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Bullz-Eye.com's 2006 Baseball Preview

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ALSO! Post your own thoughts about the upcoming season, along with any insults you may have for David, over at The Scores Report.

The most enjoyable part of writing my 2005 preview for BE was the response from you, gentle readers. The mail that I received on that piece was well worth the hours that I put into it. Some people sent me detailed, Bill James-style stat projections, while others just said that I “suuuuuuuuuck.” That last person was a Washington Nationals fan…at the All Star break, when they were still in first place. We all know who got the last laugh on that one.

So I’m poring over the projected lineups and pitching depth charts for all the teams, and the only thing I can think is, Man, did a lot of players switch teams. Matt Morris is a Giant, Fatty Ponson is a Cardinal, Carlos Delgado is a Met and Josh Beckett is a Red Sock. Some things, though, stay the same: Kerry Wood is already on the disabled list, and George Steinbrenner is overpaying for pitching ($18 million for Kyle Farnsworth? You got served, sucker).

Once again, I attempt the impossible and list my projections for each division, which will surely look ridiculous at the All Star break, and absurd by season’s end.

National League East

1) New York Mets
Theme Song: “At Last,” Etta James
And thus, their season is already jinxed before it’s even begun, by the very notion that I am expecting them to win the East. My stepbrother, a dyed-in-the-wool Mutts fan, will surely kill me. But I can’t help it, that lineup kills, bro. Reyes and LoDuca are at the top, followed by a murderer’s row of Beltran, Delgado, Wright and Floyd. These guys are going to score tons of runs, and while their pitching is still lacking, it’s good enough to keep them in the game (look for Aaron Heilman to break out big time if the Mets give him a shot in the rotation), and putting Billy Wagner in the closer spot in place of the piñata that closed for them last year (Braden Looper, who’s now in St. Louis) is a big boost. Of course, the Mets being the Mets, this could all go horribly wrong; Pedro’s got a bad toe, and Delgado has a sore something or other. But at the moment, the planets seem to be aligned. Even John Smoltz thinks the Mets are going to win the East this year.

2) Philadelphia Phillies
Theme Song: “Long Shot,” Aimee Mann
I took a long look at Atlanta for this spot – after all, I did say last year that until someone knocks them out of the top spot, you have to go with them as the favorites – but it ends here. Like the Mets, Philadelphia has two great table setters at the top of the order in Rollins and Rowand (whom they got from the White Sox in the improbable trade of Jim Thome), and any one of the following four hitters (Abreu, Utley, Burrell, Howard) can go yard seemingly at will. Abreu’s colossal fall-off after the All Star Game was disturbing, but he’s still a perennial 30-30 threat, while Utley is the next Jeff Kent, though hopefully with much less jackassity. On the surface, the starting rotation would concern me, since Cory Lidle and Ryan Franklin are big time Stifley Stiffersons, but if the Phils are smart, they will take two of the three guys fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation, Ryan Madson and Robinson Tejeda, and give them each their own slot, hopefully kicking Franklin to the curb. If that happens, they could cause all kinds of trouble. One question, though: why is management so eager to get rid of Abreu? He was part of every trade rumor out of Philly this offseason.

3) Atlanta Braves
Theme Song: “Come Undone,” Duran Duran
Not enough hitting, not enough pitching. The talent they have is great, no doubt about it. There’s just, well, not enough of it. The top four spots in the lineup, Giles-Renteria-Jones-Jones, will do some damage, but their #5 hitter (Adam LaRoche) is a platoon lefty. Frenchy had a good rookie season, but we’ll see how he does now that the other teams have tape of him. That Goddamn Andruw Jones (nickname courtesy of my friend Lee Lerner, so named for Jones’ tendency to play so shallow in the outfield that he makes routine fly outs look harder than they really are) had a phenomenal season, but upon closer inspection, his numbers in every category were identical, with the exception of home runs. There’s no way he slugs 51 again, and that will be the difference between second and third place. That, and the fact that there isn’t a team in the league that’s scared of their pitching, especially with the departure of Leo Mazzone. Chris Reitsma? John Thomson? Horacio Ramirez? Please. Hudson and Smoltzy are still studs. But they can’t do it all.

