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  THE PASSION OF THE MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PREVIEW.  
   
   
 

Flash back to October. October may as well be the only month in baseball where mediocrities like Bucky Dent and Craig Counsell become legends and otherwise perfectly serviceable players like Byung Yun Kim and Bill Buckner turn into punch lines.

Last October, with its Red Sox-Yankees, Steve Bartman, Aaron Boone drama, was not only the most exciting postseason in recent memory, it might have been the most historically influential. It might be the fulcrum around which the future of baseball will pivot.

Imagine a world where Florida manager Jack McKeon's hunch that phenom Josh Beckett would be at full strength on three days rest in Game 3 of the World Series is wrong. Beckett gets smashed up, the Yankees grab the momentum and ride a rested Mike Mussina to a Game 7 victory, and the Evil Empire wins its 27th World Championship. Children cry in the streets, but George Steinbrenner, not feeling as freaked out after winning his first title in a presumably agonizingly long three-year stretch, leaves the roster mostly alone, rather than what he actually did, which was completely tear his team apart.

First off, does Andy Pettitte stay around? How about Joe Torre? Aaron Boone, presumably satisfied at being dubbed a God by New York fans despite a batting average nearing the Mendoza line, avoids stupid pickup basketball games. Roger Clemens stays retired. Gary Sheffield goes to Anaheim. And, most important, Alex Rodriguez, one of the three best players in baseball, not only doesn't go to the Yankees, he maybe even ends up with Boston.

Instead, the Yankees threw around their weight like Jerry Lewis, and now everyone in baseball is pissed and angry and pissed and angry and pissed again. The Yankees are the overspending behemoth that can't be stopped -- except, of course, in the playoffs -- and Bud Selig and company doesn't do its damndest to try to restructure the rules -- again -- to figure out some way to bring the Yankees payroll back down to earth. And that, along with the union's insane position on steroids, will end up causing yet another labor war that ultimately makes everybody wonder what time Arena Football is on.

See? You should have been rooting for the Yankees last year. Don't you feel stupid now? You can't even win for losing.

Frustrated by another baseball preview that starts with the Yankees? Get used to it. Until the MLB moves the Expos to Las Vegas, the Yankees are the story, every year.

But are they the favorites? Not so fast. The start of the regular season, featuring (yes) the Yankees stomping the Devil Rays in Japan, is only four days away. It's time to break out the pine tar already.

Here's The Black Table's official 2004 Season Preview, as always, way too long and way too wordy to escape the slippery slope of glorious and lubricating self-indulgence.

Teams are in order of predicted finish, unless of course you're a Yankee, in which case the author will happily accept three-year, $6.1 million contracts to change them.

(Note: The pictures are linked to the best weblog about each team. As much as some might believe weblogs are the exclusive property of New York media rejects, the best use of the medium is by baseball fans, many of whom are professional writers by day and baseball nerds by night. You are much better served by reading the best fan blogs than you are by reading your local beat reporter's coverage. So dig in.)

 

 

 
   

Boston Red Sox

It really doesn't matter which order you place the top two teams in the American League East, since whichever one doesn't finish first is likely going to win the wild-card anyway. That said, of all the heartbreaking moments in Boston Red Sox history, last season has to rank up there with 1986. Fatalistic Red Sox fans will tell you they knew otherwise, but the Red Sox had the Yankees last year. They had a superior lineup, a suddenly lights-out bullpen and a fired-up Pedro Martinez (and, of course, a three-run lead in the eighth inning). That the Red Sox didn't pull it off could cause some of the hat-backwards, Ugg-jeans, Dave Matthews-listening, stuck-

 
 

in-college-until-they're-35 denizens of Boston to lose hope. But fact is, the Red Sox are in far better position to dominate this division in the future than the Yankees are, perhaps as soon as this year.

It's not just the addition of Curt Schilling, though it's hard to imagine a pitcher in the game (including Pedro) who you'd rather have on the mound in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. It's the entire organizational structure, set up by general manager Theo Epstein, who's so good people are already forgetting that he was hired when he was 29. Epstein, schooled in the principles of Bill James, Billy Beane and the entire sabermetrics/Moneyball revolution, has built the Oakland A's east, with the much-welcomed bonus of, um, the second-highest payroll in the game. Epstein has proven to be smart, savvy and, most important, patient; in Boston you have to win right now, every year, but while doing that, he has not sacrificed the future as his predecessors did. Boston is putting a system in place that will continue to flourish year after year, and as much as the Yankees might spend, the Red Sox will always be there.

And this year's team might be better than last year's. Though the offense likely won't match last year's record breakers, it shouldn't fall off too much, and even though the A-Rod fiasco almost cost them their two best hitters, Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra should be ready to mash all season. The bullpen has been stabilized with the addition of Keith Foulke, and with Schilling added to the potent triumvirate of Pedro, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield (not to mention the aforementioned Kim who, when he isn't flipping off the fans, is still one of the more underrated pitchers in the game), the rotation is more solid than the Yankees'. Which is, after all, what really matters. Even with A-Rod in the dreaded pinstripes, this Boston team matches up toe-to-toe with the Bombers, and, thanks to that pitching, it might even break through to win the division this year. Now, as for the playoffs? Hey, leave me out of that one; I wouldn't even try to guess the cruel way Red Sox fans will have their hearts broken this year. Rest assured, it'll probably be horrible.

