Category Archives: predictions

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 3

Predictions are a dime a dozen; for a wild and disparate collection of them, check ESPN’s roundup. Here are mine for the NL.

Miami
Philadelphia
Washington
Atlanta
New York

The NL East has had a clear marching order for the last several seasons, but all you really have to do to shake things up in baseball is wait for time to pass. In this instance, it’s time for the Marlins to combine some free-spending (on Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, and Jose Reyes) and renewed commitment to fans, in the form of a new ballpark. Whether new manager Ozzie Guillen helps build a Latino fan base or infuriates players and customers alike remains to be seen, but the team taking the field includes an almost ideal mix of rising stars and proven talent with a little bit more to prove. This is a buy low-sell high pick.

It is age that will unseat the Phillies. The rotation remains formidable, and I have no trouble imagining 20 wins from either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but they need some runs to drape the W’s on. With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard struggling with injuries that defy return timetables, the lineup has guys like mighty Ty Wigginton in for placeholder duty. The full season may allow an offense to gel, but age and decline haunt nearly every Philly hitter now.

What would Nat Fever look like? Please don’t describe it in detail, but it might include a lot of enthusiasm for a rotation that could be remarkable. Imagine Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and new acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson all having great seasons at the same time. It’s not only possible, but likely. There’s less to be enthusiastic about on the offense, and Bryce Harper can’t fix all that on his own, if he’s called up at all. But Washington goes above .500 for the first time in the curly W era.

The Braves can curse all they like about the massive missed opportunity that was 2011. They not only fell during that amazing day when the season ended in a wave of upsets, they may have used up their bullpen getting as far as they did. But even if Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters aren’t plagued by the results of overwork, the rotation may show some cracks, staring with Tim Hudson missing much of April from injury. Atlanta’s fate may turn on Jason Heyward’s ability to bounce back from a sad sophomore season and Chipper Jones’ ability to rally himself, and his mates, to a fine finale for his long career.

They’ve moved in the fences at Citi Field, but that is not going to keep the Mets from sinking to the bottom of the NL East. David Wright, Lucas Duda, and Ike Davis may pound along, but don’t expect Johan Santana to come back from a lost season.

Cincinnati
St Louis
Milwaukee
Pittsburgh
Chicago
Houston

In this division, it’s a matter of the last man standing, since every team took some hits in the offseason—mostly from AL plunderings. Cincinnati has the best returning squad, which may even have learned a few lessons about overconfidence from last year’s finish. Joey Votto and Brandon Philips lead the offensive charge, while new arrival Mat Latos may click along with Johnny Cueto to handle defense. The loss of Ryan Madson in the bullpen could have serious repercussions, but recent baseball history is littered with surprise closers stepping up. Aroldis Chapman could be the next one.

It’s safe to bet against World Series winners repeating unless they happen to live in the Bronx. The Cardinals still have some solid offense post-Albert, but there are serious stamina questions about the rotation. I always admired Mike Matheny as a catcher steering a game, but I’m afraid St Louis has given him an impossible managerial job, spent in a season-long contrast with Tony LaRussa’s success. It’ll be too bad if Matheny is a pawn in a little “don’t blame me”/”what did you expect” experiment by the Cards top management.

The Brewers still have too much talent for the loss of Prince Fielder to deflate the balloon entirely. All eyes will be on Ryan Braun, who may be asked to pee into a cup by the fans when he rounds third base. I think we can all see a stats falloff coming. But the pitching crew features five double-digit winners, two of whom—Zack Greinke and Yovanni Gallardo—could easily top 20 this year.

The Pirates flirtation with first place last season was always described as a freak accident, but look again. This is a young, exciting team that seems to need some coaching and some goals to convert its raw talent into wins. But there’s also a good case for regression—not only is “fluke” possibly the best explanation for 2011, the addition of Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett does not look like the solution to the rotation’s numerous holes. Bedard has been tried in a host of contexts and the luster is wearing off (though I retain stubborn optimism about him); Burnett is most probably the wrong kind of diva for this squad.

Chicago gets a break this year. Instead of crushing fans’ hopes by ladling out the dollars for a ill-fitting group of costly free agents, the teams gets to call it a rebuilding year while Theo Epstein attempts a second big magic trick. Let’s step aside, give them time, and settle for a Starlin Castro bobblehead day.