4) Washington Nationals
Theme song: “Some Day One Day,” Queen
I’d say that they’re improving, but their fourth place finish is more a matter of another team imploding than the Nats improving. First thing’s first: management should be whipped and chained for trading for a player (Alfonso Soriano) that refuses to play anywhere but second base, a position that’s currently occupied by the Nats’ most loyal, and expensive, player (Jose Vidro). Someone, anyone, should have talked to Soriano about this before trading for him, instead of trading for him and then threatening to suspend him without pay. For now, the Nats are getting their way; Soriano's in the outfield, and seems to be hitting well, but it is only a matter of time before the cavernous RFK Stadium takes a chunk out of Soriano's home run totals and he starts to talk, a lot. Expect him to be wearing another team's colors by the end of July, which means that the Nats gave up Wilkerson and Sledge for nothing. The whole thing had 'bad idea' written on it from the very beginning.

As for the pitching, John Patterson has become a nifty #2 starter, but have you seen who’s slotted at #3? Ramon Ortiz. Ahhhhh hahahahahahaha! Plus, any lineup that has to pencil Cristian Guzman in on a daily basis is hurting for talent. In fact, Guzman was the #5 pick in CBS Sportsline’s Bizarro draft…meaning he’s the fifth worst player you could have from a fantasy perspective. Ow. (Corey Patterson was #1, something I’ll get to a little bit later.) What’s that? Oh, Guzman’s hurt? The Nats dodged a bullet. The guy’s a stiff.

5) Florida Marlins
Theme Song: “We Let the Stars Go,” Prefab Sprout
Juan Pierre? He’s a Cub. Luis Castillo? He’s a Twin. Carlos Delgado? Met. Paul LoDuca? Also a Met. Mike Lowell? Red Sock. Alex Gonzalez? Also a Red Sock. Josh Beckett? Yep, Red Sock. A.J. Burnett? Blue Jay. Guillermo Mota? Indian. Todd Jones? Tiger. Juan Encarnacion? Cardinal. Jeff Conine? Oriole. Any questions? This team was decimated in the offseason, trading anyone and everyone except for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The #2 pitcher in the rotation is now Brian Moehler (6-12, 4.55), fer crissakes. Their second baseman when camp started was Pokey Reese, and the Marlins should consider themselves lucky that he left camp almost as soon as he got there. In fairness to the Marlins, the talent they received in return for the players above is substantial, with Mike Jacobs (he came from the Mets in the Delgado trade) capable of giving farm hands Eric Reed and Jeremy Hermida a running for Rookie of the Year. But even if those guys give their pitchers a lead, look for their bullpen – headed by Joe Borowski, God help them – to give it away, give it away, give it away, now. Godspeed, Joe Girardi, and hello, San Antonio!

National League Central

1) St. Louis Cardinals
Theme Song: “Evil and a Heathen,” Franz Ferdinand
Damn Cardinals. Even when they lose players, they’re still the best team in the Central. Matt Morris and Larry Walker are gone, but no worries, they pick up Juan Encarnacion (who is sure to hit at least one grand slam against the Cubs this year) and regain the services of a healthy Scott Rolen. Remember him? Perennial Gold Glove candidate, hits for power and average, has speed? Ugh. The biggest mistake the Cards made this offseason was picking up Fatty Ponson, not because Ponson’s such a stiff (though he is indeed that), but because it potentially denies the #5 slot in the rotation to Anthony Reyes, a kid that scouts have been slobbering over for years. But that won’t matter once they’re up by 15 games in the middle of May.

