On to the Senior Circuit, listed in predicted orders of finish that can be taken straight to your local bookie, wildcard asterisked. AL here.
NL EAST: NYM ATL (*) PHI FLA WAS Even among people picking them, there seems to be a consensus that the Mets will be down significantly. I don’t really see it; their starting pitching was thin last year, too, and with Maine there for a full year and Pedro possibly back in the second half (and supported by a good pen), the best offense in the league will cruise to the division title again. The Braves may be in some trouble long-term, but they’ll be a lot better this year; they were better than their record last year, their bullpen is rebuilt, and McCann could be the NL version of Mauer. I don’t think the rotation will be good enough to keep the division super-close, but it should get them the wild card. The Phillies are a hot pick, and certainly Howard-Utley-Rollins is an exceptional core, and Burrell is better than he’s given credit for, they have Hammel and some decent innings munchers. But the core is also no better than the Mets’, and especially after the idiotic Abreu trade the supporting cast is a lot worse, plus the bullpen both sucks and blows. And if there’s a tight race, you have to consider organizations. First of all, you have old-boys retread Charlie Manuel going up against one of the five best managers in the history of the sport and one of the most impressive young managers in the game, and Die on the Vine Gillick against Schuerholz and Minaya. Please. I’m afraid they’re missing the playoffs again. The Marlins are built on young-pitching quicksand, I think they’ll be victims of the Plexiglass Principle. Some people think the National will be historically bad. I think they’ll be saved by the league, and their lineup has more decent players than, say, the 2003 Tigers (although Dimitri Young is on board here too.) Their pitching, though, is atrocious–they will be the worst team in baseball this year.
NL CENTRAL: MIL CHI STL PIT HOU CIN Growing up an Expos fan has deeply ingrained in my memory that there’s a long distance between a compelling collection of talent and a championship team. But although I’d like to avoid the boutique pick, there isn’t actually anything resembling a good team in this division, so they seem as good a bet as anybody. I figure one year they’ll get lucky with their pitching, I like Cordero as a close, and they have some bats that can improve. The Cubs have made a big splash, and Soriano is indeed an excellent hitter and Pinella can run an offense. But their offense (as usual) has power but very little in terms of on base skills. They’ll need to get something out of the back end of their rotation, and I note the following combination of factors: Jason Marquis #3 starter; Alfonso Soriano in center field; managed by Lou “Just throw ^&)^*& strikes” Pinella. I can’t pick them. The Cards are in a lot of trouble, World Championship or no. Pujols is the best hitter in the game, but he’s surrounded by two once-great players with rapidly deteriorating skills and a bunch of OBP sinkholes, butchers, or both. The starting pitching is dubious even if Wainright can make the transition, and I don’t think there’s much reason to believe Izzy can pitch anymore. If Caprenter’s injury is remotely serious, they could lose 90+. The Astros are in similar shape, except that Berkman isn’t as good as Pujols. Lee will help, but not enough for a team that pretty much sends three pitchers to the plate every game, the rotation is highly questionable outside of Oswalt, and Lidge pretty clearly as Schiraldi disease. Clemens won’t save them this year. The Pirates don’t seem much worse than any of these teams; they have more good bats that the Astros, and on balance their pitching doesn’t seem much worse either. They’re not good enough to contend in a serious division, but I could see them being in the race in this one into the summer, which will be good for what looks like the coolest park in the league. Rob has covered the Reds.
NL WEST: SD LA ARI COL SF Since I gave in an picked the Indians this year, the sabermetric bandwagon I’m jumping off is the Diamondbacks. See what I wrote about Milwaukee–there can often be a longer distance between good young talent and a really good team, and if the Diamondbacks have more impressive talent they’re not as far along. The Padres get no respect, but the offense and Cameron-led defense are both underrated, Giles is a good gamble, and I love Maddux in that park. I think they’ll win again if Hoffman holds up. The Dodgers are the overrated Old Media team, especially with Frucal on the shelf to begin the year, I’m not impressed. Losing Drew will hurt; Gonzalez is finished, and Pierre is a joke in center. Nomar! isn’t a great hitter for a 1B even if he stays healthy, and their best player is a 39-year old 2B. The rotation is pretty good if healthy, but I like the Pads more. The DBacks could win–Webb is backed up with some veterans who may have comebacks in them. But I think the bullpen with cause them to perform less well than their run differential–I’ll pick them in 2008. I frankly never know what the hell to make of the Rockies; it’s hard to build a championship staff in that park, but like the Brewers they have young players who have less upside but are further along than Arizona’s; I could see them putting up a fight. What has happened to the Giants during the last years of Bonds is pretty pathetic. Durham is pretty good but not a cleanup hitter, and the collection of stiffs surrounding Bonds is getting more decrpit every year (and effectively replacing Alou with David Roberts won’t help.) The pitching looks better in the raw stats than it is, and Zito is more a good ininngs eater than a star at this point despite his salary. And their closer is Armando Benitez. That could be one ugly bit of business in the country’s most beautiful city.
World Series: Cleveland over NYM.