 

 
   

New York Yankees

How much did the signing of Alex Rodriguez really help the Yankees? Even though A-Rod is the type of talent that comes around once or twice a generation, and even though the Yankees got him (relatively) cheap, it's a legitimate question. After all, the problem for the Yankees in 2004 was not going to be hitting. Gary Sheffield, despite being a loudmouth idiot and a steroid fiend (I'm sorry … allegedly), was a monster addition to the lineup, one that already had Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter. And even though he was frighteningly inept in the playoffs, Alfonso Soriano was still considered one of the most talented, if raw,

 
 

youngsters in the game. (Even if a little age verification trick revealed that he was only two years younger than A-Rod. Whoops!)

But Steinbrenner had to have A-Rod, and many prognosticators went ahead and handed the trophy to the Yanks right there. But even the most basic statistical analysis shows that even though A-Rod is a more valuable player than Soriano, he's not so much to make up for the Yankees' rotation exodus, which is almost certainly going to cost the team (until they just trade for the two hottest starters on the market in July, which they'll most certainly do). Mike Mussina and Javier Vazquez are both solid top of the rotation guys, but the rest of the rotation is a riddle trapped in a labyrinth wrapped up in an enigma and blanketed by a Wordy Gurdy puzzle. Kevin Brown was great last year for the Dodgers -- in a pitcher's park -- but he's not only the type of guy who needs a good defense behind him (which the Yankees most certainly do not have), but he's also, you know, 39 freaking years old. And wasn't it just, oh, last year that everyone thought the Kevin Brown contract was a horrible one? Brown had one bounceback year, but he has a violent, snapping throwing motion that's just begging for yet another arm injury. And after him? The maddeningly inconsistent Jose Contreras, who is perpetually distracted by the fact that Fidel Castro might very well be torturing his family; righthander Jon Lieber, who hasn't pitched since 2002, and lefthander Donovan Osborne, who, not to be outdone, hasn't pitched since 2001. The Yankees rotation is being held up by dental floss and baling wire; it is being powered by an asthmatic gerbil. Oh, and let's not mention, postseason heroics aside, the clearly aging closer who, for whatever reason, is about to sign a three-year contract that will pay him more than last year's NL Cy Young winner. Three times as much, actually.

Will that be enough to stop the Yankees from making the playoffs? Probably not. That lineup is otherworldly, and because they're the Yankees, they'll end up finding a way to boost that rotation, even it means buying the Expos. But these are perilous times for the Empire. Their minor league system has been stripped and left to the side of the road, and as wealthy and free-spending as Steinbrenner is, he is not Bill Gates: Not even he can buy everyone. Wait … can he? Well, if he can't … the Yankees could be in some real trouble down the line, even if they do wise up and realize that playing Derek Jeter at shortstop instead of Alex Rodriguez is like going to a brothel and spending your money to make out with the bouncer. Deep down, the Red Sox have passed the Yankees … and don't think Steinbrenner doesn't know it.

 

 
   

Toronto Blue Jays

The best thing written about the Blue Jays, one of the most promising teams in baseball, was on the great Baseball Prospectus Web site. Describing their situation -- being stuck in the same division as the two largest payrolls in the game, two teams that will do whatever it takes to destroy each other -- the site wrote: "The trouble, of course, is that the Jays have the misfortune to be stuck in a division that is occupied by two nuclear superpowers locked in a full-scale arms race, and a third that harbors delusions of such grandeur. Canadians have a long tradition of pacifism, but in this division, that approach ought to work about as well as Belgian Neutrality."

 
 

 

That pretty much sums it up. The Jays, another sabermetrically run organization, have a seemingly endless cavalcade of hitters, from Josh Phelps to Vernon Wells to Eric Hinske to Triple Crown candidate Carlos Delgado. They also have last year's Cy Young Winner, Roy Halladay, and they've given him some help with Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly. And their farm system is one of the more fruitful in the game. Yet there they sit, with a limited payroll, stuck in the same division as Vader and Skywalker. They're like the quiet independent movie released the day of the Matrix sequel … except, in the analogy, the Matrix sequel doesn't suck. If the Blue Jays were in the AL Central, they'd win the division by 10 games. But lo, they're here. Toronto is left to do what it can, just plug away, being smart, investing wisely, and hope one of the top two stumbles. They might be waiting a long time.

 

 
   

Baltimore Orioles

Remember that really dopey kid who lived on your block, the one who had the rich parents and the cool Sega but only wanted to play Ecco the Dolphin? Remember how, no matter how hard he tried, he was never going to fit in with you and your friends? Remember Stuart from Beavis and Butthead? There are your Baltimore Orioles. They play in a cool stadium, have two major metropolitan areas all to themselves and occasionally overpay to get the hottest new toy in the store -- in this year's case, Miguel Tejada. And they will still never be cool and never get to play with the big kids.

 
 

 

It didn't help that the free agents they really wanted, Vladimir Guerrero and Ivan Rodriguez, showed little to no interest in signing on the dotted line. (Rodriguez was so desperate to play somewhere else, he signed with the Tigers.) Instead, the Orioles have Tejada, a fluky Javy Lopez and a big jug of the same problems they had last year. They have one quality starting pitcher, Sidney Ponson, who has admitted to openly hating management, and they have a closer who's more likely to hit the mascot than the strike zone. You know how, on Wall Street, they advise against spending good money after bad? This is the Orioles curse. They're playing a spending game they can never win. But Camden Yards is really nice.

 

 
   

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Has a team ever existed for as long as the Devil Rays without making a single ripple in the sports fabric? Has anything Tampa Bay has ever done mattered? Seriously. Who's the most famous Devil Ray? Wade Boggs? Fred McGriff? Bryan Rekar? The most productive outfielder the Devil Rays have ever had is currently 22 years old. This is a pointless, directionless franchise in the worst possible division for such a beast.