2) Houston Astros
Theme Song: “Not a Second Time,” Beatles
Is there a better spring training story than the one where Roger Clemens’ son Koby takes his old man deep on the first pitch, only to get brushed off the plate in his next at-bat? He gave his own son> chin music. That’s funny, right there, I don’t care who ya are. It’s a pity that Clemens won’t start the season with the team; the soonest he can sign with the Astros is May 1, and Clemens doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to make a decision on the matter, something the Astros are certainly wishing he would reconsider (and there’s no way he’s going out a loser in the WBC). Oswalt is always awesome, and Pettitte had an incredible year in the hitter-happy Juice Box (his ERA was1.4 runs below his career average, fantasy geeks, so don’t expect it to happen again), but they really, really need Clemens to boost that team. Sure, they have lots of hitters, now that Willy Taveras and Jason Lane have a year under their belts, Lance Berkman is healthy and Preston Wilson is playing for a new contract. They even have the meanest closer in the game in Brad Lidge, even though he got his ass handed to him in the World Series. But there’s a huge difference between having a Big Three and a Big Two. They need Clemens more than they know.

3) Milwaukee Brewers
Theme song: “Drink to Moving On,” Grand National
Doug Davis and Chris Capuano turned into mighty nice pitchers last year, and hello, let’s not forget their ace Ben Sheets, who spent a good chunk of the year on the DL with back trouble. Unfortunately, Sheets is having shoulder problems again and won’t be ready to start Opening Day. Oh, boy. The team actually has a bevy of young talent, led by Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy. They also got Dave Bush from Toronto in the Lyle Overbay deal, and he is poised to break out in a big way. But there are a whole of lot of ifs right there. If Sheets can stay healthy; if Carlos Lee gets any protection; if the rookies step up; if Geoff Jenkins doesn’t strike out 300 times before June. Still, they’re well on their way to being a force to reckon with. The revolution begins in 2007.

4) Chicago Cubs
Theme Song: “Never Let Me Down Again,” Depeche Mode
I had the Cubs penciled in to finish third, but then the news finally broke that Baseball Prospectus writer Will Carroll’s comments about Mark Prior’s shoulder were indeed accurate, I flipped them with the Brewers. If there is any owner who should have its team stripped from them, it’s the Tribune Company. They’ve toyed with Cubs fans for the last time.

Not even the World Champion White Sox have as much pressure on them to win as the Cubs do, now that both the Red Sox and White Sox have ended their respective curses. For years, the Cubs have owned Chicago. They have the better stadium, in the better neighborhood, and more often than not, they’ve had the better team. Not so, now, and for a city as winning-starved as Chicago is (funny how they seem to have forgotten about the SIX championships the Bulls won in the ‘90s), the tide is most definitely turning to the South Siiiiiiiide. And what did the Cubs do in the offseason? They signed Jacque Jones (lifetime OBP: .327) and Wade Miller, who will fit in nicely with perennial DL residents Prior and Wood. They did make some good moves, getting a legitimate leadoff hitter in Juan Pierre and bolstering the bullpen with Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre. But they’re still two bats and three arms short of being competitive. They always count on Kerry Wood to save them, and he never does (hence the theme song). He’s never won more than 14 games in a season, ever. That’s not an ace, people. If they’re smart, they’ll find a way to trade for Alfonso Soriano, which will enable them to put Big Red (Matt Murton, who’s tearing up spring pitching in Arizona) into the 2-hole and, with Pierre, give them two big-time OBP guys – something the Cubs never, ever have – with three big time sluggers (Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez) to knock them home. But it will never happen, because the Cubs never do what they need to do. They just sit back and count their money – much of which comes from their own ticket scalping company – and think of ways to screw the fans year after year. It’s pathetic. The Cubs will never win another World Series as long as they’re owned by the Tribune Company. Write that in Stone, as in Steve Stone.

5) Cincinnati Reds
Theme Song: “A Pain That I’m Used To,” Depeche Mode
Surprise, surprise, the Reds have no pitching, again. Aaron Harang put up some decent numbers, but still only won 11 games. He’s now the ace – that’s right, their ace is good for 11 wins – and the #2 pitcher, Dave Williams, had a K/BB ratio of 88/58 last season. That, ain’t, good. Sure, they have bashers, but what good are bashers when they don’t bash? Austin Kearns was one of the biggest busts of 2005, and Junior gets hurt every year. They also seem compelled, God knows why, to consider starting Rich Aurilia and Tony Womack, and their bullpen is still a mess. They have lots of good hitting, but until they get some decent pitching, they’ll continue to be just like the Rockies. The one move they made that I like was picking up Mike Gosling off waivers from Arizona. My wife used to babysit him.

