I’m ready for the 2006 season to start as tonight an AL Central battle is slated for the lidlifter, the White Sox host the Indians. (Unfortunately, there’s an 80% change of strong thunderstorms in the Chicago area tonight.) Went up to Perdue Stadium yesterday and fought off the mob of Easter egg-hunting kids to pick out some seats for the home opener next Monday. (I’ll save the office tix for someone else, heaven knows I’ll get enough of them once things get underway.)
So this morning I’ve been perusing the sports pages trying to get a fix on how things look in 2006. I’ll start with the local major league teams, Nats and Orioles.
The Nationals were a last place team in 2005 despite also being a .500 team at 81-81. The good news for Nats fans is that they’re not picked to be a last place team this year by 8 of 9 predictions I saw, including all of the “national” (no pun intended) predictors. The bad news is that they’re likely to finish a few games short of the .500 mark this season and probably a dozen-and-a-half games out of the division title. Most experts are picking the Braves for a fifteenth straight division crown, but the Mets have gotten some respect (2 of the 9 pick the Mets to break the Atlanta streak.) What saves the Nats from the basement is the dismantling of the Florida Marlins and their continuing rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to rags again story. Go ahead and contract that sorry franchise, and put a restraining order on Jeffrey Lurie ever owning another ballteam.
Speaking of restraining orders, perhaps the same should be done for Peter Angelos and the Orioles. I’m only going to make two actual predictions in this post, and here they are: in the Orioles’ next-to-last homestand, September 8-14 against Boston and New York, the attendance by people wearing Red Sox or Yankees colors will be higher than those supporting the hometown team, and you’ll hear more cheering for Big Papi or Derek Jeter than for Miguel Tejada. For the last home series against Minnesota, the total attendance won’t break 60,000. You guessed it, a second-division finish is in the cards for the O’s if the experts are correct. Most have them trailing the D-Rays and inhabiting the AL East cellar, while a few pick them just ahead of Tampa Bay. The very first series for Baltimore is home against the Devil Rays so they’ll be stacked up right off the bat.
So the AL East dynasty of the Yankees winning the division and the Red Sox finishing second is expected again, for the most part (a few see Toronto as the #2 team.) It’s in the 2007-2008 seasons that the change of the AL East guard is expected to occur with the rapid ascension of Tampa Bay and their great young talent. The Orioles don’t even get placed on the radar.
Now I can talk about the important division, the AL Central. Just like the Eastern divisions of both leagues, it’s been a dynastic division where one team generally runs a string of division titles (Cleveland ’95-’99 and ’01, Minnesota ’02-’04). That’s good news for White Sox fans who hope to make their success in 2005 into their own dynasty. The bad news is that Chicago was the odd team who won in 2000 and pretty much became the placeholder between the Cleveland and Minnesota runs. Some are predicting that same placeholder scenario for the Sox and returning the dynasty label back to Cleveland. The experts are almost evenly split on this year’s winner, with a bare majority picking the White Sox.
Of course, to me all other AL Central teams are the “enemy” since I’m a Tigers fan. This spring, they’ve been making some noise and it’s possible this accursed streak of losing seasons could finally end before it hits 13. They did suffer a blow in their final spring training game as free agent signee and annointed closer Todd Jones got hurt, but that could mean highly-regarded prospect Joel Zumaya gets an opportunity to apprentice as a setup man for interim closer Fernando Rodney. One thing I think the Tigers did well in working Zumaya through the minors is that he’s been a starter so he’s had to develop several good pitches. If he’s destined for the closer’s spot, it will serve him very well.
So who do the experts think will be standing at the end? It’s a wide-open race, with eight experts I got six possibilities. The White Sox and Cardinals were picked by two each, others mentioned the Braves, A’s, Yankees, and Blue Jays. St. Louis is a very popular NL pick (7 of 8, the other being Atlanta), but few thought they could handle the AL winner. I’d love to see my Tigers upset that apple cart though. Restore the roar and place the Olde English D back into the prominence it deserves. My Mud Hens washed away a 38-year title drought last year, maybe this year the Tigers can end a 22 year hex.