Much was made of the fact that, last year, the Devil Rays lost fewer than 100 games. Ninety-nine, to be exact, the first time the Rays had escaped that nadir since 2000.

 
 

This is like finally getting a D- in physics after trying four times and wanting a reward. (The Devil Rays have finished last in the division every year they've been "alive.") The Devil Rays are the team everyone likes to see on their schedule. But wait! This year, they have added Tino Martinez and Don Zimmer, who are square in the D-Ray tradition; bringing in people who made their names elsewhere and are now comfortable with soaking up the sunshine. At least Don Zimmer is still entertaining.

 

 
 

 

 

 
   

Kansas City Royals

In The Bible, Saul was one of the world's worst sinners, constantly profiting from his tyranny and doing whatever he could to thwart the word of the Lord. Then, one day, he saw the light of God, and it was good, and he was changed into Paul, and he spent the rest of his days spreading the Gospel.

Royals general manager Allard Baird is baseball's equivalent of Paul. For years, he ran the Royals with a black hand, giving ridiculous contracts to awful players and generally acting like his elevator didn't go to the top floor. Then, one day, Baird discovered the sabermetric revolution.

 
 

Unlike Paul, he didn't immediately broadcast this conversion to the world. He did it slowly, quietly, hoodwinking fellow GMs who were used to dealing with the idiot Allard. Over time, people began to notice the Royals' farm system was starting to compile top prospects, and the big-league team, which had been embarrassing since the Royals stole the 1985 World Series from the Cardinals (ahem), started to show results. Last year, the Royals actually led the American League Central for longer than any other team, before collapsing down the stretch.

This year, just as quietly, Baird has tweaked the engine just enough to make the Royals the season's most likely breakout team. His lineup, with MVP candidate Carlos Beltran, Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa and newly signed Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago, is light years better than a team with the Royals' payroll has any right to be, and the bullpen is the best in the division. Both better live up, because the Royals' rotation is flimsy as they wait for top prospects Jimmy Gobble, Zach Greinke and Jeremy Affeldt to be ready. But the Royals are in the weakest division in baseball and have a very rare opportunity to make a huge splash this year while setting a foundation for the future. Kansas City baseball fans are among the best in the game, a dormant giant for a decade. This very well might be the year they return, en masse.

 

 
   

Minnesota Twins

The Twins underwent their own minor contraction this offseason, losing four of their best players, including their two best relievers, Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins. But Minnesota has grown accustomed to that. What aren't they used to? Being the team in the division everyone targets, rather than the plucky upstart who surprises everybody.

The most exciting thing about the Twins this year is the unveiling of catcher Joe Mauer, considered by many the best prospect in baseball. (He was drafted two spots ahead of Mark Prior, if that means anything.) It's

 
 

good that he's around, because baseball in Minnesota remains a strange curiosity. Two years ago, the Twins were offering season tickets for $98, a price so cheap, it's almost tempting for out-of-towners to buy the tickets and drop by a couple games when we're in the neighborhood. The Twins are full of above-average-but-not-great players, which would never work in any division other than this one. With a few aggressive moves that an ownership group like Minnesota's would never make, the Twins could dominate this division. Instead, they watch as every year they lose some of their best players.

They still have the best rotation in the Central, thanks to the thunder-armed Johan Santana, but the bullpen is going to be a serious problem. This might be the most competitive division in baseball, which is code for "nobody's good enough to win anywhere else." The Twins, the feeling is here, are likely to come up just short this year.

 

 
   

Chicago White Sox

Ozzie Guillen was a hot dog hambone of a baseball player, a free-swinger with no power, with about as much value to a baseball team as Chris Burke. But because he's a flashy personality who used to hustle on meaningless infield pop-ups -- a common occurrence -- he has kept a spot in the hearts of Chicago White Sox fans, both of them. And he is now the manager.

Now, there are a lot of different things a manager could do upon taking a new job. The manager is a vastly overrated job; it's kinda hard to screw it up, really. A new manager could give a fiery speech to rev up youngsters and grizzled veterans alike.

 
 

He could make friends with the local media so they'll write nice things about him when the team struggles. He could sign a franchising deal with the local used car dealership. He could do all kinds of things, and any of them would have caused less damage than what Guillen did on his first day as White Sox manager: He called out Frank Thomas, the team's best hitter since, well, since he was scooping up Guillen's errant throws at first base, as "lazy." For whatever reason, Thomas has become less popular in Chicago every year, even though his production and staying power screams Hall of Famer. Guillen, rather than recognize that Thomas is one of the few chips his team had, ripped him in some sort of bullshit PR move.

Ozzie Guillen, before overseeing a single game, appears to be as talented a manager as he was a shortstop. The White Sox probably would have been better off with Chris Burke after all.

 

 
   

Cleveland Indians

Remember when the Cleveland Indians were cool? Back when they were the guys from Major League, back when they had Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton and Roberto Alomar? That seems like a long, long time ago. The Indians have been rebuilding for a while now, and even though they have promising youngsters like C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Jody Gerut, they are still right smack in the middle of that process. It's a long road to the top. Some people are considering the Indians a trendy pick to surprise this season, but, then again, there are all kinds of trendy things that are, all told, rather stupid.

 
 

 

Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was once the mayor of Cleveland. He was so unpopular there that he once required a bulletproof vest and extra security to throw out the first pitch at an Indians a game. It's a shame, too, because Kucinich and the 2004 Indians have a lot in common. They're in competition with inferior foes, unlikely to win and unliked by most. Though you can guarantee Kucinich wouldn't stand for any of that Chief Wahoo business.

