- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Our friends from Chicago are already pleading with us not to write this column.
Our friends from Chicago think that if we pick the Cubs to win the World Series -- heck, if anybody picks the Cubs, whether it's an ESPN employee or the guy who changes their oil at the Express Lube -- it guarantees, absolutely for sure, that it can't possibly happen.
We're doing it anyway. We're predicting the Cubs will win the 2008 World Series.
This prediction comes with no warranty whatsoever, of course. If it causes you to invest heavily in Cubs futures at the Las Vegas Commodities Market, they won't be refunding your investment capital if you're wrong, even if you drop our name on them.
Matter of fact, they might even mention to you that we predicted last October that the Cubs would win the World Series, too. Thus inspired, they then went out and forgot to win one stinking postseason game.
But it seemed like a good idea then. It seems like even a better idea now.
We remind you that it was at exactly this point four years ago that we picked the Red Sox to win their first World Series since -- what was that year, 1782? We feel the same way about the Cubs this October that we felt about the Red Sox that October. It's all set up perfectly for them. And we're not alone in thinking that -- for a change.
Over the past week, we polled officials of 19 clubs to see which team they thought would win the World Series. The Cubs won the poll. Going away.
And even some of the folks who didn't vote for the Cubs felt compelled to put in a good word for them. Just to prove we're not crazy, we now present a couple of those testimonials:
"Assuming good health from [Carlos] Zambrano and [Rich] Harden, the Cubs will give any AL team a battle," said one AL GM.
"I think the Cubs, with a healthy Zambrano and Harden, have a shot," said an AL assistant GM. "To me, the biggest challenge for NL teams has been the lack of starting pitching that can handle AL lineups.Those guys can do that."
So there. See? We're obviously not completely insane. No more than usual, anyway.
This is a team with no real holes. It's a team four-deep in starting pitchers with the talent to two-hit you in a big game. It's a team with that scary Carlos Marmol-Kerry Wood bullpen tag team waiting for you at the end of the game. And it's a team for which every starting position player has at least a .350 on-base percentage except (naturally) the leadoff man, Alfonso Soriano -- who leads the team in homers.
We also want to remind you that there is no federal law prohibiting the Cubs from winning the World Series, even if millions of Americans suspect otherwise.
We know that because we checked out a few federal laws just the other day. We also know that because history tells us the Cubs have won the World Series.
Granted, that happened slightly before the invention of ESPN, Elvis and tanning salons, not to mention Jamie Moyer. But at least 1908 was well after the demise of dinosaurs, so it's not that long ago.
And now it's their time again. A mere century later. Timing is everything in life. And there's just something about years ending in "08" that works for this team.
"I just think it's their time," said an NL GM. "It's their turn. They're reaching a crescendo. They've got momentum. They've got above-average pitching. They've got a solid bullpen. They've got relatively good health. They've got a good lineup, very diversified -- speed, power, guys who hit for average. They've got a lot of things building for them at the right time of year.
"But most of all," he said, "it's their turn. I really think that. This is their time."
We regret to inform him that there are seven other teams in the field that think the same thing. All but one of them is going to turn out to be wrong. But after kicking this around with lots of people we respect, here's how we see this postseason unfolding:
National League Division Series
Cubs over Dodgers
Amazingly, you could make a case that the Cubs' Octobers have gone way better than the Dodgers' Octobers -- at least lately. Since 1989, the Cubs have won seven times as many postseason games as the Dodgers (7-1). And we see that trend holding up this year, too.
The biggest reason to pick the Dodgers would be their improved, Manny-fied offense, right? Well, what does it tell you that the Cubs outscored the Dodgers over the past two months (275-250) even with Manny Ramirez, and outscored L.A. by 155 runs over the course of the season? One NL executive's description of Manny's supporting offensive cast: "Thin."
We agree. The Cubs' pitching is rested and recharged. The Dodgers need too much to go right. Cubs in four.
