The predictions (though a few days late)

Yeah, we’re a few days into the season and just about everyone’s already made their predictions. Sue me. I assure you the order of the standings were all made a few weeks ago when I e-mailed them for a contest I entered. The comments are fresh today.

NL EAST

1. Phillies. Yes, I think this is the year the Braves don’t do it. Philadelphia and GM Ed Wade have built up to this year: Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, Eric Milton, Brett Myers, Marlon Byrd and a new ballpark. They’re developing some good talent and have signed and traded for some top players looking at this year. They could’ve taken the division last year and should’ve taken the wild card but lost something like five of six games against the Marlins during the final few weeks. It helps that they’ve made steps forward while Florida and Atlanta have gone the other way. It would be one thing to try to knock off the mighty Braves of the 90s, but it’s another to have to chase a watered-down version.

2. Marlins. That’s right: Not only am I saying the Braves won’t win the division, I’m saying they won’t make the playoffs. Besides, I don’t think the wild card will come out of the east this year, so no defending champs playing in October either. Yes, everyone’s saying they haven’t lost as much as they did after the 1997 title, and that’s good. It just means that they’ve got a good chance of having their first winning season in which they don’t win the World Series. Listen, they won it all last year by getting hot at the right time. Yeah, they had the best record in baseball after May (one game better than the Yankees), but can they do it like that without Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Lee and Juan Encarnacion? There’s a full season out of both Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, and while I think Cabrera will become a superstar, Willis may soon be known for a funky delivery and nothing more.

3. Braves. This team was once known for having three starting pitchers who could be an ace on any other team in the majors, but now they don’t even have one. I once had an editor that said starting-stocked teams like the Braves and the Yankees couldn’t have more than one ace because, by definition, a team could only have one ace. Which is true: If a pitcher is the ace of the staff on his team, he’s the best, the leader, the No. 1. Teams can have No. 1-quality pitchers, which the Astros, Cubs and Red Sox do and the Tigers, Royals and Rockies do not. Last night was Russ Ortiz’s first Opening Day start, and were he on most other teams, he wouldn’t have drawn that assignment. Besides, their lineup is decidedly weaker, though while I’d like nothing more than to see J.D. Drew continue his mediocre career, something tells me that there’s going to be a little bit of that inexplicable Braves magic that keeps him healthy for 145 games this year. Of course, that same Braves magic has meant 12 division titles but only one world championship.

4. Mets. Seventy wins this season would be a small improvement and probably not enough to bring Art Howe back. Seventy-five wins would be enough of an improvement that could mean GM Jim Duquette wasn’t involved in a fire sale come July. A .500 record — 82 wins — is probably what this group of players should accomplish, but as we’ve seen with Mets teams in the past (recently too), just having the players doesn’t mean they’re a part of the playoff race. Here’s what I’m hoping for as a Mets fan: Kaz Matsui lives up to the hype and wins the Rookie of the Year (though I don’t think players from other professional leagues should be eligible, but I’ll get into that another time). Jose Reyes gets over these hamstring problems (he was hurt last April too) and teams with Matsui to be the league’s best double-play combination and the best 1-2 hitters north of Miami. Mike Piazza stays healthy and hits 40 home runs, getting his catcher HR record and playing more and more first base as the months go by. Tom Glavine bounces back to be a 15-game winner, teaming with Al Leiter to win 30. Mike Cameron has another 20-20 season. They’re all relatively modest wishes, with what would likely be Piazza’s final monster season the biggest stretch. I’m just going to have to take it day by day with them.

5. Expos. Like so many other things in the game Bud Selig has helped ruin — perhaps irreparably — a franchise that wasn’t that strong to begin with. The Expos have always developed superstar players (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Randy Johnson, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Vlad Guererro) and been unable to keep them. But now with this farsical setup with the team “owned” by the other 29 owners and run by MLB, GM Omar Minaya’s hands are tied. They may have their streaks, they may challenge for five months as they did last year, but they simply don’t have the pitching or the depth or the ability to get players they need to make a serious run. While not as strong as the AL East and not as top-heavy as the NL Central, the NL East could prove to be baseball’s most competitive — or at least compact — division from top to bottom.

