I never wanted to grow up and become Danny Sheridan. Or Patrick Jane. Or the Amazing Kreskin.
I never wanted to grow up and have a job for which I was required to predict the future. It's a bad line of work. Could I sign up for predicting the past? I find that a lot easier.
But every year at this time, I'm assigned to write a column in which I (incorrectly) predict which team is about to win the World Series. And here's what I've learned:
No matter how many people I talk to, how many incisive numbers I use in my (incorrect) analysis, how much thought I put into this pick, how much sleep I lose second-guessing my pick, none of it matters.
I. Am. Going. To. Be. Wrong.
You know it. I know it. The team I pick knows it. The other 29 teams know it. I'd probably have a better shot at predicting the winner of the 2078 World Cup. (Give me Brazil. You can take the field.)
If I'd told you at this time a year ago, for example, that the team that was about to win the 2014 World Series would start famed Bobby Thomson wannabe Travis Ishikawa in left field, would go nearly two weeks of the postseason without hitting a home run and would get zero extra-base hits in October from its best hitter (Buster Posey), I'm guessing you'd have been slightly dubious.
But all that happened. So this year, with this column, my first inclination was to talk myself into picking somebody totally off the wall to win the 2015 World Series. The Astros? The Rockies? The Twins? OK, probably not.
And then it hit me. Was I nuts or something? I could make a serious case for a lot of teams -- at least a dozen, to be honest -- to win this World Series. But to actually pick any team other than those Washington Nationals is like filling out your NCAA bracket and writing in a team other than Kentucky. It feels good -- until the games start.
"You do it because it's boring to take Kentucky," said one all-knowing NL executive who helped talk me through this. "But in the end, you know they're the best team. So if you don't pick the Nationals, you're just trying to create something that's not there, because they're clearly the best team."
Right. Clearly. But I went looking for more reassurance.
"I think I'd be insane not to pick them," said one NL scout who covered the Nationals this spring. "So that means you'd be insane not to pick them."
And there you go. I don't mind being wrong. I've made a career of that. But I do like thinking I'm at least mostly sane.
So with heartfelt apologies to fans of the teams I thought about picking -- the Dodgers, Pirates, Cardinals, Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Indians and Mariners, among others -- I'm going with the only sane pick. So here come Five Indisputable Reasons The Nationals Are Going To Win This World Series:
1. Because they're all-in
Is there a team in this sport that's more in it to win it this year than the Nationals? Not even close. And they're not afraid to say it, either. Right out loud.
Earlier this spring, I asked one of their prominent free-agents-to-be, Jordan Zimmermann, how conscious he was of what a big season this is, for both his team and himself. He never hesitated, for even a half a second, before dropping the word "huge" and mentioning the several prominent players (himself, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond) who can be free agents next winter. And then Zimmermann said:
"So if it's going to be any year, it's going to be this year. And we all know that."
Got it? We all know that. So while they might process that knowledge differently, the sense of urgency for this group to win now -- in its only window to do that with Zimmermann, Desmond, Fister and Max Scherzer on the same roster and in their prime -- is this year. Period.
The owners, Mark and Ted Lerner, already have shown what that means to them by awarding Scherzer a $210 million Powerball jackpot. And other teams have no doubt this front office will be extremely aggressive in July and August if it needs to be.
If Drew Storen turns out not to be their idea of a prime-time, shutdown closer, for instance, could you see the Nationals being the team that deals for, say, Aroldis Chapman at the deadline? I heard that speculation a lot this spring. They certainly have the prospect depth to do whatever they need to do.
"They're one of those teams," said another scout who covered them this spring, "that can move players they like and still be a factor for the next two or three years. They have what everyone wants -- a 'now' team with ingredients they can move if they need to."
2. Because their rotation is awesome
Davey Johnson still works for the Nationals as a consultant. Once upon a time, he played for the 1971 Orioles, a team with four 20-game winners. Later, he managed the 1986 Mets, a team that won the World Series with six top-of-the-rotation arms. But this Nationals rotation, he said, is "right up there with all of them."
He then went on to say we have no idea if they all can stay healthy. And that's true. He also said they haven't done anything yet, so they have to perform. And that's true. But "you've got to like the arms," he said. And let's just say he's got that right.
Think about the six starters the Nationals have assembled, even though one of the best of the bunch (Tanner Roark) won't even start the season in the rotation:
• They have five pitchers who finished in the top 26 in baseball in ERA last season. No other team goes into this season with more than two.
• They have five of last season's top 25 in adjusted ERA-plus. Again, no other team has more than two.
• They have five of the top 29 in WHIP, five of the top 27 in strikeout/walk ratio, five of the top 35 in opponent OPS, five of the top 34 in wins above replacement (WAR), three of the top 13 in FIP, three of the top 23 in strikeout ratio and, aw, you get the idea.
• You want to talk rotation depth? Fister led this group in 2014 ERA. Scherzer led in whiffs and WAR. Zimmermann led in WHIP. Stephen Strasburg led all NL right-handers in strikeout ratio last year. And Roark ranked fifth -- yeah, fifth -- in the entire NL in opponent OPS.
Now remember that Roark doesn't even have a spot in this rotation. And that, said his manager, Matt Williams, is "amazing." And we haven't even mentioned the fifth starter, Gio Gonzalez, who is three years removed from a top-three Cy Young finish and is coming off a spring in which "he looked as good as I've seen him in three years," as one scout said.
