Which team is this year's Angels?
The Angels stunned the baseball world in winning it all in 2002. Who could pull off the trick this season?
You know they're out there -- lurking, stretching, getting ready to surprise the world. You know they're out there -- this year's Angels.
Last year this time, who among you knew that the winner of the World Series was going to be a team that finished 43 games out of first place the year before? That finished 29 games out in the wild-card race? That won fewer games (75) than the Marlins or Padres? That had never won a postseason series in franchise history?
OK now, who among you predicted that one? Raise your hands, please. ... Uh, sorry, Mr. Scioscia, you're not eligible for this competition.
"You know, they had a certain look about them last spring," said one scout of last October's champs. "You could see they would be a lot better. But ..."
But the fact is, no one knew. So if that could happen once, if we could have a World Series won by a team that surprising, it could happen again. Couldn't it?
Sure, it could. In fact, the last two World Series have been won by a team that failed to make the playoffs the previous year (Angels last year, Diamondbacks in 2001). So have three of the last six. (Throw in the '97 Marlins.) And 14 of the last 25.
Yes, for all the propaganda you may have digested about how many teams go to spring training knowing they have no chance, this sport is actually way less predictable than advertised. Only six of the last 25 World Series have matched two teams that both had been in the playoffs the year before. So by our count, 76 percent haven't.
Armed with that knowledge (and a Ouija board), we set out trying to determine which team is most likely to be this year's version of the Angels -- the team with the best chance of winning the World Series after watching the postseason last October on that big screen in the den.
Now that we've finished polling all sorts of baseball people, the envelopes please ...
What makes this fascinating is that we actually had three teams last year that won more than 90 games and didn't make the playoffs -- the Red Sox, Mariners and Dodgers. That had never happened since the introduction of the wild-card format in 1995. And, amazingly, it hadn't happened under any format since 1987.
So we'll start with those teams. You know they sure think they have a chance.
Then you have three clubs that finished with losing records but clearly geared up this winter to try to win -- the Phillies, Mets and Cubs. Throw them in there, too.
Also receiving at least one mention were the Reds, Expos, Marlins and Blue Jays. But those teams also have such obvious holes that most of the panelists to whom they were mentioned rolled their eyes or shook their heads. So we'll chalk them up as the longest of the long shots, acknowledging that anything is possible and, nevertheless, eliminate them from further discussion. Now let's consider the more logical contenders:
A very tempting pick. The bats in their lineup keep on coming. And if they can just get to October, they could run Pedro and Derek Lowe out there, "and you could see them beating just about anybody," said one GM.
They clearly have their defensive issues. And nobody knows how the we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-closer experiment is going to work out. But this is a team that could very easily win 95 to 100 games.
Kevin Brown (0.86 ERA) and Darren Dreifort (13 1/3 IP, 17 K) have had spectacular springs. They've added much-needed left-handed thump with Fred McGriff (.412 this spring) and Daryle Ward. And their manager (Jim Tracy) and closer (Eric Gagne) are up there with the best in the business.
The Dodgers somehow won 92 games last year -- in a season in which Brown and Dreifort combined for three wins, in a season in which they'd lost four starting pitchers by September, in a season in which they finished 15th in the league in on-base percentage and drew the fewest walks by any Dodgers team (in a full season) since 1936.
So why couldn't the Dodgers spend this October re-enacting what happened down the freeway last October?
You can still find many of the cast members from that 116-win juggernaut of 2001 hanging around Seattle. That's one thing in the Mariners' favor.
Now let's recall that at one point last year, they led the AL West by 6½ games. And they were still in first place as late as Aug. 22. That's another thing.
And even though they went into a five-week funk (in which they went 15-22) after going deal-less in Seattle at the trade deadline, this team still won 93 games and wasn't mathematically eliminated until the 159th game of the season.
So any team with all those credentials has to make this list.
Bet you didn't know that the Phillies led the NL East in home runs last year. Or that they had more extra-base hits than any National League team except the Giants. And that was before they added Jim Thome and David Bell.
Throw in Kevin Millwood, and the Phillies become the only team besides the A's to enter the season with three starting pitchers who worked 200 innings last year (Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla).
Combine Millwood and Thome, and the Phillies are the first team in history to add a 50-homer man and an 18-game winner in the same offseason. So if they don't contend, you'll be able to open a window and hear the boos from, oh, Kansas.
Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry are men on a mission -- a mission to end this notion that all those lovable Cubbies want to do is open the gates of Wrigley Field and let people in to bask in the glow of the ivy. They're trying to win. And they just might.
The additions of Mike Remlinger, Mark Guthrie and Dave Veres ought to give them enough bullpen depth to A) be a lot better than the relief crew that blew more saves (25) than it converted (23) last year and B) survive the loss of closer Antonio Alfonseca for the first month.