When a team loses 100 games, they do so at an average rate of 17 a month. The Astros are a team fully equipped to lose at just such a clip. The only curiosity about this team is how bad they can be in their final turn as a member of the National League.

Colorado
San Francisco
Arizona
Los Angeles
San Diego

Let’s just allow for the usual wackiness in advance, shall we? The Rockies always sneak up on us, and this time I want to be ready. They have a powerhouse in Troy Tulowitski, a potential lefty gem in Drew Pomeranz, and what could be a bounce-back year for Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, there’s an oversupply of creaky veterans, almost as if the GM thought a mentoring program for the triple A squad was key to victory. This pick assumes a few implosions for the other teams in the division, but I’m standing behind it.

It’s a little scary how precisely San Francisco conducted its experiment concerning the value of Buster Posey. Add him in as a rookie, World Series win. Subtract him with a nasty leg fracture, nuthin’. As awesome as the rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner may be, they didn’t get the job done without Posey. He’s added back into the mix this year, so we’ll now complete the next phase of Posey-testing.

Arizona might have seen the best season Ian Kennedy can produce in 2011, but the 21-game winner and the other worthies in the rotation will keep the Diamondbacks in the race. The problem? Counting on Justin Upton to be responsible for nearly all the offense.

Clayton Kershaw may be just the kind of pitcher to match his gorgeous 2011 (a sub-one WHIP, 21 wins, and a Cy Young). Then again, it’s a tall order. And he’ll need Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to contribute enough runs, which perhaps deserves 50-50 odds. Shaking off Frank McCourt’s ownership drama may alone be worth 10 wins. But the Dodgers have demonstrated a firm ability to resist seeing themselves as a cohesive team.

San Diego fans, brace yourselves for another season at the bottom of the standings. This time, you can lean back and watch Cameron Maybin grow.

Advertisements

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 2

Here’s my kindling for the fire—how they’re finish and a few words about why. I’ve got no great pedigree as a pickster, but it’s not really about getting it right, is it? It’s about having an opinion and enough preconceptions to rouse you to hone your counterarguments. Today, the American League; tomorrow the National.

Tampa Bay
Yankees
Toronto
Red Sox
Baltimore

The Rays are a neatly balanced team, with power, speed, and a great pitching rotation. David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson should combine for 50 wins, and if rookie Matt Moore meets expectations, Tampa Bay can capture the East for the low, low price of a $62 million payroll, or about a third of what New York will spend.

The Yankees are too old to be inevitable this season. The addition of pitchers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda improve the rotation over last season, but the inevitable ageing of the offense will make the summer feel very long. Yes, I’ve heard about Derek Jeter sprinting to first base in spring training, in terrific condition, but every All-Star on this team is over 30—well, Robinson Cano only turns 30 in October. That’s during playoffs, which will not last past the Sudden Death phase of the wild card for the Yankees this year.

I see Toronto mashing and smashing behind proven Jose Bautista and unproven but promising Brett Lawrie. Their pitching pretty much begins and ends with Rickey Romero and Brandon Morrow, plus the potential of Henderson Alvarez, but there are a lot of RBI in those bats.

The Red Sox could spring right back up after the managerial and GM changes, but I’m not sure that the zombie trance of September will be so easily expunged. The Sox haven’t looked like a cohesive team in several years. They’re a great collection of talent, but you never sense they want to win anything, even with Dustin Pedroia contorting in personal agony through every at-bat.

Finally, the Orioles continue to shuffle pitchers in and out while fans (at best) wring their hands about the untapped potential of Nick Markakis and, now, Matt Wieters. They don’t make nearly enough wild card slots for a team like this.

Detroit
Kansas City
Cleveland
Minnesota
Chicago

It’s tempting to buck the bandwagon and ask whether bringing in Prince Fielder might be oversolving a problem. There are plenty of busts in the history of “sure thing” acquisitions, Adrian Gonzalez notwithstanding. And in this case, Detroit must make room for his majesty by shifting Miguel Cabrera to third, with backfire potential rippling through the lineup. But in the end, the remarkable and well-conditioned Justin Verlander could well come close to last year’s stunning stats (those 24 wins were based on a 0.92 WHIP), while the lineup can do every form of baseball damage to opposing pitchers. Case closed for the top o’ the AL Central.