(Hey, wow, they just traded one of their best young bats for a pitcher. And just like that, Bronson Arroyo is a #3 starter, Wily Mo Pena is a platoon outfielder, and the fantasy value of both takes a huge hit.)

6) Pittsburgh Pirates
Theme Song: “I Predict a Riot,” Kaiser Chiefs
Show me a player who’s happy to be playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I’ll show you a guy who’s just lucky to have a job in the majors. Say, Jeromy Burnitz or Joe Randa. Talk to any of the players that were drafted by or traded to the Pirates – Oliver Perez, Jason Bay and Zach Duke, to name but three – and they’ll sing a much different tune. It’s tragic, really, because there are some good, good players on this team. Bay is a STUD, and with a starting rotation that features three lefties at the top of the order (Perez, Duke, Paul Maholm), this is a team that on paper could cause some trouble. But too many journeymen (Burnitz and Randa are both on their fourth team in three years) are getting in the way of this team gaining any kind of chemistry. That clubhouse is going to be chaos.

National League West

1) San Francisco Giants
Theme song: “Serious Drugs,” BMX Bandits
According to the excerpts that have been released from “Game of Shadows,” Barry Bonds was so insanely jealous of the attention that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa received for their 1998 home run derby that he decided to step up his regimen, so to speak. But here’s the question I have for Barry Bonds: What the hell was wrong with the numbers you were putting up at the time? Here’s his 1998, alleged pre-juice line: .302-120-37-122-28. His 1997 line: .291-123-40-101-37. That is fantasy gold, right there. Curiously, his 1999 season, the year he allegedly began hitting the hard stuff, was his worst since 1994, and in exchange for all that bulk – bulk which, with the exception of the 73-homer season in 2001, merely maintained his power numbers, rather than improve them – Bonds was completely robbed of his speed. So tell me, Barry: was it really worth it? You already had HOF numbers. Now, everyone thinks you’re a big cheater, and they want to strip your numbers from the record books. What a complete waste.

Still, that (alleged) cheater has some decent, if old, support; Moises Alou may have hit 20 fewer dingers than he did the year before, but his average rose 30 points, and Randy Winn knows a thing or two about getting on base. But the Giants’ strength will be its pitching. To go with oft-injured ace Jason Schmidt is, well, oft-injured ace Matt Morris, while lefty Noah Lowry had a great second half last year and rookie Matt Cain is supposed to be a big-time stud. No one else in the division has anything close to it.

2) San Diego Padres
Theme song: “Just Got Lucky,” JoBoxers
The Padres snuck into the playoffs last year in a legendary battle of who could care less, taking the division yet only finishing two games over .500. To call them lucky would be an insult to lottery winners. To make sure they don’t need to rely on luck this time around, they decided to get, well, rather long in the tooth, bringing in Dave Roberts (33), Mike Cameron (33), Mike Piazza (37) and Vinny Castilla (38) to go with Brian Giles (35) and Ryan Klesko (34). Even the pitching staff got older; they still have youngster Jake Peavy and acquired 26-year-old Chris Young, but behind them are Woody Williams, Shawn Estes and, God help them, Chan Ho Park (though he had a career renaissance in the WBC). Still, while they may not be sexy names, these guys will score, especially when you have an OBP machine like Giles in the 3-spot. And as always, the ageless Trevor Hoffman (38) is still closing. Winning this year will have nothing to do with luck.

Side note: is it just me, or is San Diego the whitest team in the baseball? Wait, scratch that. Atlanta is way whiter.

