? "I thought they were one of the best teams in baseball over the last three or four years," one GM said. "I don't see that now. They're not a 95-win team anymore. They're more like a 90-win team." That's no insult. But they're out of this derby anyway.
There's no justice
From here on out, any of these 10 teams could win the World Series. And how big of an idiot would I look like then for dumping the wrong one? But it's time to keep paring the list. So here go five more contestants:
• DODGERS: Who knows what to make of Team Divorce Court? Not me. I just knew there were too many young guys on this roster who could erupt into megastardom -- Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, James Loney -- to send them home too early in this competition. "I actually think people are selling the Dodgers a little too short," one NL GM said. "Everybody's focused on what they didn't do and what they don't have." Agreed. On the other hand, Vicente Padilla is (gulp) their Opening Day starter. And nothing is scarier than Manny Ramirez on the last year of his contract. And with the divorce tug o' war rolling, "will they have any money," one scout asked, "to put the finishing touches on what they need to do if they're a game or two out in July?" Excellent question. So thanks for playing.
• WHITE SOX: Very, very enticing team with potentially great pitching. So this comes down to how much you believe in guys such as Alex Rios, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones, all of whom are expected to play a lot. ("When I see it," one exec said of the slimmed-down Jones, "that's when I'll believe it.") And it's Year 7 of the Ozzie Guillen era. Is his team still listening? Best description I heard of the White Sox: "They could win the Central, but I don't see them winning 93 games. I could see them winning 88 to 90." That might be enough in their division. But it isn't enough to keep them alive in this derby.
• BRAVES: Here's how dangerous this team is: It traded away its best starting pitcher (Javier Vazquez), and it still has "the best [starting] staff since I've been here," catcher Brian McCann said. There's a reason there's so much buzz about the Braves, and it goes beyond Jason Heyward. Deepest pitching in the division. Offense up and down the lineup. And don't underestimate the crusade to have Bobby Cox's final season end on a parade float. So this club easily could have made the final cut. But remember, Heyward is only 20. And the Braves need big years from Troy Glaus and Chipper Jones. "I'm not sold on Glaus, just because of all his health issues," one scout said. "And I just wonder if Chipper might be running out of bullets. He's played so much baseball. How much can his body absorb?" Good questions. Just good enough to keep the Braves from moving on, in fact.
• TWINS: This is another team I'm reluctant to de-Idolize. I like the Twins to win the AL Central. And that means they'll still be playing in October, which makes them way too big a threat to my chances of getting this pick right. But the Joe Nathan injury is a crusher for a team with big aspirations. And this is a rotation with no true No. 1 starter unless Francisco Liriano decides to assume acehood. No one really knows what kind of home-field advantage (or disadvantage) Target Field will be. And "one guy nobody is talking about," one scout said, "is Justin Morneau [who's hitting .143 this spring]. He's coming back from a back issue. And he wasn't the same guy after he got beaned in late July. If he's not right, they're not the same club." There's a lot to like about this team. Just not enough to let it keep advancing.
• CARDINALS: I've now officially reached the stage when anybody I eliminate, I'm just nitpicking. But we're running out of spots on the big stage. So it's time for a potentially tremendous team to get gonged. Look, the Cardinals are going to win the NL Central unless something goes wrong. And any team that arrives in October with Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright still on the payroll could easily win the World Series. But I haven't found a lot of believers in Ryan Franklin's piling up a sub-2.00 ERA again. And "They've got five players who, if they go down, they're in deep trouble," one scout said. "I'm talking about Pujols, [Matt] Holliday, [Yadier] Molina and the two starters. If they lose any of the five, all bets are off." I don't know whether that will happen. But this bet is off, anyhow.
The final five
OK, it's getting exciting now, friends, because we're down to the five best teams in baseball -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Phillies and Rockies. Gives you chills just thinking about what's to come, doesn't it? (All right, don't answer that, either.) So time now to send three more excellent contestants home.
