By Mike Steffanos
"I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."
Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall, As Good As It Gets (1997)
It seems to me we're at the time of year when fearless forecasts are made to predict how the upcoming 162-game marathon might play out. Of course, when you're doing this you have no idea which of these clubs are going to suffer injuries or have players experience years that differ greatly, for better or worse, from their career norm. Still, particularly when you are concentrating on a single division, there are years when everything looks fairly clear-cut.
This isn't one of them. I think a terrific argument can be made for either the Mets, Phillies or Braves to take the east this year, and much of it will depend on circumstances. While it's safe to say that all of these clubs are going to experience injuries, much will depend on who they lose and for how long. If you're lucky, most of your injuries are in areas where you have some depth, and your key guys stay relatively healthy. If not, you have trouble.
I can make a great case for all of these teams, and can as easily come up with scenarios where they finish third. If you twist my arm, I think the Mets have enough talent to win this thing, but we all know how fragile some of that talent can be. What we don't know is whether we will see the tough, resilient club of 2006 or the soft, entitled mentality of last season. I'd like to think that the collapse was a good wake-up call, but it remains to be proven on the field.
Having admitted to you that I think the east is a crapshoot, how then can I make predictions in good conscience? As I wrestled with this, that's when the Nicholson quote from above came to me. Although Nicholson's misogynistic character was answering a question about how he wrote for a woman so well, this seems to me a perfect prescription for pulling off predictions. I will toss aside reason and accountability and climb into the mindset of all the local and national columnists who make these predictions.
Sadly, in order to accomplish this I must display a clear bias against the Mets. I must embrace all things Yankees and refuse to acknowledge that the Mets have done a decent job in turning their organization around the last few years. I must see them as a bumbling organization whose every major pickup is destined to turn into Mo Vaughn.
Second, I must harbor a secret man crush on Jimmy Rollins. I will attribute everything that happened last season to the awesome power of Rollins' words last spring.
Finally, I must ignore many of the questionable moves the Braves have made over the last few years -- trading for Mike Hampton and Danny Kolb, trading Adam Wainwright, Ray King and Jason Marquis for one season of J.D. Drew, etc. -- and continue believing that everything they touch turns to gold.
To complete my mental transformation from thinking person to sports pundit, I have inhaled the fumes of every aerosol can in the house and drank a gallon of anti-freeze from the garage. Now I am prepared to make my bold picks.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
This was a tough call, but that darned Rollins is just so cute. I'm confident that he will be able to win a second consecutive MVP award at SS and also take over as the Phillies closer when Brad Lidge implodes. I'm confident that Kyle Kendrick's 9.68 ERA and 2.2 WHIP this spring are just illusions, but if not I'm sure Rollins can take a start every fifth day, too. Sure, Adam Eaton's starts may prove to be a problem, too, but Rollins will figure something out, I'm sure.
2. Atlanta Braves
Mike Hampton is pitching so well this spring I conveniently ignore the fact he has not pitched a full season since 1978. I have him penciled in for 20 wins and 300 innings. I'm confident that Tom Glavine won't be devastated by his performance this season, although he may be disappointed. Sure, Rafael Soriano can look a little physically and mentally fragile at times, but I expect Mike Gonzalez to return from last year's Tommy John surgery and come back in June at full effectiveness. Sure, it takes a lot of guys 18 months to regain full strength, but why let logic intrude here? The Braves don't have much depth, but I'm confident that if someone important goes down Jimmy Rollins can play for both teams simultaneously until they return.
3. Washington Nationals
I know, you can't believe I couldn't at least pick the Mets to finish third. Even John Kruk was willing to give us that. The things is, as a newly-minted Anti-Mets pundit I have gone from a reasonable expectation of watching Lastings Milledge develop into a good player into expecting him to come out of the gate as the best player in baseball in 2008. Look for 70-80 homers and about 250 RBI from the young slugger. Also, Manny Acta seems like a cool guy, while Willie Randolph is as cool as a lecture from your father. Finally, I expect Odalis Perez to finish in the top 3 for the NL Cy Young. All of this came to me somewhere during the last few sips of anti-freeze.
4. Florida Marlins
I know all of you Mets fans are really annoyed with me now. It's not that I can find all that much to love with the young Fish and their payroll that is dwarfed by the Gross National Product of Niue. It's just that we've already agreed that reason and accountability don't have any place here.
5. New York Mets
All 25 men on the roster spontaneously turn into Mo Vaughn on March 31. By the end of April they can't even fit into the same locker room together -- no big deal since half are on the DL and the other half are spending most of their time stuffing dollars into strippers' g-strings at a joint in Passaic. Fred Wilpon grows despondent and, in an impetuous fit of pique, sells the club to James Dolan. Both Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya are summarily fired and replaced by Isiah Thomas.
By August, the Mets are so far out of it that SNY feels they are now free from their annoying obligation to Mets fans and can concentrate on endlessly looping Daily News Live, Loudmouths and The Wheelhouse 24 hours a day. The FCC attempts to fine SNY for intolerable cruelty but, since it turns out no one is actually watching any of these shows, they are forced to drop the charges.
I'd love to discuss this further, but I have an appointment at ESPN. The producer there believes I have the right stuff for a gig on Baseball Tonight. Watch your back, Kruky...