Yanks are turbocharged this October
The last time the New York Yankees won a World Series -- way back in the dark ages of October 2000 -- there had never been a major league player named Melky, Johnny Damon was still a Royal and Chien-Ming Wang was a man with a dream that some day there might actually be a big leaguer from Taiwan.
That was six long years ago, friends.
It was so long ago that George Steinbrenner has had enough time to fork out nearly a billion of his precious payroll dollars trying to get back to the Canyon of Heroes.
It was so long ago that the likes of Steve Karsay, Drew Henson, Karim Garcia, Jeff Weaver, Raul Mondesi, Armando Benitez and Esteban Loaiza have all had time to zip on into Yankee Stadium and also zip on out.
But enough of that nostalgia. Wake up the Lower Manhattan street-sweeping crew. They're about to get 19 tons of confetti dumped on their heads -- because The Best Yankees Team Since That One is about to begin its rampage through another glorious October.
Yes, friends. We're picking the Yankees to win the 2006 World Series. We know that's not a pick that will make Yankee haters across the universe real euphoric. Sorry about that.
It's also not a pick, to be honest, we've had no second thoughts about. Heck, we've had third thoughts, fourth thoughts and several thousand other thoughts about it.
But we're applying the old That's My Story And I'm Sticking To It principle here. We picked the Yankees to win the World Series before Opening Day. And they look even better now. So this way, we can always say we nailed this from square one.
If we're right.
But the one common theme running through the last five postseasons is that nobody is ever right. So there's no reason to think anybody has this Octoberfest figured, either.
"This is the strangest baseball season I've ever seen," one longtime scout was saying over the weekend. "So I look for the playoffs to be equally strange."
The Yankees got five votes. The Twins got four. The Tigers, A's and Mets got one each.
So what does that tell you? Here's what:
• Just about nobody thinks a National League team can win.
"I don't see anybody in the National League that's better than the top seven or eight teams in the American League," said one AL GM. "We've got eight teams over here with 85 wins and five with 90 wins. Now in a seven-game series, who knows? But from a realistic standpoint, it's no contest."
• Hardly anyone thinks the Mets can win now that Pedro Martinez is hanging out with his local rotator-cuff surgeon
"You don't get Pedro for the [regular] season," said one NL GM. "You get Pedro for the postseason. That's what they got him for. So without him, they're not the team they were constructed to be."
Even the one GM who picked the Mets to win made his pick before he knew Pedro was done. But there was also no reason to think he'd be the Pedro at that point, either. And that GM still had a gut feeling that the Mets would find a way to rise up.
"I know their pitching isn't great," he said. "But there's something about that group of guys [in the lineup]. They just don't let up on you. They're relentless."
But that was a sentiment no one else bought into. In fact, one scout said the Mets' rotation, minus Pedro, is "the weakest starting pitching of any of these teams. [So] I don't see the Mets making it through the LCS now. I'm not sure they can even get out of the first round."
• Not many people buy the idea that the Tigers might follow the 2005 White Sox script.
You all remember that script, of course: Best Team in Baseball for four months. Scare the carburetors out of your fans for the next two months. Then recapture the magic and blitzkrieg through October.
"There's one big difference between the Tigers and the '05 White Sox," said one AL executive. "The Tigers don't have the dominant pitching the White Sox had."
• Oakland's regularly scheduled second-half heat wave hasn't convinced many people that this is their year, either.
"I don't discount Oakland," said one scout. "They're better than people think. But I just don't know if they can score enough. It all depends how these teams pitch Frank Thomas, and I don't think they'll pitch to him. You get Frank out, you get Oakland out. When Frank doesn't hit, they don't have an offense."
• The loss of Francisco Liriano hasn't opened many seats on the Twins' bandwagon.
With Liriano, the Twins would have been the hot pick this October. Without him, you could see them doing just about anything -- from winning it all to getting swept in the first round.
But our panelists who favor them think they still match up with just about anybody, Liriano or no Liriano. And the biggest reason is a bullpen that has given up 83 fewer runs than the Yankees' bullpen. Yep, 83.
"They don't need to get great starting pitching, because once you get the game to the sixth inning against them, if you don't have the lead, it's over," said one AL assistant GM. "You can't say that about the Yankees. The guys the Twins bring in there in the middle innings are better than the guys most teams bring in there in the late innings. Jesse Crain pitches the sixth inning for the Twins. He'd close for a lot of teams."
And the man who does close, Joe Nathan, is the least-talked-about dominator in the whole sport.
"Mariano Rivera gets all the attention," said one scout. "But the guy in Minnesota is as good as anybody. And I mean anybody."
You could listen to these arguments and easily pick the Twins. They have the best record in baseball over the last 100 games (68-32). They've been just about as good (40-25) since Liriano's last win. Their lineup is so much better than it used to be, they actually outscored the White Sox in the second half. And they have the one pitcher in baseball who can win a series just about all by himself -- that Johan Santana guy.
So why are we still picking the Yankees? We have our reasons:
1. Have you seen that lineup?
All discussion about the Yankees starts with the most terrifying batting order of this millennium -- a lineup that will, literally, feature an All-Star at every position.
For two weeks now, we've been listening to folks from other teams muttering stuff like: "They've got Hideki Matsui hitting eighth." And: "Robinson Cano might win the batting title, and he's hitting ninth." Etc., etc.
"Think about this," said one AL executive a few days ago. "They're going to win close to 100 games, and they lost Matsui and [Gary] Sheffield for almost the whole year. If most teams lost 250 RBIs, they wouldn't even contend."
