By now, it is safe to say the Detroit Tigers won't lose 96 games.
Such a thought could come only from the mind of a half-wit, which seems to peg yours truly. For that prediction – among others, including the Atlanta Braves winning the World Series – came in this very space about 100 days ago.
The All-Star break allows baseball to wash itself: players of poor first halves, teams of underachievement and writers of boneheaded predictions. Perhaps, then, it's time to take a look back at what we got right and wrong while looking forward to what the next 100 days – the more important ones – hold.
AMERICAN LEAGUE MVP
Projected winner: Ortiz – He leads baseball in home runs and runs batted in. He gets big hits (slugging .750 in close-and-late situations – which are when you're ahead a run, tied or with the tying run on deck in the seventh inning or later – though not consistently doing so, evidenced by a .250 batting average in such at-bats). He is a unifying clubhouse presence and a leader by action above voice. For those arguing he's merely a designated hitter and that DHs can't win MVP: If the Red Sox lost Ortiz, the hole would be greater than any team losing any other player, and that is the standard of value.
Projected AL MVP ballot:
Other to watch: Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins – He can't keep up this pace. Even with a 96-mph fastball that kisses both corners. And a 90-mph slider that bites like a teething baby. And a changeup that dives like a kamikaze. No. He can't keep it up. Can he?
NATIONAL LEAGUE MVP
Projected winner: Pujols – Tough to argue the case against Pujols, who, when healthy, is the game's best player and has a very good shot at the Triple Crown. He probably will break his career high of 46 home runs and could top his best of 130 RBIs. (For a further explanation of batting average, see later why, despite being ninth in the league, he has an excellent shot to win that title.) He's one of two regulars, along with Scott Hatteberg, to walk at least twice as much as he strikes out. And his defense at first base has been Gold Glove worthy, only adding to the justification for back-to-back MVP awards.
Projected NL MVP ballot:
Other to watch: Alfonso Soriano, Washington Nationals – A trade, at this juncture, is almost a given considering his free-agent status, the Nationals' place at the bottom of the division and the sellers' market. Put Soriano on a contender in the NL, and with his accumulated numbers, he could make a compelling case with a playoff push.
AL CY YOUNG
Preseason prediction: Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins
Projected winner: Santana – Three for three. Not bad so far. Santana's grip on this is tenuous because Liriano, his teammate, has been better. Liriano, however, has made half as many starts, which gives Santana the leg up for now, though maybe not for long.
Projected AL Cy Young ballot
3) Jonathan Papelbon
Other to watch: Jose Contreras, Chicago White Sox – If he goes through the season undefeated, it could compel voters to acknowledge him on principle more than performance. Would that be right? No, but it has happened before.
NL CY YOUNG
Projected winner: Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks – Back in control of his sinker, Webb walks about one batter per start and strikes out more than five. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is 3.84-to-1, best in the major leagues by more than a quarter of a point. He's among the game's most efficient hurlers, averaging 14 pitches per inning. And, well, he wins games and does it with the league's best earned-run average. Webb isn't overpowering; he's just excellent.
Projected NL Cy Young ballot
Other to watch: Tom Glavine, New York Mets – He could lead the league in wins. He certainly leads the Mets with his presence. And if they run away with the NL while the rest of the candidates' teams struggle, he just might lead the vote.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Preseason prediction: Liriano
Projected winner: Liriano – Papelbon got a head start, closing games with panache for the Red Sox while Liriano still was stuck in the bullpen. Since he entered the starting rotation May 19, though, Liriano has been the best pitcher in baseball – and for more innings to boot.
Projected AL Rookie of the Year ballot
3) Justin Verlander
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Projected winner: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals – The fourth overall pick in last season's draft was fast-tracked to the major leagues and is on pace to drive in more than 100 runs. Once he learns to hit on the road – his on-base-plus-slugging is .727 there, compared to .923 at RFK Stadium, a pitchers' park – he'll be a superstar. Hermida, injured most of the season, isn't even the best rookie on his team. (That would be second baseman Dan Uggla or pitcher Josh Johnson.)
Projected NL Rookie of the Year ballot
2) Prince Fielder
Other to watch: Takashi Saito, Los Angeles Dodgers – Because he's a 36-year-old from Japan, Saito doesn't get nearly enough recognition for his superlative season thus far: opponents bat .172 and slug .269 against him, and since he took over as Dodgers closer, he's 6-for-6 in save opportunities.