 

 
   

Detroit Tigers

For more than two decades, Brian Kingman held the dubious -- but proud -- distinction of being the last pitcher to lose 20 games in a season. Last season, not only did the Tigers have Mike Maroth, who lost 21, they also had Jeremy Bonderman, who lost 19. (Oh, and Nate Corejo, who lost 17.) I actually think I lost a couple of games for the Tigers last year.

Obviously, unless they somehow signed they signed the Von Bondies to play the infield, it would be hard for the Tigers to be much worse than last year. But when you are as bad as the Tigers were in 2004 (and they were historically, tragically bad), one

 
 

of the things you shouldn't do is pay $10 million a year (for four years!) on an old catcher with bad knees and no reason to do anything anymore but count his money and admire his 2003 World Series ring. But that's exactly what the Tigers did with Ivan Rodriguez (and, to a lesser extend, with Rondell White and Fernando Vina). And for what? Maybe an extra couple of wins? If the Tigers wanted to finish at .500 this season -- which is a mediocre goal, but hey, it's something -- they would have to improve by 39 wins. If the Tampa Bay Devil Rays improve by 39 wins this year, they will win 102 games.

As they saying goes, the Tigers are so far behind everybody else in baseball that they think they're ahead. Um, they're not.

 

 

 
   

Oakland A's

One of the most common misconceptions about the sabermetric/Moneyball revolution in baseball is that it de-emphasizes speed and defense and cares only about walks and homeruns, as if baseball were a slow-pitch softball game playing by fat cops in Staten Island, drinking beer in the outfield. But the A's, who have been at the centerpiece of the new way of baseball thinking from the beginning, are a team built on pitching and defense. Sure, the lineup emphasizes walks, but that's because the A's can't afford to go out and sign the Vladimir Guerreros of the world. That's why they have to be so resourceful in the first place.

 

 
 

Fortunately, the A's player development system is so well-run that every year, they come up with yet another phenom; this year it's Rich Harden, unless it's Justin Duchscherer, unless it's Joe Blanton, unless it's … you get the point. When you add that to the Big Three of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder (all three developed from within), you have a pitching staff that will help make up for a lot of lineup deficiencies.

This might be the best A's team they've had yet. Mark Redman was the perfect addition to the rotation, Arthur Rhodes could be a dominant closer and Bobby Crosby will have A's fans forgetting about Miguel Tejada by midseason. The real question: How long will general manager Billy Beane hang around? He must be at least somewhat jealous as he watches fellow Moneyballers like Paul DePodesta and Theo Epstein, in Los Angeles and Boston respectively, pull some of his same tricks with exponentially larger budgets. How long until he finally listens when a deep-pocketed suitor comes calling? Because without Billy Beane, the A's are the Brewers. And nobody wants that.

 

 
   

Anaheim Angels

I still don't quite believe the Angels won the World Series a couple of years ago. Does anybody?

One of the many problems with baseball is that it has little defense against the Daniel Snyders of the world. A new guy can come in, write blank checks, and ruin everything. (In the NFL, with the salary cap, people like Snyder end up with their franchises in ruins, as the Redskins will be in a year or two, if they're not there already.) Fortunately, in new owner Arte Moreno, the Angels have a benevolent dictator. His signings of Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon made the Angels into the

 
 

hot pick to win the division.

There are still problems, however. Their rotation, even with Colon, can't match up with Oakland's, and their lineup is getting a bit long in the snaggletooth. But Moreno is first in line for the George Steinbrenner of the Pacific title, and that is not to be underestimated. As long as they don't bring back that freaking Rally Monkey.

 

 
   

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are baseball's version of U2. Once, they were as great as anyone, respected and near-dominant. But then they watched as everyone else became more innovative and they simply got old.

Look at the key players for the Mariners. Edgar Martinez and Jamie Moyer are 41; John Olerud and Bret Boone are 35. All four of them must have as good a year as they've ever had just for the Mariners to have pretensions of contention. And the offseason moves of new general manager Bill Bavasi have been questionable, to say the very least. The Mariners are a weird team. They have serious financial heft,

 
 

considering their rabid fan base and deep-pocketed owners, but they never seem to make the big-ticket moves that would push them ahead of the clearly disadvantaged A's. You get the feeling that the Mariners' time has passed; they're like the Raiders in the NFL. The Mariners are likely going to have to get very bad before they get very good again.

At least they're not doing music videos with John Madden, though.

 

 
   

Texas Rangers

One of the dirty little secrets about Alex Rodriguez's tenure in the Lone Star State is that of all the Rangers' fatuous contracts, A-Rod's probably was the best. Owner Tom Hicks, the guy who paid A-Rod all that money and seemingly complained about it the next day, signed Chan Ho Park, Darren Oliver, John Thomson, Dave Burba and a parade of other mediocrities to huge contracts to solve a pitching problem that was worse when they completed the carnage. A-Rod might have been the high-profile contract, but when you're talking about one of the best three players in the game, who is marketable and charismatic and is never hurt, if anybody

 
 

deserved it, it was Rodriguez. And now the Yankees get all the benefits and don't even have to pay the full contract amount. Thanks, Tom. You sure George W. Bush isn't in charge of this team anymore?

As for this year's edition, the Rangers are too mismanaged to make any serious runs in a tough division, despite a powerful lineup that includes Alfonso Soriano, Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira and Michael Young. The rotation is so horrifying as to be too violent for small children -- though not too violent, apparently, to take the kids to after Sunday School for a "lesson" on the Gospels -- and it's very possible you or I could serve as their closer. But at least they have "financial flexibility" now, with, you know, their best player (times five) gone.

