Tag Archives: baseball

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.

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.

St Louis

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.

San Francisco
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.


The Unit of Passion

The Twins have accomplished a boring objective this week: they’ve hovered around and at .500. The loss in today’s game, concluding the series with the White Sox, puts them at 3-4. There is no way to make such a statistic exciting, particularly since they’ve dropped from the safe swaddling of .500 to perch at .429. In the harsh, winner-take-all sports culture, this is a disappointment.

As it happens, this is about where almost all teams are right now, winning and losing in about equal proportion. The Braves and Marlins have little hot streaks going, and the Nationals are losing hand over fist, but the standings in every division show that sports gravitates to the mean—nearly all the teams are within a win or a loss of .500.

Every team uses the same rhetoric as the Yankees: nothing short of winning the World Series is acceptable. At a baseline motivational level, maybe that idea has some merit. Fans certainly seem to demand championships, or to roundly spurn the teams profoundly unlikely to provide them (the hapless Pirates, doomed Nationals, etc.) But fans also savor some of the intermediate steps, like winning the pennant, the division, a series, a game.

There are many little joys to be found in a trip to the ballpark, but prime among them is seeing the team you’re rooting for win. The game is the real unit of passion for those in attendance. Fans who check the general fortunes of their team want those wins to pile up and turn into something big enough to brag about, but fans watching or attending games are satisfied, at least for a while, with the simple story of those nine innings.

So we have an inherent tension. The ballclub is driven (more or less fervently, depending on where we are in the season) to exceed .500 by the biggest margin necessary. Mediocrity is for the mediocre, they cry. We will excel! They issue this cheer knowing that every other team is echoing it, and that it really can’t come true unless we make absolutely sure the Nationals are joined by a big set of matching stinkeroos.

Within a division, a team can be well above .500 only if the division is equipped with ample duds, and the team has success elsewhere in the league as well. The wider we cast the statistical net, the more likely the team will regress to the mean. Since Major League Baseball began concentrating the schedule within divisions, the lure of rising above .500 generally requires a division patsy, preferably two of them.

The team wants something it can only have at another team’s expense, so it’s usually going to get it only every other time. The fan wants a win, today, right now, and getting that borders on a coin flip.

Why do we continue to coax these unrealistic expectations? My answer, for today anyway, comes from the concluding game of the 3-game series with the White Sox. The rivalry doesn’t exactly crackle through my bland TV view of things, but I do want the White Sox to lose. As a Twins fan, I must take this practical and personal stand: the Sox are in our way.

The Twins took the first game on Friday and lost in ugly fashion yesterday. (Fox and MLB have a money-making pact to control Saturday baseball, which means I get no Twins broadcast on radio or TV; all I have is a box score telling me Francisco Liriano notched his second loss and the Sox clobbered us, 8-0.) The Twins enter the day at .500; a victory will move us to a winning average, vanquish the Sox, and possibly put us on top of the AL Central. By the way, it will do almost the same thing for the White Sox. Hmmm.

Well, let’s not sugarcoat it: the Twins are soundly whupped 6-1. The game includes an embarrassing play by Michael Cuddyer, working at first base to give Morneau a fielding vacation while keeping him in the lineup as DH. A run scores on Cuddyer’s error, but it’s the absolute clunkiness of his play that makes it stand out—he stumbles to make the throw, and Blackburn falls down at first trying to catch it. Rarely have pro ballplayers looked more awkward.

The other big indignity of the day is visited on Joe Nathan. Our hero closer is brought in for the eighth simply because he needs to get some work in. The game is nearly out of hand at 5-1. Nathan serves up his first pitch and Jermaine Dye wallops it for a home run. OK, make it a 6-1 hill to climb.

It wasn’t all crummy Twins play; the White Sox deserve credit. Sox ace Mark Buehrle pitched into the 7th, at one point retiring 15 in a row, and Jim Thome proved once again that he can work an at-bat to his liking: he homered with Carlos Quentin on first.

