Well, here we go again. It's that column you've all been waiting for -- The One Where Stark Makes Himself Look Like An Idiot Like He Does This Time Every Year.
Yep, it's time to pick the team that's going to win the 2011 World Series. And even though I probably have a better shot of predicting the weather forecast in Copenhagen on Christmas Eve, bear with me, OK?
Before you start printing up those Stark Is A Knucklehead T-shirts, I want you to appreciate how absurd it is even to attempt this. Think about the team that won it all last year. That would be the Giants.
I'm willing to bet my entire 401(k) that not even Tim Lincecum was sitting around late last March figuring on … Pablo Sandoval being just about a total October nonfactor … and Andres Torres arising from the scrap heap to get 67 extra-base hits last season … and a guy who got released by Tampa Bay (Pat Burrell) batting cleanup in Game 1 of the World Series … and a fellow who got claimed on waivers (Cody Ross) hitting two home runs off Roy Halladay in a postseason game … and the World Series MVP award going to a man (Edgar Renteria) who bopped two three-run homers in the Series after hitting none in the entire season.
There isn't a crystal-ball shop in America that could provide prognosticators like me with that kind of info seven months in advance. So after 11 years of writing this same, ill-fated column, I've finally figured out two things: (A) It's hopeless. And (B) it's for entertainment purposes only (as opposed to run-straight-to-Vegas purposes).
So if this is going to be for entertainment purposes only, what better way to select this year's winner than with a concept "Entertainment Tonight" viewers everywhere could relate to? And by that, of course, I mean …
This time around, we're doing it "Dancing With the Stars" style.
So how's this going to work? Simple. We're all going to strike up the band, tap our toes, pair off a National League contender with its dance partner from the American League, and keep sending these beautiful couples home until we have ourselves an official 2011 dancing king.
Pure genius. Isn't it? (Sorry. No toll-free numbers are available for you to send in your vote on that particular question.)
Unfortunately, I couldn't offer our contestants the chance to tango with Brandy or Erin Andrews. But I could offer them the chance to answer this up-tempo little question:
If the baseball season were an episode of "Dancing With the Stars," what would your team's best dance move be?
"Boy, we play such long games," said the Yankees' Curtis Granderson, "it would have to be something like a waltz."
"I'm going to say the cha-cha slide," quipped the Braves' Nate McLouth, "for no other reason than it's my favorite dance-move name. Can I actually do the cha-cha slide? Uhh, no. I could nail the slide. But I don't know about the cha-cha part."
"Well, it's definitely not the tango because we're not all that flashy," said the Twins' Michael Cuddyer. "And it's not the waltz because we're not going to lull you to sleep. And it's not the fox-trot. We don't have the quick feet. So I'm going to say it's just a typical ballroom dance because we go out and try to do things the right way, the way it's put in the textbooks, and hopefully, when it's all said and done, we've done it right."
Now, fortunately, all these teams are going to be required to play out this season on a ball field, not in a ballroom. So this won't technically come down to who can do the best cha-cha slide. But any minute now, the lights will start shining and those ball fields will be rocking. So everybody ready? Let's dance.
Thanks for coming
Pirates, Royals, Indians, Mariners, Astros, Nationals, Diamondbacks, Mets.
As with every dance, somebody has to go home unhappy. Sorry about that. The music plays. The refreshments are served. But some folks never quite get past the edge of the dance floor. And that would be this group. These teams all have talent. Wouldn't shock me a bit if three or four of them finish ahead of some of the dancers I've allowed to move on to the big stage. They're just not ready to win the World Series -- not this World Series, anyway. So thanks for coming. See you all next year.
Dancing in the wings
Blue Jays-Marlins, Angels-Dodgers, Orioles-Cubs.
These are three good-looking couples if you catch them in exactly the right light. But to win the big dance, just a little too much has to happen for us to let them keep spinning. Our judges look at them something like this:
Blue Jays-Marlins: If these two played in, say, the AL and NL Central, the band might keep playing for these two. But they're both Easterners, building more for a paso doble down the road than for 2011. One baseball man I surveyed predicts the Jays will win 87 games. Even if he's right, that's just not enough in the AL East.
Lots of big arms here, with more on the way. But can they get enough late-inning dependability out of Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch? Is their catcher (J.P. Arencibia) ready? Can Adam Lind adjust to first base? Can Aaron Hill bounce back? Big questions.
