Monday, September 22, 2008

Angels, Cubs, everyone ... The final week is upon us

Another season of Major League Baseball dwindles down again.

This year it appears the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Chicago Cubs will draw top seeds in each league.

Who will win the other divisions? Who will earn wild card entries?

So little time, so much to be decided.

Beginning today, with a 1:10p.m (ET) start between the Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, 11 MLB clubs have one week to make their final push.

In the drivers seat are the 96-51 Angels and 94-60 Cubs. The American League's regular season finest (Anaheim) attempt to earn home field advantage, while Chicago's north-siders seek to sew up National League home turf in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

The AL West and NL Central battles appear settled. As for the other four MLB divisions, there is much to be determined.

Delivering my predictions from coast to coast, I'll start with the American League West and Anaheim.

There's really not much to say here. The Texas Rangers briefly gave the Angels a brief semblance of a challenge near the All-Star break, but simply have not have the pitching to compete for a division title.

PREDICTION: Anaheim (98-62), Texas (80-82) 18.0 GB

In the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox hold a 2 1/2 game lead over the Minnesota Twins. Power appears like it'll take precedence over peskiness. As the Twins continue its struggle to produce home runs, Chicago is proving they have no problem pounding out homer after homer.

The Sox have hit an MLB-best 222 homers. Conversely, Minnesota has just 108.

Chicago's Carlos Quentin has hammered 36 homeruns this season, while two other Sox -- Jim Thome (33) and Jermaine Dye (32) -- have eclipsed the 30-HR mark as well.

The White Sox power appears daunting and difficult to overcome, but don't quite sleep on the Twins. Chicago's brawn may be intimidating at the plate, but Minnesota's group of feisty hitters will not go down without a fight.

Remember the nickname Ozzie Guillen gave them a few years back? Outside of Nick Punto, many of the names and faces have changed but Minnesota does have three other players who pack a lot of "Piranha"-like punch.

Second-year player Alexi Casilla is hitting .293, while rookies Denard Span and Carlos Gomez have combined for 48 stolen bases. Outfielders Span and Gomez also have five triples apiece.

As for driving in runs, first baseman Justin Morneau leads the AL with 128 RBI. However, he's the only Twins player with more than 100 RBI and no one else on the team even comes close.

While all the Morneau RBI in the world doesn't seem to be able to help this club, the the Twins bullpen should show redemption from its mid-season woes this last week and Minnesota's Piranhas will enable them to nab the division by a game.

Chicago and Minnesota square off with a three-game set (Tues. - Thurs.), but will finish their 2008 seasons with contests against other AL Central foes.

The Twins face Kansas City for its final three games, while the White Sox must take on the white hot Cleveland Indians.

PREDICTION: Minnesota (89-73), Chicago (88-74) 1.0 GB

The AL East is very interesting. After Tampa Bay (92-62) has led Boston for most of the season, the defending World Champs are showing their toughness down the stretch.

Tampa finished winning two of four against Minnesota and clinched its first ever playoff appearance. Boston, meanwhile, defeated the Blue Jays Sunday to lift its record to 91-64.

With a starting rotation featuring five pitchers with 11 or more wins each, the Rays currently hold the upper-hand on the Red Sox. However, Rays hitters are hitting just .262 (ranking 12th in its league).

Boston does not have as consistent of a rotation as Tampa, but they do have Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Japanese-born right-hander allowed two hits through 7 IP in earning his 18th win of the season yesterday.

The Red Sox also have a potent MVP threat in Dustin Pedroia. Boston's second-baseman leads the majors with 52 doubles and his .324 BA ranks second among his AL competitors -- trailing only Minnesota's Joe Mauer (.330).

Tampa and Boston are evenly matched in terms of power -- the Rays have 171 HRs, Boston has 168 -- but the Rays have more team speed than the Bo-Sox. Tampa leads the AL with 134 stolen bases.

Pedroia's Sox host a hot Cleveland team for a four-game series, while the Rays travel to Baltimore and Detroit. The Indians will not likely carry its six-game win streak through Boston, but they will win two or three.

After its series with Cleveland, the Sox will play three more at Fenway Park, hosting arch-rival New York.

Boston should finish strong, but the Rays win both of its last series and earn its first ever AL East title.

PREDICTION: Tampa Bay (96-66), Boston (95-67) 1.0 GB

AL Wildcard: Boston

In the National League, the western division had a race until Los Angeles (81-75) acquired Casey Blake and Manny Ramirez. The two MLB veterans have helped a once-ailing offense to supplement a fine pitching staff and lead the Dodgers to a playoff birth.

