- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The equipment trucks are idling for the trip home, the World Baseball Classic is but a memory, and commissioner Bud Selig can turn his attention from "Game of Shadows'' fallout to the sense of discomfort he's about to feel during the Barry Bonds 715th home run celebration.
With the Indians-White Sox season opener a mere six days away, here's a look at the 30 big-league clubs (listed by estimated strength) and potential best-case, worst-case scenarios for 2006:
Last World Series title: 2005.
Best case: General manager Kenny Williams' offseason acquisitions look great in hindsight. Javier Vazquez makes a formidable rotation even stronger, and Jim Thome thrives in his return to the American League. The White Sox repeat as AL Central champions -- even without Carl Everett's leadership.
Worst case: After going 61-33 in games decided by two runs or less and staying injury-free in 2005, the Sox aren't so fortunate this time. They start slowly, and manager Ozzie Guillen's postgame comments don't seem so charming after losses. The Sox finish second to Cleveland and miss out on the wild card. No parades this year.
Last World Series title: 2000.
Best case: Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina pitch productively for old geezers, and Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright get out of the trainer's room and begin justifying their salaries. Johnny Damon upgrades baseball's most potent lineup, and the Yankees lead the majors in runs on their way to 100 victories and an American League East title.
Worst case: When Gary Sheffield isn't moping about his contract situation, he's dispensing "no comments'' about BALCO. The rotation looks older by the day, and the bullpen shows too many cracks behind Mariano Rivera. Boston and Toronto mount spirited challenges, and the Yankees finish a shocking third to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Last World Series title: 1989.
Best case: Bobby Crosby and Mark Kotsay stay healthy. Milton Bradley blends seamlessly into the clubhouse dynamic. The A's ride their starting pitching to the AL West title and play deep into October, and Baseball Prospectus responds with an essay titled "Why Billy Beane's [expletive] finally worked in the playoffs.''
Worst case: Barry Zito, always one to overanalyze, presses in anticipation of free agency and has a tough year. Rich Harden fails to stay healthy. Frank Thomas goes on and off the DL, and the A's lack punch from the right side. Bradley has the inevitable meltdown and causes problems in the clubhouse. The A's win 88 games and finish second to the Angels.
Last World Series title: 1948.
Best case: Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Cleveland's young hitters are even better this year, and Jason Michaels, Casey Blake and Aaron Boone perform well in complementary roles. The Indians build on their 93-win season and hold off the White Sox and Twins for the AL Central title.
Worst case: Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson aren't nearly as good as Kevin Millwood and Scott Elarton were in 2005. The bullpen implodes behind a shaky Bob Wickman. When the Indians get off to a slow start, fan dissatisfaction with ownership builds and ticket sales take a dive.
Last World Series title: 1982.
Best case: Scott Rolen's shoulder heals well enough for him to approximate his production of two years ago, and Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Sidney Ponson all make 30-plus starts. The Cardinals don't win 100 for a third straight year, but 90-plus is easily enough for a third straight division title.
Worst case: Second base and left field are season-long trouble spots. Rolen's shoulder prevents him from driving the ball, and the mysterious numbness in Jim Edmonds' forearm persists. Albert Pujols can't do it alone, and the Cardinals finish second to the Astros.
Last World Series title: 1995.
Best case: All those rookies are even better the second time around. Roger McDowell bonds with the pitching staff and makes Leo Mazzone's departure a nonissue. Chris Reitsma and Oscar Villarreal take care of the closer's job, and the Braves win 95 games and capture their 15th straight division title. (Feel free to yawn).
Worst case: The closer spot is a constant source of irritation. Edgar Renteria follows up his 30-error season with another 30-error season, and the Braves miss Rafael Furcal more than they realized. The Mets win the NL East and the energetic Brewers capture the wild card, and Bobby Cox's team is idle during the playoffs for the first time since 1990.
Last World Series title: 1986.
Best case: Pedro Martinez gives them 220 innings worth of brilliance. The words Billy Wagner and "irritated tendon sheath'' never appear in the same sentence after spring training. The offense is lethal with Carlos Delgado and David Wright in the middle, and the Mets run away with the NL East title.
Worst case: Pedro's toe attracts more attention than Adam Vinatieri's. Jose Reyes posts a .310 on base percentage out of the leadoff spot. And Carlos Beltran's mediocre 2005 season was no fluke; he really is allergic to playing in New York. Omar Minaya takes a beating in the tabloids as the Mets finish third behind the Braves and Phillies.