3) Arizona Diamondbacks
Theme song: “Stuck in the Middle with You,” Stealer’s Wheel
The D-Backs still have Russ Ortiz’s ridiculous contract to deal with for three more years (his K/BB ratio last year was 46/65, yikes), but Brandon Webb is turning into a legitimate ace, and the guys behind him (El Duque and Miguel Batista) aren’t so bad, either. Their hitting is improved as well. Chad Tracy could knock in 100 runs in the cleanup spot, and Luis Gonzalez, the nicest kid in the neighborhood, is as steady as they come. The main question will be which versions of Eric Byrnes (assuming there is more than one version of him), Craig Counsell and Shawn Green show up to camp this year. Their bullpen is a mess, too. Don’t rule these guys out from competing two years from now, though; their farm system is stacked with position players.

4) Los Angeles Dodgers
Theme song: “Weak,” Skunk Anansie
You’d be hard pressed to find a more powerless team in the big leagues than the Dodgers. Outside of Jeff Kent, and possibly J.D. Drew – oh screw it, you can’t count on Drew for anything – this team has no pop. The best way they can hope to win is by playing small ball and good defense, and admittedly, they have a lot of guys that play that game well. As Chip Carey once said, two thirds of the earth is covered by water; the rest is covered by Bill Mueller, and a 1-2 punch of Rafael Furcal and Kenny Lofton at the top of the order is going to make pitchers crazy. Their bullpen is sick, with Gagne, Danys Baez and Yhency Brazoban making grown men cry on a daily basis, but their rotation (Lowe, Penny, Odalis Perez, Jae Seo) is going to give up more runs than the offense can hit over and in. Watch this team set the record for sacrifices in a season.

5) Colorado Rockies
Theme song: “Every Day Is Exactly the Same,” Nine Inch Nails
Same as it ever was: lots of hitting, zero pitching. On the plus side, this is the best group of hitters they’ve had since the Blake Street Bomber crew. They may not have had any guys with 100 RBI, but they had three guys (Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins) who came close, and another (Clint Barmes) who was well on his way before a sack of deer – or one of Todd Helton’s ATV’s, depending on whom you ask – sent him to the DL. Their pitching, though, is atrocious, top to bottom. One starter (Aaron Cook) had an ERA under 4.00, and one (Jeff Francis) had double digit wins, though he had a 5.68 ERA to go with those 14 wins. Only closer Brian Fuentes got out of 2005 with a decent stat line. That might help your fantasy team, but until they are able to either draft or sign good pitching, the Rockies will remain in the basement of the NL West. It’s too bad, really; Coors Field is a gorgeous park.

American League East

1) New York Yankees
Theme song: “Empire,” Queensryche
Damon. Jeter. A-Rod. Sheff. Godzilla. Mecha-Giambi. Boom shacka lacka lacka lacka. Sure, Damon’s shoulder is bothering him, and Steinbrenner’s going to take the thumbs of some underling in Bud Selig’s office as repayment for the unpardonable sin of having the World Baseball Classic in March (curiously, he will overlook the fact that no other country had as many injuries as Team USA, because the other countries actually took it seriously and reported to camp in shape). But Damon will still score 125 runs while knocking in as many runs as the cleanup hitter in Kansas City. Their bullpen is solid, as always – the over/under on Kyle Farnsworth punching his first New York reporter is May 15 – but their rotation is in disarray. They still have Unit and Moose, but Carl Pavano is going to open the season on the DL, and Jaret Wright (an even worse signing than Kyle Farnsworth) is going to get $8 million a year to pitch middle relief. Don’t let Aaron Small count your chickens, George.