Earlier this season, the Arizona Diamondbacks led the Dodgers behind its two ace pitchers. Dan Haren won his 16th game last night and ranks second in the NL with 197 strikeouts, while Cy Young hopeful Brandon Webb has 170 Ks and an NL-best 21 wins.

Arizona (78-77) may have two formidable aces, but they do not have the balanced pitching nor doesn't the hitters to compete with the Dodgers down the stretch.

Chad Billingsley leads the Dodgers pitching staff with 15 wins and a 3.22 ERA. The team has also received MVP-like numbers from Ramirez (.404, 16 HRs and 49 RBI in 47 games played with L.A.) and swift base stealing from centerfielder Matt Kemp (34 SBs).

The D-Backs, conversely, are batting a mere .251 as a team and have swiped just 57 bases.

Dodgers skipper Joe Torre will take his new team to the postseason, while his ex-team (the New York Yankees) fall short. Currently L.A. has a 2 1/2 game lead over Webb and Haren's squad.

Arizona will be on the road for a four-game series at St. Louis starting today. From there, manager Bob Melvin will lead his team home to finish its season with three versus Colorado.

Torre's crew -- which leads the NL with a 3.68 team ERA -- will finish its season with three home contests against San Diego and three on the road with San Francisco.

After a 1-0 home loss to the Giants last night, expect L.A. to heat up and build some momentum before entering the playoffs.

PREDICTION: Los Angeles (87-75), Arizona (81-81) 6.0 GB

The NL Central belongs to the Cubs. Milwaukee had a wonderful late-June and July run but has appeared to fall short.

Pitching, in particular the consistency from Chicago's starters, has played a prevalent role in the team's success this season.

Lou Piniella's pitchers rank second in the NL with a team ERA of 3.83. Ryan Dempster has been phenomenal. The Cubs Canadian-born right-hander has rebounded from a tough 2007 season to lead Chicago in wins (17), ERA (2.99) and strikeouts (183).

In his team's starting rotation, Dempster is complemented by fellow hurlers Carlos Zambrano (14-6), Ted Lilly (16-9, 180 Ks) and Jason Marquis (10 wins).

The Cubs also will rely on mid-season acquisition Rich Harden as it enters postseason play. Combining his efforts for both Oakland and Chicago this season, Harden is 10-2 with 177 strikeouts and 2.03 ERA.

Milwaukee tried to counter the Cubs pitching attack July 7 when it acquired C.C. Sabathia from Cleveland and he has been nothing short of magnificent. As a member of the Brewers, the 290-pound left-hander is 9-2 with a 1.81 ERA.

Sabathia and Milwaukee veteran SP Ben Sheets (13-8, 2.98 ERA) have both had fine seasons. Also, Milwaukee's offense has produced its share of power.

Led by Ryan Braun, the Brewers have hammered 194 homeruns as a team. It just won't be enough, however, for Milwaukee to earn a playoff spot. The Brewers lack of consistent hitting has them toward the bottom of the NL rankings with a .254 batting average.

Beginning tomorrow, the Brewers face the pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates for three before finishing its season with the Cubs in Chicago. Meanwhile, Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee (two of Chicago's seasoned sluggers) will fly to New York for a four games before returning to Wrigley.

Milwaukee has two quality sluggers in Braun (.287, 35 HRs and 99 RBI) and Prince Fielder (33 HRs, 98 RBI), but don't expect the Beer-makers to patch together a six-game winning streak and make the playoffs. The Cubs win this division handily.

PREDICTION: Chicago (97-65), Milwaukee (90-72) 7.0 GB

Lastly, the NL East. Easily, the league's best race, the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies will continue their battle to its bitter end.

Currently the Phillies (88-68) have the upper hand. Charlie Manuel's club defeated the Marlins last night when 21-year veteran Jamie Moyer picked up his 15th win. Meanwhile, New York lost last night as Jerry Manuel's team managed just one win in three games against woeful Atlanta.

Brad Lidge has re-vamped his career as the Philly closer. The ex-Houston Astros flame-thrower earned his 40th save last night, sealing up a 5-2 win for the 45-year-old Moyer.

The Mets, meanwhile, lost its closer for the remainder of the season. Billy Wagner, who has 385 career saves, went down with an elbow injury.

Offensively, Philadelphia's Ryan Howard is lighting up National League scoreboards. The burly left-handed hitter leads all of baseball with 46 HRs and 141 RBI. Defensively, however, Howard has committed 17 errors, which is horrible for a first baseman.