 

 

 
 

Florida Marlins

Of all the teams that won't be complete disasters this season -- i.e., anyone who's not just pocketing revenue sharing money and calling themselves "strapped" -- the team that gets the least respect might, strangely, be the defending champs. Sure, they lost their star catcher in Ivan Rodriguez, but he was aging and had the best year he'll ever have again last season. Sure, they lost their first baseman in Derrek Lee, but they replaced him with the ready-to-bust-out Hee Seop Choi. And they lost some bullpen help, but they replaced it with the much-maligned Armando Benitez, who, if you don't live in New York, is actually one of the better closers around.

   
 

But other than that, everything's essentially the same, including that nasty rotation and an underrated lineup.

So why does nobody think the Marlins have a chance? I think it's because the Marlins have no fans and everyone hates them. I'm serious. The only team in baseball anyone outside of New York would consider rooting for in a World Series against the Yankees is Florida. And why not? As rabid fans in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland consider giving their livers for a World Championship (some have, actually), the Florida Marlins have puttered around, inspiring no one, almost messing up the game entirely, and ended up winning two. It's a cosmic joke, and rest assured that if the Marlins make the playoffs this season -- every season without a championship has ended with a losing record -- every fan in baseball will be biting their knuckles.

But that doesn't change that this is a dangerous team. In a flawed division, it's the Marlins who have the fewest question marks.

 

 
 

Philadelphia Phillies

For a city renowned for its grumpy, borderline psychotic sports fans, the Phillies have made a habit the last couple of years of making their supposedly gruff fans all gooey and hopeful in the offseason. Five years ago, they hired longtime Phillies icon Larry Bowa as manager, apparently because they were in a hurry to alienate their best players by making them set next to a raging lunatic for three hours every day. Before last year, they signed Jim Thome (great), Kevin Millwood (good) and David Bell (awful), making a big show of how much they (finally) cared about putting a winning team on the field. That didn't work -- in large part due to the havoc a whackjob like Bowa causes in the

   
  clubhouse -- so this year, as they move into their fancy pants new stadium, they traded for an injury-prone, inconsistent Eric Milton and for a way-overpaid but still dominant Billy Wagner.

(The Wagner trade, by the way, is reminiscent of what I like to call The Roberto Hernandez Principle. Three years ago, the Kansas City Royals had a plucky upstart team that challenged for the division title but fell short in large part to a horrific bullpen. Royals management, not as enlightened then as it now, thusly traded for an about-to-be-too-old Hernandez, with the thought that the team was just a year away. The money tied up in Hernandez, however, forced the team to skimp on other areas, and even though he was adequate-to-below-average, the Royals collapsed the next season and were then stuck with Hernandez's contact … and of course all the new problems that popped up outside the bullpen. The Phillies have more money lying around these days, but they're not the Yankees, and it's very likely that Wagner's contract -- along with Thome's -- will haunt them in a few years. It's exactly these kind of fan-friendly, sports-radio moves -- hey, let's FIX THE BULLPEN! -- that get teams in trouble.)

But the real problem with the Phillies, and the real reason they won't make the playoffs, is Bowa. It is unbelievable in this day and age that Bowa continues to be employed as a major league manager. Baseball is, famously, a marathon, not a sprint, and Bowa is the type of manager who explodes in rapture when his team wins a game and in rage when it loses one. Sure, he hates to lose. That's admirable. But that kind of tunnel vision is death for a baseball manager. A manager needs to be a steady hand, not some vein-popping, Superfan buffoon. How many years in a row do the Phillies need to collapse down the stretch until the Phillies accept reason and realize that Bowa is running his team into the ground? It doesn't matter how popular he might be in Philadelphia area; if that's the criteria, hey, let's see if Rocky Balboa can run the team. If the Phillies miss the playoffs this year, it might be the best possible thing that could happen to upper management; they'll finally be able to, you know, hire a real manager.

 

 
 

Atlanta Braves

I know, I know, everyone always thinks this is the year the Braves will finally lose the division, and somehow, every year, Bobby Cox and company confound everyone and win the division anyway. (They've now won 12 in a row, which is ridiculous.) But I'm serious here: This is the year it finally happens. These Braves look nothing like any Braves team you've seen before.

Sure, letting go of Greg Maddux made sense; let the Cubs overpay him for nostalgia purposes. And not overpaying for Javy Lopez works too, he had a career season in 2003 that he'll never repeat. But

   
 

replacing Gary Sheffield with J.D. Drew and Maddux with John Thomson is a net loss and a half. The Braves don't even resemble the teams you remember; Ted Turner clearly isn't bankrolling them anymore. Even their own network is de-emphasizing them.

If the Braves win the division this year, Bobby Cox should be bronzed immediately, though bronzing is a long, laborious and dangerous process, particularly for the participant.

 

 
 

New York Mets

The Mets, to their credit, are certainly trying to improve without going all Knicks on us. They've cleared out some payroll and are building around youngsters like Jose Reyes, Scott Kazmir and Aaron Heilman. And even their free agent signings are getting smarter; Mike Cameron was the fleet-footed defensive whiz center fielder Tom Glavine and Al Leiter desperately needed.

But this team still is a couple of years away from respectability. The top of the order is solid, but Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd are lucky they can even stand anymore. Tom Glavine is about to fall off a cliff, and it's very possible Karim Garcia will start in right

   
 

field, which is all you need to know. But new general manager Jim Duquette is at least monitoring the situation in a sane manner, which is more than you've been able to say about the Mets for a long time.