2) Boston Red Sox
Theme song: “Boys Keep Swinging,” David Bowie
The Red Sox are like a mirror image of the Yankees. Their hitting isn’t as scary – though any lineup that puts Manny and Big Papi back to back is still scary – but their starting pitching rocks, while their relief pitchers should take the mound wearing Kevlar. They have Coco Crisp to fill Johnny Damon’s shoes, but let’s be honest here: Coco Crisp is no Johnny Damon. His lifetime OBP is .331, which is abysmal for a leadoff hitter. Mark Loretta was a nice pickup, though, and Josh Beckett goes a long way to shoring up the rotation, provided he doesn’t go all blistery. The key to the Red Sox’ success will be the left side of the infield, former Marlins Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez. Both were terrible last year, hitting about a quarter as many home runs as they usually do. If they can rebound, this lineup can go from suspect to deadly in a heartbeat. If they don’t, they may give the Reds a run for their money in the strikeout category, especially now that they’ve picked up Wily Mo Pena from, natch, the Reds. And hey, King Theo is back! Assuming he ever left, that is. You have to give the Red Sox credit for going for it, despite big pushes from New York and Toronto. Expect another wild card showdown with Cleveland…and expect Cleveland to win it.

3) Toronto Blue Jays
Theme song: “If Only,” Lightning Seeds
Easily the most improved team in the division, if not the league. They traded for Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay (corner infielders), signed A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan (starter/closer), and> got rid of Corey Koskie. That fills a ton of holes in this lineup right there, and don’t forget that this team still has Roy Halladay (who they wisely re-signed) and Vernon Wells, who has “breakout year” written all over him. They could do better at DH than Shea Hillenbrand, but at least they don’t have to pencil Eric Hinske’s name into the lineup on a daily basis anymore. Expect them to cause all kinds of trouble for the Red Sox; in fact, they might even finish second. If only they weren’t in the East; otherwise, they could take home a division crown.

4) Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Theme song: “The Riddle,” Nik Kershaw
For a team as ridiculously talented as the Devil Rays are – Crawford, Cantu, Huff, Baldelli, Kazmir, Gathright, Lugo, Upton, Gomes, Delmon Young – how on earth do these guys lose so many games? That is the million-dollar question, or the riddle, as it were. Their pitching, after ace-in-training Scott Kazmir, is still lacking (though Edwin Jackson was once a highly touted arm in the Dodgers system), but this team seems built to do some major damage to other pitching staffs. They have power and speed out the wazoo; if there is any department where they need to improve, it is on defense. Huff is routinely criticized for having blocks for hands, and Upton has been an error machine in the minors. Still, the hitting brings to mind the ‘90s-era Cleveland Indians. Isn’t it time that they stop serving as everyone’s punch line?

5) Baltimore Orioles
Theme song: “Caught by the Fuzz,” Supergrass
Tsk tsk, Mr. Palmeiro. Raffy got caught with his hand in the medicine cabinet shortly after uttering the now-infamous declaration, “I have never taken steroids. Period.” Then he had the gall to finger Miguel Tejada and a “tainted” B12 shot. Disgraceful. Sammy Sosa, meanwhile, was paid just under $18 million to hit near the Mendoza line and rack up the same amount of strikeouts as hits (seriously, look it up). Melvin Mora’s in a contract year, so he’s going to play his butt off, but aside from Miguel Tejada, Mora has no protection. The pitching is still a mess, but if anyone can turn these guys into aces, it’s new pitching coach Leo Mazzone. But the best story in the Orioles camp this year will be the potential second coming of Corey Patterson (though that assumes that he ever came a first time). There’s no question that he has the tools. Will playing for a bum team with no chance of competing allow him to finally relax? He could be a bargain basement fantasy superstar. Or, he could be a stiff, like he always is, hence his #1 selection in the Bizarro draft. Last we heard, he was in a 3-23 slump, and the highest OBP he’s ever racked up was .329, in 2003. Buyer beware.

American League Central

1) Chicago White Sox
Theme song: “Hard to Beat,” Hard-Fi
Jesus, look at that pitching. Buehrle, Contreras, Garcia, Garland, and Vazquez? Best in the majors, by a country mile, and don’t forget Brandon McCarthy breathing down their necks. Centerfielder Aaron Rowand is gone, but in return they got Jim freaking Thome, a guy who, before an injury-riddled 2005, had hit 42, 47 and 52 home runs his previous three years. Between him and Paul Konerko, that’s like choosing between a baseball bat to the kneecap or a bowling ball dropped on your hand. The Sox can’t be too thrilled with Scott Podsednik’s shoulder, but luckily for them they picked up the versatile Rob Mackowiak as insurance. The big question will be whether the relief pitching will be as dominant as it was in the playoffs. Bobby Jenks’ stuff in October was downright filthy, but he’s getting tagged down in Arizona, and Dustin Hermanson’s back is killing him. Still, they’re the team to beat in the Central.