Last World Series title: 2004.
Best case: Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett give the Sox a one-two punch to compete with anyone. Keith Foulke rediscovers his prime closer form. When Wily Mo Pena hits 30 homers, the Sons of Sam Horn Web site crashes from overuse. We knew Theo would get this thing straightened out.
Worst case: Beckett discovers that Fenway Park isn't Dolphins Stadium, and that the AL East and NL East are entirely different entities. Manny Ramirez issues six trade requests by the All-Star break, and it's clear that Mike Lowell and J.T. Snow have very little to offer offensively. It's a wall-to-wall whine-a-thon in New England.
Last World Series title: 2002.
Best case: Who said they needed another big veteran bat? Casey Kotchman and Juan Rivera blossom with more playing time, and a deeper rotation and more versatile bullpen help the Angels fend off Oakland for the AL West title. Catcher Jeff Mathis is terrific, and there are lots more kids on the way.
Worst case: Garret Anderson is officially fading at age 33, and it's clear that general manager Bill Stoneman needed to sign Paul Konerko or trade for Manny Ramirez to get Vladimir Guerrero more help. The offensive-challenged Angels win 86 games and finish out of the postseason.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 2005 -- lost in WS).
Best case: Preston Wilson brings some needed punch to the lineup, and the pitching keeps Houston afloat until Roger Clemens rejoins the rotation in June. The Astros, behind Cy Young Award winner Roy Oswalt, win 92 games and edge the fading Cardinals for the NL Central title.
Worst case: Willy Taveras, say hello to the sophomore jinx. Craig Biggio can no longer catch up to a good fastball at age 40, and Wilson kills lots of rallies with his 170 whiffs. The offense can't sustain any consistency, and morale dips when Clemens signs with Texas. Jeff Bagwell's retirement speech is the most poignant moment of the 2006 highlight film.
Last World Series title: 1993.
Best case: Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett take care of the front end of the rotation, and B.J. Ryan solidifies the back end of the bullpen. Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay hit with the desired impact, and the Jays win 92 games and make the playoffs behind MVP Vernon Wells.
Worst case: Burnett's cranky elbow keeps him out for an extended period. The pitching is undermined by a shaky infield defense. The Blue Jays are better, but J.P. Ricciardi's multi-million dollar acquisitions can't propel them past New York and Boston in the AL East.
Last World Series title: 1991.
Best case: Rondell White brings a professional, veteran bat to the middle of the order, Torii Hunter steers clear of fences, Justin Morneau becomes the first Minnesota player to hit 30 homers in 18 years and the Twins easily surpass their 658 runs of a year ago. With all that pitching, they win 90 games and make a serious playoff bid.
Worst case: Tony Batista is overweight and ineffective, Luis Castillo's hamstrings can't hold up at the Metrodome and the Twins get minimal offense from the shortstop position. They win 83 games again and finish a forgettable third behind Chicago and Cleveland in the AL Central.
Last World Series title: 1980.
Best case: Jimmy Rollins breaks Joe DiMaggio's 56-game streak in late April, and the starting rotation of Jon Lieber, Brett Myers, Cory Lidle, Ryan Madson and Ryan Franklin is fine, particularly with Randy Wolf due back by the All-Star break. Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley provide enough offense for 90 wins and a playoff berth.
Worst case: A thin bullpen goes south when Tom Gordon and Arthur Rhodes show their age and Rheal Cormier is bad for the second straight year. When the Phillies get off to a slow start, manager Charlie Manuel is pilloried on the talk shows and the Fire Pat Gillick Web site makes its debut.
Last World Series title: 1988.
Best case: Derek Lowe and Brad Penny anchor the front end of the rotation, and Eric Gagne and Danys Baez are airtight in the eighth and ninth. After the Dodgers win the NL West, Grady Little is named Manager of the Year and Ned Colletti wins Executive of the Year in a vote of his peers.
Worst case: J.D. Drew and Kenny Lofton land on the disabled list, and the Dodgers' outfield is an offensive wasteland. Nomar Garciaparra plays excellent defense at first base, but where's the offensive production? The Dodgers are forced to tap their minor-league talent pipeline and the kids are still too raw to carry them to October.
Last World Series title: 1954.
Best case: A starting rotation led by Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Matt Cain and Noah Lowry produces a major turnaround from a year ago, when the Giants ranked 22nd in the majors in quality starts. Barry Bonds, oblivious to pressure as always, hits No. 715 before the end of April to pass Babe Ruth. Then the Giants buckle down and roll to an NL West title.