• ROCKIES: They've really become "the sexy pick," one GM said. And with good reason. The depth. The balance. The rising stars. The defense. The return of Jeff Francis. The ability to score runs a million ways. The emergence of Ubaldo Jimenez as Cy Young material. So believe the hype -- most of it, at least. But I heard three areas of concern: (1) the bullpen in general and Huston Street's lingering shoulder issues in particular, (2) the streakiness of a team that needed to ride mad comebacks to its two most recent postseason appearances, and (3) very good, but not necessarily win-it-all type starting pitching. "I like that club a lot," one NL exec said. "But we're talking about winning the World Series. If they get into the World Series against, say, the Red Sox, I just don't see Jimenez, Francis, [Aaron] Cook and [Jorge] de la Rosa matching up with [Josh] Beckett, [Jon] Lester, [John] Lackey and [Clay] Buchholz. I know anything can happen in a seven-game series. But if you're picking the Rockies to beat the Red Sox in a seven-game series, all you're really saying is you don't want to pick the Red Sox."
• RAYS: There's still no great team in baseball that people pay less attention to than this one. There isn't a better everyday lineup in the American League, bar none. There's a real closer on the roster now, in Rafael Soriano. And with David Price and Wade Davis joining the Rays' rotation full time, and dazzling phenom Jeremy Hellickson ready any minute, it isn't hard to envision how good this rotation can be. But for now, it's impossible to argue that this team has better starting pitching than the Red Sox or Yankees. And with the bullpen's MVP, J.P. Howell, down until at least May, there might be too many outs for this relief crew to get some nights. "Unless they get some serious innings from their starters," one scout said, "they're going to have to go to some pretty nondescript pitchers in that bullpen to try to get some key outs." So although I love to keep reminding people that is this one of the three or four best teams in baseball, they're not going to be your American Baseball Idols. Sorry.
• YANKEES: OK, now I'm down to the stage that I'm practically just flipping coins. The Yankees have a tremendous team. Tremendous. Fabulous rotation. Great bullpen. Big-time winning players. I don't need to explain to anybody why they could stampede right back to that Canyon of Heroes. I only need to explain why they might not. So first off, no Johnny Damon and no Hideki Matsui. Would they have won the last World Series without them? I'd say no. "They're really going to miss both those guys," one scout saidt. "Reliability in the clutch. You can never have enough." Second, there's the post-World Series hangover effect. CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte worked 266 1/3, 234 1/3 and 235 1/3 innings respectively last season, counting the postseason. Maybe they won't feel it. But suppose they do. And, finally, as one GM put it, "at some point, the Yankees are not going to get amazing performances out of a bunch of 35-to-40-year-olds." By the end of the year, that's an age group that will even include A-Rod. So will this be the year the centerpieces of this franchise finally feel their age? How the heck do I know? But I might as well take those this-is-the-year odds. I'm bound to be right one of these centuries. Besides, how weak would it be to pick the same two World Series teams as last year? Lame. So I just texted myself and voted to send the Yankees home. Sorry, men.
The grand World Series finale
All righty, America. This is it. We're down to two -- the Phillies and Red Sox. But before we settle this dramatic sing-off, I had to do a quick Ryan Seacrest impression. I approached our finalists with this crazed thought:
Suppose we decided the World Series winner the same way we decide "American Idol" winners? How did they think they would fare?
"From what I know about 'American Idol,' the person who deserves to win doesn't always win," Werth said. "So that would be a concern. But I know one thing. If we did make the finals, we wouldn't be nervous onstage."
"You mean," I asked, "you wouldn't even be nervous about the stuff Simon Cowell would say to you?"
"It's not going to be any worse than what we say to each other," Werth said, laughing.
Jimmy Rollins, on the other hand, said the Phillies' only hope would be to sell themselves to the other three judges because "We're not Simon's cup of tea."
And why is that, you ask?
"Because we're stupid crazy," Rollins replied. "We're loose cannons. He likes that ready-made star, and we're loose cannons -- especially if we had to start with Charlie [Manuel]."
So would America embrace a bunch of loose cannons? Ya got me. I'm guessing this would all come down to the final number of our show no matter what. And the Red Sox seemed confident nobody could beat their show-stopper.
"We'd be singing 'Sweet Caroline,' of course," Mike Cameron said. "We'd get the whole Red Sox Nation to sing it at the same time. That's a nice ambience."