NL CENTRAL

1. Cubs. I’m sticking with this prediction despite the loss of Mark Prior for the first month — at least. Those three or four starts he’ll miss could mean the difference between first and second place in this division. It did last year, when the Cubs beat the Astros by one game. If Prior is able to return the first week of May as the Cubs are saying, and they don’t lose Sammy Sosa for a month with injuries and suspensions, they should be able to keep pace with Houston. In this division, second place should still mean new life in the postseason.

2. Astros. Wild card. It’s not the most outrageous pick. In fact, it’s essentially the safe pick. Cubs, one; Astros, two. That’s the consensus. Houston’s rotation is superb down to the No. 4 starter — in this case, Wade Miller — as are those in Oakland and the north side of Chicago. They’ll fill it out with Tim Redding, who’s still early in his career and could develop into more than just the guy who followed Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Miller. For the Astros, it’s now or never. Clemens has a one-year contract and may actually retire after this one. The lineup’s heart of Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell is aging. If they don’t finally win that first postseason series this fall, it may be a few years before they put the pieces together to try again.

3. Cardinals. Outstanding lineup. In Albert Pujols, they have the best hitter in the division, perhaps in the league depending on where you fall on the Barry Bonds debate. In 15 years, we’ll be talking about which records he’s going to break, and when. But in a game where pitching wins championships, as they say, the Cardinals are stuck in a division with perhaps the two best staffs in the game. Like the third-place teams in the AL East and West, they may be good enough to win in another division, but not in their own.

4. Reds. You can open up your newspaper in a month or so and draw a line — in marker — beneath the third-place team in the NL Central and the fourth place team. Above the line will be the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals; below it the Reds, Pirates and Brewers. That’s how they’ll stay. Teams will move around among the top three or the bottom three, but that’s essentially how it will end up. So it will come down to whether the Reds can stay healthy enough and find enough pitching to live up to the potential for their 100-homer outfield of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey and Austin Kearns.

5. Pirates. This battle will be more than the Pierogies vs. the Sausages in the middle of the fifth. Pittsburgh and Milwaukee could be battling it out for the top pick in the 2005 amateur draft. Both of these teams could lose 100 games. I’ll go so far as to say that one of them definitely will, and looking at where I’ve placed the two in relation to one another, you can see which one I think it will be. Both have some hope for the future, however. Pittsburgh started Kip Wells on Opening Day and he beat the Phillies. Once it’s clear that Kris Benson is back from his injuries, he’ll be traded for prospects, as will Jason Kendall. They brought in a few decent players in deals last year — particularly outfielder Jason Bay and starter Oliver Perez — and have a trio of strong young arms (John VanBenschoten, Sean Burnett and Bryan Bullington) who should make it to PNC Park in another year or two. Tike Redman and Craig Wilson will provide some speed and power and hope for the future this year. But hope may be the best thing they have going for them for a while.

6. Brewers. The only team run more poorly may be Montreal, and is it a coincidence that those are the two teams in which Bud Selig has some control? Doubtful. But like the Pirates, Milwaukee has some great prospects on the cusp of the big leagues. By September 2005, you’ll have an infield of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Wes Helms from first around to third. Once they sprinkle in some pitching to help Ben Sheets and get some outfielders to mash with Geoff Jenkins, they’ll be able to cross over that line we’ve drawn in the division.

NL WEST

1. Diamondbacks. This is the toughest division to forecast. I’ve gone and changed what I originally had, though I really think any of these five could finish anywhere in the division, with the exception of the Rockies in first and the Giants in last. So I’m going with Arizona here, on the strength of a healthy Randy Johnson, an experienced Brandon Webb and an capable lineup infused with the youth of Richie Sexson and Alex Cintron to compliment the experience (and age) of Steve Finley, Roberto Alomar and Luis Gonzalez. But perhaps more than any other team in contention, the Diamondbacks need to avoid DL time by its stars. They can’t afford to go two weeks without a start from the Big Unit, or to lose Luis Gonzalez and his injured elbow to season-ending surgery. If either of those happen, they’re done, making this a very risky pick.