Kansas City is replete with little-known players equipped with soon-to-be-known talent. Their future starts this year. The heartbreak of losing catching prospect Salvador Perez to injury will be offset by the second year exploits of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

Last season, Cleveland refused to match expectations. They outplayed ’em at the beginning of the year, then fell far short when the trades that were supposed to yield a playoff push went awry. The main acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez, proceeded to have nothing in common with the 19-game winner he was in 2010 for the Rockies. Hard to know which season was the aberration for Jimenez, but it’s easy to imagine a breakout year for catcher Carlos Santana and a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo. But what this team needs is the madcap hope and fervor they showed through last July.

Baseball fortunes change quickly. The Twins will spend 38% of their 2012 payroll on Joe Mauer, a noble soul who can hit a lot of singles for a catcher but who won’t be playing catcher all that often, and Justin Morneau, a spectacular player whose career was cruelly cut short by a concussion in 2010. Morneau is going to try again to shake off injuries and lingering concussion symptoms, but it’s looking like a long shot. Worse, he and Mauer aren’t surrounded by much of a team after trades gutted the roster. Fans could spend the entire season actively missing Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel.

Sorry, Chicago. Sorry, bold managerial choice Robin Ventura. Adam Dunn is not going to become a glorious AL hitter, and Paul Konerko can’t keep carrying this team on his back.

Los Angeles
Texas
Oakland
Seattle

The Angels are insatiable shoppers but somehow come off more lovable than the Yankees do on their spending sprees. Owner Arte Moreno is keen to plant butts in seats, and his attraction this season is the incomparable Albert Pujols. There’s no point in fishing for superlatives; Pujols will perform and he joins a way-above-average squad.

Which means Texas’ brief reign will end after two straight World Series losses. New potential ace Yu Darvish might help the rotation gel, but it’s not clear that Neftali Feliz will make the transition from bullpen to starter. Every source of power in the lineup is susceptible to age, and this team could easily drop to third place.

Each year I turn with curiosity to see what Oakland has assembled. This season they’ve gambled some real dollars on a high-risk/high-reward player in Yoenis Cespedes. He comes from Cuba to join the usual gang of oddballs, castoffs, and diamonds-in-the-rough which will include Manny Ramirez for at least a few weeks of the season.

The suspense surrounding the Mariners runs along the lines of, Exactly how bad will they be? A few years ago, they tried a Moneyball variant in trying to field their way to a championship. Well, Franklin Gutierrez remains impeccable in the outfield and there are other fine glovemen on the team, but nary a .300 hitter. And the defensive prowess only helped Felix Hernandez to 14 wins. Now that the Yankees have abducted Michael Pineda, who formed a 1-2 punch with Hernandez, there’s little to fear from Seattle.

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 1

The impulse to predict has two sides to it, one arguably inimical and the other thoroughly benign. The dark side of prediction is foreclosing on the event itself by outrunning it—trying to have something to say about it that elevates the speaker above the participants. Because we are otherwise dwarfed by those with baseball talents, we preempt them by reducing their exploits to a story we can tell without them.

So a fair bit of the baseball appreciations we read in March are all about the ability of the author to reduce 2,430 games and thousands of at-bats to a plot that satisfies certain emotional and analytical assessments. They are not so much about the games to come as about lodging an I-told-you-so with the earliest postmark.

The sweeter side of predicting is the plain old inability to refrain from doing so. Because the preseason is the last time of pure hope, we can collect our evidence to argue for the basis of a long whoop of joy to come in October. With a little care about scouring up some of the nutty precedents that do dot our game, we can make a convincing case.

The desire to do so is not only to hunt hard for all the good omens, but to imagine. This is both a powerful, creative act and quite a rewarding one—what if . . . what if! And finally there is the happiness of looking, dispassionately or otherwise, at all 30 teams, savoring their prospects.

The folks who try hardest to predict with accuracy are still stuck using some pretty feeble facts. We have this year’s lineups, last year’s stats, and vivid ideas about the rookies. With fantasy baseball beckoning us all toward the assembly of an idealized roster, it’s no wonder that the Tigers look like a lock in the AL Central, and the Phillies’ pitching rotation appears impregnable. Don’t get me started about the Yankees. Look long enough at the lineups and you will quickly be reduced to an almost surreal certainty about where the pennants will be flown.

