Unless your name is Mad Dog Russo or you live in the 415 or 408 area code, how many of you predicted the San Francisco Giants would win the World Series last year?
Probably about the same number who have Butler and VCU in the Final Four...
More than any other sport, forecasting a champion in baseball is as difficult as picking the next Masters winner. The Yankees are always an easy choice based on payroll and pom-poms in the media alone, but let's remember that Steinbrenner Inc. has won exactly one ring in the past decade.
The Phillies and the best rotation since the '66 Dodgers are THE pick in 2011, but health issues surrounding Chase Utley and the loss of Jayson Werth are raising some big doubts about the offense (not that they'll necessarily need it). And then there's that little thing about the pressure of the highest expectations in the history of the franchise. Remember all of those Braves teams in the '90s with outstanding pitching who couldn't seem to get over the hump in October, save for one time?
How about the Red Sox? Vegas has made them a huge favorite as well after they out-Yankeed the Yankees by landing Carl Crawford from Tampa and Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres. The pitching staff appears strong (Beckett is somehow now fourth in a rotation that includes Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Dice-K and the ageless Wakefield if needed) and the bullpen bolstered by set-up-man Bobby Jenks (who some in Boston feel may end up being a closer by August) to compliment Jonathan Papelbon.
San Francisco is a tough pick simply because no champ has repeated since the '99-'00 Yanks, and no NL team has pulled it off since the Big Red Machine in '74-75.
As for Texas, they're missing you-know-who at the top of their rotation after he decided it truly is always sunnier in Philadelphia. They still have the likes of C.J. Wilson to anchor the rotation and yes, Josh Hamilton will certainly make another MVP run. But not unlike the Giants' tall task, even getting back to the baseball's biggest stage will be difficult.
The last team to return to the World Series the following year after losing it the year before? The '92 Braves.
The last AL team? The '64 Yankees, or sometime around Jamie Moyer's second birthday.
So who will be this year's Giants?
Look no further than across the bay...
The Oakland A's mirror Bruce Bochy's Giants in many ways and particularly in the all-important pitching department. Trevor Cahill (22-years-old), Brett Anderson (23), Gio Gonzalez (25) and Dallas Braden (27) have the ability to do what the Giants did in 2010 to get to the Fall Classic:
Win a relatively weak division, take a short series and build enough momentum to beat a superior opponent from the east.
And it's not like these guys aren't already battle tested. The A's didn't just lead the league in ERA in 2010, but they also led in starting-pitcher ERA by 36 percentage points. The bullpen looks strong as well, with four-time All-Star Brian Fuentes setting up closer talented Andrew Bailey, who should be good for at least 30 saves this season upon getting healthy.
Of course (like SF), the offense has all the firepower of a JaMarcus Russell two-minute drill, finishing second-to-last in home runs in the league last season. But playing in a cavernous park like the Coliseum doesn't mean having a need for a 21st Century version of the Bash Brothers as long as the pitching holds up. Additions including Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and Coco Crisp may be just enough to get the A's the three to four runs they'll need to squeeze out some low-scoring games.
2011 World Series champs?
Before dismissing that notion outright, picture yourself reading the same thing about the mostly no-name Giants in March of 2010.
In the meantime, enjoy your Opening Day...
Joe Concha is a rare Cubs fan based in New Jersey and dominates his co-ed bar-sponsored softball league. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on the Twitter thing @ConchSports