2) Cleveland Indians
Theme song: “The Kids Are Alright,” The Who
The Tribe has even more pop than the White Sox. Grady Sizemore, Pronk, Victor Martinez and Jhonny (God, it hurts me to spell it like that) Peralta can all hit the long ball, so if Jason Michaels and Ron Belliard do their jobs and get on base, these guys will score runs by the ton. They lost Coco Crisp to the Red Sox, but by the grace of God they scored Andy Marte, the most coveted third base prospect in the minor leagues (which may explain why Aaron Boone is tearing the cover off the ball in spring training). Their pitching, while good, doesn’t stack up to the White Sox staff. They lost Kevin Millwood (though I think that’s a lucky break in disguise), so youngsters like Cliff Lee and Jason Johnson need to step up. Bob “keg with an arm” Wickman is back as the closer, and the bullpen looks good, but the Tribe still won't be able to overtake the Sox in the Central. Luckily for them, they’re getting better.

3) Detroit Tigers
Theme song: “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” the Carpenters
The losing ends here. There is too much talent on this team for them to keep losing like they have for the last umpteen years. They have a superb leadoff hitter in the making in Curtis Granderson, and plenty of pop at the heart of their order. The Tigers’ main issue is health. Magglio Ordonez is always good for at least one trip to the DL, and it looks as though Craig Monroe and Dmitri Young are nursing injuries in camp. If they can stay healthy, they’re going to make life miserable for a lot of teams. If not, then new manager Jim Leyland will make life miserable for them. New ace Kenny Rogers, however, will make life miserable for all of the above…the above Tigers, that is.

4) Minnesota Twins
Theme song: “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” Fall Out Boy
Boy, I bet the Twins are wishing they hadn’t cut David Ortiz right about now. This team has almost as little pop as the Dodgers, if that’s at all possible. Shannon Stewart was a third-round pick in CBS Sportsline’s Bizarro draft. Tony Batista – did he even play last year? (Yes, in Japan – Ed.) – was a second round pick. Luis Castillo was a fifth-round pick. Kyle Lohse was an eighth-round pick. You get the idea. These guys are stiffs, which is a shame, because they have some nasty pitching. Everyone knows about Johan Santana, but the new buzz is about Francisco Liriano, a Dominican lefty who’s supposed to be every bit as tough as Santana. Scott Baker is another solid young pitcher, but instead of those two backing up Santana, they’re fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation. I’m assuming Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva are using compromising photos of someone in the Twins organization as leverage to keep their spots in the rotation. There was a time when Minnesota was teeming with hitting prospects. Unfortunately for them, most of those guys turned out to be just that; prospects.

5) Kansas City Royals
Theme song: “Something’s Always Wrong,” Toad the Wet Sprocket
Kansas City’s problem in the past was that they were too young, basically a Quadruple-A team. This year, they’re too old. Reggie Sanders was a decent pickup, but there was no reason to sign Mark Grudzielanek AND Doug Mientkiewicz AND Mark Redman AND Joe Mays AND Scott Elarton to go with Mike Sweeney AND Matt Stairs. This is the team that once had Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye, right? Man, are they a mess now. That pitching staff is going to get beaten like a pack of baby seals, especially when their best young pitcher, Zack Greinke, has taken a leave of absence to deal with “longstanding emotional issues.” Like what, being drafted by the Royals? Can’t say I blame him for that.