But these case-closed reviews of rosters are the product of last year’s stats. Highly informative, but not in the least predictive. Will the Royals’ Eric Hosmer build on a .293/.334/.465 debut, with 19 homers over 128 games? I watched him raptly last season and you can sign me up for the fan club. He’s composed, possessed of a solid stroke, and he’s playing for a team that hasn’t felt pressure—playoff or otherwise—since 1995.

From what I saw, he’s more likely to have his first (of many) years over .300 than a sophomore slump. It’s a good story, the facts at hand back it up, and any look at the guy shows you he’s loose enough to enjoy the game and focused enough to park quite a few balls past the left-field fence. But there is a but, and it could be injury, a mechanical flaw that surfaces under the heat of expectations, or the wild wear and tear that is a long season in a team sport. The default position? It’s impossible to know.

If Hosmer is hard to peg, how about Bryce Harper? We don’t even know when, or if, he’ll crack the lineup, but he is one of the most mouth-watering rookies walking in from the mists of the minors. There is a plausible scenario in which he’s called up in June, galvanizes the team, whacks the cover off the ball, successfully completes the career-prolonging transition from catcher to outfield, and has the Nationals doing their first actual damage in the NL East.

There is also an equally likely story in which Harper darts in and out of focus for a few September games, and melts under the X-Ray eyes of big league pitchers. But then again, which story is more interesting to believe?

You can play this game all night, and it really amounts to putting the spinner on every player whose fate fascinates you. It only gets interesting when you rub your chin especially hard and find it impossible to accept that, say, Albert Pujols is going to descend to some ugly, new plateau with an Angels’ A on his hat. It’s just so unreasonable! Possible, yes, but King Albert’s trajectory just doesn’t seem to admit of mediocrity. Not age, not a switch to AL pitching, not a brand new team and manager can displace Pujols from each season’s best-of lists. That is how it seems, now.

And it may be how it will be, but predicting is not knowing. The pleasure of prophesying is the immersion in both possibility and sheer admiration for the players themselves. What I use to project happy outcomes for Hosmer and Pujols is the wonderful memories I already have. Imagining the future is, ultimately, relishing your memory.

That’s what it means to make predictions for yourself, but the predictions worth reading need to educate and provoke. You can develop them from mathematical models, with a solid pedigree, as Bruce Bukiet of the New Jersey Institute of Technology does. (The two biggest surprises for 2012: he projects Boston to hang 4 games back of the Yankees and no one else to make a peep in the AL East; he shows Arizona claiming the NL West, but Philly, St Louis, Detroit, and Texas all repeating. The model has its reasons, which reason knows not of.)

You can toss them off, breathlessly punching out best case/worst case storylines, as ESPN’s on-air pundits or fast-paced websites do. It’s quite arresting to watch them wrestle stats and player personalities into submission. This tends to result in bouncing ‘round the room pairs like this one from Baseball America on the Mariners:

Best-Case Scenario: C Jesus Montero and 1B Justin Smoak show why Seattle traded Michael Pineda and Cliff Lee to get them, and they team with 2B Dustin Ackley to form the heart of a productive lineup.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offense remains a laughingstock and finishes last in the league in scoring for a fourth straight year.

In the end, I really can’t wrap my mind around either eventuality, though only the worst case has a real ring of truth. This is proof that the best-worst axis is not always a winning skewer for barbequing up the truth.

You can confine yourself to predicting player performance for the fantasy baseball world, which incidentally allows readers to link the data to the actual teams that employ the players. But the meat of the matter is intelligently combining statistics, performance factors like park effects, and mathematical or mental insights about the arc of a player’s career. Among those sharing their ideas without a fee, Matthew Berry, billed as The Talented Mr Roto, has a look at fantasy drafting on ESPN.com.

Finally, you can just mouth off, as I intend to do, and scores of others will in blogs and Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated. On April 1st, I will try to convince you of the wisdom of my picks. Tonight, I am enjoying the process of extrapolating from what I learned watching baseball unfold in 2011. Maybe I’ll see the future; the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be looking through the lens of the past.

Predicting the AL West

The last stop on the prediction train is a good time to take stock of the forecasting mistakes I’ve tried (probably in vain) not to commit. There’s the Fallacy of Last Season, which is not really where things take up again, let alone where they end. There’s the Pitfall of Lineup Dissection, in which a team’s wins and losses appear etched in the names on the roster but are, in fact, the result of myriad actual events, many of which include people who leave that roster for the DL, trades, or the bench.

