ESPN's baseball forecasters predict the baseball gods will continue to purge championship curses next year, and they have moved the Indians to the front of the line.
In ESPN's 2006 off-season power rankings, the Indians are the top team, lauded as a young, talented bunch eager to bounce back from their last-week collapse at the end of the season.
Everybody now knows 1918 and 1917 as significant years in the history of cursed franchises. Now, ESPN sheds some light on 1948, the year of the Indians' last title.
With the White Sox and Red Sox off the shnide, here are the teams lugging around baseball's longest title droughts, and my take on their chances of winning a World Series any time soon (note: I am counting the years as of 2006, since the '05 season is over):
1. Chicago Cubs (1908): 98 years
With a payroll that ranked eighth in baseball last year, there is always a chance that the Cubs will be able to spend enough to win a title in the near future. Unfortunately, much of their money is wrapped up in aging or injury-prone players.
Derrek Lee led the majors in batting average this year (.335) and led the Cubs in just about every offensive category. Beyond him, the Cubs have Aramis Ramirez (.302/31/92) as their next-best hitter. Nomar Garciaparra hit .283 when he was healthy (which is becooming increasingly less often), and free-agent-to-be Jeromy Burnitz contributed 24 homers to the ttune of a lackluster .258 average.
Carlos Zambrano set a career high with 202 strikeouts on the pitching end, Ryan Dempster saved 33 games and was recently inked to a contract extension, but this team's pitching tends to live and die with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who have downright scary elbows and shoulders if you are Cubs management.
Verdict: This team has too many question marks, and you can bet on some key players missing major time with injuries. The drought will reach a century on Chicago's North Side.
2. Cleveland Indians (1948): 58 years
No secret, GM Mark Shapiro has studied extensively the recent success of the Twins and White Sox. He wants a young, hungry team with a few veterans plugged in at reasonable cost. Those teams play for cheap and are full of players hungry to prove themselves.
The downside, of course, is that sooner or later, many of those players will play themselves into a price range your team can't afford, so you have to strike while the iron is hot. And for the Indians, it looks like they have a two-to-four-year window to win a title before the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez approach free agency and a big payday.
The Indians seem to have most of the ingredients in place.
They had solid hitting, as the one-through-six lineup sextet of Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp, Jhonny Peralta, Hafner, Martinez and Ronnie Belliard all finished with averages above .280. Martinez and Hafner led the way, both hitting .305.
They brought league-leading pitching. Kevin Millwood won an ERA title with a 2.86 ERA, Cliff Lee won 18 games, and the bullpen was baseball's best. Closer Bob Wickman notched 45 saved, far and away a career high.
For the Indians, much of next year's title chances seem to hinge on how many free agents they bring back, and if they can upgrade several positions, right field being the most glaring.
The Indians are expected to offer Millwood a large deal, but far from the most he can probably get. Shapiro has begun kicking the tires on 34-year-old free agent Brian Giles as a possible right fielder. Yesterday, he picked up the $4 million option on Belliard for 2006.
Verdict: With Giles, Millwood and a good closer (Bob Howry or B.J. Ryan?) in tow, the stars probably wouldn't align much better for a team still expected to have a sub-$60 million payroll next year. Win now, or forever hold your peace.
3. San Francisco Giants (1954): 52 years
The last title the Giants won was four years before they followed the Dodgers out of New York to the West Coast. The past couple of years, this team has been crazy old, with an average age over 35. That lends itself to experience, but the flip side is the need for an expanded trainer's room and Olympic-size whirlpool.
Ironically, the Giants spent a league-low 463 player days on the disabled list last year.
Even though Barry Bonds led this team to the seventh game of the World Series in 2002, this team will probably be heathier once he retires and allows management to think about the future and not just the present. While the Giants dug themselves out of a horrendous start and were in wild-card contention as late as September, no one is going to confuse this bunch with a title contender. They need an infusion of youth. Acquiring Randy Winn midseason last year was a start.
Verdict: Too old, not enough pitching. At least three years from being ready to contend again. San Fran will have to wait for their first Giants parade.
Houston Astros (no titles, franchise began play in 1962): 44 years
You would think a team that just got swept in the World Series would be a young team eager to claw their way back to the top the following year. But the Astros were actually battle-hardened with numerous playoff games in their past. They are a curious mix of talented youth (Roy Oswalt, Brandon Backe, Brad Lidge), prime-of-career stars (Andy Pettitte, Lance Berkman) and overpaid geezers (Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio).
Somehow, that mix rallied the Astros from a poor start to the NL pennant.
They have the youth to contend in the coming years, but the cavat are the aging players in key positions. Bagwell and Biggio have been so key to the Astros' playoff runs in the 1990s and 2000s, but Bagwell was a virtual non-factor in the Worls Series. As good as the Astros have been in producing young players from their farm system, replacing Bagwell and Biggio is another concern altogether.
Verdict: Should still be good enough to be a playoff team next year, but with each year that passes, it is going to become that much harder to win a title with the current cast of characters.