New York's 1B Carlos Delgado isn't the best defensively either (8 errors), but the 36-year-old does lead the Mets with 37 homers. He is also one of three players on his team to compile more than 100 RBI. Delgado has 110, while David Wright has 118 and Carlos Beltran has 108.

Having the luxury of a dependable closer and good starting rotation, Philadelphia may have a better overall pitching staff. However, don't forget about the two-time Cy Young award winner New York has up its sleeve.

After tossing seven innings and striking out eight in his team's 7-2 win over Washington Thursday, Johan Santana passed fellow Mets starter Mike Pelfrey for the team lead in wins (14). The left-handed Venezuela native also leads New York in ERA (2.68) and has 187 Ks.

Starting today, Santana and his Mets host the Cubs for four games, after that New York will welcome the Marlins to Shea Stadium for three to end its season. Philadelphia also hosts its last six games, opposing Atlanta and Washington for three games apiece.

Despite having tougher opponents, expect the Mets to sneak by Philly and win the division. The Phillies will, however, win the wildcard and be able to represent the City of Brotherly Love in the playoffs.

PREDICTION: New York (92-70), Philadelphia (91-69) 1.0 GB

NL Wildcard: Philadelphia

In the playoffs, the Cubs and Angels will have home field advantage, but they aren't necessarily the favorites. Although the Angels will likely finish its regular season with more wins than Chicago, Anaheim has not had any heated competition for a very long time. The Cubs have had many heated games versus the Brewers and have played in several other hotly contested games. The Angels, meanwhile, have led its division by double-digits practically the entire season.

Expect Boston to give Anaheim plenty of postseason pain. As for the Cubs, they'll need to watch out for the Dodgers and Mets this October.

As for the playoffs and World Series?

I'll wait for the regular season to be officially over until I make any specific postseason predictions. In the meantime, I'll ponder who'll replace comedian/actor Dane Cook as the 2008 MLB postseason's promotional spokesman.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

NFL '08 Postulations

Not that I'm a pro, in terms of being a football critic (I've only covered one football game in a professional sense), but I have made my predictions for the 2008 National Football League season.

Sure, the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts are storied NFL franchises while the Eastview Lightning and Eden Prairie Eagles are high school teams in Minnesota. The Cowboys have Tony Romo and the Colts have Peyton Manning, while the Eagles, last fall, had Ryan Grant, and the Lightning had Corey Eul. Lastly, Romo and Manning are set to participate in the 43rd season of professional American football, whereas Grant and Eul tussled in a Minnesota state high school semi-final.

At any rate, working between four jobs and following Major League Baseball has left me with little time to study NFL football, but I went ahead and made my predictions nonetheless.

As far as upsets go? Well, the Arizona Cardinals making the playoffs is usually a surprise. I have the Cards earning entry this season. Also, I picked the Pittsburgh Steelers to post the 2nd-best record in the AFC this year.

Without further ado, here are my selections:

NFL 2008
Preseason Postulations

Arizona 9-7 (*)
Seattle 9-7
St. Louis 6-10
San Francisco 4-12

Minnesota 11-5
Green Bay 9-7 (wc)
Detroit 8-8
Chicago 5-11

New Orleans 10-6
Tampa Bay 8-8
Atlanta 6-10
Carolina 5-11

Dallas 12-4
Philadelphia 10-6 (wc)
Washington 9-7
New York 5-11

San Diego 10-6
Denver 8-8
Oakland 7-9
Kansas City 4-12

Pittsburgh 11-5
Cleveland 10-6 (wc)
Cincinnati 8-8
Baltimore 5-11

Indianapolis 10-6 (*)
Jacksonville 10-6 (wc)
Tennessee 8-8
Houston 6-10

New England 13-3
New York 9-7
Miami 6-10
Buffalo 5-11

(*) ~ Win tie-breaker
(wc) ~ Wild Card entries

2008 NFL Playoffs
NFC seeding
(1) Dallas
(2) Minnesota
(3) New Orleans
(4) Arizona
(5) Philadelphia
(6) Green Bay

AFC seeding
(1) New England
(2) Pittsburgh
(3) Indianapolis
(4) San Diego
(5) Jacksonville
(6) Cleveland

NFC Playoff games
(3) Saints over (6) Packers
(5) Eagles over (4) Cardinals

(1) Cowboys over (5) Eagles
(2) Vikings over (3) Saints

(1) Cowboys over (2) Vikings

AFC Playoff games
(3) Indianapolis over (6) Cleveland
(5) Jacksonville over (4) San Diego

(1) New England over (5) Jacksonville
(2) Indianapolis over (2) Pittsburgh

(2) Indianapolis over (1) New England