This year won't be as miserable as the last few years, and there is some hope out there … but the Mets will be lucky, with the Yankees in town, to hit a single backpage headline all season. That might be a good thing.

 

 
 

Montreal Expos

There, sadly, is no Montreal Expos blog, though I was tempted to send you to a blog that's trying to bring baseball back to Washington, D.C. That the Expos are still owned by Major League Baseball is a travesty of the highest order; if baseball were like any other business, everyone in charge would be doing a perp walk for insider trading and unfair labor practices. All baseball fans should root for the Expos every game; the more they win, the more MLB's nefariousness would be exposed.

Considering, you know, everything is stacked against him, Expos GM Omar Minaya is to be commended for doing what he can. He lost Vladimir Guerrero and

   
 

Javier Vazquez, but has done what he can to replace them with Crazy Carl Everett and Nick Johnson. The offense should be there, particularly at that weird slow-pitch softball field in Puerto Rico, and the pitching is at least reasonable. But the Expos are coming up to the plate with an 0-2 count every game. If there are any Expos fans left, they deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

 
 

 

 

 
 

Chicago Cubs

Admit it. There was a little tiny moment there, in October, before the chaos of the eighth inning, where you seriously thought the Cubs were going to the World Series. Hell, I even thought so, and I have spent 28 years watching the Cubs find all new and amazing ways to flop around the diamond like the fish at the end of Faith No More's "Epic" video. But with one intrusive nerd with headphones and with one (more important) dropped grounder by Alex Gonzalez, we were reminded, once again, that these are, and always will be, the Cubs.

An argument could be made that the Cubs are better off if they never make a World

   
 

Series. In hockey, the New York Rangers were once the most treasured franchise in the league. They were adored by their fans and respected by their opponents. The city of New York worshipped the Rangers and their lovable futility. Then 1994 came around, and the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, in dramatic and glorious fashion. Since 1994, no one has given a rat's ass about the New York Rangers. There is nothing cute about the Rangers anymore; they are just another mediocre franchise in a big city; actually winning was the worst thing that could ever happen to them. An argument could be made that the same could happen if the Cubs ever (cough-never-cough) won the World Series; they would go from the huggable Cubbies mired in perpetual futility to, you know, the DEFENDING CHAMPIONS. The same could be said for the Red Sox; when your team is associated with heartbreaking losses, if those losses are eliminated and forgotten, now what does your team stand for?

It's a legitimate debate, because if the Cubs make the playoffs this year, they're going to be very, very dangerous. The starting rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Greg Maddux, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano is jaw-dropping; I don't care if you have A-Rod or not, no one wants to face that in a seven-game series. Fortunately for the rest of the league, the Cubs' manager is Dusty Baker. As mentioned several times in this mammoth preview, the job of a manager is a simple one; it's difficult to screw it up. But one of the worst things you could do -- probably the worst -- is to have the best young pitching in baseball and proceed to work it into the ground. The agents for Prior, Wood and Zambrano likely wake up in the middle of the night, screaming Baker's name. That 1-5 rotation is incredible, but the odds of all five (or even three of the five) remaining healthy all season are vaguely similar to the odds that Axl Rose will be elected King of Siam. Or the odds that Axl Rose will ever finish that Chinese Democracy album, actually.

Still, it's tough to pick against the Cubs this year in the Central. Juan Cruz's powerful arm is ready to fill in until Baker destroys it too, and the lineup, while too old and too rickety, still has enough pop left to score just enough to win. In fact, you almost find yourself thinking that this could be the Cubs year. But then you remember you're talking about the Chicago Cubs, and you rise and greet a new day with something resembling reason, logic and clarity.

 

 
 

St. Louis Cardinals

With the offseason additions the Cubs and Astros have made, the Cardinals -- who have made the playoffs three out of the last four seasons -- have been all but forgotten, and it's difficult to understand why. A strong argument could be made that St. Louis has four of the top six hitters in the division, they have quality starters at the top of the rotation and innings eaters at the bottom and they have dramatically improved their bullpen, which was the biggest reason the team fell off last year. (When evil Cardinals fans die, they will spend eternity watching Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero pitch.)

 

   
 

Perhaps what's most interesting about the Cardinals, who have the most loyal, intelligent and forgiving fan base in the country, is that this is the next-to-last season for Busch Stadium, which was built in 1966. The stadium, like the Giants' Pac Bell Park, will be privately financed by the owners, though many St. Louisans suspect they'll be called upon for a bailout if construction runs over. But the real question: Why are the Cardinals building a new ballpark? Busch Stadium remains one of the best places in the country to see a baseball game, and attendance has been among the highest in the sport for a decade. The owners claims they are building a new park to increase revenue possibilities; the owners of the Brewers, Reds and Pirates said the same thing, and they're worse off than they ever were. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ownership has held a tighter line on payroll, citing expenses for a new ballpark that, deep down, nobody really wants. That it's yet another Camden Yards clone doesn't help either.

Because of those payroll constraints, the Cardinals weren't able to go out and get a Greg Maddux or Andy Pettitte in the offseason, and therefore have been not considered serious contenders. But that's a mistake. New additions like Reggie Sanders and Jeff Suppan might not have been flashy, but they're real improvements to a team that underachieved last year. Did the Cardinals fill every hole? No. Second base and left field, in particular, are dead spots in an otherwise potent lineup. But this is a serious team with which to be reckoned. They'll be in the race until the final month, at least.