Instead, here's what the Yankees did -- with those two guys out for more than four months apiece, with Jason Giambi going a month without a homer, with Alex Rodriguez having the ugliest 35-homer, 122-RBI season of his career:
They scored nearly 100 more runs than the next-highest-scoring team in the playoffs (the Mets). They led the major leagues in runs, on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging). And they were the only team in the American League (in fact, the only team in baseball beside the Mets) to put up 200 homers and 130 stolen bases. So they can score any way there is to score.
"I know pitching wins in October," said one AL GM. "But that lineup is too good for anybody to shut down. There isn't a dominating pitching staff out there, like the White Sox had last year, that's good enough to shut them down."
This is only the 10th team in Yankees history to score 930 runs with this high an on-base percentage (.363) and OPS (.824). Seven of the other nine won the World Series. And to find the last team that didn't, you have to go all the way back to 1931.
2. They're relentless.
We know that word was used to describe the Mets, too. But now that Bobby Abreu wears pinstripes and Matsui and Sheffield are back, we can't recall any lineup since the mid-'90s Indians that was this exhausting to face.
Four of the nine Yankees regulars average more than four pitches seen per plate appearance. Two -- Abreu (4.46) and Jason Giambi (4.37) -- rank in the top three (with Kevin Youkilis) in the whole sport. Only one regular (Cano) averages under 3.7 pitches per PA.
So what does all that add up to? The Yankees had about 1,400 more pitches thrown to them this year than the Twins, and about 1,500 more than the Tigers.
"I just saw them for two days," said one scout. "And they had over 315 pitches seen. What they do is, they get to teams' middle relief and go through teams' bullpens like no other team I've seen. You just don't have enough pitchers when you face them."
3. Derek Jeter still works there.
In our recent debate with Jerry Crasnick over which New York shortstop you'd rather have -- Jeter or Jose Reyes -- I spent the 100 words allotted to me talking all about Jeter's world-famous intangibles.
Almost immediately, one Yankees fan e-mailed us to say we'd missed the point:
This year, Jeter has the tangibles to go with the intangibles.
And that's true. This was, clearly, Jeter's greatest season since 1999 and the second-best of his career: 214 hits, a .417 OBP, a .483 slugging percentage, a .900 OPS (higher than Andruw Jones, Carlos Lee or Mark Teixeira), a career-high 33 steals.
But the biggest reason to mention him here is that this is Derek Jeter's time of year.
Jeter is not a man who uses words like "disappointing" or "unfortunate" to describe not winning the World Series. He's a man who says not winning the World Series "makes me sick to my stomach."
So if they don't win another one, you may see him as the national spokesman for Zantac.
4. Mariano Rivera still works there.
The Great Mariano is hardly a known quantity right now. His name has shown up recently in the same sentence as letters like "MRI." He has pitched precisely four innings since August. The last time he left the mound without any runner having reached base was Aug. 12.
But since his return, he hasn't exactly reminded anybody of Jay Witasick. He has faced 17 hitters in those four outings, allowed only four to reach base, punched out six and allowed zero runs.
Granted, there's no way to know whether he's ready to assume the workload Joe Torre loves to heap on him in October. But it's also possible his 21-day September siesta will leave him more fresh than he has ever felt this time of year. Scary thought for the Yankees' opponents.
While Rivera's health is one of many Yankees questions that make us squirm, you can never go wrong betting on a closer with a postseason ERA of 0.81. And let's remind you there has only been one closer like that in history.
5. The Red Sox went over a cliff.
Over the last 10 years, history has taught us that teams that spend the last half of September on cruise control are usually not the teams that win the World Series.
Only one of the last 10 World Series champs (the '98 Yankees) has been a team that clinched early. But four of the last 10 champs were wild-card teams -- all of whom essentially played playoff games for the entire month of September.
But we have a feeling that's a trend that won't apply to these Yankees. And for that, they can thank the Red Sox.
The last three years, the Red Sox exhausted the Yankees before they ever got to the World Series -- last year with a final-weekend mano a mano for first place, in 2004 with The Comeback, in 2003 with the Aaron Boone Series that made the World Series feel like an anticlimax.
But this year, with the Red Sox Holy War off the autumn schedule, the Yankees could use September to "catch their breath," said one GM. And even more important, said an AL scout, they could "rest their bullpen, which Joe [Torre] has abused all year."
The Yankees are always charged up for October. But this year, they're turbocharged. Which is not an uplifting thought for the other playoff teams.
Now we've already admitted there is stuff about the Yankees that doesn't make us feel real confident about this pick. We're not guaranteeing it -- or your cable bill back, or anything like that. Can't do it. Not with this team, in this sport.
There's nothing encouraging about Randy Johnson's getting an epidural, unless he's secretly about to give birth.
And we recognize that this is a team with the highest bullpen ERA (4.16) of any of the eight playoff teams.
And the thought of Gary Sheffield playing first base while Wang is busy throwing 23 ground balls in Game 1 ought to terrify anybody who has dared to pick this team.
But on the other hand, it's also possible this group has already survived a summer full of injuries, adversity and A-Rod soap operas. Now, said one GM, they're actually "getting healthier. Their lineup is unreal. [Mike] Mussina, Wang and Johnson are a legitimate top three [assuming the Unit is OK]. They have a combination of experience and hunger."
Plus, of course, they're The Yankees. And those six years since the last time they won are the equivalent of 60 years for any other franchise.
We can all agree there's nothing sadder than a billion dollars going to waste. So we hate to break it to the rest of the planet. But this is the year when Boss Steinbrenner will finally get his money's worth.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.