HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

April 2, 2007

Few favorites in this year’s division races

By Jesse Menden

Trying to predict what team is going to finish where at the end of this year’s baseball season is like trying to whittle 65 college basketball teams down to one. It is a guessing game, and nothing if for certain, especially this year

If there is one thing that is for sure this baseball season, it’s that there is nothing for sure. In the past, you could always bank on the Yankees and the Braves to win their divisions, but the probability of that happening this year is small.

Perhaps the most sure team to win their division comes out of the National League East. The New York Mets have an excellent team led by Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Tom Glavine, but even they are not a lock.

They have an aging pitching staff, and if something goes wrong there, the team could falter. And if they do, the Philidelphia Phillies will be there waiting for the opportunity. The Phillies have one of the best lineups in baseball (they led the NL in runs last season) and have a decent pitching staff, that could (once again, nothing is for sure) put it together.

The next surest team to win their division comes from the American League West.

The Los Angeles (Anaheim for my generation, California for you baby boomers) Angels have a good team in an ordinary division.

Los Angeles appears to be better than the 89 wins they had last season. They have a decent pitching staff, but should get more out of their offense that struggled throughout the 2006 campaign.

But how can you predict what goes on in the AL West. There is never one dominate team. Outside of 2005 when the Angels won the division by seven games, it is usually a two or three-horse race.

On paper, it looks like the Oakland A’s could give the Angels all they want.

Oakland returns all of their starting pitchers from last season, and added some power to their inconsistent lineup by signing Mike Piazza to take over the designated hitter duties.

After the NL East and AL West, who knows what will happen.

The Yankees, Red Sox, or even the Toronto Blue Jays (seriously) could win the AL East.

The NL Central has four teams that could conceivably win the division title.

The St. Louis Cardinals won it last year with a unimpressive record of 83 wins, and they bring back the almost the same lineup and pitching staff. That means the improved Chicago Cubs could take first, along with Houston and even the improving Crew, that’s right, the Brewers could win the 87 games or so it will take to clinch the division.

In the NL West, the Dodgers look like the favorite. But the young Diamondbacks could threaten them if they put it all together.

But when trying to figure out this year’s division favorites, the AL Central is nearly impossible. Unlike the NL Central where four teams could compete for the division, four teams will vie for the AL Central title.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and the Minnesota Twins could all win the division.

So where will they all finish?

The Detroit Tigers will slide to fourth place this season. The AL wild card winners made very few changes from their 2006 roster. The only new face on the team is Gary Sheffield. His powerful bat can only help the Tigers. The only problem is he missed 123 games last season.

Detroit returns their entire pitching staff, including those stud pitchers that carried them last season. But the aging Kenny Rogers will open the season on the disabled list, and those young arms threw a lot of inning last year. It would be very surprising if the pitching was as good as ‘06. For that reason, they finished fourth in the division in ‘07.

Taking third will be the Cleveland Indians. They are the sneaky pick to win the division for many experts this year, but they have to show something to me first.
Cleveland made some nice changes by adding Josh Barfield to their defensively-challenged infield. They also added some nice outfielders in Trot Nixon and David Dellucci.

Combine those additions with the return of a good rotation, and this team could be very dangerous. Having said that, the Twins and the White Sox have much more experience, and better overall talent.

Finishing second will be the Twins. The jury seems to be out with this team, mostly because of the pitching. The Sporting News picked this team as one of the best in baseball, Sports Illustrated picked them 17th, so as goes the theme, who knows what will happen?

The lineup will be fine, but will it be good enough to carry a pitching staff that is mediocre, at best?

Johan Santana will be solid, as will the veteran Ramon Ortiz, who was added to the rotation over the winter. Sidney Ponson and Carlos Silva will be failed experiments. By the end of the season, most of the young Twins pitchers like Matt Garza and Glen Perkins will be up with the team. But whoever is making the starts outside of Santana won’t be good enough to help the Twins repeat.

That leaves the White Sox as the team to beat this summer. Their lineup will get back to the basics of getting on base and getting timely big hits. Their pitching staff, who’s earned run average went up one full run last season, has lost two pitchers from last year, but they will be better. Look for the Sox to win the AL Central.