Sunday, April 01, 2007

Welcome Back...

The traditional signs of spring in these parts are finally starting to kick in. Temperatures in the Boston area are warming each day, the girls are shedding some layers in the streets of Back Bay, people are starting to smile again, the Boston Marathon is quickly approaching, and the ultimate soap opera -- a year spent riveted to all things Red Sox -- begins Monday afternoon. Life is good.

The Mets throttled the defending champion Cardinals last night in St. Louis to get the season started, and later this afternoon, in a TiVo special, it's Blogger Curt going against the insanely overpaid Gil Meche in Kansas City. With the season underway, here are a few predictions - based on absolutely no research whatsoever.

1. Boston
2. New York
3. Toronto
4. Baltimore
5. Tampa Bay

The Sox are the trendy pick, and I'm pegging them into the top spot based on two things over the Yankees: their starting rotation and their closer (assuming Papelbon stays healthy all year). We'll see if the Yankees' modern-day Murderers' Row lineup can offset the pitching weaknesses. With Yanks' ace Chien-Mien Wang out until possibly May, and with a relatively soft schedule to begin the year, now is the time for the Sox to put some distance between their hated rivals. Toronto will win its fair share of games in 2007, but will still fall short of de-throning one of the big guys. The Blue Jays added Frank Thomas in the offseason and the perpetually injured A.J. Burnett has been looking good this spring. The battle for the AL East basement between the Orioles and Devil Rays should be a pretty heated one. Both teams have lots of young talent stockpiled. The Orioles seem to have better balance in both pitching and their everyday lineup. Devil Rays rook Delmon Young is a star in the making.

1. Detroit
2. Cleveland
3. Chicago
4. Minnesota
5. Kansas City

How good is the AL Central? Look at those top four teams. A lot of folks are predicting that the Tigers will be overtaken by Cleveland this year, but I'm putting my money on Jim Leyland and his boys to be hungry to atone for last year's pitiful World Series showing. They begin the season without Kenny Rogers but the Tigers won't miss a beat. The Indians, White Sox and Twins will be fighting it out for second. The Tribe has Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and young pitching; Chicago has Dye and Konerko with spotty pitching, and the Twins have Mauer, Morneau, Hunter and Santana, but will begin the season without young ace Francisco Liriano. In the end, this is the Tribe's year to shine and they may be rewarded with a Wild Card berth. As for the Royals, their big splurge was spending $55 million on Gil Meche, which is all you really need to know. Watch for Mark Teahen to have a good year, and rookie phenoms Alex Gordon and Ryan Shealy could be bright spots.

1. Anaheim
2. Seattle
3. Oakland
4. Texas

The Angels are banged up for Opening Day - Colon, Jered Weaver and Chone Figgins are on the DL - but they'll still take the West when all is said and done. I think the Mariners supplant the A's for the silver medal, with King Felix leading the way for Seattle. I also like Vidro (if he stays healthy) as the everyday DH. Good, underrated hitter. It's insane to bet against the resourceful Billy Beane and Oakland, but they have to be concerned about their best hitter, Eric Chavez, and the offense they lost with the Big Hurt heading for Canada. Chavez' struggles from last year have carrried over, and the A's didn't really replace Thomas' spot in the lineup. Texas? The age-old Ranger dilemma of not having enough good pitching dooms them again. Still kills me (kills me, I tellya) to see Teixeria in this lineup. Somehow, Dan Duquette didn't think it was worth the money to tie him up in a Sox uniform.

AL playoff teams: Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Angels

1. Mets
2. Marlins
3. Phillies
4. Braves
5. Nationals

The Mets lineup will carry them, but they'll need to shore up their pitching along the way. Pedro needs to get healthy, and Tom Glavine can't be depended on to have the kind of year he had in '06. I really like the Marlins this year, as their young hitters are only going to get better and they've got a nice young core of arms in Dontrelle Willis, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez in their rotation. A new manager in Florida may give them a surprising boost. The Phillies will also compete in this division, but their pitching - or lack thereof - will ultimately let them down. That could change if a guy like Cole Hamels lights it up all year, and if 56-year old Jamie Moyer can still get it done. Big ifs, though. The lineup - led by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, and Jimmy Rollins will score runs in batches. Atlanta is an interesting team this year. No one's expecting much from the Braves, but maybe that helps them. They've still got Smoltz at the top of their rotation, and maybe Tim Hudson has a big rebound year. The Jones brothers will do their normal damage, and Andruw is in a contract year. Who cares about the Nationals?

1. Chicago
2. Houston
3. Milwaukee
4. St. Louis
5. Pittsburgh

The Cubs, like their AL brethren Red Sox, spent money like drunken sailors this past offseason. Alfonso Soriano was the big get, and having a healthy Derrek Lee in the lineup this year - along with Aramis Ramirez and Jacque Jones - will give them some extra punch. The twin hummels - Mark Prior and Kerry Wood - will spend their respective stints on the DL, but Carlos Zambrano is going to have a monster year. Second-place goes to the Astros, who also will add a Lee to their lineup in 2007 (Carlos). Mainstays Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio are in place, and it may be time for youngsters like Chris Burke and Luke Scott to shine. Roy Oswalt is the linchpin on the pitching staff. The surprise pick here is the Brewers coming in third. If they were a department store, they'd be like Marshalls - good players for less. They've got some talent on the mound and at the plate. David Bush and Chris Capuano aren't household names (because they play in Milwaukee) but they can be counted on to have solid seasons. And if Ben Sheets can stay healthy... The Brewers also added a steady veteran presence in Jeff Suppan. Offensively, the kids rule with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Bill Hall anchoring the lineup. The Brew Crew should be fun to watch in '07. The defending champ Cardinals will struggle this season. No rhyme or reason as to why, just a guess. Maybe pin it on their drunken manager. They got - as we say here in Boston - wicked lucky last year. And finally, the perennial NL Central doormat Pirates. Quick - name me five players on Pittsburgh. Jason Bay doesn't count.

1. Los Angeles
2. Arizona
3. San Diego
4. San Francisco
5. Colorado

Red Sox West (a/k/a the Dodgers) looks primed for a big run this year - and with Grady Little calling the shots from the bench, Nomar Garciaparra in the middle of the lineup, and Derek Lowe on the hill, they've got a major Red Sox tint to them. Pitching-wise, LA added Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf to go along with Lowe and Brad Penny. In the 'pen, Takashi Saito - last year's surprise closer - will get a run for his money from rocket-armed Jonathan Broxton, who goes 6'4", 290 pounds by the way. Rafael Furcal, Jeff Kent, Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez are the veterans in the lineup, along with kids Andre Ethier, Russell Martin and Matt Kemp. Call me nuts, but I think the D-Backs could have a pretty good season. Annual Cy Young candidate Brandon Webb is their stud, and if Doug Davis can find his groove, Arizona's pitcher-friendly stadium could benefit. On offense, they'll be hoping for big contributions from slugger-in-the-making Conor Jackson, Eric Byrnes, Chad Tracy and rookie Chris Young. San Diego, San Francisco, and Colorado will round out the bottom three and of course, all eyes will be on the Michelin Man's fraudulent home run quest.

NL playoff teams: Mets, Cubs, Dodgers, Marlins

In terms of picking the league champs, it comes down to pitching, pitching, pitching.

AL Champion: Boston Red Sox

NL Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers

World Series Champion: Red Sox (because I want my Jordans-bought furniture to be free)

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