Over the past 31 Major League Baseball seasons, only three teams have managed to repeat the following year as World Series champions (the 1977-78 New York Yankees, 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays, and the 1998-2000 Yankees, who won a trio of titles). No team since the 2000-01 Yankees has even managed to make a return visit to the Fall Classic the following October.
In fact, only once in the past five years has a defending World Series champion even managed to make the playoffs; the 2005 Red Sox, who were quickly ousted by the eventual champion White Sox in an ALDS sweep.
These are the challenges that await the 2008 Red Sox if they are indeed the team to beat, returning the majority of their roster from 2007, the same that tasted World Series glory for the second time in four seasons last October at the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains.
Never mind the obvious challenge that is winning the World Series any given season, repeating in baseball is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly when you consider the dearth of teams that have done so in the modern era. Mix in an extra round of playoffs and a World Series schedule that can dip into November, and the added strain might have something to do with why Series champs tend to under perform the following year. Particularly when it comes to starting pitching.
Consider Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who managed to make it to the mound for six innings last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2006, the year after he led the White Sox to the title, lefty Mark Buehrle went from a 16-8, 3.12 season to a 12-13, 4.99 season. Curt Schilling underwent surgery in 2005, following the Bloody Sock Episodes I and II of Ď04, and was closing games by mid-summer.
Whether those are cases of coincidence or the warning signs of a trend, it doesnít help to shrink the magnification on Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, who looked solid in a four-inning minor league start yesterday (one hit, six strikeouts) that puts him on track to make his first start of the season in Toronto.
In their quest to repeat, no one player is of greater importance for Boston than Beckett, whose spring time back spasms prompted little reason for concern. With Schilling lost until mid-season, itís up to the ace to carry the biggest load on a pitching staff that still has plenty of question marks. Recent history, though, has shown that the year after isnít all that kind to an ace, who theoretically would have pitched the most innings the previous October, perhaps the most signifcant reason why the team limits the amount of work from its starters over the course of a season. (Beckett's 200 2/3 IP was only 36th-most in the majors last year.)
Thatís one major question following the Red Sox as they look to become the first team in almost a decade to repeat. One of many.
Can Mike Lowell have another career year? Can Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester be more economical with their pitches? Can Julio Lugo and JD Drew rebound from subpar years? Can Mike Timlin make it one more season? Is Jason Varitek ready to break down? Will Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz live up to the hype? Can Bartolo Colon really help solidify the starting staff, or is he Wade Miller redux?
Are the Yankees better in the AL East? Maybe. Can the Blue Jays make a run? Doubtful. Can the Devil Rays? No, really, can they? That may be the most intriguing thing to watch as the í08 season matures.
Anyhow, here are the picks:
East: Red Sox
Wild Card: Tigers
Wild card: Pirates (why not? See í07 Rockies)
World Series champion: Detroit Tigers
Itís really a flip of the coin in the East, where the Red Sox and Yankees both certainly have their issues. I just see fewer of them in Boston, where Terry Francona has already established stability. In New York, nobody knows what to expect from Joe Girardiís first year at the helm.
CC Sabathia is a free agent after this season, which means huge (no pun) things for the Indians this year. Itís will be interesting to see how much better Erik Bedard can make the Mariners, but nothing could top Sports Illustratedís suggestion that Seattle go after Ken Griffey Jr. for sheer summertime drama in the Pacific Northwest. Dontrelle Willis may struggle in his first AL season, but Miguel Cabrera helps make a potent lineup downright sick. Itís between him and Manny Ramirez for AL MVP.
While some had their doubts about Johan Santanaís long-term prospects in the American Leagues, heís the difference for the Mets in the National League East. This season. The Cubs can win the Central, but let's not count on an October run. If they can score enough, the Arizona Diamondbacks are going to find themselves back in the World Series. The Pirates Ė just a hunch. If their young pitching staff emerges prematurely and Jason Bay has a rebound year hitting in front of Adam LaRoche, whoís to say they canít make a wild card run? I could pick the Phillies or Padres and be just as wrong come September, so Iím going Pirates. Sue me.
On paper though, few teams look better than the Tigers. Look at that lineup. Think AL pitchers are going to look forward to getting through that Sheffield-Ordonez-Cabrera part of the order? Itís reminiscent of the 2003 Red Sox lineup in which Varitek hit ninth much of the time. Itís the sort of team of which youíd say, ďAs long as the pitchers donít give up more than five runs a game, theyíll win plenty.Ē Then you remember they have Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman leading the charge on the mound and you just have to shake your head. Todd Jones still scares me as closer, but he remains effective and is there for a reason. But if Joel Zumaya can actually come back and assumes the role at some point this summer, the Tigers may roll through October with little obstacle in their path.
The Red Sox? Letís say they go down in six games to Detroit in the ALCS. Beckett wins both.
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander
NL Cy Young: Brandon Webb
AL MVP: Manny Ramirez
NL MVP: Prince Fielder
AL Rookie of the Year: Jacoby Ellsbury
NL Rookie of the Year: Kosuke Fukudome