Oh, sure, you never know who will get hurt or whether somebody will flop. Once the postseason begins, every team participating is a potential champion, needing only a couple of hot pitchers to win a seven-game series (re: the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers). But, on paper, the Braves and Indians are far and away the best teams in their respective leagues. There's no getting around it.
The Indians added first baseman Julio Franco and pitcher Jack McDowell to an already dominant team, and the Braves' star pitchers, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, are just turning 30. The best teams should be even better, and the pick here is that Atlanta will play Cleveland in the World Series and win again, this time four games to one.
Some other predictions: The Orioles will win the AL East, edging the Boston Red Sox by a game or two. The New York Yankees, hurt badly by an inconsistent lineup, will be out of the running by the first week in September. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro and pitcher Scott Erickson will have big years for the Orioles.
The Indians will win their division by 20-25 games, running away from the frustrated Chicago White Sox. By mid-August, Milwaukee Brewers ace Ben McDonald will be wishing he had taken the one-year deal with the Orioles instead of a two-year contract to play in an empty County Stadium.
The California Angels will bounce back from their awful disappointment of 1995, but the Seattle Mariners, with Ken Griffey healthy all year, will win the division. The Oakland Athletics, displaced from their home in the first week of the season, will become the game's laughingstock and begin dealing off any and all players earning major money.
The New York Mets will win 82 to 84 games, but be so erratic that they are given a heavy dose of criticism. As usual, Florida right fielder Gary Sheffield will break down, sinking the Marlins' hopes of contending for the NL wild card.
The NL Central will be extremely mediocre, three average teams vying for the title. The Houston Astros will outlast the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, but it will be ugly. Cubs lose, Cubs lose, Cubs lose.
The Dodgers will dominate the NL West, although the San Diego Padres will be improved. The San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies will talk about tearing apart their teams after this season and injecting some youth (and some pitching, for a change).
Bill Clinton will throw an eephus strike tomorrow at Camden Yards, Mike Mussina will get hit around a little but still contain the speedy Kansas City Royals.
Baseball is back.
Rockies prospect falters
John Burke, a former No. 1 pick for the Rockies, seemed to be over his inexplicable and quite sudden inability to throw strikes. But in one of his last outings before being sent to Triple-A, Burke walked all five batters he faced. He asked for and received permission to take some time off and attend to "personal matters" after being demoted.
Speaking of young pitchers having trouble living up to expectations, Chan Ho Park is on his way to the minors, and he's probably heartbroken. Park, who was born in Korea, said the of Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo has meant added pressure. "It's very difficult," Park said. "The Korean people have high hopes for me. They look at Nomo and say, 'Look how good Nomo is doing.' Everything is Japan, Japan, Japan. Look, Nomo is Japanese, right? I'm Korean. I've got to be like Nomo, or even do more than Nomo. I have to."
Dodgers minor-leaguer Reggie Williams slid hard into Ripken as he tried to break up a double play in Tuesday's exhibition at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. A shocker. "What was he thinking about?" one Orioles player said. "Can you imagine if Cal had gotten hurt in a spring game?" Williams had an explanation: "Hey, I didn't care if it was Cal Ripken or [Dodgers minor-leaguer] Wilton Guerrero out there. I was just looking at the uniform. . . . People have to understand, I'm trying to make the ballclub."
Dwight Gooden and Sheffield, uncle and nephew, respectively, didn't speak for almost two months this winter. The problems between them began when Sheffield spurred the Marlins' front office to sign Gooden, only to see Gooden sign with the Yankees.
Gooden says his adviser, Ray Negron, told him the Marlins said they couldn't match the Yankees' offer. But Florida GM Dave Dombrowski flatly denied this, saying he called Negron six or seven times to complete the Gooden contract, "but he never called us back."
Gooden is embarrassed by the whole incident. "Shef was mad at he said. "If I find out the Marlins never got the call, my adviser will be fired. It's as simple as that."
Negron, incidentally, has been hired by the Yankees as an international consultant -- probably just a catchy title for delivering Gooden to New York.
When the Phillies parted ways with Jeff Juden last year, Philadelphia manager Jim Fregosi referred to the pitcher as "that fat, lazy, drunken slob." Juden has pitched well for the San Francisco Giants this spring, has dropped 13 pounds, and says his drinking is "down to almost nil. . . . I'm very motivated by some of the comments my ex-manager made."
Finally saying the obvious, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf acknowledged last week that he would like to see his team train in Arizona in the spring. If Chicago leaves its Sarasota, Fla., training site, watch for the Orioles to swoop in and take its place.
Cincinnati second baseman Bret Boone, on the rather large head of teammate Joe Oliver: "Which would you rather have -- a million dollars, or Joe Oliver's head full of nickels?"
Magrane makes it back
Making a comeback at the age of 31, Joe Magrane appears to have won a spot in the White Sox's bullpen. "It's not often a player gets a mulligan in his career," said Magrane, who had two elbow operations in 1991.
The strained hamstring Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar suffered in an exhibition against the Orioles last week might keep him out of the Opening Day lineup.
The Braves, the defending champions, still had 10,000 tickets remaining for Opening Day a week ago.
Somebody asked Greg Maddux, a resident of Las Vegas in the off-season, whether he talks to fellow Las Vegas resident and Minnesota Twins outfielder Marty Cordova about baseball. "You can't talk baseball with hitters," Maddux said. "You have two totally different opinions."
George Arias, who played in Double-A last year, apparently has won the third base job for the California Angels, upsetting plans to use Jack Howell and Tim Wallach in an ancient platoon.
Gil injury worries Rangers
The Texas Rangers are worried about losing shortstop Benji Gil, who had surgery last week for a herniated disk. Their worst fear is that Gil will miss the entire season, and they'll have to play Kevin Elster on a regular basis in his place. The Rangers could be aggressive and make a deal for someone such as Manny Alexander, but they don't want to give away good pitching prospects to merely plug a hole for one year.
New Detroit Tigers manager Buddy Bell, unhappy with what he perceived to be a lack of aggressiveness on the part of shortstop Chris Gomez, said he will start Alan Trammell at short for the first few games.
Phil Plantier will play left field and bat cleanup for the Athletics. Or at least until Mark McGwire comes back.
Texas received a directive from AL president Gene Budig, warning all teams against the use of corked bats or electronic methods of stealing signs. The potential fine, Budig wrote, is $250,000.
"I think that's great," said Rangers manager Johnny Oates. "They should have a league guy come in unannounced, like they do drug screens, and X-ray all the game bats [and] completely research pitchers. We should all play by the same rules."