Well, the World Series is all about the ambience, of course. So now that we've set the mood, let's decide this thing once and for all
On with our show
• RED SOX: For every reason to pick the Red Sox over the Yankees and Rays, there's a compelling reason to pick somebody else. I readily acknowledge that. The Rays have a better lineup. The Yankees have more thump. But I keep coming back to this: "The Red Sox," one executive said, "have the best pitching staff in baseball, if healthy." And maybe even if not healthy -- because Daisuke Matsuzaka isn't healthy yet, and this staff is still pretty scary.
Offensively, they're not going to make 200 home run trots. But they're still going to be one of the four or five most productive offenses in baseball. "So I really don't see a big concern with scoring runs," one scout said. "That's more perception than reality. They're going to win with pitching and defense, anyway. And they're about as good as it gets in both areas."
But they're not going to win the World Series, friends, because the rings are going to
• THE PHILLIES: Want me to start explaining this before you start typing all your what-a-homer e-mails? Or should I even bother? Yes, it's true I'm a Philadelphian. So that means what, exactly? My kids know how to spell B-O-O? I know a couple of Mummers personally? Whatever. I've never picked the Phillies to win the World Series before in any preseason-prediction column in my life. But there's a first for everything. So this is the year.
Am I allowed to mention that 11 other theoretically rational ESPN "experts" also picked the Phillies to go to the World Series, and six of them also predicted that the Phillies would win that World Series? I'll testify under oath I didn't slip any pick-the-Phillies pills in their drinks to make me look better, saner or more objective.
The truth is, you can think whatever you want about this pick. But here's my thinking: This is the best team in the National League. It's been the best team in the league for the past two years. And it's now better -- dramatically better -- than it was the previous two years.
First of all, Roy Halladay makes the Phillies massively better. If he could go 64-35 lifetime against the AL East, what's his record going to look like facing the NL East 20 times a year? Big misconception: He's not replacing Cliff Lee. He's really only replacing two months of Cliff Lee. Remember, Halladay also is replacing four months of Rodrigo Lopez, Antonio Bastardo, Drew Carpenter and an injured Brett Myers. So that's a serious upgrade for those 21 starts. "With that club," one scout said, "he's got a chance to win 70 percent of those starts."
Of course, Halladay has never thrown a pitch in October. But "if I had to play one season right now and I had to pick one guy I could pitch to win a World Series," one executive said, "Roy Halladay would be the guy." So that's that.
Starting right behind him is Cole Hamels, who had a fabulous spring -- rediscovering 10 mph on his fastball and his long-lost curve ball. Hamels looked, the same scout said, "like he's really driven to be The Guy." And if he is The Guy, that's enough October domination for any team.
Meanwhile, the Phillies' big offensive addition, Placido Polanco, is an underrated lineup-changer who will put bat on ball, allow Rollins to run more and free Shane Victorino to hit lower in the order. "A perfect fit" for this team, said Polanco's old manager in Detroit, Jim Leyland.
And a couple of ticks down the lineup, Ryan Howard (.306 spring average, .882 OPS) had such an eye-opening offensive approach this spring that he caused one scout to predict: "If he keeps this approach all year long and remembers there's another side to the field, he's going to hit .300 and he's going to win the MVP by a mile."
Add it all up, and this will be the only team in baseball that will start eight All-Stars on Opening Day. But beyond its star power, it's a group that is well aware it has a chance to become the first NL team since the 1942-1944 Cardinals to play in three straight World Series, and a team that plays with tremendous sense of purpose every night. "The chemistry on that team," said one scout, "just works."
Oh, they're far from perfect. I recognize that a lot could go wrong. They lack pitching depth. And their bullpen has a shaky look, with Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero both starting the season on the disabled list. But here's my question: This team blew 12 saves in the ninth inning alone last year -- and still won the division handily. So can this bullpen possibly do more to undermine this team than last year's bullpen did to undermine that team? I don't think that's possible.
So that's our pick. The Phillies. The only question is: Would America vote for them as the 2010 American Baseball Idols?
"If it was up to Simon, he'd just roll his eyes at us every night," Rollins said. "But America would love us. We're like the perfect dysfunctional family."
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.