Phillies over Brewers
The Brewers are one of the best stories of the postseason. But they have real problems matching up with the Phillies.
CC Sabathia is looking at his fourth straight start on short rest. Ben Sheets is done for the year. The rest of that Milwaukee rotation is in major disarray. And the league batted .405, with an OPS of 1.135, against closer Salomon Torres in his last 10 regular-season appearances. So is this a staff capable of shutting down one of the NL's most dangerous offenses?
"I think the Phillies could sweep them, to be honest," said one scout who has seen a lot of the Brewers. "That [Milwaukee] rotation is all messed up. The bullpen is a mess. And Torres is fried, fricasseed, cooked. They're the weaker team, with one stud pitcher. I know that any club with a stud who goes twice in five games has a chance. But the Phillies will grind against him. They won't let him off the hook the way the Cubs did [Sunday], and a lot of clubs did."
Here's a surprising fact for you: The popular theory is that the Phillies are vulnerable to left-handers, but they actually had a better average (.257-.255), OPS (.801-.756) and record (.593 win pct.-.556) against left-handers than right-handers. Phillies in four.
American League Division Series
Red Sox over Angels
This series is enough to drive us out of the prediction business for life. How do you pick it? The Angels went 8-1 against the Red Sox during the season. The Red Sox have swept two straight postseason series against the Angels (2004, 2007). And these are the only two AL teams that got a vote in our poll. So good luck.
What was really fascinating was the debate over these clubs among the baseball people we surveyed.
One thing we'll say is, the Angels' proponents were vociferous. They're "the most complete team, top to bottom," said one NL GM. And "they finally have enough offense," said one AL executive.
But there were lots of skeptics, too. One AL exec said that lineup "isn't all that scary," even with Mark Teixeira. And another questioned "whether they'll score enough runs." Well, there's good reason to raise that question. Boston outscored the Angels by 80 runs during the season -- and by 43 runs just in the past two months, after the Red Sox subtracted Manny and the Angels added Teixeira.
On the other hand, the Red Sox have their issues, too. They're "really banged up," said one AL exec. And an NL scout said, pointedly: "They're not the same club without Manny. I don't care what anybody says."
Then there's the Josh Beckett X factor. Beckett's Mr. October presence alone could have been reason enough to pick the Red Sox. Now that his oblique injury has surfaced, we don't know whether he's starting in Game 3, Game 4 or next March in Fort Myers.
But there are also scouts wondering whether the Angels' Game 1 starter, John Lackey, is healthy, after his 10-run blowup last Friday (and 4.99 second-half ERA). And Game 2 starter Ervin Santana gave up eight runs in his last start before the playoffs.
Yet another concern about the Angels, said one NL executive, is that, in October, "it's no longer about your best 25 players, which is the way you win a lot of games from April to September. October is about your best 16 or 18 players." And it's the Red Sox who have more game-changers in that top 16 to 18, assuming they're all healthy.
Finally, there are also folks unsure whether the Angels can find their ignition, since -- in one NL exec's words -- "they haven't played a meaningful game since spring training." Well, we wonder ourselves. So assuming Beckett heals up enough to start at least once, we're playing a hunch: Red Sox in five.
Rays over White Sox
America may love an underdog. But nobody we polled loved the Rays enough to pick them to win it all. Whatever that says about them, though, it doesn't mean they'll get bounced out in the first round.
"I could see Tampa Bay getting to the second round," said one scout. "After that, I don't know. But I'm not walking away from that team. I really believe there are teams of destiny, and this is one of them."
But this is also a team with the best pitching numbers in the AL field, and it's a great defensive club -- and the Rays get to kick off the postseason at home, in their beloved House That Wilson Alvarez Built (where they went 57-24). So Rays in four.
National League Championship Series
Cubs over Phillies
One of these Octobers, the baseball gods were bound to bring these two franchises together, with a World Series on the line. The Cubs may have gone a century without a title. But the Phillies (one championship in 125 years) haven't exactly been the Yankees reincarnate, either, you know.