And one scout who covers the NL East says he thinks the Marlins will finish ahead of the Braves. But that's clearly a minority opinion. Is Chris Coghlan going to be able to handle center field? Will the Marlins catch the ball well enough in the outfield except where Mike Stanton is roaming? Will they figure out third base? Will their bullpen moves work? Will their rotation stay healthy? Will they play with enough sense of urgency? The guess, with both teams, is: Bright futures, but their time isn't quite now.
Angels-Dodgers: In Southern California, the music never stops. So both these teams are hard to write off.
But one GM looks at this edition of the Angels and says: "I just don't see it -- not at all." Iffy bullpen. Big Kendrys Morales questions. Bigger Scott Kazmir questions. Not a built-for-Mike Scioscia-type lineup. Too many issues.
And the Dodgers, for all their talent, are too scary for Bruno and Carrie Ann to get behind. Tough to trust that the owner has any money to address midseason needs. Tough to trust the young, volatile Matt Kemp/Jonathan Broxton/Chad Billingsley core to grit it out if they fall behind the Giants and Rockies. "It's about chemistry at some point," one scout says. "And I'm not buying into that chemistry."
Orioles-Cubs: Two markets dying for a winner. Two new managers who had impactful Septembers. Two reconstructed rosters that offer hope and upside. But is there enough to samba all the way to October? Not for our judges.
"Much tougher lineup," one AL executive said of the Orioles. "Just not enough pitching." And the Cubs? "Pretty good sleeper team," an NL GM said. "Better pitching than people give them credit for," an NL scout said.
"I can see them staying in it because of the division," one scout said. "But I don't see them winning the World Series." And to be honest, I'd have to ignore him even if he did, because it's time to repeat a vow I made years ago: I'm never picking the Cubs to win the World Series again. Ever. Not in this lifetime. Maybe not even in my next lifetime.
Turn up the lights
Here's where I'm about to start making calls I don't want to make. Once we reach the sweet 16, everybody left on the dance floor deserves better than the fate that's about to befall most of them. But it's time for four more couples to two-step on home. So here we go:
Rays-Padres: There's a lot to love about the Rays, a team that could be way better than most Americans seem to think. But is Manny Ramirez really going to stay in what one exec called "his happy place" all year? If noted heartbreaker Kyle Farnsworth is their closer, can their bullpen possibly approach the shutdown heights it hit last year? Will they score enough without Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena? And is it safe to believe in their potentially great young rotation? "I could see them winning 87 or 88 games," one scout said. "But I don't see them in the 90s." And, as our judges observed earlier, if you don't get to the 90s in the AL East, it's trouble.
Meanwhile, the Padres are here for only two reasons: (1) Needed to pair the Rays up with somebody. And (2) they did win 90 games last year. But are they truly a bunch of win-the-World Series mambo kings waiting to happen, with no Adrian Gonzalez around to cover up all their lineup holes? Don't see it. "Last year," one GM said, "there was a magic-carpet-ride roll to the season. I don't anticipate that happening again."
Twins-Cardinals: It scares me to tell this handsome duo it's outta here. I know the Twins will find a way, despite all their health questions, because they always do. I know the Cardinals will play their butts off and compete, even without Adam Wainwright, because they always do. But when you find yourself in the no-win March predictions business, you're forced to weigh the known and unknown heavily. And there's just too much that's unknown about both of these contestants to allow them to keep spinning across this floor. "If you told me that [Justin] Morneau and [Joe] Mauer would play 150 games each, I'd say the Twins win that division," one AL exec said. "But there's no way to know that."
And in the Cardinals' case, "They need Kyle McClellan to pitch like he has this spring [when he had an 0.53 ERA]," one scout said. "And they need their All-Star players to have career years. They have very little margin for error." So much as I know that Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa could make me regret this, I just can't bank on everything falling right.
White Sox-Brewers: If either of these teams won the World Series, who would be shocked? Not me. Not you. Not Donny and Marie Osmond. So I know I'm on shaky ground, stopping the music on them this early. But when you bring up the White Sox to people around the game, it's amazing how many say they have no idea what to make of them. "I never know with them," said an official of one AL team. "I think I might have less feel for them than any team in baseball, every year. They have a lot of talent. But they're so combustible." And an NL executive calls them "the biggest boom-or-bust team in baseball." So will Jake Peavy win 12 games or two? Will Matt Thornton, the closer, miss Matt Thornton, the setup dominator? Will Ozzie Guillen talk himself right out the door? You've got me.