Worst case: Felipe Alou's collection of old-timers falls victim to the inevitable aches, pains and disabled-list visits. The circus surrounding Bonds is overwhelming even for a veteran team. When the Giants finish fourth, it's time for GM Brian Sabean to rip it up and start fresh.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 1982 -- lost in WS).
Best case: Pitching coach Mike Maddux works his usual magic with Dave Bush and Jose Capellan, Ben Sheets gives the Brewers 33 starts and the kids provide enough energy and excitement to help Milwaukee reach the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Can you say "2003 Marlins revisited"?
Worst case: Sheets breaks down again. Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins are inconsistent at the plate, putting too much pressure on Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder. The Brewers, overwhelmed by the "dark horse'' prediction, get off to a slow start and struggle to finish .500 for the second straight year.
Last World Series title: 1908.
Best case: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood quiet the doubters with big seasons. Wade Miller is good, too, and Dusty Baker suddenly has more pitching than he can accommodate. Juan Pierre gives the team the desired lift out of the leadoff spot and the Cubs turn out to be the White Sox of 2006. They sail through the NL Central and win the World Series.
Worst case: The Prior-Wood injury watch becomes a season-long fiasco, and Baker and GM Jim Hendry get cranky over the constant second-guessing from Steve Stone and Mike Marshall. And Dusty's unsettled contract situation is an ongoing distraction. The Cubs limp home an uninspired fifth.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 1996 -- lost in ALDS).
Best case: Kevin Millwood, Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla make a smooth transition to Ameriquest Field, and the Rangers' rotation takes a major step forward when owner Tom Hicks convinces Roger Clemens to come to Arlington in May. The new, pitching-fortified Rangers battle the Angels and A's for the division title down to the final week.
Worst case: The outfield is shaky when Brad Wilkerson's shoulder problems linger, and Gary Matthews Jr. and Laynce Nix fail to provide what the Rangers need in center. The starting pitching never gels, and closer Francisco Cordero and third baseman Hank Blalock don't regain their 2004 form. It's third place for Buck Showalter's club.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 1998 -- lost in WS).
Best case: Josh Barfield and Khalil Greene give manager Bruce Bochy a dynamic young double-play combination, and Mike Cameron solidifies the up-the-middle defense in center. In the season's ultimate feel-good story, Trevor Hoffman breaks Lee Smith's career saves record on the same day the Padres clinch the NL West title.
Worst case: Chan Ho Park's impressive performance for Team Korea in the WBC was a mirage. Opposing base stealers run wild on Mike Piazza and he flounders offensively at Petco Park. The Padres regress from 82 wins to 76 and finish fourth in a scrambled NL West.
Last World Series title: 1984.
Best case: Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Dmitri Young crush the ball, and fantasy owners have to scramble to acquire radar gun-busting rookies Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Detroit's young pitching is the talk of baseball and the Tigers jump from 71 to 87 wins.
Worst case: The initial enthusiasm generated by new manager Jim Leyland's arrival fades by May. The Tigers endure their 14th consecutive sub-.500 season and Leyland joins Kenny Rogers in anger management class.
Last World Series title: 2001.
Best case: The National League West is muddled, and the Diamondbacks find a way to hang in with Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. New pitching coach Bryan Price brings out the best in Miguel Batista, Orlando Hernandez and Russ Ortiz, and rookie first baseman Conor Jackson justifies the hype. Arizona wins 84 games and finishes first.
Worst case: El Duque sets up base camp in the trainer's room and Ortiz proves definitively that he was one terrible $33 million signing. The bullpen is shaky and the middle of the order lacks sock when Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green continue to decline. It's wait-until-2007 for Bob Melvin's team.
Last World Series title: 1979.
Best case: The young rotation is terrific under the tutelage of new pitching coach Jim Colborn, and Mike Gonzalez emerges as a left-handed Eric Gagne. Flush from the thrill of hosting the All-Star Game, Pittsburgh is the site of meaningful games in September. The Pirates finish with a winning record for the first time since 1992.
Worst case: Sean Casey, Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz fail to upgrade an offense that ranked 14th in the National League in runs scored. The kid pitchers absorb too many lumps and Chris Duffy, Ryan Doumit and the young position players are exposed over a full season.
Last World Series title: 1983.
Best case: Leo Mazzone has the desired influence on Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and the young starters, and young Chris Ray wows 'em at closer. The Orioles fail to make the playoffs but finish a strong fourth behind their emotional and spiritual leader, Kevin Millar.
Worst case: Miguel Tejada goes into an emotional funk over all that losing and Brian Roberts' elbow is a season-long concern. Javy Lopez plays first base as if he's using a skillet instead of a glove. The O's finish last for the first time since 1991, when Randy Milligan was the first baseman and Bob Milacki was the staff ace.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 1995, 2000, 2001 -- lost in ALCS).
Best case: Seattle's rotation is better than expected behind lefties Jamie Moyer and Jarrod Washburn and righty Felix Hernandez. Adrian Beltre puts a mediocre 2005 season behind him and Ichiro Suzuki hits .350 to win the batting title. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt leads the major leagues in Web Gems.
Worst case: The rotation fails to stabilize and the Mariners have a hard time replacing Jeremy Reed in center field. Ichiro Suzuki's WBC-generated enthusiasm fades when the team gets off to another slow start. He's bored by June, and both GM Bill Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove are in trouble.
Last World Series title: 1990.
Best case: Bronson Arroyo helps stabilize the rotation and the outfield of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Austin Kearns combines for 100 homers. Third base prospect Edwin Encarnacion follows up a huge spring with a nice rookie season. The Reds flirt with a .500 record and challenge for fourth in the division.
Worst case: The hitters lead the league in strikeouts, Eric Milton and the pitchers rank first in homers allowed, and the Reds complete the trifecta with suspect defense. At some point Griffey grabs a hamstring and makes another trip to the disabled list. When Dr. Tim Kremchek leads the team in press conferences, it's a bad sign.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 1981 -- lost in NLCS).
Best case: Alfonso Soriano hits 30 homers and knocks in 100 runs, then celebrates by signing a long-term deal. The ham-handed, error-prone club on display all spring turns out to be just a Grapefruit League aberration. The Nats finish .500 again under Frank Robinson.
Worst case: Soriano pouts after his first home stand at RFK Stadium, and he's a disaster in left field. The rotation is a mess behind Livan Hernandez and John Patterson, and the bullpen never recovers from Luis Ayala's injury and its exhausting workload from last season. The Nationals finish fifth behind the scrappy Marlins.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 1995 -- lost in NLDS).
Best case: Todd Helton's hot spring carries over into a nice bounce-back year and Matt Holliday breaks through as a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy. The rotation is respectable with Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook, and the young Rockies play .500 ball for the first time since 2000.
Worst case: The bullpen fails to mesh and the Colorado starters wear down, as they always do. Helton's back problems reappear and prevent him from driving the ball. The euphoria generated by the Rockies' 30-28 finish last year gradually dissipates with too many Byung-Hyun Kim sightings. Welcome to Coors Field, Jose Mesa.
Last World Series title: None (closest: 2004 -- 4th in AL East).
Best case: New manager Joe Maddon proves to be just the right fit with his patience and enthusiasm. Jorge Cantu and Carl Crawford get some deserved national exposure, and Delmon Young makes a splash in his debut. The Rays break the franchise record of 70 victories and finish ahead of Baltimore.
Worst case: The closer's spot is trouble all season, and Scott Kazmir and the young staff absorb too many beatings from the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays. The Rays are a happier team under Maddon than they were under Lou Piniella -- and they still finish fifth.
Last World Series title: 1985.
Best case: They lose only 90 games, and general manager Allard Baird's systematic plan for success bears fruit as David DeJesus plays well, the young arms continue to progress and prized prospect Alex Gordon arrives from Triple-A and commences mashing.
Worst case: Owner David Glass gets tired of the constant losing by June, and Baird and manager Buddy Bell are both replaced. Play-by-play man Denny Matthews suffers a fractured larynx from pronouncing too many Mientkiewiczes and Grudzielaneks. And the Royals drop 100 yet again.
Last World Series title: 2003.
Best case: Jeremy Hermida is Jeff Francoeur, only with more patience. Mike Jacobs hits 20 homers in the cleanup spot and Hanley Ramirez is as good as advertised. All that hard work under new manager Joe Girardi in spring training pays off and the youthful Marlins win a surprising 70 games and challenge Washington for fourth place.
Worst case: Dontrelle Willis jams his hand with a head-first slide and has to sit out six weeks. Miguel Cabrera leads the majors with 180 walks and has a hard time concealing his displeasure. The young pitching can't live up to the hype, and the Marlins fall short of the 60-win mark.