New York Mets: It comes down in large part to the Carloses. If Delgado stays healthy and Beltran has a better year, this team will end the Braves' endless string of NL East titles. We'll hear more than enough about Pedro Martinez's toe. The addition of Billy Wagner gives the Mets their most reliable closer since Randy Myers. Expectations and the payroll are high, but this is the year for the Mets to shine. Infielders Jose Reyes and David Wright will improve both at the bat and in the field. New catcher Paul Lo Duca will throw out some runners. And middle relief, until some brilliant offseason moves the team's weak spot, will prove to be the league's best.
Atlanta Braves: The song remains the same. The roster changes yearly, yet Bobby Cox gets the most out of what he has. Jeff Francoeur continues to emerge as one of the best right fielders in the game. It remains to be seen if Edgar Renteria will be the All Star he was as a Cardinal, or the error machine he was while with the Red Sox. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are as good as any front end of a rotation. Unfortunately for Atlanta, New York's offense is far superior.
Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Howard is as impressive a young slugger as you will find in the game today. Jimmy Rollins will continue his solid play though not his 2005 batting streak. We'll see if all the trade rumors affect Bobby Abreu, and watch as their marginal pitching staff keeps them from excelling. Tom Gordon closing might not work out so well either.
Washington Nationals: The combustive personalities of Jose Guillen and Alfonso Soriano in one clubhouse does not bode well for team chemistry, or high numbers in the win column. Cristian Guzman is the new Rey Ordonez. Livan Hernandez is counted on to be the ace, again, and to throw too many innings, again. This squad overachieved last year, but their true colors (and paltry offense) will show. You'll hear more about off-the-field bickering than you will about anything else. Unless it's the trade of Soriano or Jose Vidro to the Mets...
Florida Marlins: Joe Girardi sure fell for the ol' bait-and-switch on this one. After the ex-Yank was hired as manager, the systematic dissolution of the team began. It is highly likely that Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera will be moved. No one wants to sit in the Miami sun or evening murk to watch a game. Even though this team has won two world championships recently, they are dead in the water. Until an ownership group steps up and moves this team, it's going to be all bad. At the rate this team is being scrapped, Girardi might find himself catching by the end of the year.
St. Louis Cardinals: This team is good enough to contend in any division, but since they're in the oh-so-weak Central it's going to be a cakewalk. Expect St. Louis to win the division by more than a dozen games. Albert Pujols is one of the three best players in the league, and there isn't going to be anyone breathing down this club's neck much past the All Star break. It's really too bad that the Cardinals are always ho-humming by the time the playoffs roll around, because in the era of the wild card, momentum in September means a lot to how a team plays in October.
Houston Astros: As NASA would say, the window has closed. The Roger Clemens experience is over, as is Jeff Bagwell's career. This team might contend for a wild card, but if Andy Pettite gets hurt it's over. Willy Taveras is an exciting player who should continue to develop. Count on Brad Lidge to bounce back from his playoff blowup. The addition of Preston Wilson isn't going to put this team over the top.
Milwaukee Brewers: As their superb young talent continues to develop, their record will improve. If you're looking for a Cinderella (or George Mason) story, you could do worse than picking the Brew Crew to take the wild card. Prince Fielder and Richie Weeks are going to be perennial All Stars. However, if the race for the playoffs is tight in September, count on the Astros to prevail this year.
Chicago Cubs: Dusty Baker's head is going to roll this summer. The Chicago media has been calling for it for years, and the expected injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are going to make the axe fall. The White Sox winning the Series last year didn't exactly appease Cubs fans' desire to win one. As long as this club's success is tied to the balky bodies of their two young aces, the drought will continue.
Cincinnati Reds: Eric Milton may be the worst starting pitcher in baseball. Expect him to challenge Bert Blyleven's record for most homers surrendered in a year, while doubling Blyleven's ERA. New ownership may right this ship eventually, but it's not a one year plan. The pitching staff is laughable, even with the acquisition of Bronson Arroyo. Combine the sketchiness of the rotation with their outfielders' inability to stay healthy, and the result is another year of high-scoring losses. This club reminds one of the 1930 Phillies.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Ouch is all you can say when looking at this team. Anything short of time warping and bringing back a young Barry Bonds or Willie Stargell just won't do. Jason Bay is a solid player, but teams on which Joe Randa is an Opening Day starter do not fare well. Suggested trade: swap entire roster for that of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and see whether playing in a decent home ballpark makes a difference.
San Diego Padres: Mike Cameron deserves to play center field again, and The City Where the Weather Never Changes should make for a nice change from New York. The fates would have it for him to do so at the same field where he nearly ended his baseball career last summer. Mike Piazza finally is free of expectations, and should do well as the marquee player on his new club. This is a division which can be won by a team with a losing record. If San Diego played in a different division, they might struggle to make the postseason. In the NL West, an 85-win team is king.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenny Lofton will be old enough to get a 15 percent discount at IHOP by the end of the year, so having him start in center field might not be the best plan. We're rooting for Nomar Garciaparra to resurrect his career in LA while learning how to play first base. Safest prediction in the bunch: Jeff Kent will fight someone in Dodger blue. If J.D. Drew plays more than 145 games this year confetti should drop from the sky. Ever since the team acquired Darryl Strawberry, clubhouse chemistry has been rocky or nonexistent.
San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds could hit 10 or 60 home runs this year, but he can't pitch while doing it. Omar Vizquel, Steve Finley and the rest of the over-the-hill gang can not protect Bonds in the lineup (assuming he can even play). This year will be nothing but an orgy of media attention focused on Barry's off-the-field issues, and that can't help the team.
Arizona Diamondbacks: There isn't a lot of good going on in Arizona right now. Orlando Hudson looks to have a bounce-back year, but this team is pretty devoid of upcoming talent. Names like Shawn Green and Luis Gonzalez look good on paper, but there's not much left in their tanks.
Colorado Rockies: Another expansion debacle, this team will likely never be competitive. With the altitude induced long balls, the demoralized pitching staff this team will resemble a backyard Whiffle ball squad more than a major league one. Rockies pitchers show their stuff before they get here and after they leave. One wonders what kind of numbers Todd Helton would put up if he didn't play in Colorado. One wonders whether the league will allow a special dead ball to be used in Rockies home games. One also wonders if this team will win 70 games.
DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Mets over Astros
DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Cardinals over Padres
NLCS: Mets over Cardinals
Last week we picked the American League:
DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Angels beat Red Sox
DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Yankees beat White Sox
ALCS: Angels over Yankees
WORLD SERIES: Mets over Angels in 6++