Next, there’s the Blindness of the Fan, in which prediction is used an the opportunity to imagine the outcome most desirable to the predictor. Finally, there’s the Myth of the Contrary, a chance to reject consensus largely for the pleasure of being right (if one is, eventually) where others are wrong. Of course, contrarians have a select set of victories they recall while papering over all the routine flubs when prevailing opinion was right after all.

Considering all these potential snares, I wonder if prediction is really about being correct or about having a happy time imagining an outcome. I will have to conscientiously look up these forecasts in September to see how I did, for I won’t spend a day during the season wondering if we’re getting closer to, or further away from, my guesses. The guesses are really just for today.

So, today, I look at the AL West, the division that often earns scorn. For years, the As and the Angels have snuck into the playoffs with the thin little pedigree of beating out the Mariners and Rangers and, of course, each other. Now they haven’t truly snuck; they’ve won fair and square but teams from the East and Central have enough time-zone-induced losses to make even the record suspect. Never mind that the As and Angels have to venture east; somehow when the Red Sox lose in Anaheim there’s an explanation.

The Angels have the biggest losses to free agency, having parted with Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez, but still appear to pose the best threat in the West. The outfield overflows with talent: Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Matthews Jr, and new recruit Bobby Abreu. They play smart baseball, taking advantage of speed, power, and teamwork, and have a rotation that isn’t glamorous but likely to be effective.

Oakland spun the economic downturn on its head, switching from seller to buyer. While dealing away a promising stable of young pitchers over the last two seasons, the team looked like it was nothing more than a conveyor belt of prospects. This time, GM Billy Beane decided to buy Matt Holliday, disconnecting the power hitter from one great source of success, the atmospheric pressure at Coors Field. Never mind, partisans report—Holliday hit a ton on the road too. So Oakland begins the season with another crew of nearly unknown pitchers, an aging infield, and one big slugger. These parts don’t seem to add up, but the As have made odder combos work before.

The formula in Texas hasn’t changed much since the slugger-friendly stadium was built in Arlington: nurture or acquire big hitters at every position, then invite a steady stream of marginal pitchers to take up residence for a season or two. Step two, shell the pitchers. Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla are back for another round, topping a starting rotation with an average ERA over 5.00. Yikes.

One wants the Texas brass to take a look at a little revelation the Boston Red Sox had in the late 70s. Instead of building a team around exploiting the hits to be had off the Green Monster, build a team to deny said hits to the opposition. It actually took the Sox about 25 years to cash in on this insight, but all those Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens years look kinda smart, don’t they? Until the Rangers improve the infield and outfield defense and bring up some great pitching prospects of their own, they are doomed to reward fantasy players more than fans. Meanwhile, the team has some of the most interesting hitters to watch in Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Elvis Andrus, not to mention the joys of the aging Michael Young and Hank Blalock. It’s a fantasy roster, all right, but a cool one.

The Mariners may still be sleepwalking after last season’s doomed effort to build a winner from what now appear to be the spare parts Frankenstein would use. Many of these players still have potential, notably King Felix Hernandez. The rumor mongers say Ichiro is a divisive force. Common sense says Ken Griffey Jr is in the Las Vegas engagement stage of his career. And the smart money says you can paste the Mariners at the bottom of the standings. So, here they are:

Anaheim Angels
Texas Rangers
Oakland As
Seattle Mariners

Predicting the AL Central

Last season, the Twins were generally pegged as the last-place team, sinking below the Royals who brought some fresh faces to the party. The Twins, after all, had lost Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, and even with them had struggled to win games. With a new stadium two seasons away, the assumption was the Twins would languish, underspend, and bide their time.

As 2008 played out, the Twins were tied for the division title through the last game of the season, and played a gritty and gruesome tiebreaker with the White Sox, losing 1-0. That’s as close to first place as you can get without, you know, winning.

Baseball prognosticators hate to be wrong twice, so the Twins are perched atop many a sportswriter’s rankings. The entire creaking edifice of this blog is a little shrine to those Twins, but I am not quite sure I should board the bandwagon. I want to, that’s for sure, and I will spend the season hoping for nothing less. Unfortunately, I see some problems.

