Ah, so Opening Day is upon us, not a moment too soon. How will things go this year? Now you’ll know! Teams listed as I think they’ll finish (*is the wild card):
AL East: NY Bos Tor TB Bal
The top two are basically a coin flip. I have to pick the Yankees because I think Johnson will have a big year, and their offense could be historically good. The Red Sox are very, very good, though, and can certainly win the division. I will be cheering for the Blue Jays like it’s 1985, but although they are improved especially with Burnett starting on the DL I don’t think they’re going to seriously challenge (compare their offense with the big 2, and there’s still a big gap.) The biggest impact of the Jays’ improvement is that I think it will stop the wild card coming from the East this year, which could produce a rare great pennant race in the post-wild card era. The Devil Rays will be a somewhat fun to watch bad team, the Orioles don’t figure to be fun to watch.
AL Central: Min Chi* Cle Det KC
I was dead wrong about the Indians last year; I thought they were being overrated, and they were in fact arguably the best team in the league although they choked down the stretch. Having not learned anything, I think they’ll need a consolidation year; their starting pitching, in particular, figures to be a lot worse, and Wickman could blow up anytime. Minnesota is pretty much a coin-flip pick; I’m guessing that Morneau and Mauer will finally take a bug step forward, and I love their rotation, but the catch is that their offense has enough holes that if some kids don’t develop they could finish fourth. Chicago weren’t as good as their record last year, but on the other hand they are better this year; Thome is a very nice pickup and Vazquez should roughly offset the likely decline from Garland. Detroit have improved a lot, especially on offense, but I don’t think they have the rotation to be competitive. I’d put the over/under on Royals losses at about 106.
AL West: Oak Tex LAAOACUSA Sea
I have to concur with most people not blinded by smoldering Billy Beane ressentiment that this division figures to be a cakewalk for Oakland. (More about Beane later this week.) The As offense if far from overwhelming, but it should be better than the Angels’, and the latter sure don’t have the A’s pitching. The Rangers are further improved; the quintessentially underrated Wilkerson for the quintessentially overrated Soriano was highway robbery, and I like the Millwood signing, but at best they’ll compete for the wildcard. There seems to be some vague optimism about the Mariners this year; they’ll certainly be better, but their grip on the cellar strikes me as firm. While partially disguised by Safeco the post-King-Felix rotation is pretty ghastly, and even if things break right the offense is mediocre.
NL East: ATL NYM(*) Phi Fla Was
Since everyone’s trend is to say this will be the year the Braves finally lose, I’ll buck it and pick them in another coin toss. Had the Mets stopped their acquisitions after Delgado I’d pick them easily, but the subsequent gutting of their rotation depth is just baffling, particularly given that you can’t exactly count on Pedro to pitch 200 innings with his toe, Glavine is 40, and Zambrano sucks. I just can’t pick a team that seems to be keeping a guy coming of a 62 ERA+ as its #6 starter to beat Cox, although they should win the wild card. This may be the year the Phillies finally get to the next level, but seeing names like “Gordon” and “Franklin [in a bandbox]” and “Manuel” sure prevents me from seeing it. I don’t think the Marlins will collapse to the same extent they did after the last fire sale–there’s a lot more young talent there–although they certainly aren’t going to win the division. The Nationals, on the other hand, I can see bottoming out completely; the only hitter with any on-base skills at all has had 400 ABs once, and beyond Hernandez the rotation isn’t impressive either. Even considering the ownership situation Bowden has done a remarkably bad job with this team.
NL Central: STL Mil Chi Hou Pit Cin
The Cardinals have dropped off more than most people realize; Pujols is the best hitter in the league, of course, and Edmonds is a tremendous hitter although he’s a 36-year old coming off an off-year, and getting Rolen back will help although you can’t exactly pencil him in for 500 ABs. That’s the sum of their plus offensive players, and while the rotation is very good I’m doubtful that Carpenter will be a Cy Young candidate again. Still, their core should carry them to the title without too much danger. The Brewers are a surprisingly impressive comer, but I think they’re like my beloved 92-93 Expos, an excellent young talent base not quite ready to get over the hump. I’d love to pick them, but especially with Sheets on the DL…I can’t quite do it. They could compete for the wild card. The Cubs, as always, have talented but injured arms and don’t get anyone on base. The Astros are the poor man’s Cards, and might end up the homeless man’s Cards–at least 3 of their regulars hit nothing, and Ensberg and Berkman ain’t Pujols and Edmonds. My pick is an average based on a Rocket/no-Rocket average; even Clemens coming back in May won’t save them, and if he doesn’t they’ll be luck to stay ahead of the Pirates. The Pirates are actually somewhat like the Astros; offense a little better, pitchers not quite as proven. The Reds will be a fun 90+ loss team to watch.
NL West–LA SF SD Ari Col
Jeebus, it’s really not much better, is it? I will certainly be rooting against the Dodgers as always, but I think they’re the best of a bad lot–even if Bonds plays 120 games the Giants are pretty patchy, and I don’t think he will. The Dodgers don’t have any major offensive holes relative to position, and the pitching is OK. That’s enough in this division. The Giants are so old that they have the potential to be just dreadful, but also enough talent to stay win 85 games, which could be enough. The Padres could win again, I suppose, but they weren’t even as good as their record last year, and while Cameron will help a bit Estes and Vinny the Castilla sure won’t. The Diamondbacks don’t have a terrible lineup, but the core is weak and Russ Ortiz is the #2 starter. The Rockies’ have young players, but apart from Holliday none are terribly interesting, and it’s of course nearly impossible for young pitchers to develop in their environment.
World Series? I’ll say…Oakland over St. Louis.