Bold Baseball Predictions And More

Two things before I get into my highly-anticipated, highly-respected, and highly-debated baseball predictions for 2009:

1. The Jay Cutler trade. It will be impossible to tell for a while who “won” this trade, but the short-term answer is the Chicago Bears. Chicago picks up a player the likes of which are almost never available: A skilled young quarterback heading into what should be the prime of his career. It could be the football version of what might have happened if  Seinfeld had taken his show to another network right before “The Contest” episode. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, are forced to issue a letter to their fans explaining, but in essence apologizing, for losing their franchise quarterback. Hey, even the Packers didn’t screw up the Favre situation so bad that they thought they needed to apologize for it. Not that the egomaniacal Ted Thompson would ever admit to being wrong about anything anyway.

The Bears had to make this deal. They’ve been mired in quarterback mediocrity for so long that it was a no-brainer for them. Jay Cutler has a much better chance of being successful in Chicago than Jay Leno has of being successful at 10 PM (9 PM central). Cutler has been solid for Denver, and could have taken them to the playoffs had they had a consistent running game and any shadow of a defense.

But did the Bears give up too much? After all, they’ve lost their first round picks for the next two drafts, their third-round pick this year, and improving if unspectacular quarterback Kyle Orton. And now that he’s proven himself to be as tough-skinned and manly as a Lifetime movie of the week, will the blue-collar fans of Chicago embarce Cutler?

If he wins, you bet. And with a better running game led by Matt Forte and a better (if surprisingly soft against the pass) defense, Cutler should be able to do just that.

It’s interesting from a Wisconsin perspective that most national pundits have placed the Cutler deal in a “have the Bears now overtaken the Vikings as the favorites to win the NFC North?” framework. Not a lot of respect for the Packers. I guess a 6-10 season will do that. It’s hard to believe the green and gold are just one season away from playing the NFC Championship game at home.

So, the four major questions for the NFC North have now become:

1. Bears: Can Cutler end Chicago’s long-standing weakness at the QB position?

2. Vikings: Is Sage Rosenfels really the answer or will the Vikings regret not going after Cutler?

3. Packers: Does new defensive coordinator Dom Capers know more about defense than he knows about hairpieces?

4. Lions: Can the worst team in professional sports win a game?  

2. The NCAA men’s basketball championship game. I loved something that Jim Nantz said in the waning moments of the Spartans’ victory over Connecticut on Saturday. He said that since Big Ten champ Michigan State had to beat Big East powerhouses Louisville and Connecticut to get to Monday’s championship game, that MSU should be considered both the Big Ten conference champ and the Big East conference champ.

Although I don’t deny that the Big East had a stunningly strong conference this season, it is sweet that — despite seemingly every commentator bending over backwards to extol the virtues of the Big East while tearing down the Big Ten — the best of the Big Ten has outlasted, outplayed, and outwitted the best of the Big East. Even though I picked North Carolina to win it all in the office pool, I will be cheering loudly for Tom Izzo’s club come Monday night. (I’m too far down the rankings to win anyway.) Hey, and wasn’t Izzo supposed to shave his head at some point?

OK, so we’ve come to my bold baseball predictions. I say “bold” because that sounds more impressive than saying “soon to be proven incorrect.” But despite errors in my past prognosticating, I will forge ahead. For each division I will give a winner, a team that could surprise, and a team that is as dead as every prime-time cooking reality show that has ever aired on broadcast television. Let’s get started:

National League Central:

Division winner: Chicago Cubs. Don’t get too excited, Cubs fans. We know you don’t really care about winning another division. It’s the playoffs that matter, and you will likely blow it again. But you’ve got too much offense and too much pitching not to win the NL Central for a third year straight. Just know a disappointing end to your season is inevitable.

May surprise: St. Louis Cardinals. They’ve still got Albert Pujols and a fine pitching staff. If Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter can stay healthy, they can make a run.

Dead: Pittsburgh Pirates. If the Detroit Lions are the worst team in professional sports, then the Pirates are certainly not far behind.

National League East:

Division winner: Philadelphia Phillies. Sure, the Mets have superstars Johan Santana, Carlos Delgado, and newly acquired closer Francisco Rodriguez. But the Phillies have the championship and nearly everyone back from last year. The Mets may be better on paper, but they could only get more dysfunctional if you put the Octo-Mom at shortstop.

May surprise: Florida Marlins. They win the World Series every six years. They’re due in 2009.

Dead: Washington Nationals. The addition of Adam Dunn will help. But it will be like if the great Alec Baldwin was added to the cast of Gary Unmarried: At the end of the day, the improvement still won’t matter.

National League West:

Division winner: Los Angeles Dodgers. This division stinks. Put Manny Ramirez on any of the five teams and it would probably be the favorite. So the Dodgers, despite a questionable pitching staff, are likely to repeat as NL West division winners.

May surprise: Arizona Diamondbacks. Brandon Webb and Dan Haren are the best 1-2 pitchers in the division and maybe the league.

Dead: San Diego Padres. If your phone rings this week, answer it with caution. It’s probably the Padres wondering if you can be their third starter.

American League Central:

Division winner: Cleveland Indians. I’d like to pick the Twins here, but I see Cleveland picking up its torrid pace of late last year to just barely win a good division. It won’t be as close if Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, and Kerry Wood play to their potential.

May surprise: Detroit Tigers. They’ve got so much talent, it’s tough to see them as bad as they were last year.

Dead: Kansas City Royals. Can they finish out of the AL Central basement for two straight seasons? Doubt it.

American League East:

Division winner: Boston Red Sox. Could be the best team in baseball in the toughest division in baseball. I just can’t see Tampa Bay repeating last year’s success.

May surprise: Tampa Bay Rays. Or could they? With the addition of Pat Burrell and studs like Evan Longoria and Scott Kazmir, this team could be good enough to withstand something foreign to them: preseason expectations.

Dead: Baltimore Orioles. Remember how NBC always had one lousy show (Union Square, The Single Guy, Suddenly Susan, Veronica’s Closet) on Thursday nights while the rest of the night’s lineup boasted powerhouses like Cheers, Seinfeld, Family Ties, Friends, ER, and The Cosby Show? The Orioles are the AL East’s Veronica’s Closet.

American League West:

Division winner: LA Angels of Anaheim. They seem to have enough left (Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, Torii Hunter) to overcome what’s not left (Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira).

May surprise: Oakland Athletics. An interesting array of acquisitions (Jason Giambi, Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera) may be enough to make some noise. But as familiar as many of the faces on their offense is, their pitching rotation is as recognizable as the cast members from Saturday Night Live‘s 1980-1981 season.

Dead: Seattle Mariners. They probably won’t be as bad as last year’s team that lost 101 games. But they’ll be bad enough to keep Seattle (Sonics gone, Seahawks stink) one of the worst sports cities in the country. Actually, Seattle’s gone downhill ever since they lost Frasier Crane.

Wild card winners: St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

World series: Boston over Philadelphia. Sam Malone beats the Fresh Prince.

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