(As I was putting the final touches on this this morning, I had VH1 Classic on, and the video for John Fogerty's "Centerfield" came on - we're here. It's Opening Day.)
It's always easy to just pick the defending champs to win the World Series again, but I really have a hunch it's going to be a hell of a lot less than 86 years before the Red Sox win another championship. This lineup, up and down the order, is completely frightening. The pitching staff is far more than capable enough to not get this team outscored. The Red Sox could make the playoffs with most rotations, and even if Schilling never really gets right, they've got a capable group of David Wells, Matt Clement, Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield and John Halama (and maybe Wade Miller) without him. The bullpen is solid, anchored by Keith Foulke with setup men Mike Timlin and Alan Embree, along with Matt Mantei's electric glass arm, Blaine Neal and Mike Myers. The pitching may not be spectacular, but it's good. This team won't miss Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe quite as much as some figure.
And if anyone believes that David Wells' attitude will affect this team, they're way off-base. This group is tailor-made for David Wells. He's going to have a ball.
It's that lineup that will carry them, though. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz may be the most intimidating 3-4 in baseball, and they'll have Johnny Damon and Edgar Renteria batting in front of them, which is going to score a lot of runs. After the top four, you have five guys that are offensive contributors in right fielder Trot Nixon, catcher Jason Varitek, first baseman Kevin Millar, third baseman Bill Mueller and second baseman Mark Bellhorn. There's no one on this team that can't hit, and they've got a good fourth outfielder in Jay Payton, an actually useful second catcher in Doug Mirabelli, and a quality second third baseman in Kevin Youkilis to boot.
Theo Epstein has taken modern thinking and mixed it with a huge budget, thus building the league's most complete team. I don't know that I'd call him the best GM in baseball, because he has a lot to work with unlike Billy Beane or Terry Ryan, but he's certainly one of the smartest and most ambitious. Like the Braves, most are picking the Red Sox for second and the wild card because the Yankees always win the division. Well, the Yankees used to not blow 3-0 leads in the ALCS, too. The Yankees are scrambling, and Boston is a focused organization with a clear plan to stay on top.
This is a team that's already full of Boston sports legends, and they're going to continue to add on to that legacy. Here are your 2005 World Series champions. They aren't lovable losers anymore, simply another big machine. But the advantage they have over the Yankees is they're doing it with both money and brains, and it's an advantage that serves not only opposing fan perception, but will give them a better team than New York has too.
My Pick: 1st, World Series champions
Street & Smith's: 2nd (no playoff indication given)
Sporting News: 2nd, wild card
Sports Illustrated: 2nd, wild card