The champagne stains in the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium haven’t even dried yet. A victory parade in Beantown is a couple days away. Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and several other elite free agents don’t know what uniform they will be wearing next spring. But it’s never too early to look at who might follow the Boston Red Sox as World Series champions.
And the best way to do it is process of elimination. So let’s start at the bottom — rock bottom, as in the 51-111 Arizona Diamondbacks. They are three seasons removed from their unlikely world championship, and a painful rebuilding process away from being close to contending again. They’re trying to re-sign injured slugger Richie Sexson, but what they should be concentrating on this winter is getting all they can for Randy Johnson.
Speaking of 100-loss teams, nobody is calling Kansas City’s Tony Pena a genius anymore, are they? Johnny Damon … Carlos Beltran … Can Mike Sweeney be far behind? And you had to know that signing Benito Santiago and Juan Gonzalez wasn’t going to work. Limited resources and bad management make for a perennial also-ran.
The Seattle Mariners rallied to barely avoid a 100-loss season, but what’s the difference? Their 41-year-old designated hitter retired. Their best pitcher is 40 and fading, and you can have any of their veteran players other than Ichiro for a song. Bob Melvin took the fall, but this was a team that just got old all at once.
The Milwaukee Brewers have a new owner — Los Angeles-based investor Mark Attanasio — who says he gradually will up the payroll from embarrassing to merely inadequate. At least they have brats and Ben Sheets.
The Colorado Rockies found a way to turn a financial goldmine into a hopeless situation. There’s nothing they can do about the devastating affect that playing at altitude has on a pitching staff, but giving Dan O’Dowd a contract extension last winter was another in a series of mistakes.
The good news for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays is they set a new franchise record for wins and finally got out of last place. The bad news is that victory total was 70, and they remain in the AL East, where the best they can do in the foreseeable future is third place.
The New York Mets did the right thing by putting Omar Minaya in charge. Now the owner and his kid have to quit meddling and let Minaya do his job. It’s a 2-3 year task, minimum.
The Detroit Tigers improved by 29 games from their dreadful 2003 season — an accomplishment that should be commended. But only 21 more wins and they could have won the AL Central. In other words, best-case scenario is that they’re still a year or two away.
Five hundred words in, and we’re still dealing with 90-plus-loss teams. You might as well put the Pittsburgh Pirates there too, as they fell one game shy with 89, and likely will say goodbye to Jason Kendall this winter.
The Baltimore Orioles spent big money on offense last winter, went 2-for-3 with Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and a fading Rafael Palmeiro, and still won only 78 games. They can’t be thinking of anything besides adding pitching this winter, can they?
The Cleveland Indians were doing fine until they woke up on Aug. 14th and found themselves eight games over .500 and within two games of first-place Minnesota. They went 17-27 the rest of the way, and likely will turn their backs on Omar Vizquel this winter in favor of adding a veteran starting pitcher. The next step up is a winning season.
Now we’re getting somewhere; on to the above-.500 teams. The Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins both finished 83-79, and could be serious division-title threats with a couple of winter improvements. The Fish are great up the middle, but need to keep Mike Lowell and hope that Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett grow up a bit and turn into 18-game winners. The White Sox will get Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez back in the lineup, and are talking about signing a No. 1-2 starter to go with Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras and Jon Garland. That could be enough to put them over the Twins, who have won three division titles in a row and are due for a slip. But winning the AL Central and winning a World Series are two entirely different animals.
The San Diego Padres have the pitchers and a park in which they can succeed. But their veteran position players are in decline. It’s going to take more than what they have now to win the NL West.
You had to figure Buck Showalter would get things turned around in Texas. But they’re talking about trading Alfonso Soriano when they need another power bat in the lineup. And let’s face it, they won 89 games despite a sub-par rotation, and the bullpen overachieved. They are just as likely to take a step back as forward.
Now that the Curse of the Bambino has been exorcised, we still have the Chicago Cubs and their goat. And we still will after 2005, unless they alter a bad clubhouse mix. It appears they are off to a good start by not exercising Moises Alou’s option, but can they find a taker for Sammy Sosa?
The Bay Area’s A’s and Giants both appear to be heading in the wrong direction. The ‘Moneyball’ philosophy is fine for uncovering the Scott Hattebergs of the world, and for building a productive offense. But the A’s four-year playoff run ended this season when the Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito faltered. Rich Harden will step in, but we could be looking at a breakup, possibly as soon as this winter. Meanwhile, the Giants won’t properly protect Barry Bonds in their lineup, wasting a golden opportunity to win it all. Championships are won by building around your superstar, not by having them endure opposing managers waving four fingers every time he comes to the plate in an important situation.
Ron Gardenhire is 3-for-3 in division titles in Minnesota, and those three payrolls combined wouldn’t equal the 2004 Yankees’ total. The Twins have an emerging superstar in Johan Santana, and another on the way in Joe Mauer, but with Brad Radke, Jacque Jones and possibly Cristian Guzman on the way out, the odds of a fourth consecutive division title have to diminish.
The Los Angeles Dodgers ended their seven-year post-season drought with a division title. But new owner Frank McCourt — not known for deep pockets — finds himself up against Adrian Beltre, Steve Finley and Odalis Perez in free agency, and a mega-arbitration award for Eric Gagne. Is there enough cash to keep this team on top?
Thirteen consecutive division titles are an amazing accomplishment. One World Series title in that same span isn’t, and further payroll cuts in Atlanta don’t bode well. The possibility of Kevin Brown and John Smoltz in the rotation would have given the Braves a great shot at a World Series title circa 1996-98, but not in 2005.
Few managers have been better at guiding a team through the 162-game grind than Tony La Russa. But he’s 1-3 in the World Series, and his teams have been swept twice. His Cardinals won a major-league-high 105 games with all five starting pitchers winning in double figures and staying healthy until mid-September. That’s not going to happen again.
The Houston Astros were the hottest team in the National League over the final six weeks, and would have won 100-plus games if Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller had stayed healthy. But there are too many unanswered questions about Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio, Pettitte, Miller and even Roger Clemens to forecast the first World Series title in Houston at this point.
With a division title and a record-setting attendance year, the Anaheim Angels bumped up to elite status again. Some changes — Troy Percival? Troy Glaus? Jose Guillen? — will have to be made, but owner Arte Moreno won’t be afraid to do so, and reload for another shot.
It took the Red Sox 86 years to break the curse, so you aren’t expecting a repeat, are you? As historic as this team was, it will be a much different group assembling next February in Fort Myers, Fla., as a winter full of activity will mean the departure of a few of the ‘idiots’, and a different clubhouse culture.
That leaves … you guessed it — the New York Yankees. Four years removed from their last title, being written off as in decline, embarrassed by their ALCS collapse, sure to make several key changes, and much the wiser for getting away from left-handers in their rotation, relying too heavily on their three quality relievers and discounting the importance of clubhouse chemistry. Oh, and did we mention a $200-million payroll?
They still have Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield and Bernie Williams, and should get much more out of Jason Giambi. So even if Carlos Beltran doesn’t want the spotlight of the Big Apple, another premier free-agent hitter will, and the Bronx Bombers will hit plenty of homers and score more than enough runs.
The rotation overhaul must start with Randy Johnson, and Al Leiter or Eric Milton wouldn’t be bad choices, either. Kevin Brown never did fit in, and will be gone. Steve Karsay could come back in the bullpen, and if not, this time there will be more quality options for Joe Torre.
Yes, the rest of the baseball world doesn’t want to hear it, but the Yankees are overdue.
HBT: Robinson Cano homered twice while David Phelps had the longest outing of his career as the Yankees topped the Blue Jays 7-2 this afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
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