This is my 15th year as a Chicago sportswriter, and here is the number of times I have predicted the Cubs and White Sox to win their divisions in the same season:
Zero. Zip. Zilch. Never. Ever. Ever.
Until this season.
As you'll see, these predictions aren't exactly being made with complete confidence ...
1. Chicago White Sox: When the big acquisitions to a team that needed a 163rd game to win the division a year earlier were Bartolo Colon and Wilson Betemit, this doesn't exactly make one want to sing the praises of the South Siders - or their GM, Kenny Williams. Nevertheless, I've learned not to underestimate Williams; he and his scouts have been right more often than they have been wrong. Yes, the Sox are getting old in some very important spots, but how do I pick against a team that - at least on paper - has the best rotation and the best bullpen in the division? Unless Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Alexei Ramirez and Carlos Quentin were mirages last season, the White Sox should be able to reach (or be close to) the 90 victories it will take to win the AL Central. Warning, Sox fans: The lads have never won the division when I've predicted them to do so, and I've done so six times this decade.
2. Cleveland Indians: There are so many question marks surrounding this team, which was supposed to contend for the championship last season but instead had to rally just to reach .500. They made nice moves in snagging ex-Cubbies Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood, but what can they expect from Victor Martinez? From Travis Hafner? From Shin-Soo Choo? From Fausto Carmona? Even from Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, who is coming off a year significantly superior to his career norm? If all of those question marks turn into exclamation points, the Indians might win 100 and run away with the division. If not, well, Kerry Wood could write a 10-volume collection about What Might Have Been.
3. Minnesota Twins: This is an admirable organization that does so many things right on the field, in the front office and in the dugout. The Twins pushed the Sox to the limit last season and added Joe Crede, who, if reasonably healthy, will come back to bite the White Sox on the posteriors. Although health is important to every team, however, the Twins have less financial wiggle room than most to cover for injuries. So the absence of All-Star Joe Mauer all spring and the lingering woes of some pitchers make it difficult to predict anything higher than third place for Ron Gardenhire's crew.
4. Kansas City Royals: These guys can pitch, and that means they might be more dangerous than most folks think. No, I wouldn't be surprised if they finished last again ... but I'd be very surprised if they didn't spoil things for the top teams in the division.
5. Detroit Tigers: Things are tough ... and that means it's just about time for the great Jim Leyland to quit on another organization.
1. Chicago Cubs: Back in 2004, when everybody was gushing about how great the Cubs would be, I just wasn't buying it. I have the same kind of feeling going into 2009. One big difference this time around, though: Five years ago, the Astros and Cardinals were excellent teams; now, not so much. I'm not saying the Cubs will win the division by default because they have too much talent to make such a silly statement. I just don't think they are great. They will miss DeRosa's versatility and Wood's resiliency (and both of those players' leadership). Lou Piniella will be driven batty by Rich Harden's softness, Kosuke Fukudome's spin-a-rama whiffs, Derrek Lee's mysterious power outage and the endless questions about Alfonso Soriano batting leadoff. Milton Bradley was worth acquiring; now let's see how many games he'll be able to play before tearing or straining or tweaking something. The Cubs are too good not to win this division for a third straight year. Whether they finally can win a playoff game, well, only a fool (or somebody who spent the last two Octobers in another solar system) would predict as much.
2. St. Louis Cardinals: I'm absolutely convinced that Tony La Russa did his very best managing job ever last season ... and the Cards still finished in fourth place, 11 1/2 games out. Now comes word that Troy Glaus will miss at least two months. Throw in the fact that the Cardinals have no true closer and that they are relying heavily on Chris Carpenter, and that's quite a load for Albert Pujols to carry. Not that baseball's best hitter can't do it, of course. Pujols has some company, too - as long as Ryan Ludwick is the real deal and Rick Ankiel continues to make progress at the plate. The Cardinals have a nice team that does things right. They are filled with the kind of underdogs La Russa loves to manage - and that folks pull for. The same was true last year, though, and it's hard to imagine them making up anywhere near 11 1/2 games in the standings.
3. Cincinnati Reds: Don't laugh; even though this team won't win the division, it will cause some headaches for opponents. Dusty Baker's boys have some talent - especially their rotation and the middle of their lineup. There aren't many young starters with better stuff than Edinson Volquez and young hitters with more potential than Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. If the Reds get off to a decent start, Dusty will get them to believe. If not, Baker will bemoan all the youngsters in the lineup and try to talk GM Walt Jocketty into trading for a teamful of Neifi Perezes. Dusty's ability to nurture the kids (or lack thereof) will determine how many games this team wins - and how long Baker remains manager.
4. Milwaukee Brewers: The Brew Crew needed to win it all last year because the window has slammed shut. My many friends in Cheeseland won't like me saying this, but there is no way a team that lost CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets and otherwise did next to nothing in the offseason has any shot of contending. And yes, signing 74-year-old Trevor Hoffman amounts to next to nothing. Big shock: He's hurt already. Sure, the Brewers will hit. Pitching and fielding? Sorry, but this NL team is mostly DH's.
5. Houston Astros: Starting with Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, they have maybe a half-dozen players any team would want. And then ... Geoff Blum! Kaz Matsui! Wandy Rodriguez! You get the idea. Miguel Tejada doesn't have enough steroids to bulk up this crew's chances.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates: All I can say is: Go Steelers!
(Still to come: Pennant-winners, MVPs and other 2009 MLB predictions.)