Mets, A's, Indians to be in wild-card hunt
If recent history is any indication, the '06 wild-card winners should again be major factors when October rolls around.
What a waste. All these pundits spending all this time and all these pixels telling you who's going to win baseball's six divisions. When we all know that division winners are as relevant as Jessica Simpson's GPA.
Three of the last four World Series champions (2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins, 2004 Red Sox) were wild cards, also-rans who also ran their way to rings. Last year's wild-card Astros gave matters a good run before running into Ozzie and the wide guy in Chicago. Things are definitely out of whack when the quotation becomes, "No one remembers who finishes first."
I still remember an editor of mine who prohibited -- flat-out Heismanned -- his writers from picking a wild card to advance to the World Series. ("If they're good enough to do that," his reasoning went, "they're good enough to win the division.") But the laws we once held true no longer apply. Whether it's because wild-card teams have to fight down the stretch or because three-of-five is a glorified coin-flipping tournament -- and now for our expert commentator, Billy Beane! -- we all have learned that when the bell rings on the postseason, the titlists' bells get rung, and hard.
So let's skip the formalities. Let's accept that the meek inherit the earth, enlisted will enter the Officer's Mess, and George Mason will reach the Final Four. If you're searching for the 2006 World Series combatants, look no further than the wild-card contenders. Like these clubs:
New York Mets
Wild-Card Resembled: 2003 Marlins, at least offensively. Although the Mets have assembled one of their strongest lineups ever -- with the core some mix of David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Cliff Floyd -- Willie Randolph is one of the most aggressive managers in the big leagues. He runs Jose Reyes a ton, just like Florida did with Juan Pierre, and will exploit the Derrek Lee-type speed of Wright and Beltran to keep the pressure on opponents.
Why They Won't Win the Division: Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, just like the '03 Marlins. After Atlanta's 14 straight division titles, including the last several during heavy roster turnover, it's foolish not to consider it the favorite. (Even though John Smoltz has coyly suggested the Mets are the team to beat.) The Braves have a more reliable rotation than New York does -- Smoltz and Tim Hudson have nowhere near the question marks that Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine carry -- and a good enough offense to win more games than the Mets.
Why They'll Win the Wild Card: The NL West is a shambles; no second-place team should win anything close to the high 80s the Mets will. The Phillies need another frontline starter to morph into a serious contender. The only other team that should give New York a run for the wild card is
Wild-Card Resembled: 2005 Astros. (Duh.) If Roger Clemens returns -- and we're betting he does, if that $15.6 million insurance hit doesn't leave Drayton McLane in hock -- they'll have the same Clemens-Roy Oswalt-Andy Pettitte front three, with Brandon Backe-ing up. Even without Jeff Bagwell for the first time since the Dan Schatzeder era in Houston, this team knows that under manager Phil Garner, it can overcome a sluggish first few months to storm into the playoffs.
Why They Won't Win the Division: The Cardinals know what they're doing. Just like their Atlanta counterparts, Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa know how to acquire and deploy players more astutely than anyone in their division. (Has anyone noticed they've averaged 96 wins the last six years?) And while the Astros' pitching can be terrific, the lineup -- which needed more than Preston Wilson -- will struggle to score enough runs to win 90 games.
Why They'll Win the Wild Card: The Cubs' rotation once again looks like a Jackson Pollack painting waiting to happen, and the Brewers are another year away. If the Mets' shaky rotation disintegrates, the Astros could move ahead briskly.
Wild-Card Resembled: 2003 Marlins. As much as we want to say the 2004 Red Sox, because of the GMs' power-and-patience philosophies, the A's will contend because of their young pitching. Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton could very well become the Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Josh Beckett of 2006. The Marlins had Dontrelle Willis, but the A's have Huston Street and a deeper bullpen.
Why They Won't Win the Division: The Angels have even more pitching with a seemingly healthy Bartolo Colon, youngsters John Lackey and Ervin Santana, the steal of the offseason in Jeff Weaver, and the Scot Shields-Francisco Rodriguez hammer pen. Mike Scioscia has proven he knows how to get the most out of his clubs in ways that Ken Macha has not.
Why They'll Win the Wild Card: Beyond the rotation, the A's have a better lineup than many realize. They finished sixth in the league with 772 runs last year and will get more production out of shortstop (a healthy Bobby Crosby), catcher (Jason Kendall can't be that bad again) and possibly DH (100 games of Frank Thomas would be wonderful). Also, Oakland gets to play the weak NL West in interleague play, helping it against other wild-card rivals from other divisions.
Boston Red Sox
Wild-Card Resembled: 2004 Red Sox -- and not just because of the uniforms and Manny remaining Manny. One of the reasons the '04 Sox won was because they embraced shortstop defense, and Alex Gonzalez could be this year's Orlando Cabrera, righting the whole run-prevention ship after last year's Wreck of the Edgar Renteria. Perhaps not as potent a lineup here -- Coco Crisp must hit, and early -- but still in the league's top three or four.
Why They Won't Win the Division: It's ridiculously close again, as the Yankees have problems of their own. But New York's lineup is stronger 1 through 9, and while there are veteran pitching-health issues, Boston easily can have problems with Curt Schilling, David Wells and Beckett's ever-fragile fingertips. Paper edge goes to Yankees, but this is why they play the games.
Why They'll Win the Wild Card: Most of the Red Sox (including newcomers Gonzalez and Beckett) have tons of pennant-race experience, particularly on the mound, whereas the A's have very little. And money is a factor here, too: If Boston needs another bat or starter in June or July, it can consider many more acquisitions than the A's.
Wild-Card Resembled: 2004 Red Sox. The Indians aren't the 2002 Angels or 2003 Marlins, clubs that rebounded from 75 and 79 wins the previous season, respectively, to vault into the playoffs as relative surprises. These Indians won 93 games last year, staying in the playoff race until the final weekend -- and need just a little push to join the elite.
Why They Won't Win the Division: The White Sox's rotation is still too deep, and if Brian Anderson can do a decent Aaron Rowand impression, Jim Thome is a big bonus. Meanwhile, the Indians' rotation has switched Kevin Millwood for Paul Byrd, meaning it'll be tough to improve much.
Why They'll Win the Wild Card: Youth, baby -- most of the Indians' best players (particularly the up-the-middle core of Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta) are still under 27 and improving. Young teams tend to have less go wrong than old ones, and an awful lot can go wrong with the age of the Red Sox's and Yankees' pitchers. Meanwhile the Indians' starters have a bit more experience than the A's, giving them a reasonable balance that could pay off handsomely -- especially when they meet some wimpy division-winner in the playoffs.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.