But it's Scherzer who pushes this rotation to another level, that level in which it becomes fun to start measuring this group, potentially, against the '71 Orioles, '86 Mets, 2011 Phillies, etc. His signing might not look quite this attractive when they write their final check to him -- in 2028. But for now, he's locked in, with an electric fastball and "the best slider I've seen since John Smoltz in his prime," another scout said.
"They stamped this as a win-now year," said the NL exec quoted earlier, "when they signed Max Scherzer."
3. Because they're a lock to play in October
What's the first quality I look for in a team I'm about to (incorrectly) pick to win it all? That's easy. I start with the teams I think are most likely to make it to the postseason in the first place. And face it. Nobody is a better bet than this juggernaut.
Over at predictionmachine.com, they just played a simulation of the 2015 season 50,000 times. The Nationals made it to the Octoberfest in 92.8 percent of them -- the highest percentage by any team since the Prediction Machine came into existence.
Meanwhile, the same projection ranked the other four teams in the NL East at No. 20 (Marlins), No. 21 (Mets), No. 28 (Braves) and No. 29 (Phillies). So "what team in baseball," asks an AL executive, "has created more separation between itself and the rest of the division than the Nationals?"
Well, none, as a matter of fact. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection model has the Nationals winning the division by nine games. FanGraphs says 12 games.
"You can't say for sure the Dodgers are going to win their division," another exec said. "You can't say for sure the Cardinals are going to win their division. But what's the scenario where the Nationals aren't going to finish first? There almost isn't one. And that's the most important thing about winning in October -- avoiding that wild-card game and not running into Madison Bumgarner in that one game."
Exactly. OK, so that formula hasn't worked for the Nationals in the past. I get that. But finishing first is still the best ticket to a ticker-tape shower on the baseball earth.
4. Because they're deeper than anyone else
The average major league team needed 40 players, 23 pitchers and 10 starting pitchers to get through the season last year. Anybody want to deduce the moral of that story?
"This is a stacked club. You ask yourself, 'What do they need?' And the answer is, they don't need anything."A major league scout
That's right. And the teams that survive are the teams that have it.
"Is there any other team beside the Nationals that could absorb a couple of major injuries and still be fine?" asked one of the executives quoted earlier. "It feels like the Nationals could lose two starting position players, and they'd still be hard to play against. Or they could lose a couple of starting pitchers and still be OK. You can't say that about anyone else in the game. Can you?"
Well, no one else comes to mind. But in the meantime, the Nationals' depth already has been tested. They went through almost all of spring training without having half of their starting position players on the field. And while the second baseman, Yunel Escobar, is finally back, they'll go into the season without their center fielder (Denard Span), their third baseman (Anthony Rendon) and their left fielder (Jayson Werth).
But for now, only Span figures to be a long-term issue. And that just creates an easing-in period for their center fielder of the very near future, Michael Taylor, who has had a tremendous spring (.323/.344/.661, with four homers).
Once everyone gets back on the field, there is an above-average position player and excellent defender at every spot except second base. There's humongous upside in both Rendon and Bryce Harper. And the rotation is so deep, in both major league and minor league arms, that one scout quipped this spring that, other than Cole Hamels, no one in the Phillies' major league rotation could crack the Nationals' Triple-A rotation.
"This is a stacked club," one of the scouts quoted above said. "You ask yourself, 'What do they need?' And the answer is they don't need anything."
5. Because they're wearing those October scars
What has happened to the Nationals in their past two journeys through October has left scars. No one denies that. Their shocking Game 5 collapse against the Cardinals in 2012 is still hard to comprehend. And their loss to the Giants last year -- in a series in which they actually won the game Bumgarner started -- still gnaws at them.
But anyone who looks at those two defeats and somehow concludes the Nationals don't have what it takes to win in October is looking at a different team than the one I see. And the vibe I got in their camp this spring was a sense that this group has vowed to use that October pain for fuel.
The trouble is, it doesn't always work that way. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Nationals were only the fourth team in the division-play era to endure first-round exits twice in three years, after regular seasons in which they had the best record in their league. None of the other three -- the 2002-03 Braves, 1990-91 Pirates or 1973-74 Orioles -- won another postseason series within the next five years.
On the other hand, five World Series champs in the wild-card era -- the 2008 Phillies, 2006 Cardinals, 2004 Red Sox, 1998 Yankees and 1996 Yankees -- were teams coming off unhappy October endings the year before. So there is precedent for using those untimely postseason exits for fuel the next year.
But with these 2015 Nationals, it all comes back to one thing: They weren't merely built to win; they were built to win now. And if that means every two-bit baseball psychic on earth picks them to win, they're OK with that.
"Who wouldn't want that?" Williams said. "If everybody was to pick our team, there's 29 other teams they're not picking. And I would venture to guess that each of those 29 other teams would want to be the one that everybody's picking. It's a compliment. It doesn't mean you just walk out and throw your gloves on the field and it gets done. But it also means you've got a darn good team, and you've got a chance to do something that's really cool."
Now, it's obviously possible that someone finds a way to beat them in October, just the way it was always possible that someone could upend Kentucky. But you know what would be really cool? If I actually got one of these predictions right.
So I'm counting on the best team in baseball, the 2015 Washington Nationals, to make that dream come true. I've held up my end, by picking them. Now all they have to do is do what they were constructed to do:
Win the World Series I've astutely picked them to win. That's all.