2. Padres. San Diego is the sexy pick this year. A new ballpark, a full season of Brian Giles and Phil Nevin. A healthy Ryan Klesko and Trevor Hoffman. A new centerfielder (Jay Payton), a new catcher (Ramon Hernandez) and a new shortstop (Khalil Greene). But everyone’s looking to David Wells to bring his experience and ability to his hometown and the front of the rotation. It may all be too much to ask of a group that has a wide range of youth and veterans who will be learning to play together. What could really hurt them is if Petco Park and its 411-foot alley in right-centerfield saps them of two of their biggest power sources — the lefthanded-hitting Klesko and Giles. The early signs (from layout and makeup) point to a pitchers’ park for a learning staff that could use it and a few key lefty hitters who can’t let it get to their heads.

3. Giants. Barry Bonds certainly doesn’t need much of a supporting cast to make a huge impact on a game, but a thin starting rotation and a bullpen that — again — has to deal with the question of whether or not Robb Nen will ever pitch again could prove to be their downfall. I wish Bonds could be a bit more fan-friendly so that I could enjoy the history he’s making, but all it does when I hear him speak or I read his comments is send a snarl across my face. I can believe that he’s never touched steroids, but I can’t convince myself that he’s completely clean.

4. Dodgers. Jeff Weaver’s back home and he’ll eventually become the pitcher everyone expected him to be in Detroit. Dodger Stadium certainly won’t hurt, either. They’ve also got Milton Bradley in centerfield and in the lineup, though there are more offensive needs to fill in Chavez Ravine. Odalis Perez and Eric Gagne can’t do it all, and whether Hideo Nomo can do any of it will be a lingering question.

5. Rockies. As always, they’ll win at home and they’ll win the 12-9 games. But those 3-1 games on the road will be infrequent. The only thing you need to know about this team is Shawn Estes was the Opening Day starter. All the Todd Helton, Preston Wilson and Jeromy Burnitz homers from now to September will not be enough to help a rotation that starts with Estes and goes downhill from there.

AL EAST

1. Red Sox. I just had to do it. I would’ve done so without hesitation before the Alex Rodriguez trade, but I still feel like taking that chance. The starting pitching looks better than the Yankees’ and the back of the bullpen looks just as good. The lineup featured several career years in 2003, but Manny Ramirez is the second-best hitter in the division behind A-Rod and with the exception of the Yankees clear advantages at third base, right field and first base, Boston’s starters can match New York’s. Missing Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon for the first month will probably hurt this team more than anyone in New England wants to acknowledge right now, but if they can reach Memorial Day within two games of the Yankees, it’s going to be one hell of a summer.

2. Yankees. Wild card. Some of the really bold picks are leaving the Yankees out of it entirely, giving the wild card to whichever AL West team among Anaheim, Seattle and Oakland doesn’t win the division. A few are even saying Toronto can sneak in here. It won’t happen. The Yankees will probably win the division with the Red Sox taking the wild card. I’ll admit that one of those other teams could beat out the Red Sox, but I’m tossing all those hunches aside. My official call is as you see it here. I also suspect you’ll see Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams on the DL at some point, along with one of their other major offensive cogs: Jorge Posada, Gary Sheffield and Derek Jeter. Hideki Matsui will improve upon last year’s numbers and Enrique Wilson will not play second base all season. Kevin Brown will likely break down again and Javier Vazquez will be one of two things: a 20-game winner who sails through the season, or a 17-game winner who struggles at times with the New York expectations and spotlight. Of course, right now, five games in, it’s Mike Mussina who’s got the question marks surrounding him.

3. Orioles. They’ve got a great lineup for a hitters’ park and probably not enough pitching to warrant any talk of a postseason run. But they should improve upon last year’s record and they very well could flirt with .500. But is Sidney Ponson really a No. 1 pitcher? Will any of the other four starters make a name for himself by the time the season’s finished? Will Jorge Julio close out the games they should win? Third may be too high.

4. Blue Jays. Actually, I think the Blue Jays and Orioles could tie for third in the division. Another good, young lineup here, but they’ve got the returning Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay and the division’s only lefty starter north of Eutaw Street (that’s in Baltimore) in Ted Lilly (that will count for something … until the Yankees trade for Randy Johnson). What they don’t have is any semblance of a decent bullpen. They’re not even sure who the closer is because their first choice, Aquilino Lopez, couldn’t keep his ERA under 10.00 this spring.

