The easiest way to forecast baseball pennant races is simply to pick last year's champions to repeat. The only problem is that it doesn't work out that way very often. No team has been able to win back-to-back pennants since the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers turned the trick in 1977-78. And only two clubs -- the Yankees in 1980-81 and Kansas City in 1984-85, have even won consecutive division titles in this period.
Will the pattern continue, or will at least some of last year's champions find their way to the playoffs again? The guess here is that it will be 50-50, with the Royals winning their third American League West title in a row and the Dodgers taking their second straight National League West crown while the Yankees and Mets capture the division honors they narrowly missed a year ago.
Then we'll venture a guess that the two New York clubs will win the pennants, giving us a modern version of those ``Subway Series'' between the Yankees and the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Unlike most of those battles, however, the Yankees will lose this one to Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, & Co.
Here's a capsule look at the four division races:
AL WEST -- We'll start with the easiest one, since it's virtually inconceivable that any rival in this weak division can dethrone the Royals. With Bret Saberhagen heading a deep and talented starting rotation, Dan Quisenberry in the bullpen, and hitters like George Brett, Willie Wilson, and Hal McRae, Kansas City is solid all over -- as the Cardinals discovered in the World Series.
The Chicago White Sox are the classic example of what can happen to a champion the next season: they won by 20 games in 1983, but were nowhere in 1984. Manager Tony La Russa's team played reasonably well last year, though, and may be the best of the ``six dwarfs'' in this division. California annually gets written off as baseball's answer to the old Washington Redskins ``Over the Hill Gang,'' but the Angels are usually in the race. Oakland's pitching should be stronger with the acquisition of 21-game winner Joaquin Andujar from St. Louis, but the A's have too many problems elsewhere. And as usual you can forget about Minnesota, Seattle, and Texas right from the start.
NL WEST -- This one also looked easy until Los Angeles slugger Pedro Guerrero (.320, 33 home runs, 87 RBIs last year) sustained a spring training knee injury which is expected to sideline him for a minimum of three months. But this is an organization that always has replacements ready, and the pitching staff headed by Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser looks like the best in the division. Also, the Dodgers are baseball's most consistent team these days, with five division titles and two near-misses in the last nine years. So they should still win, but obviously things look better for the other contenders than they did a week ago. Cincinnati was last year's surprise team, pushing L.A. most of the way and finishing only five games behind. The Reds were busy in the offseason too, adding starters Bill Gullickson and John Denny plus catcher Bo Diaz, and second-year manager Pete Rose feels they have a shot this year. San Diego is another example of what so often happens to a winner: the Padres were division champions in 1984 but little more than a .500 team last year, and don't really figure to do much better this time around. Atlanta, San Francisco, and Houston all appear along for the ride.
AL EAST -- New York, 9 games out in early August, made up a lot of ground but not quite enough. That shouldn't be the case this year, though, as a solid batting order headed by MVP Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, and newly acquired Mike Easler should score plenty of runs while Ron Guidry, Joe Niekro, Dave Righetti, & Co. hold enemy bats reasonably at bay. Detroit, another non-repeater last year after winning it all in 1984, looks like the main contender, though it's always a close call in what is generally considered baseball's most competitive division. Toronto could do it again, too, but the big question with the Blue Jays is whether they can realistically be expected to produce an encore of 1985, when no fewer than nine of their key players had the best years of their careers. Baltimore is usually a contender, and could pull some surprises. Boston's already awesome batting order has become even more so with the addition of power hitter Don Baylor in the Easler trade, but the Red Sox always score a ton of runs in their little ballpark only to see the opposition do the same -- and the result will probably be another .500 or so year like 1985. Milwaukee and Cleveland figure to be the also-rans.
NL EAST -- New York has basically the same team that came so close last year, plus another starter in Bob Ojeda. Meanwhile St. Louis must find somebody to pick up the slack left by the departure of Andujar, with his 21 victories and 270 innings pitched. Further, like Toronto in the AL East, the Cardinals benefited last year by having 10 of their players equal or exceed their best years -- a figure that hardly seems likely to be repeated. The Chicago Cubs blamed an inordinate number of injuries for the failure to repeat their 1984 division title, and could join the battle again if they avoid such a problem this season. Philadelphia will feature more speed this year but still needs a comeback by Steve Carlton, who was 1-8 with only 92 innings pitched in an injury-filled 1985. Montreal seems to need rebuilding, and Pittsburgh needs just about everything.