 

 
 

Houston Astros

Roger Clemens, in an otherwise unspectacular media roundtable last month, unwittingly revealed something quite telling about what his 2004 season will be like. Talking to reporters, he pointed out, almost off-handedly, how in the month of June, he will have to miss two weeks of the season for "previously scheduled speaking engagements." Now, when you're the Houston Astros, and Roger Clemens pretty much just fell in your lap, you're not likely to cross him on this point. But it casts serious doubts on just how important the Rocket will be for his homestate team this year; at 42, he wasn't likely to log a lot of innings anyway, and this is a team that will need them.

   
 

 

If Clemens thinks pitching in Fenway Park was hard, wait until he plays at Dick Cheney Field. You saw how rattled he gets in pressure situations; it's easy to imagine him spontaneously combusting when a ball that's a pop-up to the left fielder in any park lofts over that video game left-field wall. (Maybe it'll hit the train!) Andy Pettitte, who will desperately miss Yankee Stadium, likely won't like it much either.

Astros fans are understandably exciting coming into this year, but this is an old team that could be on the verge of collapse. Along with the two ex-Yanks, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent are all nearing the end of their careers, and are serious injury risks. The rotation is somewhat deep, and with those geriatric arms at the top, they'll need to be. Houston has placed all its bets on this season, and it's a shaky proposition. If the Astros finish in third place this year, prepare for a complete overhaul.

 

 
 

Cincinnati Reds

Remember when Ken Griffey was everything that was right about baseball? When the NL Central was supposed to have the three of the best sluggers ever in Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Griffey? It seems like eons ago. Griffey is now an unhappy, injury-prone contract albatross, the Reds are in complete disarray and they're even talking about waiting for Pete Rose to be reinstated so they can hire him as manager. (This is the equivalent of trying to impregnate your wife by castrating yourself.)

The Reds, to be fair, are one of the more hard-luck teams in the game, with almost

   
 

every promising star either coming up lame or incompetent. And is Barry Larkin still on this team? Didn't he go to college with Andy Rooney?

Despite a lineup that, if it could stay healthy, could mash with just about anybody, the pitching at the Great American Ballpark will be like watching puppies being tortured for two unrelenting hours. (But hey, that's exactly the way it was in The Bible! Really!) The Reds are schedule-fillers by this point.

 

 
 

Pittsburgh Pirates

From all accounts, PNC Park, the home of the Pirates, is one of the most gorgeous in all of sports. In a related story, someone just took a rather large poo in the Sistine Chapel.

Last year, general manager Dave Littlefield recognized the direction the economics of baseball were going; that is, he saw that certain productive veterans without contracts late in the offseason would be desperate to go anywhere, at any prices, as Spring Training approached. He signed Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Jeff Suppan and Matt Stairs for bargain-basement prices and then, when contenders got desperate at the trading deadline, he

   
 

shipped them off for prospects. This is very smart, and one of the reasons the Pirates have one of the most fruitful farm systems in baseball. (He's trying the same thing this year with Raul Mondesi.) This is also why the Pirates, with those prospects still years away, will be unwatchable this season. Their cleanup hitter might well be Craig Wilson, who, um, won't be accused of being a steroid abuser anytime soon.

Unlike most awful teams, though, the Pirates actually have a future, and a sleeping giant of a fan base desperate for anything to wash the taste of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox from their mouths. The Pirates are on the right track, though this year, man, it's gonna be ugly.

 

 
 

Milwaukee Brewers

In Jerry Maguire, director Cameron Crowe went through great pains to try to make the football scenes as realistic as possible. But he made one fatal mistake: Who in the world, when they think of the NFL, even considers casting a main character as an Arizona Cardinal? Following that theme, later this year, Touchstone Pictures will present Mr. 3000, starring Bernie Mac as a retired baseball star who finds out that, thanks to a statistical error, has 2,997 career hits rather than the 3,000 he thought he had. He returns to get those final three hits and, presumably, learns a little bit about himself along the way. Well, in that movie, he plays for the Brewers. You'd think they'd want people to go see it.

   
 

 

Anyway, the Brewers, who haven't had a winning season since Guns 'N Roses' Use Your Illusion albums came out, will be predictably horrible this season, and, even worse than the Pirates, they have no real plan in place. They just, as some sort of "fan gesture," resigned oft-injured left-fielder and Brett Favre clone Geoff Jenkins to a rather silly long-term contract, which is the type of thing that clueless ownership groups to do show their "commitment" to the city, or some such bullshit.

The only thing worth mentioning about the Brewers is that they plan on continuing to use Brooks Kieschnick as both a hitter and a pitcher. And that's not much.

 

 

 
 

San Francisco Giants

People always ask which ballplayers they will tell their grandchildren about. Personally, I think it's far more likely, by the time I'm old enough to have grandchildren, I'll just be happy to have at least a semblance of bladder control, but it's a fair question. And let it be known now: Assuming hovercraft chicken hasn't replaced baseball as the national pastime in 2054, your grandchildren will be asking you about Barry Bonds. And they won't be asking about steroids either.

What Barry Bonds has done over the last three years defines any rational human explanation. Forget the 73 home runs.

   
 

Forget the postseason heroics. When Barry Bonds steps to the plate, it is more likely that he will reach base than he will not. Can you imagine that? He has done that three years in a row now. Since World War II, this has been done six times. Three of those were by Bonds in the last three years. What he is doing has no precedent and is so insane you almost can't believe it's happening. Barry Bonds not only has deserved the MVP the last three years, they probably should have given him an extra one each time.

And thank God the Giants have him, because their offense is nearly empty otherwise. Edgardo Alfonzo has been a disappointment since signing last year, and the Giants' second-best hitter last year was Marquis Grissom, who is 37 and is named Marquis for crying out loud. And the pitching is weaker than it was last year, with former Cardinals bottom feeders Brett Tomko and Dustin Hermanson impersonating living, walking humans.

So why are the Giants still picked to win the division? This is not the NBA, after all; one man can't have that much impact on the game, can he? Can he? Well, he can't, but this is a weak division that has degraded since 2003, and Jason Schmidt, if he can stay healthy, is the anchor any team needs. But, as always, the story is all about Bonds, and this is possibly the last season he will ever play. Like him or not, it seems foolish to think, if he wanted to, he couldn't just win the whole thing by himself.

 

 
 

San Diego Padres

The Padres are everyone's trendy pick to make a quantum leap in a piss-poor division this year, and it's easy to see why. They have a schnazzy new stadium, a dangerous lineup (with Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin) and, hey, they have David Wells anchoring the rotation, and that's always fun.

But if the Padres were in the AL East, they'd be lucky to outlast the Orioles. The rotation is promising (with Adam Easton and Jake Peavy) but unproven, and there are holes all around the big bangers in the middle. This is the NL West, however. The Padres are the only team in the division

   
 

that appears ready to spend this season, so if they're in the hunt into late July, expect ownership to go for the big move.

Besides, they have both Wells and Rod Beck, so if matters fall too far, they can always feed them a diminutive middle infielder.

 

 
 

Arizona Diamondbacks

Ain't that the way it always works? Ever since they acquired Curt Schilling, the Diamondbacks have been trying to figure out how to get one … more … starter that would make them completely dominant. They found him last year in Brandon Webb -- who should have been the Rookie of the Year last season -- and, wouldn't you know it, Randy Johnson was hurt all season, and Schilling was dinged up half the time too. Now Schilling is gone, Johnson is fighting his way back (he's being paid a mind-shattering $33 million over the next two years) and the Diamondbacks are holding everything together with Scotch tape.

Still, the D-Backs did what they could this

   
 

offseason, gathering in Richie Sexson in the Schilling salary swap. If steroid suspect Luis Gonzalez can continue defying the aging processes normal homo sapiens deal with every day, Roberto Alomar remembers that he's Roberto freaking Alomar, for crying out loud and Elmer Dessens can be at least middlingly adequate, the Diamondbacks have a chance.

But they'll never have that Nos. 1-3 dominance that they could have had. Well, I guess they'll have to settle for that World Series trophy. (Do you think the Diamondbacks ever let Arizona Cardinals players hang out with them? I'd bet they don't.)

 

 
 

Los Angeles Dodgers

Last year, the Dodgers had one of the stranger teams in recent baseball memory. Their pitching was dominant, almost freakishly so; their hitting, however … well, let's just say if a Bleacher Bum at Dodger Stadium caught a Dodger home run, they were able to trade in the rarity for a six-pack of Russian mail order brides and have enough left over to spring for dinner.

So what did the Dodgers do this offseason to upgrade the offense? Well, they spent most of the winter waiting for their owner to improve, so they did, um, squat. Actually, half a squat; kind of like a crouch. Oh, and they also lost Kevin Brown, their

   
 

best pitcher last season, and brought in Jeff Weaver, who has that Vincent'D'Onofrio-in-Full Metal Jacket look to him after two years in New York. That's not the only reason the pitching will be appreciably worse; Hideo Nomo, Odalis Perez, Kaz Ishii and Wilson Alvarez all overperformed last season and will surely, as the sabermetricians say, "regress to the mean" this season. (They're such nerds sometimes.) The Dodgers were a cute curiosity last year, the amazing hitless wonders who nevertheless stayed in the race; this year, both their hitting and pitching somehow got worse. Bad sign.

The future is bright for the Dodgers. They finally have an owner in place, and they just hired Moneyball hero Paul DePodesta as their new GM. The Dodgers have one of the proudest traditions in the game, and baseball benefits when they are in the public eye. But not just yet.

 

 
 

Colorado Rockies

Solving The Colorado Problem is one of baseball's more fascinating quandaries. The Rockies have tried everything to figure out the high-altitude riddle. A lineup full of sluggers? Check. A slap-hitting, base-stealing Whiteyball scrappers? Check. A group of hanging curveball flyball pitchers? Uh, no.

The Rockies still haven't figured it out, but it's difficult to understand this year's strategy: Bring in a bunch of schleps for cheap. Royce Clayton? Vinny Castilla? Jeromy Burnitz? What year is this, anyway? It's a shame, too, because Todd Helton seems doomed to languish here forever.

   
 

Sure, there are worse places for a hitter to whittle away his hours, but Helton is an all-world hitter, even potentially a Hall of Famer. But don't think that, even if he keeps putting up numbers like he has been, Hall voters won't hold Coors against him when his name hits the ballot. If he played for the Dodgers, they'd have a statue of him not only in front of Dodger Stadium, but in front of the Staples Center, Mann's Chinese Theater and the Viper Room.

It doesn't look like this is the year the Rockies are going to figure out this mess either. In 2006, the team is expected to have more of that catchy "payroll flexibility," so expect them to just bide their time until then, when they'll surely get it wrong then too.

 

Playoff Predictions

American League Divisional Series
Boston over Kansas City in 3
Oakland over New York in 4

American League Championship Series
Oakland over Boston in 7

National League Divisional Series
Florida over St. Louis in 4
San Francisco over Chicago Cubs in 5

National League Championship Series
San Francisco over Florida in 6

The World Series
Oakland over San Francisco in 7

 

Will Leitch is managing editor of The Black Table. He writes these 9,295-word odysseys every year to make himself feel better about no longer working at The Sporting News.