The Phillies did go 4-2 against the Cubs this year and easily could have gone 6-0. But that whiff-prone Phillies offense isn't a good match for a Cubs staff that led the big leagues in strikeouts. Check out the numbers of the Phillies' four biggest bats against pitchers with ERAs under 3.50:
Ryan Howard .176 average/.619 OPS
Chase Utley .202 average/.604 OPS
Pat Burrell .211 average/.705 OPS
Jimmy Rollins .239 average/.671 OPS
World Series staffs are traditionally built around strikeout pitchers -- and the Cubs' pitchers out-K'd the Phillies' staff by nearly 200 (1,264-1,081).
"I like the power arms [the Cubs] bring to the postseason, where you have off days and what seems like time to rest," said one AL exec. And so do we. Cubs in six.
American League Championship Series
Red Sox over Rays
The Rays just won two out of three against Boston in two different epic September series. But life is different during the great Octoberfest.
There's experience up and down that Red Sox postseason roster, where at least 20 names on their October scorecard (depending on roster composition) have been there, done this. This team isn't as healthy as the club Boston brought to the playoff dance floor last year. But it has a certain grit to it that will make it tough to oust.
This is an "experienced, balanced club, able to win in many ways," said one NL GM -- who then felt the urge to add one more word: "Leadership."
And if Tampa Bay's vulnerabilities are going to show up, this will be the round.
"I think the Rays' bullpen will fail them in October," said one AL GM. An AL executive predicted they'll "show their inexperience." And this is not the time of year to depend on role players -- the kind who have had so many huge moments for this team -- to lift a club onto the World Series portion of the October stage. So Red Sox in six.
Cubs over Red Sox
First of all, just try to grasp the magnitude of this matchup if it happens.
"I could guarantee you right now," said Boston's Sean Casey, "that we'd set a record for [TV] ratings. It'll be nuts, man. Just nuts."
Think about all the players who have connected the dots between these two storied franchises -- Bill Buckner, Dennis Eckersley, Andre Dawson, even Calvin Schiraldi.
Think about the ballparks -- Wrigley and Fenway. More history inside those walls than the Smithsonian.
It almost seems meant to be. But when you stack up the two baseball teams, we'll take the Cubs.
Similar lineups. Deep rotations. Great leatherworkers. But Octobers often come down to bullpen dominance, and we'll go with that Cubs' bullpen in this duel. Marmol and Wood combined for 198 strikeouts in 153 2/3 innings -- making them the only bullpen duo in baseball that averaged over 11 K's per nine innings apiece. Jonathan Papelbon-Justin Masterson isn't bad. But it isn't that dominating.
And that sums up why we're picking the Cubs. No matter where you look, you can't find a serious hole. So the people we surveyed say they have just one real worry:
"They will be playing with more pressure than anyone in the playoffs," said one AL GM.
"If and when they do reach the World Series," said an NL GM, "the franchise history will either energize them or wear them down, with all the talk about 100 years."
But what's the big deal about one measly, parade-free century? The waiting only makes it better when you win. You could ask, well, the Red Sox.
"That [Cubs] fandom is out of control right now," said one NL GM. "They've been waiting so long. The excitement around that team now is like nothing I've ever seen. It's getting like that Boston-ish atmosphere in 2004."
That energy could U-turn against them, of course, if things spin the wrong way in one of these series. But if we're spending even 30 seconds thinking about that, we've got it all wrong, says the same GM. This time around, he thinks, Cubs history is going to provide the fuel, not the demons.
"To me, you'd rather have that electricity, and take the chance you can live up to it, than to not have it and try to find it," he said. "Some teams have to hope for it. The Cubs aren't one of them. It's there."
Yep. It's there, all right. It's all there. So here's our advice to all our friends in Chicago who are threatening never to talk to us again:
Don't blame us now -- because in four weeks you'll be thanking us. Just as soon as you finish wiping the confetti -- and the tears -- out of your eyes.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com