It's the time of year to act like you know what's going to happen in baseball this season, because you are smart. Usually, most of the picks you make will be wrong, but such is life. I doubt I will end up forecasting a Royals vs. Pirates World Series ... or that a team will sign Barry Bonds. Who knows? Let's start with the NL East, home of the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. Champion and Philadelphia aren't words that have gone together very often in my lifetime, so I guess I should call them champions while they are.
I'm so behind on my SABR homework that I won't waste my time trying to pinpoint records and how many games behind one team another will finish. You've got to be way smarter than me to do that sort of stuff.
1. New York Mets — Insert "Isaac's a dumb Mets fan" jokes where you will. For some reason, I think Jerry Manuel is going to keep the team focused. I also think that GM Omar Minaya will make whatever deal he can to improve the club at the deadline, as he knows his job may wander into Willie Randolph status, which is not a good thing. New ballpark, new bullpen and hopefully a Carlos Delgado who picks up where he left off last year.
2. Philadelphia Phillies — I'm afraid it might just be that I hate them. They do have a really good team, but for some reason I don't know if Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley can take turns carrying the team again like they did last year. Cole Hamels is as good as it gets, and Ryan Howard hits dozens of home runs without anybody complaining about his high strikeout totals. It's going to be close, but for some reason I can't pinpoint I don't think this team can repeat as NL East Champions.
3. Atlanta Braves — Bobby Cox will get kicked out of more games, Derek Lowe will really help, and this young team will do OK. It's not as much about how well the Braves play to end up third in my opinion, it'll be more due to the Marlins off-year, which I see coming. Brian McCann will probably have a great year, and this team will play over their heads under the guidance of the maddest manager in baseball.
4. Florida Marlins — I don't think Hanley Ramirez is a happy man down there. I think this team has played really well the last few years, but for another Mystery Isaac Reason I can't pinpoint I think they will have a disappointing year. The team has a lot of talent, but it is young and without leadership. Look for the 5,000 fans who show up regularly to the Marlins games to be utterly disappointed.
5. Washington Nationals — What can you say about the Nationals? They signed Corey Patterson. While Adam Dunn will put up big numbers, there's nobody to protect him in that lineup, and I think he won't get pitched to enough to be the impact player he can be. This team is a mess — some sort of Curse of the Expos. Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge are both really good players who will never be great because of their tremendous focus issues.
1. Chicago Cubs — If Milton Bradley has the kind of year I expect him to, look out guys. I think he could really help bond that lineup if he stays on the field. I don't know if Sweet Lou's boys are going to flame out in the playoffs again, but this team would have to have a lot of bad things happen to not come out on top at year's end. Sort of like the Mets, this team is under tremendous pressure to win, and I think that may happen this year.
2. Cincinnati Reds — So much young talent. So much promise. I think Arthur Rhodes helps a lot. While I doubt the Reds can make the playoffs, I think this year will be a sign of things to come. This young squad will soon be the powerhouse of the division. Votto, Bruce, Cueto and Volquez continue to improve. Arroyo and Harang rebound from sub-par 2008 seasons. Alex Gonzalez contributes. Things look up. Finally. Once the Astros, Cubs and Cardinals team-ages catch up to them, I believe Cincinnati will win this division regularly in the next four to seven years.
3. Milwaukee Brewers — his team is crushed by losing C.C. Sabathia. Team chemistry issues abound. The manager carousel is likely to continue in Milwaukee. The Brewers may surprise because Ryan Braun, JJ Hardy and Prince Fielder mash the ball. I'm not in love with their starting pitchers not named Yovani Gallardo, either.
4. Houston Astros — You've got Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and maybe even a great year from Pudge Rodriguez. Alas, things fall apart in the Lone Star State, perhaps because of that stupid uphill warning track they have. I don't know exactly why this team doesn't produce more runs, but believe Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn may have something to do with it.
5. St. Louis Cardinals — Pujols may stay healthy, be MVP and carry this team on his back. If he cannot, it's not going to be pretty in St. Louis, where an aging roster seems to be slowing down. Ryan Ludwick is another power-hitting machine, but they don't have enough pitching either.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates — As much as you can hate Steelers fans, you must pity 'Burghers who have had to endure this franchise. Barry Bonds and his jheri kurl were Pirates the last time this team mattered. Check their depth chart. It is embarassingly thin talent-wise. You wonder why Jason Bay complained his way out. This team seems to care not for investing wisely, building talent or winning games. Nothing to indicate impending change on the horizon for the Pirates.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers — Manny Ramirez will have a huge year, and Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier won't disappoint. The pitching is deep, their bullpen is good. This is a pretty weak division, and I think Joe Torre can get this team to the postseason once again.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks — Brandon Webb will have another stellar season. If they could get rid of those dreadful "DBacks" jerseys then we'd really be in business. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they won the West. It won't take a lot of wins to do it. Perhaps they can even get Randy Johnson back for the stretch run, as his rental in San Francisco appears to be a short one. Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson and Justin Upton should help this team at least contend for a Wild Card.
3. Colorado Rockies — The Rockies are going to miss Matt Holliday's bat, that's for sure. Todd Helton might be gone as well if this team starts slow. It might not matter who pitches when balls fly out of their park like that, but the rotation looks worse this year somehow. Clint Barmes would have to have a great year for this team to hang around. I just don't see it.
4. San Diego Padres — Bad team. Bad division. You have to wonder what Adrian Gonzalez would do were he given a bit of protection in that order. Jake Peavy could be headed elsewhere if it becomes apparent early that this team isn't going to contend. No bats, not much pitching. At least it's always sunny in San Diego.
5. San Francisco Giants — Bright young pitching aside, the only thing to be gained by the Giants this year is what they will get when they trade Randy Johnson to a contender later in the season. I really like Eugenio Velez, but this squad is going to have to find a way to replace the production they got rid of when they jettisoned Barry Bonds and made a Flying Molina Brother their cleanup hitter.
I believe the two Wild Card contenders will be the Phillies and, why the hell not, the Reds. The Phillies will take it and also beat the Dodgers in the playoffs. The Mets will beat the Cubs, but the Phillies will push past the Mets and then lose the World Series to a Yankees team that steamrolls the league.
Maybe, at least.
CityBeat will publish its American League Preview later this week.