5. Devil Rays. They’ve got some of the best exciting young hitters in Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, but their No. 2 starter is Jeremi Gonzalez. Even if Tampa Bay manages to win 70 games for the first time in franchise history, they still won’t get a bigger crowd than they had this week with the Yankees in town, and they still won’t find themselves anywhere but the only position they’ve known since their inception: The basement of the AL East.

AL CENTRAL

1. Royals. Here’s my reasoning, despite the questions about their rotation, their bullpen and whether they can improve upon last year’s unbelievable run: They had Garth Brooks in spring training. Look at Garth’s previous stops: 1998 with the Padres, 1999 with the Padres, 2000 with the Mets. Those ’98 Padres and 2000 Mets went to the World Series (and lost. To the Yankees). While that can’t happen here — either K.C. will make it to the Series and lose to someone else, or they’ll lose in the playoffs to New York — 88 games may be enough to win baseball’s weakest division. While four out of the five teams in the NL West have a shot at the division title, it’s a race among three here. By September, it will be down to two.

2. Twins. Losing Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins from the back of the bullpen will hurt them. But they’re a young team that can hit and they’ve got what is probably the division’s best rotation. Any bullpen shortcomings will be exposed in the postseason (if they’re not addressed before then), but they’ve got enough to challenge Kansas City and Chicago for that chance.

3. White Sox. It would be worth rooting for the White Sox just to see how Chicago reacts with both teams in the postseason. Then imagine if three of the final four teams left in the playoffs are the White Sox, Red Sox and Cubs. The prospect of an All-El World Series or a Break the Curse World Series would have the Second City in a frenzy. The White Sox, too, can hit. And they’ve got some horses to get them through the first seven innings every couple of days, beginning with Esteban Loiaza and Mark Buerhle. But Billy Koch and Damaso Marte need to get the outs in the eighth and ninth or they’ve got no chance.

4. Indians. Still rebuilding, with some great hitters in Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Jody Gerut and Victor Martinez. Someday, someone else will play shortstop in Cleveland. C.C. Sabathia will win a lot of games, but for this season, he might be the only starter with a winning record.

5. Tigers. Three days in and they’re 3-0. It took them 25 games to pick up their third win last year. Yes, Detroit is clearly improved, and who knows — they may have a chance to fight Cleveland for fourth place. But they’ve got too far to go and too thin a farm system to expect anything close to contention for a once-proud franchise. Sparky Anderson will be turning in his grave. You know, when he dies a few years down the line.

AL WEST

1. Angels. I’m not sure who to pick here, either. It’s going to be a great race, that’s clear. Anaheim made the biggest strides, adding to a team that didn’t lose much from its World Champion squad of 2002. With new pieces like Vlad Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar to go with what is likely the best bullpen in the game, they’ve got to be considered a postseason threat — not just to get there, but to win there too. And this time, they could do it as a division champion.

2. Athletics. As long as they have Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, they have a chance. Mark Redman and Rich Harden aren’t bad for the fourth and fifth spots, either. Their bullpen is solid, but many question whether Arthur Rhodes can truly be a closer. Over the years they’ve seen the likes of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen and Miguel Tejada walk away. They’re counting on their discount shopping and their astute scouting and drafting (hello Bobby Crosby) to keep them in it. Don’t count them out.

3. Mariners. Seattle’s biggest detriment is its age. John Olerud, Edgar Martinez and Jamie Moyer aren’t getting — or playing — any younger. Bret Boone will be a free agent, Ichiro’s leaving 30 behind and they’ll get nothing offensively from their catcher. But they’ve been in the hunt for several years now, and until those old parts decide to retire, they’ll have the components to make the AL West a wild — and enjoyable — spectacle.

4. Rangers. What’s there to say? This team could be battling Pittsburgh and Milwaukee for that No. 1 pick and the race to avoid 100 losses. Alfonso Soriano isn’t A-Rod, and A-Rod couldn’t help this team. Soriano might not even be around by the time the season ends, because Texas can fill more holes with the prospects he could bring back in a trade than they can with what they’ve got. Until that happens, though, it’ll be a superb infield with Mark Teixeira, Soriano, Michael Young and Hank Blalock. If they were playing Wiffle Ball, they might have a chance with four fielders and the fences just beyond the end of the infield dirt. But they’ve got no pitching to speak of and no outfielders that stand out. It will be another long, hot summer in Texas.

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