First there’s the merits of the Indians, Royals, Tigers, and White Sox. All of these clubs make a real case for capturing the crown, and I’m expressly including the Royals. Joakim Soria could have a hot hand among closers this year, provided he gets some games to save. Zach Greinke and Gil Meche will likely pitch with great success. Billy Butler profited by a trip down and back to the minors last year. The countdown clock says Alex Gordon will be launching his claim as a star third baseman very soon. Finally, Trey Hillman seems to have the right managing presence to lead the team.

The White Sox have two young players coming off great rookie seasons in Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez. The pitching rotation is starting to look a bit like a musty sock drawer, though, and the key sources of power (Dye, Konerko, Thome) will feel their age even if they strive not to show it. All in all, the main thing the Sox have going for them is Obama’s loyalty. Though it’s not particularly presidential to wear a ballcap, I have a hunch Obama will sport a Sox lid sometime this summer.

The Tigers have last year’s amazing disaster well behind them. To this day, no one can explain why a lineup and a rotation as richly stocked as theirs could have some kind of anti-winning magnetic field pulsing from it. This year’s version has nearly as much run scoring potential, and Verlander and Bonderman simply have to have better years. Magglio Ordonez may be on the downslope, but Miguel Cabrera should still be surging up. Perhaps the team’s success may hinge, at least subtly, on how much they can lift the spirits of the city of Detroit. Maybe people will ask too much of them, or maybe the ballplayers will feel a special calling to cheer the fans.

The Indians gave up a little early last year, dealing CC Sabathia and Casey Blake in a premature surrender. The team went on to a good second half, riding on the back of Cliff Lee’s surprise season. The main mystery to solve this year is Travis Hafner, who didn’t hit when he was on the DL and didn’t hit when he was off it. Is he still a major masher or has the sun set on Pronk? A more pleasant puzzle is Matt LaPorta, the main booty of the Sabathia trade. He’s supposed to have quite the bat, but is entirely untried. Kerry Wood could have his closer renaissance in Cleveland, or he could sputter. The only sure thing is probably Grady Sizemore, as just about everyone else is more likely to regress than advance.

The Twins have the best youth portfolio in the Central, with numerous under-25s who have demonstrated some real aptitude. I don’t happen to think Joe Crede is the solution to the pesky third base problem, and I admit I fear the defensive glory of the team may take a little hit. The outfield’s D is almost entirely up to Carlos Gomez, as Delmon Young has the range of a steamer trunk. Power comes in snack size portions, and when Justin Morneau presses it’s not a pretty sight.

The darkest news is Joe Mauer’s back woes that began after surgery to correct a kidney blockage. He hasn’t done a baseball-like thing since last September, and his rally-inducing batting average will be much missed. Carlos Go-Go Gomez will doubtless rely a little less on stealing this season anyway, but without Mauer to drive him in from third, the Twins’ typical run scoring architecture is shot. Mauer is often overlooked now that he’s proved he’s a mere contact hitter, but he was the engine firing the team many days.

Still, Alexi Casilla and Denard Span could fill that role. And every one of the pitchers has a realistic hope of a breakout season, while the closing job is nailed shut with Joe Nathan. There’s always a good solid chance for a team that works, largely, as a team. Here’s how I pick the Central:

Minnesota Twins
Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox

Predicting the AL East

The AL East is the most inhospitable division. The Yankees and Red Sox do all the bragging, and the other three teams merely whimper ineffectually. This logjam is pronounced enough to ripple out to the rest of the American League most years, as the wild card is generally the AL East number 2.

Last year, however, was a welcome change. Tampa Bay really did win; it was not an illusion. But the iron law of the East appears ready to impose itself again. The Rays arguably improved in the offseason, bringing in Pat Burrell to more than make up for Rocco Baldelli. David Price gets to start in the minors, but has a bunch of big league experience under his belt now. Yet no prognosticator is ready for a Ray repeat.

The Yankees made as much noise as possible in the offseason, and they get to christen their new ballpark with the best team money could buy. There’s exciting talent to watch here, but just about everyone on the payroll has wages justified by past performance, sometimes long past. All honor to the team that gives Posada, Jeter, Rivera, and Matsui a permanent Bronx berth, but surely no one expects these heroes to excel this year. Last year’s youth movement in the starting rotation seemed to fizzle, and we don’t get a second try. This season, the only fresh legs belong to Mark Teixeira. They’ll score runs, sure, but the defense will give up a disproportionate amount, making the Yankees the AL All-Sieve Team.

The Red Sox have less fear of the untried, but this year’s model tries to buff and polish the 2008 squad. Adding John Smoltz and nursing David Ortiz and Josh Beckett back to health are the main ingredients. Exchanging the endlessly self-absorbed Many Ramirez for Jason Bay looks like an upgrade on the field and in the clubhouse. The Red Sox have moved well past long-suffering status, and now spend just shy of the Yankees, making them prone to many of the same ills of nutbar contracts leading to punishing expectations.

Toronto lately seems to mix two or three excellent players with a group of semi-poisonous ones. You won’t find team chemistry of managerial longevity in the cavernous Rogers Stadium. Poor Roy Hallady has now lost his only possible peer, with AJ Burnett off to the Bronx. Has Vernon Wells never reached his potential because the team isn’t geared to winning, or is this his real plateau? Hard to be hopeful.

There’s just something plain psychotic about the Orioles. The manic overspending, the ill-advised acquisitions, the tragic loss of budding players like Erik Bedard—it all spells fan sorrow. All eyes are on ultra-prospect Matt Wieters, who is supposed to be the most athletically talented catcher in decades. It can still be fun to watch Nick Markakis, but your Oriole ticket mostly buys you a good look at the opposing team.

The AL East is all haves and have-nots, and we had Tampa Bay in the later category every year of their existence. But now the top two may have to yield to a three-way battle, and I foresee a genuine, season-long tussle, ending as follows:

Tampa Bay Rays
NY Yankees
Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles

Predicting the NL West

In the silly world of predicting the outcome before the games are played, there’s near unanimity in anointing the Dodgers as champs of the NL West. The boost Manny Ramirez gave them in the postseason last year is supposed to carry over into a full and flourishing season, with Joe Torre laconically at the helm and a fine array of infield and outfield talent.

Now that Ramirez has finally signed a contract, all is supposed to be solved Chavez Ravine. But I must pipe up—they seem to have overlooked the pitching. The starting rotation is pretty heavy on the retreads: Randy Wolf, Chad Billingsley, Jason Schmidt, Jeff Weaver, Eric Milton. Some might prove serviceable, but you have to expect a season of turmoil as auditions are held all the way to September.

So I’m not buying the Manny magic two years in a row, particularly when the daily grind gets in the way. But here I think I’ve found my third bugaboo in predicting. I have an especially stubborn tendency to pick against the mainstream.

Perhaps it’s because the consensus is so often wrong about the finishing order of baseball teams. Perhaps it’s because it will simply be far more fun to pick against the grain and be right. Picking with the pack doesn’t offer as much satisfaction, correct or not. So I have a bias for boldness. Or maybe it’s really called foolishness.

Having nudged the Dodgers from the top spot, we’re immediately looking into an unsettling void. The Giants could have the sweetest complete rotation anywhere in baseball, but it’s strapped onto an untried and/or ho-hum offense. I love the pitching possibilities, but it’s a little distressing that the main SF offensive threat is Edgar Renteria, many years removed from World Series glory.

The Rockies are crippled by the loss of Jeff Francis to injury and Matt Holliday to a payday. Overall, the team exemplifies the 24/7 news cycle that’s made politics and entertainment such a restless churn of scoop and scandal. The Rockies went from hottest to coldest faster than a shower during a toilet flush. Last season looks just as anomalous as the one before, but it’s hard to imagine the lineup going all coherent and productive on us.

The Padres complete the National League’s grand roster of certain cellar dwellers, along with the Nationals and the Pirates. I am truly of the anything-can-happen school of baseball thought, but it’s a stretch to see a happy ending at Petco Park this season. Jake Peavy is taking on the trappings of Roy Halladay—a great pitcher mired in dismal team. And in Peavy’s case, the pitcher-friendly ballpark effects get invoked in the same sentence as his excellent ERA and WHIP.

Have we reached the Diamondbacks by process of elimination? I’ve left them for last not because they’re limping into my rankings but because I think a super-solid rotation plus a batting order with a heaping helping of upside is a wonderful formula for winning. The players are mostly young and itching to prove they can get the hang of this hitting thing, preferably minus all the strikeouts. And with that we have:

Arizona Diamondbacks
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres