Is Sports Illustrated Right?
Once again, the focus of the American League will be the AL East. The continuing saga of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox will propel sports analysts around the country to ask, "Is this Boston's year?" More so than ever this is the year to wonder whether Boston can escape the dreaded Curse of the Bambino, but the Bosox will first need to slip past the most formidable team in baseball.
With the acquisition of centerfielder Carl Everett from Houston, the Sox may have found the missing piece of the puzzle. After batting .325 and driving in 108 runs last year, Everett, along with leftfielder Troy O'Leary, will provide the needed protection for shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. After consistently improving his batting average and on-base percentage over the past three years, Garciaparra should be able to continue the trend in the 2000 season.
However, the real question lies not in the offense, but in the starting pitching of Boston. With 1999 Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, the Sox have the best pitcher in baseball, but success in the postseason lies with the rest of the rotation. Older brother Ramon Martinez looked terrific in spring training after recovering from rotator cuff surgery most of last season, and Boston's hopes lie in his health since the rest of the rotation doesn't look promising.
New addition Jeff Fassero must rebound from last year's 7.20 ERA, and Tim Wakefield must prove he can once again win 15 games after being left off last year's ALCS roster.
With an entire World Champion team returning, the New York Yankees have no reason to believe a three-peat is out of reach. However, the question for the Yanks is whether age will wear down a starting rotation that is one of the best in baseball. 38-year-old David Cone is no longer the workhorse he once was and came into spring training throwing an 82 mph fastball. 37-year-old Roger Clemens trimmed down over the off-season and is still throwing the heat, but the Rocket will need to bounce back from his worst season in years. The race will be close in the East, but the Sox will come through in the end.
Although the AL West is often overlooked as a bastion of mediocrity, the race this year should be rather interesting. After moving into Safeco Field, the Mariners acquired new starting pitching to accompany the new pitcher-friendly ballpark. New additions Aaron Sele (18-9) and Brett Tomko now accompany Jamie Moyer (14-8, 3.87 ERA) and Freddy Garcia (17-8, 4.07 ERA) in what is now a very formidable rotation. 32-year-old Japanese righty Kazuhiro Sasaki has been likened to Mariano Rivera and may be the cure for Seattle's bullpen woes. Furthermore, the addition of first baseman John Olerud, though not quite accounting for the offensive loss of Ken Griffey Jr., could propel the M's into the postseason.
Like Seattle, the Texas Rangers swapped offense for pitching. With the loss of offensive powerhouse Juan Gonzalez, the Rangers were able to throw money into the starting rotation, acquiring southpaws Kenny Rogers (10-4), Justin Thompson (9-11) and Darren Oliver (9-9). With their strongest rotation in several years and a very overpowering lineup, the Rangers could possibly repeat as West Champs.
However, the AL West this year will belong to the Oakland Athletics. After a solid second place finish last year, the A's return one of the most explosive lineups in baseball. First baseman Jason Giambi, DH John Jaha, rightfielder Matt Stairs, and leftfielder Ben Grieve form the core of a lineup that finished second behind Seattle in home runs. Starting pitchers Kevin Appier (16-14), Tim Hudson (11-2, 3.23 ERA), Omar Olivares (15-11, 4.16 ERA), and Gil Heredia (13-8) constitute a strong rotation, and reliever Jason Isringhausen will finally establish himself as a solid closer.
The AL Central is probably the most boring division in baseball. The Indians will once again run away with the title, as their high powered offense propels Cleveland into the postseason. The addition of lefty Chuck Finley, a noted Yankee killer, should help push Cleveland past the wild card Yanks and into the ALCS.
In the other division series, Boston will run over the A's in three. In one of the most exciting league championship series in years, the Red Sox will beat Cleveland in seven to meet NL champs St. Louis (last week's column) in the World Series. Finally the stage is set for the series I have dreamed of.
So who will win the World Series? Though Boston is primed for their first run at a title in years, it's against all laws of nature that the Bosox win the championship. Therefore, an outstanding performance by Andy Benes in game seven will seal the deal for the Cards.