And there's something about Dusty Baker, who hasn't managed a losing season since 1996, that seems to send a message that things just might be different this year.
It's hard to know what to make of this team. But the Mets did add a two-time Cy Young (Tom Glavine), a 28-homer man (Cliff Floyd) and the most dependable and durable left-handed reliever of the last five years (Mike Stanton).
They also subtracted the most exasperating shortstop alive (Rey Ordonez), not to mention the most exhausting managerial genius alive (Bobby Valentine). And that ought to make life more peaceful, at least.
Glavine and Stanton have both appeared in the last 11 postseasons. So, despite all the issues that haven't gone away (age, outfield, defense, left side of the infield), a 12th isn't completely out of the question.
One thing this team doesn't lack is stars: Kent, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio in the lineup. Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller in the rotation. Billy Wagner and lights-out setup man Octavio Dotel in the pen.
If the supporting cast can just hang with that crew, it would be fascinating to see what Oswalt and Miller would do in a short series against, say, Johnson and Schilling.
Remember, offense wasn't the problem. The White Sox scored more runs than all but two teams in baseball (Yankees and Red Sox) last year. They outscored the Twins by 88 runs and outhomered them by 50.
So guess what was the problem? There was none bigger than the rotation, which had a 4.81 ERA -- half a run worse than Minnesota's. And once you got past Mark Buehrle, the rest of the White Sox starters were a combined nine games under .500. Oof.
Which is why Bartolo Colon might change everything. He and Buehrle become the most formidable left-right tag team east of Arizona. And Flash Gordon, Rick White and Billy Koch dramatically reshape the bullpen. This is another team that would be a mess to face in October -- if it can only get there.
The Final Four
All right, time to narrow this down, and eliminate half our field.
We had two GMs complain about the inclusion of the Red Sox and Dodgers in any quest to find a team defined as "this year's Angels," based on payroll considerations alone: "Yeah, they're good," said one GM. "But with a $100-million payroll, you'd better be good."
Hard to argue with that. The Angels won last year with a $70-million payroll. So we're automatically eliminating any team that projects at $90 million or above.
Gone: Red Sox ($106 million), Dodgers ($111 million) and Mets ($122 million).
The Mariners barely made that cut (at $89 million). But we're eliminating them anyway: "Big pitching questions on that club," said one AL scout. "And a lot of age."
So that leaves four: Cubs, White Sox, Phillies and Astros.
Down to two
Next to get eliminated -- the Astros: "You've gotta love the 'A' players on that club," said one scout. "But not enough 'B' players. Too many 'C's.' " That's a way of saying this club is just a little too thin in almost every area, barring some major luck.
Also going out in the semifinals -- the Phillies -- even though people around the sport heap praise on the everyday lineup: "I like their starting pitching OK," said one GM. "But I don't love it. I don't see it as the kind of rotation you win a World Series with." And there are even bigger bullpen questions: "There are only a couple of guys out there (Carlos Silva and Dan Plesac) I'd feel good about bringing into a big game in September or October," said a scout.
So get in line for some deep-dish pizza. The finals of this tournament won't leave the city limits of Chicago.
And the winner is ...
The White Sox are an intriguing team, all right -- especially on a $52-million payroll. But our panelists have questions about the rotation beyond Colon and Buehrle.
"Esteban Loaiza?" gulped one GM. "You're not going to the playoffs counting on that guy."
There are also concerns the White Sox didn't significantly address a team defense that allowed 82 unearned runs last year -- second-most in baseball (to Detroit).
And the other question our panelists had was what one GM described as "clubhouse volatility." That drug-testing brouhaha once again raised significant questions about their clubhouse chemistry, and about manager Jerry Manuel's ability to control it.
When you contrast the lack of rotation depth, defense and chemistry of the White Sox with the abundance the Twins have of all of the above, it's hard to make a case for the White Sox even winning their own division, let alone the World Series.
So that leaves (uh-oh) the Cubs.
They have to get a boomerang year from Moises Alou (who drove in fewer runs than Melvin Mora). They have to get more plate discipline out of Corey Patterson (142 strikeouts, 19 walks?). With rookies Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill on the right side of the infield, Baker has to disprove his rep as a manager who doesn't trust young players.
But they still have Sammy Sosa, the first player in history to have five straight seasons of at least 49 homers and 100 RBI. And most of all, they have the one commodity that puts World Series rings on anybody's fingers: "Dominating starting pitching," said one scout, "when they're healthy."
We've heard too many people rave about their parade of arms -- from Wood, Prior and Clement down through Juan Cruz and Carlos Zambrano -- not to think this team at least has a chance to be something special.
So who cares how many day games they play. Who cares if they haven't won a World Series since the invention of the light bulb. Who cares if they lost 95 last year.
We had to pick somebody as this year's Angels. Well, you want a feel-good story? It doesn't get much more feel-good than the Cubs.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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