AL HOME RUN LEADER
Preseason prediction: Ortiz
Projected winner: Ortiz – He hit a major-league-best 26 home runs after the All-Star break last season. Should he keep his current pace, Ortiz will sniff 60.
NL HOME RUN LEADER
Projected winner: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies – As much as the Dunn pick continues to make sense – his 28 homers are one behind Pujols and tied with Howard – the breakout second half for Howard last season portends too well to ignore.
AL BATTING CHAMPION
Projected winner: Ichiro – In Mauer's career, he has been better in the season's second half than its first. And his current average, at .378, is 35 points better than Ichiro's. But with Ichiro looking more and more like the player of 2004's second half – the one who hit .429 in 333 post All-Star-break at-bats – he's the better bet.
NL BATTING CHAMPION
Preseason prediction: Pujols
Projected winner: Pujols – Though his .316 average is good for ninth in the league, Pujols has a batting average for balls in play (BABIP) of .257. That indicates he's suffered a wicked bout of luck. Of the eight players ahead of him, six have BABIPs of .350 or higher, Scott Rolen has one of .343 and Lance Berkman's is at .320. Which is to say: Luck generally evens out, and once Pujols' does, he'll be even stronger.
Actual AL MVP-in-waiting: Mauer – With Carl Crawford, Wells and Sizemore right behind.
Preseason NL MVP-in-waiting: David Wright, New York Mets
Actual NL MVP-in-waiting: Wright – Might be MVP, period.
Preseason AL Cy Young-in-waiting: Josh Beckett, Boston
Actual AL Cy Young-in-waiting: Liriano – Beckett, despite a pretty 11-4 record, has regressed at Fenway Park. His 26 home runs allowed are the most in baseball. Liriano, on the other hand, is the real deal. Cases could be made for Weaver and Verlander, too.
Actual NL Cy Young-in-waiting: Chris Capuano, Milwaukee – Overpowering at times, consistent always, Capuano is a star stuck in a small market. Once Milwaukee makes a legitimate playoff push, he'll get his propers. Zambrano would have been the choice here if the Cubs weren't so bloody awful.
Actual on the comeback: Garciaparra, Dodgers – Nomar is leading the National League in batting and reviving a Dodgers team in need of life support. Garciaparra has been the quintessential comeback player, thrown to the scrap heap and forced to sign a one-year deal and switch from shortstop to first base to show he could still play. He can. Bradley, on the other hand, cannot. Injured most of the season, he's hitting .213 with three homers and eight RBI in his 94 at-bats.
Actual breakout hitter: Holliday – This highlights someone who showed flashes of greatness but was still under the radar enough to get passed over deep into fantasy drafts. If Mauer weren't the No. 1 pick overall in the 2001 draft, he might qualify. Instead, it's Holliday, the Rockies' mashing outfielder and a seventh-rounder himself. He's hitting .337. He has 48 extra-base hits. And while DeJesus has been very good when he's healthy, Holliday has been tremendous with no caveats.
Actual breakout pitcher: Brad Penny, Dodgers – Sure, he's got a World Series ring from 2003 with Florida. And he had a season with a 3.15 ERA. This year, though, Penny has harnessed his fastball, won 10 games, posted a sub-3.00 ERA and, to top off a great first half, started the All-Star game for the National League and struck out the side in the first inning.
Preseason first manager fired: Dusty Baker, Chicago Cubs
Actual first manager fired: No one yet, but Baker will be it by August, unless Charlie Manuel gets the heave-ho in Philadelphia first.
Preseason first GM fired: Jim Bowden, Washington
Actual first GM fired: Allard Baird, Kansas City Royals – Should've known. The Royals are now under the stewardship of Dayton Moore, a John Schuerholz protégé, and Baird recently signed on as a special-assignment scout with Boston. Bowden just got a fresh contract from the Nationals' new owners.
Preseason Clemens-O-Meter: 30 percent
Actual Clemens-O-Meter: 100 percent – Roger Clemens is back and looking good. Whether he can lead Houston to a playoff spot … well, that's another story.
Preseason on the spot: Commissioner Bud Selig
Actual on the spot: Selig – Things don't change that much.
PASSAN'S (REVISED) PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
AL East: Boston
AL Central: Chicago
AL West: Oakland
AL wild card: Detroit
NL East: New York
NL Central: Cincinnati
NL West: Los Angeles
NL wild card: St. Louis
Chicago over Oakland in three
Boston over Detroit in five
New York over St. Louis in five
Los Angeles over Cincinnati in four
Chicago over Boston in six
New York over Los Angeles in six
Chicago over New York in six
- Johan Santana