American League West

1) Oakland A’s
Theme song: “Shut ‘em Down,” Public Enemy
Second best rotation in the majors, though they wildly overpaid for the services of Esteban Loaiza (three years, $21 million? Good grief). Danny Haren as a #4 starter has “18-game winner” written all over him, and if Rich Harden can stay off the DL, he’ll be a demon. Their hitting still doesn’t blow up my skirt, but the addition of Frank Thomas, brittle and petulant though he is, will be a tremendous help. Well, if he plays, anyway; he already has an ankle problem, and is out until early April. Still, there’s decent enough pop in this lineup, between Thomas, Eric Chavez, Dan Johnson and Nick Swisher, and their bullpen, as always, is bulletproof. Hey, it’s Beane ball, pure and simple. They always find a way to win, even if you don’t expect them to.

2) Texas Rangers
Theme song: “Going, Going, Gone,” Information Society
Similar to the Yankees and Red Sox, the A’s and Rangers have a certain yin-yang thing going on. Texas’ pitching is vastly improved – though flawed, something I’ll get to in a minute – but nowhere near as good as Oakland’s, while the Ranger offense looks like the softball team Montgomery Burns put together in order to win a million-dollar bet. Their infield is one of the most powerful in baseball (though Mark Teixeira was ice cold in the WBC), and rookie Ian Kinsler looks like a worthy successor to Alfonso Soriano at second base. The key will be the outfield, which has the potential to break out in a big, big way. Kevin Mench hit 25 dingers, while David Delucci had 29 knocks and Brad Wilkerson is a season removed from hitting 32 long balls. The pitching, though, is a big question mark. It’s definitely better than last year, but Texas is about to find out what Philadelphia learned a couple years ago: Kevin Millwood is not an ace. He thrives in the 3 or 4-spots in the rotation, but anytime he has been the #1 starter, he has floundered. Adam Eaton has always had good stuff but no control, while Vicente Padilla has always had good stuff but no endurance. The rotation isn’t built to last, but if there is one year where everything can fill into place, it’s here and now.

3) Anaheim Angels
Theme song: “Whispers and Moans,” Crowded House
The whispers are in regards to Darin “Knievel” Erstad, and whether his body can handle the punishing centerfield that he plays. The moans are from just about everyone else; Garret Anderson has a strained plantar fascia in his left foot, Dallas McPherson has a strained oblique, and Fatty Colon developed a blood blister pitching against Cuba in the WBC semi-finals. Free agent signing Jeff Weaver is quite possibly the most overrated pitcher in baseball (he’s also getting drilled in spring training), and the jury’s still out on both Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar. That leaves Colon and John Lackey, a 14-game winner with decent strikeout numbers but an awful WHIP, to eat a whole bunch of innings. The bullpen is still killer, but don’t be surprised if Scot Shields and Brendan Donnelly notch more wins than three fifths of the rotation. Lastly, there’s Vlad the Impaler. If Guerrero goes down – something he seems to do more often each year – this team is lost.

4) Seattle Mariners
Theme song: “It’s Grim Up North,” the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu
Seattle seems to be straddling the line between rebuilding through youth, which would make them competitive a few years from now, and bringing in grizzled veterans, in order to be competitive now. Lord knows, the team has plenty of talent: Richie Sexson could hit 40 dingers in Yellowstone, Beltre swung a big stick in the WBC, and King Felix Hernandez is already a bona fide keeper (!) after pitching a mere 84 innings last year. The middle of the field, however, could use some work. Jeremy Reed didn’t show the patience, pop or speed people were expecting (and now has a wrist injury that’ll likely keep him sidelined for the first couple weeks), and the projected middle infielders (Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancort) are sorely lacking in the on-base department. Perhaps that’s why they brought in Carl Everett (who calls himself “The Truth,” but doesn’t believe in dinosaurs) and Matt Lawton (busted for steroids, suspended the first 10 games of the year). Those would be swell moves if they could pitch, play second base or shortstop. For Ichiro’s sake, I am thrilled that they won the World Baseball Classic; it’s the closest he’s going to get to winning anything of consequence for a long time.

NL Wild Card: Philadelphia
AL Wild Card: Cleveland
NL Pennant: St. Louis
AL Pennant: Cleveland
World Series Champion: Cleveland