The Twins made me wince more than once, notching 3 errors and displaying a woeful turn by the middle relief corps. I can tell myself this game doesn’t mean anything. That’s absolutely true. There are 155 to go, and being around .500 right now says nothing about where the season is headed. Yet if this game doesn’t mean anything, what does?

The game is the unit of passion. We can soothe ourselves after losses with the cheering fact that tomorrow is another day. Baseball is a calmer sport because of the long stream of contests. But while it’s being played, looking beyond the game is very difficult, particularly against a key division rival.

Still, I look at the week’s so-so results and remain cheered. We’ve split a series with the Mariners, and lost one with the Sox. Tomorrow, Toronto; time for a win.

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

Predicting the NL Central

Another round of predictioneering, and another pitfall to try to dodge. Yesterday I struggled to avoid letting last year’s results influence me too much. Today I have to fight the tendency to pick the winner I want instead of the team that will win.

The NL Central is, it may fairly be said, cram-packed with mediocrity. Now, mediocrity isn’t such a sad thing in sports—it’s the .500 team, the 14-win pitcher, the .270 hitter. These accomplishments are only crummy in comparison to the over-achievers that preoccupy most all our waking moments. And when you collect a whole bunch of teams vibrating at about the same pitch, you have an interesting race after all.

Yes, many believe the Cubs stand out. They spend lots more, for one thing, but they’ve been doing that for years and letting the thrifty Cardinals and Astros and Brewers leave ‘em in the dust. The Cubs have been the home of the can’t-miss miss: Mark Prior and Corey Patterson come to mind. This year we’re not asked to believe in a rookie but in the rehabilitation of Milton Bradley and the unplumbed upside of Joey Gathright. Fair enough—both may do just fine, but I don’t see them making up for the likely decline of Derrick Lee and the absence of Kerry Wood.

Wait—I’m getting trapped in lineup dissection, a bottomless pit. Forget the tortured reasoning, which is usually a way to invent a story about the outcome I find the prettiest. Where does cold, harsh guessing lead me?

My theory is that the Cubs, Brewers, Astros, Cardinals, and Reds all have just about an equal shot at winning the division. The Astros may be doubting themselves after their eerie string of spring training losses—was it about 19 in a row? But they aren’t appreciably worse than the Cubs, and feature Oswalt, Berkman, and Carlos Lee, plus Ivan Rodriguez trying to reprise his role as lucky charm. Historical note: it worked for the Marlins, but not for the Tigers.

The Brewers lost a lot of pitching all at once with Sabathia and Sheets departing. It’s easy to assume they’ll sink backward after two years of clawing up in the division, but it’s not clear to me that their natural equilibrium is that much lower. The best players haven’t had their best years yet, so I can’t discount them.

The Reds have two potential hot hand pitchers in Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, and the first baseman of the future, Joey Votto. Yes, the Reds have been extremely embarrassing for an extremely long time, but many of the key ingredients for the winningest of teams is in place here.

The Cardinals have been apologizing for winning the World Series for the last two years, but they just might want to be taken seriously again. It’s unlikely that Chris Carpenter will come back in 2005 Cy Young form, but he is coming back and Albert Pujols gets to race Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel in all the mashing categories.

Notice that I heartlessly left the Pirates out of my list of legitimate contenders. Here’s where the heart can lead me astray, because I believe even they belong on the list. Great ballpark, Steeler spillover, and a roster of eternal youth all mean real possibility. But it’s a six-team division, for crying out loud, and the Pirates are the only team one can eliminate in April.

After claiming that the race is too close to call, I must call it anyway, but this is pretty darn arbitrary:

Cincinnati Reds
Chicago Cubs
St Louis Cardinals
Milwaukee Brewers
Houston Astros
Pittsburgh Pirates

Oh, I couldn’t help it—I did pick the team I want to win. Go, Reds! Surprise us all!