Do I Even Dare?
2004 baseball postseason predictions
By Adam Hoff
Two years I came close to nailing the World Series winner, predicting that the San Francisco Giants would win in seven games. Close, huh? However, I also guaranteed that the Angels would lose to the Yankees in the first round. Whoops. In 2003 I really sucked, taking the Giants once again and leaving the Marlins in the “out in four” group of first round losers. Yikes. I suppose I should be taking solace in the fact that San Francisco didn’t make it this year, preventing me from taking them once again.
Here is how I think it will go, starting with the first team to get eliminated and finishing with the World Series champ.
Atlanta Braves (losing to the Houston Astros in four games). Is it just me or does Atlanta feel like a team that is getting it all done with smoke and mirrors? JD Drew’s body has been invaded (someone needs to start doing some research on Manchurian Global) and Chipper Jones has rebounded after an awful start, so the middle of the order is good to go. But does anything else feel solid here? They have a potentially devastating double-play combo in Marcus Giles and Rafael “Dog Years” Furcal, but Giles has battled injuries and Dog Years is more concerned with getting DUI’s than playing baseball. Andruw Jones might be the best centerfielder in the game and is playing in his 1,291st playoff series, but I honestly can’t remember the last time he got a big hit off of a good pitcher. Smoltz has been a bit shaky. The middle relief is like a patchwork quilt with the thread falling out of it. The starting pitching is solid but certainly isn’t scaring anybody. What is there to get excited about?
On the other hand, the Astros have it all rolling. They have two studs at the top of the rotation (see: 2001 World Champion D-Backs). They have an offense that just hits and hits and hits (see: 2002 World Champion Angels). Finally, they are the hottest team heading into the playoffs, riding an emotional high (see: 2003 World Champion Marlins). If history can be any guide whatsoever, you have to like Houston in this matchup.
Los Angeles Dodgers (losing to the Cardinals in four). The Dodgers definitely feel like a team of destiny, with all the ninth innings comebacks as of late. Unfortunately, they are not going to be getting a steady diet of Shawn Chacon (which is how they won all four games against the Rockies last week), nor will they be able to intentionally walk Pujols the way they did Bonds against the Giants. These two factors are going to mean higher scoring games for the opposition and fewer rallies for the Dodgers. If that’s true, how can they win? The starting pitching is mediocre, the Cardinals are too complete to give anything away, and the offense is anchored by a guy that hasn’t exactly responded well to pressure in the past. You never know, but it appears that LA will be making an early exit. They really needed the Giants to win the Wild Card so that they could get matched up with the Braves in the first round. Nevertheless, it’s been a great year for the Dodgers. They won the West, made the playoffs, and achieved future financial flexibility, all two years ahead of the long-term plan. If Brad Penny hadn’t hurt his arm … who knows?
Minnesota Twins (losing to the Yankees in four games). I want to pick the Twins so badly. I really do. With Santana and Radke accounting for all the road games and the big plastic baggie giving them a huge edge at home, they seem like the absolutely perfect team to play a give game series. However, they are playing the Yankees and New York is like 1,000-0 over the last four years against the Twins. They own Minnesota. For all of New York’s problems with starting pitching, they still have Jeter at the top of the order, Mariano Rivera in the pen, and Joe Torre on the bench. That combo hasn’t been enough in and of itself to win it all over the past three years, but I’m afraid it will be more than enough to beat the Twins. I’ve got Santana winning game one against Mussina and getting everyone excited before the Yanks win three straight and keep the ball out of Supernatural’s hand in the end.
Anaheim Angels (losing to the Boston Red Sox). Does this Angles team look familiar to anyone else? My word. Anaheim is nearly a mirror image to the 2002 World Championship team. Let’s see, what did that team have going for it? Furthermore, do these Halos have it?
- Hot going into the playoffs (check)
- A great bullpen that can rack up strikeouts (check)
- Speed at the top of the order (check)
- Strong defense (check)
- A match-up with an AL East powerhouse feeling a lot of pressure (check)
Plus, the Angels have added Vlad Guerrero and Kelvim Escobar this time around. That is scary, folks. So why am I picking the Sox? Simple. I just honestly believe that this is the year. I really do. They have the right plan, the right lineup, and the right pitching staff. Sure, the manager is an idiot (again) and the bullpen lacks strikeout power, but you can’t ask for a team that is better built for the postseason.
St. Louis Cardinals (losing to the Astros in six games). At some point you have to buy into the whole “getting hot at the right time theory.” The Angels did it two years ago and the Marlins followed suit last fall. Why should we believe it won’t happen again? Of course, you always have the possibility that the Astros are due for a fall. The old basketball comeback analogy – make up a ton of ground late in the game, but then fail to summon the energy to finish it off. There’s a very real chance that Houston could be out of gas for the postseason. However, picking the ‘Stros to win this series goes well beyond mere precedent (both “hot team” and “Wild Card winners”). The bottom line is that they have a team that could give St. Louis fits in a seven game series. From recent history, there appear to be five things that define World Series winners. Let’s break them down and compare whether the Astros or Cardinals are better suited to win the NLCS:
Two studs at the top of the rotation. This is how the D-Backs won the World Series a few years back, by rolling out Randy and Schilling every start and hoping for the best. Houston has the best set of aces in the National League with Clemens and Oswalt, while St. Louis is trotting out Jason Marquis as their Game One starter. Advantage: Houston (in a landslide).
An offense that can manufacture runs. The Angels basically just hit their way to a title two years ago and it was the Marlins ability to create two-out scoring opportunities that doomed the Giants, Cubs, and Yankees. Here you’ve got a Houston team that is hitting home runs like it is batting practice and a St. Louis squad that might be the most dangerous offensive unit of the past five years. Advantage: Draw.
Speed. This is sort of cheating since speed plays a major role in the previous category. Nevertheless, both the Angles and Marlins were able to outrun their opponents. They put pressure on pitchers, got from first to third on every hit, and probably each scored an extra five or six runs on sheer speed. Neither of these teams feature anything like the Pierre-Castillo-Lee-Encarnacion combo of the Marlins, but there are a few guys that can run. Edgar Renteria can steal a base or two for St. Louis and even guys like Pujols and Rolen are great baserunners. However, Houston has the X-Factor in Carlos Beltran. One of the best base stealers in the game, Beltran will wreak havoc at the top of the order. Other than Biggio, the rest of the Houston lineup sort of plods, but Beltran should be enough. Advantage: Houston.
Defense. The Cards can feel good about themselves here as they have the best defense in the playoffs. Rolen, Renteria, and Edmonds are all top tier defensive players with Rolen serving as perhaps the finest defensive player in the game. Houston is a lot better now than they were earlier in the season with Beltran in center field, but with Bagwell unable to even throw the ball at first and with shortstop Adam Everett on the DL, there are some issues. Advantage: St. Louis.
Relief Pitching. This one should go to St. Louis, After all, Houston basically features a one-man bullpen. However, the Cards’ best middle relievers, Steve Kline and Julian Tavarez, are both coming off of injuries, giving them no clear advantage over guys like Chad Quails on the Houston side. Therefore, it comes down to the closers. The Cardinals have one of the league’s best in Jason Isringhausen. Not bad. It’s just that Houston has the hottest closer in the game. Brad Lidge, to me, is the reason that the Astros will win this series. He’s got the right mentality, the right stuff, and best yet, the right training. What I mean by that is that since he’s been a middle reliever the past three years, he’s used to going two or more innings in most games. He couldn’t do a lot of that late in the regular season, but with all the television contract-induced days off in the playoffs, he should be good for two innings almost every time out. If Houston can get to the eighth inning with Oswalt and Clemens, Lidge will slam the door. Among pitchers with over 90 innings pitched, Lidge had the highest K/9 ratio in major league history this year, fanning 14.93 batters per nine innings pitched. Wow.
Well, that’s that. In the five most important categories, I give the edge to the Astros in three and the Cards in one. Gotta trust that kind of hard-core data!
New York Yankees (losing to the Red Sox in six games). I’m just going to do it and move on.
Houston Astros (losing to Red Sox in six). Should the Astros get past that first round series, they are going to be a tough out. Any team is going to have to beat either Clemens or Oswalt at least once, probably get to Lidge at some point, find a way to solve the Astros’ sudden and impressive Minute Maid Park home field advantage, and hope that Houston’s bats cool down. I think the Red Sox are the team to make it all happen in the first ever all-Wild Card World Series showdown.
Boston Red Sox (World Series Champs). Could this be the year? Will 2004 go down in the annals of sports history? I’m going with yes. Here’s why Boston can win the whole thing:
Starting Pitching. Curt Schilling won 21 games this season and if it weren’t for Johan Santana, he would have collected his first Cy Young award. That doesn’t even begin to hint at his importance in the playoffs. This is the guy that literally willed the D-Backs to a title in 2001. His presence – on the mound and in the clubhouse – defines this roster. Not only that, but you have the rest of the Boston’s pitchers sliding down to find more favorable matchups. Pedro will be locking horns with the #2 starter of the opposition rather than the ace. Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield will be pitching against other middle-of-the-road starters. It’s such an important distinction.
Momentum. Boston is in the perfect groove. They are playing great and have been for the last two months; however, they also never peeked too soon. It’s possible that their best baseball still lies ahead of them. Had they passed the Yankees in the midst of a torrid hot streak, I would worry that they were doomed for a fall. Sitting in the wild card position and avoiding Santana and the Twins in round one seems like a good spot for Boston. (If only they were playing the A’s, they’d have nothing to fear …)
Defense. The Twins and Cards both remain superior defensive teams, but the fact that Boston is even in the conversation speaks volumes. Before the Nomar trade, the Sox were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Now with Cabrera anchoring the middle of the infield, they’ve turned a negative into a positive. Manny is still a nightmare in left and Damon still won’t be gunning guys down from center, but the most important thing is that the Red Sox don’t look like a slow pitch softball team any more.
Offense. They score a ton of runs, have dangerous hitters up and down the lineup, and can hit right-handed or left-handed pitching with equal effectiveness. What more could you want from the offense? On top of all that, they have the Manny Factor. The other day I was telling my Dad that if I could have one major league hitter to send to the plate in a clutch situation, it would be Manny Ramirez. The reason is simple: he has no freaking clue what is going on. He’s completely oblivious and impervious to pressure. So he has the same exact odds of getting a big hit in the clutch as he does any other time. And when you are talking about Manny, those odds are pretty good. Don’t believe me? With two outs and men in scoring position this year, Manny hit .366 with a 1.153 OPS.
Will those factors be enough to overcome a shaky manager, a bullpen that fails to intimidate, and a history of nightmarish endings? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.