This is the time of year when I make semi-bold predictions. I have started to call them "semi-bold" predictions, because I think truly BOLD predictions would be things like:
• The Washington Nationals will reach the World Series.
• The Washington Nationals will reach a local television audience larger than the average crowd at a Huey Lewis and the News concert.*
*A couple of people have written in to say -- without any apparent irony -- now that Bruce Springsteen has done halftime at the Super Bowl, the obvious next choice is Huey Lewis and the News. These are people from my generation, and I would like to fully come out in favor of this choice -- I love HL and the N -- though it does seem a bit of a stretch to think that the current version of Huey Lewis will jump from the New Mexico State Fair (Sept. 12), to the Kansas State Fair (Sept. 13) to the Super Bowl. But ... that's the power of love.
Point is, my bold predictions are not that bold. Last year, I predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would be in contention late in the season, that Johan Santana would win the Cy Young and throw a no-hitter and that discarded Royals outfielder Emil Brown would have roughly the same season as $12 million per year free agent Jose Guillen. Looking back, those were only semi-bold predictions. I was right on the Rays, wrong on Santana (though he might have been the best pitcher in the National League) and wrong on Emil Brown (but not $12 million wrong). If I can go one-for-three on the semi-bold predictions, I'm doing pretty well.
So, here are some semi-bold predictions for 2009.
1. The New York Yankees will miss the playoffs again.CC Sabathia is one of my favorite pitchers in all of baseball. How can you not love a pitcher who is 6-foot-7, 250 pounds (ahem) and throws serious gas. I remember when he was a rookie with Cleveland -- guy was a force of nature even then. He faced off against Kansas City, and a rookie pitcher that you probably will not remember named Dan Reichert. Both were first-round draft picks, which led Kansas City coach Frank White to ask the ultimate baseball coach's question: "Why is it that other teams' first-round draft picks look like THAT while our draft picks look like THAT."
Anyway, I love Sabathia, but I have been going back and forth on how he will pitch for the Yankees. On the one hand, he's a great pitcher who looks to be going right into his prime. On the other hand, he has pitched about a million innings already and he does not have a great history at Yankee Stadium. On the other hand, this is the new Yankee Stadium, and anyway his history at Yankee Stadium was AGAINST the Yankees, which is a whole different thing. On the other hand, three bad starts in a row and he will feel like he's pitching AGAINST the Yankees again.
And so on.*
*This has nothing to do with anything, but I have started to play the "That's good, that's bad" game with my 7-year-old daughter. Remember that game? I think it was from the old Electric Company show. A man fell out of an airplane. That's bad. No, that's good -- there was a haystack. That's good. No, that's bad -- there was a needle in the haystack. That's bad. No that's good, he missed the needle. That's good. No, that's bad -- he missed the haystack.
Anyway, Sabathia isn't the reason I think the Yankees will miss the playoffs again. And Joba Chamberlain's sudden and shocking decrease in velocity is not the reason. And the aging of Derek Jeter is not the reason. And the fact that sooner or later Mariano Rivera will either age or be forced to return to his home planet is not the reason. And the sad ballad of A-Rod is not the reason either.
No, the simple reasons are that I think that Tampa Bay will be better than last year. And I think Boston is a more complete team than the Yankees. In my view, those are three of the five best teams in baseball, and one is going to miss the playoffs. I think it will be the Yankees.
2. Tampa Bay will be better than 2008.Last year, I was at spring training in Arizona -- well, actually, I was at a diner eating a tuna melt sandwich -- and I was looking over the rosters of every team, and I was shocked to find that Tampa suddenly had a really good team. There was no mistaking it: The Rays had very solid starting pitching with Scott Kazmir and James Shields and Matt Garza, they had a nice lineup blend with Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton and the emerging Evan Longoria. They were loaded.
Now many people seem to think that the Rays will fall off this year -- and I guess that's logical -- but I can't help but think the opposite. Now, they have David Price, who I think could have a huge rookie season. Now they have PatBurrell, who I think will have a big impact on that offense. And more, I think all those players I mentioned above could be BETTER in 2009. Upton has the ability to be an MVP candidate. So does Longoria. Pena could be more like he was in 2007. And so it goes.
I don't know how much better a team can be than the Rays of 2008. They won the American League East and went to the World Series. It's hard to improve on that. But I think, all in all, the Rays are a better baseball team now.
3. Zack Greinke will win the American League Cy Young Award.This is my Kansas City coming out ... but Greinke was some kind of good at the end of 2008. The last two months of the year, he had a 2.34 ERA, and he struck out a batter per inning, and he was mixing a 96-mph fastball with a nasty slider. He has been working on his changeup all spring, and while he has had mixed results with it so far, he has the touch to make that a third devastating pitch.
4. Oakland will have a losing record for the third straight year.Like most statistically-minded baseball fans, I bow at the alter of Billy Beane. I love the way he thinks, I love the way he works, I love that he sticks his nose into other people's trades, I love that he enjoys shocking the heck out of people, and I love that he is probably doing something so blindingly brilliant that I simply do not get it.
But I don't get it. I really don't. I do not understand this team at all. I have no idea how they are going to win games. I'll be happy to be wrong and then read all about it in Moneyball II: The Wrath of Beane.
5. MannyBManny wins again.Nothing bold about this pick ... most people are picking the Dodgers. But it's worth repeating: Manny Ramirez has never played on a losing team (not counting the few at-bats he got in Cleveland when he was 21 years old). He helped turn around the Cleveland Indians. Then he went to Boston and led the Red Sox to their first two World Series titles in 80-plus years. Then he went to Los Angeles and led the Dodgers into the playoffs. He has won a World Series MVP, he hits in the clutch, he has more grand slams than any player except Lou Gehrig. Fans may complain. Teammates may call him a cancer. Lots of people may think he's more trouble than he's worth.
But everywhere he goes, baseball teams win. And he's one of the best hitters in baseball history. Just goes to show you: Winner can mean many different things.
6. Carlos Beltran wins the MVP Award.Another Kansas City pick: I'm an unabashed Carlos Beltran groupie. I have been watching the guy play since he was rookie, and I honestly believe he is the most well-rounded player of this generation: a switch-hitter who gets on base and hits home runs, the best percentage base stealer ever and five-star Gold Glove defense in center field. He is a big star, of course, but I can't help but feel he should be an even bigger star. That's the curse.
Now, I don't think Beltran will be the best player in the National League in 2009. That is always Albert Pujols. And Manny will be Manny. And Beltran's teammate David Wright has put up MVP numbers the last couple of years. But Beltran is the guy who can change the game when you least expect it. I will always remember a game in Kansas City when he battled hard for a walk, stole second, stole third and scored on a short sacrifice fly that barely drifted beyond the infield. After the game, then-Royals general manager Allard Baird gushed: "He can do anything he wants." I think he wants to win the MVP in 2009.
7. Tony La Russa wins manager of the year again.It all comes down to the health of starting pitcher Chris Carpenter, but he appears to be healthy, and I think the Cardinals suddenly look to me like the best team in the National League Central. I just think the consensus choice -- the Chicago Cubs -- look to have a lot of problems, especially in the outfield and in the rotation, plus I have this theory: teams that keep getting their hearts broken in the playoffs eventually collapse in disappointment. The Cardinals had just about everything go wrong in 2008, and they were still in the playoff chase when September began. If Carpenter is anything like the Carp of old, I think the Cardinals win the division, and La Russa gets his genius title back.
8. Johan Santana throws the Mets' first no-hitter ever.I will keep sticking with this prediction until it comes true. And it has to come true one of these years. This bit remains one of the most preposterous bits of trivia in sports: The New York Mets -- the team that had Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden, Tom Seaver and so on -- have NEVER had a no hitter. It has to happen. And Santana, the best pitcher in baseball, is just the guy to throw it.
9. Baltimore's Matt Wieters will do something absolutely amazing like hit a high fly ball that does not land for two days.There's a fun Matt Wieters game going on on the Internet ... it is something like the sports version of the Chuck Norris game you've probably seen. The idea is that Wieters is such an amazing prospect that he can hit home runs without the use of a bat or eliminate base runners by simply using his super-breath to blow them out of the baseline. It seems inevitable that Wieters will get called up at some point and pull off some sort of Bo Jackson-like feat that will keep the Matt Wieters game going.