And then there are the Brewers. With Prince Fielder's meter running, it's a must-win year. So the good news is, they mashed the ball all spring. But how well will they catch it? Will Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum be healthy and dealing by May 1? Will Prince be able to handle the pressures of free agency? And, maybe most importantly, will they get off to a good start? "They have no farm system left," one GM said. "So if they struggle early, they'll have no choice but to talk about Prince. And then what?" Yeah, good question. Then what? They do the limbo. That's what.
Tigers-Reds: I don't like telling these two teams their fox-trotting days are done, either. I picked each of them to win its division. And if they're still dancing in October, you wouldn't want to match up with either of them. The Tigers might have stockpiled more power arms than any team in baseball. Victor Martinez could be a huge offensive addition. And Justin Verlander (0.96 ERA) "looks like he might win 25 games," one exec said. But will Miguel Cabrera keep himself pointed in the right direction? How healthy will Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge be? Will Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello pick up where they left off down the stretch? The biggest thing, one AL exec said, is that "they need Cabrera to be Cabrera."
The Reds, meanwhile, have the look of a team on the rise, a team that can withstand even all the pitching issues that busted out this spring. "I wouldn't have said this before spring training," one GM said. "But with Wainwright out for the year, and Greinke and Marcum sketchy in Milwaukee, if you were going to ask me which team in baseball I think is most likely to win its division, I'd say the Reds." But despite all their depth, on both the roster and in their system, here's the reason we're turning out the lights on them: "To win [the World Series], they need an ace to go up against the Phillies in October," one scout said. "They need somebody to match up with [Roy] Halladay." That somebody probably needs to be Edinson Volquez. But that 8.38 ERA he piled up in spring training wasn't quite what our judges needed to buy this dream.
The Elite Eight
Just eight teams -- four dynamic duos -- remain. And at this point, this process gets officially ridiculous. If all goes according to the master plan, every one of these teams can beat just about anyone it's asked to jitterbug against. Nevertheless, it's time for three more twosomes to call it a night:
A's-Rockies: If you don't see a lot to love about these two teams, you must be watching a different dance floor than I am because both of them can flash some moves you won't see anywhere else. Many teams, for instance, aspire to be this year's Giants. But nobody is better built to pull it off than the A's, a team that led the planet in quality starts last year. So if Oakland can figure out how to navigate its way into October, who would want to have to face Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden -- four pitchers who allowed two runs or fewer a combined 65 times last year? "That's a staff that could run through October," one AL executive said. "They're going to win a lot of 2-1 games. You know, Billy [Beane] has always talked about running a soccer team. Well, that's basically what he's done this year."
The Rockies, meanwhile, have two of the most dynamic, most charismatic young stars in the sport, in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. And everyone who ran across the Rockettes this spring gushed about the never-ending energy they play with.
So how come we're going to give these two cucaracha kings a ticket home? Well, in Oakland's case, the A's might be built for October, but are they built for the other six months? Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham are all useful lineup upgrades. But "I still think run scoring is going to be an issue," one GM said. The Rockies, on the other hand, are just about Oakland's mirror image. I love their chances of making it to the postseason, but then what? "I really like their team," one NL exec said. "I just don't think they're a win-the-World Series type team. To win three playoff series, you have to have incredible starting pitching. And after [Ubaldo] Jimenez, that's not what they have."
Rangers-Giants: Hmmm. Haven't we seen these two contestants on center stage before someplace? Well, they might not be the favorites to meet in the next World Series dance-off, but you won't catch this judge writing them off. I'm stunned that not a single ESPN "expert" picked the Rangers to get back to the World Series. But if they did get back, it wouldn't shock anybody I surveyed. "They don't have Cliff Lee, but they have all the pieces to get a pitcher if they need one," one AL executive said. "And they have the payroll flexibility to do it." The Rangers also have a lead-the-league-in-runs kind of offense. They're better defensively with Adrian Beltre at third. And the decision to send Neftali Feliz back to the bullpen gives them the potential to dominate the end of any game.
The Giants, meanwhile, rode that championship aura to a phenomenal spring, other than the health issues of Brian Wilson and Cody Ross. True, they didn't go out and add an impact bat this winter. But they have a healthy Mark DeRosa now and a fitter Pablo Sandoval, and that, one scout said, "could be such a huge factor."
So what's stopping our judges from allowing these two juggernauts to advance? In the Rangers' case, until they go out and deal for that legit October-type ace, it's tough to pick them over teams that have one. And as for those Giants, our viewers have two questions: (1) Is enough lightning going to strike this same bottle to allow them to outpace the Rockies over the next six months? And (2) as one NL executive put it, "I still think last year will take its toll on this pitching staff. It might not show up until midseason, but [Bruce] Bochy rides those guys hard." So as much as it hurts to ask these two to turn in their sequins, that's the deal.
Yankees-Braves: Yes, we're down to our final two couples now. So any fault we find from here on out is just nitpicking. But let's start our breakdown of these two runner-ups with this important question: If there were no such teams as the Red Sox and Phillies, how differently would you be looking at the dance moves of the Yankees and Braves, huh? The Yankees, said Nick Swisher, can throw any kind of move at you, from a salsa to a fox-trot. And the Braves, said team president John Schuerholz, would be America's ultimate waltzers -- "steady and consistent and smooth, with the same rhythm over a long period of time." So, could either team here outdance anybody it's paired with in October? Absolutely. Which means both of them are way too underrated heading into the season.
All right, so the Yankees have rotation questions. You might have heard about that someplace. But they should have enough rotation inventory to survive 'til the trading deadline. Their offense should score like 900 runs. And their bullpen shortens every game they play. So one AL executive literally burst out in laughter as he attempted to call them "that plucky $200 million underdog." To win the whole thing, he said, "they need to make a big move for a starting pitcher who won't be on their team on Opening Day. And they're going to need CC [Sabathia] to have a huge year." But let's just say he also expects both of those things to happen.
And the Braves, said an NL executive, might be "the most well-rounded team in baseball," not that many Americans have caught on to that yet. Dan Uggla is a gigantic offensive addition for a team that finished 10th in the league in slugging last year. Chipper Jones had a spectacular spring, half a year removed from knee surgery. And if good-looking rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman is hitting eighth, this should be one deep lineup, to go with a pitching staff that, top to bottom, is actually deeper than the Phillies' staff.
So why aren't these two teams still dancing in the streets? Only because the folks who voted on this little dance program had slightly more reservations about them than they did about the Red Sox and Phillies. The Yankees? They haven't traded for King Felix yet. And it's very possible that, when they actually do start shopping in July, about the best arm out there could be someone along the lines of Wandy Rodriguez. And the Braves? Not enough faith yet in Chipper's ability to stay healthy, in Nate McLouth's comeback, in the young guys in critical roles (Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters) and, maybe above all, in their infield defense.
"They've got four sinkerballers in the rotation," one scout said. "And look at the range in their infield. Does anybody in that infield have average range?" But as I was saying, this is just nitpicking. Only two ESPN "experts" picked either of these teams to win the World Series. But we could all look back in seven months and ask ourselves, "What the heck were we thinking?"
That World Series dance-off
So then there were two. Just two teams remaining. And yes, they're the Vegas favorites -- the Red Sox and Phillies. So, as the orchestra begins to play, it's time for me to put on my Tom Bergeron top hat and ask our ever-popular finalists what sort of dance steps they would break out to propel them to everlasting fame, glory and triumph.
"We don't waltz around here," said the Phillies' Jimmy "Bojangles" Rollins. "We'd be doing the merengue, something like that, something up-tempo. We'll be like the UNLV Runnin' Rebels. We'll try to run you out of the ballpark early."
But wait. The UNLV Runnin' Rebels have never been confused with the cast of "Stomp," if you know what I mean. So even Rollins' teammates aren't sure that's the showstopper they'd pick.
"It's got to be something with swagger," said reliever J.C. "Nureyev" Romero. "I would go with ballroom salsa because in ballroom salsa, the girl is stunning and the man is all elegance, and out in the lead. And that's this team -- elegance, with smoothness and swagger. But you've got to execute all the steps. That's the key."
Whoa, that's way more dance knowledge than the author of this column brought to this production (in case that hadn't become clear by now). And it turned out it was way more than the Red Sox brought to this ballroom, too.
Asked to reveal his team's best dance move, Red Sox manager Terry Francona could only shake his head and announce: "Well, the manager would have none." And Carl Crawford was right there with him.
"I don't do no dances," Crawford said, softly. "Same old two-step for me."
Fortunately, David "Baryshnikov Papi" Ortiz then stepped up to save them. He knows, he said, that "everyone is trying to dance with us." So what strain of "Dance Fever" does this team need to break out to outdance them all? It's about the arms, Ortiz said, not the feet.
"I still believe that in the end, good pitching stops good offense, so I'd stick with my pitchers," Ortiz said. "So I would say these guys would dance to pop because they've definitely got pop. We've got four Americans and one Japanese guy. So I'd have to go with pop over salsa for them."
And hey, he's Big "Pop"-py, right? And this competition is officially "in the end." So now that these guys have gone Alvin Ailey on us and worked out the choreography …
On with our show
Wave so long to the Phillies: They tried their best to smooth-talk the judges. The judges were having none of it.
"You're a smart guy," Rollins lobbied the host. "We could make you look smarter."
But the host was having none of it. The host had a show to orchestrate. So, what was going to decide the Phillies' fate was this:
Was the sheer potential untouchability of their all-Astaire rotation enough to cover up the exit of Jayson Werth, the uncertain futures of Chase Utley and Brad Lidge, and the aging of their once-glittering array of position players? And the answer, at least for now, was (shakily) yes.
"The Phillies, to me, are still, clearly, the best team in the National League," one NL GM said. "All they need to do is survive the first half until everybody gets healthy."
With Opening Day approaching, of course, it's easier to say that from the outside looking in than it is for the Phillies themselves to say it when they're trying to replace their No. 3 and No. 5 hitters (Utley and Werth), and their closer is starting the season on the disabled list for the third time in four years. But that's where this rotation comes in.
"Their pitching is so good, they're going to play in October," the same GM said. "They don't have to field their best nine in April. They have to field their best nine in October. So, if any team in baseball can be patient, it's the Phillies. With those four pitchers, they're going to be there. So get everyone ready for September and October."
If the Giants could win this last World Series with their arms, only a total lunkhead would think the Phillies couldn't win the next World Series with the aces they'll be dealing from their deck. But we still can't anoint them as the last tapper standing on this dance floor -- because there's no team in baseball with more ways to out-tango you than …
Your 2011 champs -- the Red Sox
In the 11 years I've been writing this column, I've picked many a long shot to win the big dance. And after going up in flames on all of them, I've learned something: There's a reason those teams are long shots. Long shots make you look like a genius for about the first 30 seconds after you pick them. Then they spend the next six months making you look like a dope.
So I've finally figured out there's not a darned thing wrong with going with the chalk at times like this -- especially when the chalk makes as compelling a case for itself as the Red Sox make. Remember now, they finished second in the big leagues in runs scored last year -- and that was before they went out this winter and added Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. So how good can this team be?
Do I wish the Red Sox hadn't ripped off a 10-game losing streak before they bailed out of Florida? Hey, ya think? Do I wish Jonathan Papelbon hadn't pitched this spring like a guy trying to start a closer controversy? Heck, yeah. Do I wish I had just a little more confidence in Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Dice-K to pitch the way they're supposed to pitch? Of course.
But then I remind myself: You can find glitches like this in everybody's outfit. And when you're making predictions in the last week of March, it's important to remember that. So, frankly, the glitches in this dance troupe scare me less than the glitches in any other troupe I looked at.
"Everyone in Major League Baseball has some kind of fatal weakness -- except the Red Sox," said the same GM who rated the Phillies the NL's best. "I mean, what's their weakness -- that they're not going to crush left-handed pitching? If that's the worst thing people can pick out, they're in a good place.
"They should have really good starting pitching. They should have a really good bullpen. They've got speed and power. So every other team out there has way more significant holes than they do. Look, things can always go wrong. [Jon] Lester could go down. Crawford could go down. If that happens, it's a different story. But we're at the starting line. And I don't see how you can look at that team and not think they're a huge favorite."
Well, you know what? I don't, either.
They're better than the Phillies. They're better than the Yankees. They're better than the Rangers. They're better than everyone who has pirouetted across this stage. In the last week of March, anyhow, they're better. And that's all I have to go on.
So in the end, this ain't no disco. And this ain't no prom. But it is about stayin' alive. And if the rest of the sport wants to take a shot at out-cha-cha-ing the Red Sox, we wish those other teams luck. But Opening Day looms. And luckily, it's time now for all these teams to start dancing for real.
"Yeah, here we are," said Jimmy Rollins. "Let's tango."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst