With today being the traditional day-after-Opening-Day off-day in Detroit (What will we do with our afternoon?), I figured I'd post the second part of my belated season preview. Which teams will be the division and wild card winners? Who will get the shiny awards for their trophy cases? And who will be the last two teams standing in October?
You can read the rationale for my AL Central predictions here, but I included my picks with the other division winners below. And yes, I think the Wild Card winner will come from the Central, as the Tigers and Indians will be among the top three teams in the American League. Who will join them in the postseason?
● AL East: Boston Red Sox
● AL Central: Detroit Tigers
● AL West: Seattle Mariners
● Wild Card: Cleveland Indians
As I said on Sunday, it baffles me how several writers think the Yankees' offense will carry them to the playoffs, compensating for what looks to me like a pretty mediocre (and potentially creaky) starting rotation. As imposing as their lineup should be, the Red Sox and Blue Jays just have better pitching. The Jays' offense might keep them from overtaking the Yankees this year, but their pitching could keep them close.
In the West, the Angels have some impressive pitching depth in their organization, but how many teams could sustain losing their their top two starters, along with their best set-up man, and persevere to a division title? I also think they'll regret not adding a big infield bat. The Angels were going to be in a dogfight with the Mariners anyway, but Seattle just looks like a stronger team right now with the pitching they added in the offseason.
● NL East: Atlanta Braves
● NL Central: Chicago Cubs
● NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks
● Wild Card: New York Mets
Not picking the Mets to win the NL East might be crazy talk, but I see some holes in their lineup (corner outfield and first base) right now, and if Omar Minaya can't patch those up during the season, the Braves should take first place. But if you're a believer in offense carrying a team to the playoffs, the Phillies probably stand a good chance, as well.
Of course, you can't judge an entire season on one game, but I think yesterday's Brewers-Cubs result might be a precursor to the NL Central race. Despite a strong lineup, Milwaukee's pitching (especially its bullpen) is going to cost them some wins. The Cubs, meanwhile, might have the best staff in the division, with depth to cover any injuries that might occur.
Out west, I didn't follow my instinct to pick the Diamondbacks last year, which would've shown more conviction than picking them in 2008. I don't think the Dodgers are quite ready for prime time, though if their young talent develops like Arizona's did last year, they could make a big jump. Am I underestimating the defending NL champion Rockies? Probably.
For the AL playoffs, the Red Sox and Tigers will prevail, thus creating an ALCS that could make Samara Pearlstein's head explode (either with angst or delight). Who wins this clash of AL titans? Well, if the Tigers' bullpen hasn't already cost them during the regular season and divisional playoffs, it will catch up to them here if the relief corps hasn't gotten healthy or Dave Dombrowski hasn't acquired some upgrades. (Look at all that wiggle room I gave myself!)
In the NL, it's going to be the "Win It For Willie" story, as the Mets will be fueled by the aggravation of hearing about last season's collapse and whether or not Willie Randolph is on the hot seat. They'll face off against the Braves again in the NLCS, and though their lineup might not have been enough to win the NL East, the Mets' pitching makes up for it in a seven-game series.
So we'll have a rematch of the 1986 World Series, and 75% of the country will resent seeing an all-east coast Fall Classic with the same two markets that were in this year's Super Bowl. But what will drive people more crazy, seeing the Red Sox win a second straight World Series or a championship going to New York? I think you'll have to deal with your New York grudge, as the Mets close Shea Stadium in the best way possible.
Most Valuable Player
● AL: Manny Ramirez
● NL: David Wright
Manny Ramirez has already shown that he has no intention of posting disappointing numbers again, and will return to the ranks of .320/.440/.610 with 30 homers and 120 RBIs. He also stands to cash in magnificently with a good year, either by the Red Sox picking up his 2009 option or on the free agent market. It'll be Manny Being Money.
In the NL, David Wright arguably should've won last year's NL MVP, but the Mets' collapse and Phillies' rise seriously influenced the final vote totals. As great as the Mets' pitching looks to be, it won't be enough to make the postseason if Wright doesn't have a great year. I don't think that's going to be a problem for him.
Cy Young Award
● AL: Justin Verlander
● NL: Brandon Webb
Justin Verlander is more than good enough to win the Cy Young Award on his own merits, but having two of the AL's best pitchers - Johan Santana and Dan Haren - get traded to the other league certainly doesn't hurt his chances. We've already seen Josh Beckett break down, and I think C.C. Sabathia's massive workload last year will catch up with him. This is the natural next step in what's already been a sterling young career for Verlander.
Santana seems like a natural pick in the NL, but greatness is already expected from him. Brandon Webb has been one of the league's best pitchers over the last two years, and Haren joining him in the D-Backs' rotation will push him to even greater heights this season. And this time, people will notice.
Rookie of the Year
● AL: Joba Chamberlain
● NL: Kosuke Fukudome
Both winners here might win their awards by default. Tampa Bay's short-sighted (though perhaps sound business) decision to put Evan Longoria in Triple-A to begin the season might end up costing him. Beginning the season in the minors didn't hurt Ryan Braun last year, but the Brewers were also in the NL Central race at the time. Longoria won't have the same benefit. Chamberlain, however, will play a big role for the Yankees this year.
I've said before that veteran Japanese players shouldn't be eligible for this award, but with Andy LaRoche's thumb injury likely to keep him out for at least two months, Fukudome becomes the highest profile new player in the National League. And he's already gotten some major spotlight with the home run he hit off Eric Gagne yesterday.