All Things Being Equal: Our Baseball Picks for 2009

This Great Game's fearless prognosticators look through soothsaying eyes and deliver their best guesses for the 2009 major league season.

By Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio, This Great Game
Posted March 26, 2009

This Great Game Opinion.

There’s only one thing more fun than for the two of us to write up our annual major league predictions every spring, and that’s going back seven months later and realizing how prescient—or out of our minds—we were when we first wrote it.

Sure, we put forth some bonehead thoughts in 2008. Both of our suggested World Series champions (the New York Mets and the Detroit Tigers) didn’t make the postseason. We thought Atlanta had a good thing going, but that was before their top three pitchers suffered season-ending injuries. None of us saw a Chicago-Minnesota race on the horizon in the AL Central (but then again, no one else did) and the St. Louis Cardinals did not completely implode, as Eric foretold.

On the other hand, we did deserve a pat on the back with some of our more spot-on predictions. Eric sensed a rise in Tampa Bay, even suggesting it was a good idea to place a futures bet on the 150-1 Rays to win it all; stated that the Phillies would make a postseason run only if the Mets collapsed again (they did); and Ed perfectly parlayed the order of finish in the six-team NL Central, with Milwaukee earning the wild card spot.

So now, here comes 2009. Who will be this year’s Tampa, Detroit or Seattle? Can the New York Yankees buy another title? Which team will go bankrupt in these lousy economic times? And will Manny Ramirez quit on the Dodgers?

As usual, Eric and Ed go full tilt on their ruminations, though Ed likes to rebut short and sweet. So have a great read and come back for a revisit in October—we just hope you aren't laughing when you do.

NL East: Eric's picks
NL East: Ed's rebuttal
NL Central: Ed's picks
NL Central: Eric's rebuttal
NL West: Eric's picks
NL West: Ed's rebuttal
AL East: Ed's picks
AL East: Eric's rebuttal
AL Central: Eric's picks
AL Central: Ed's rebuttal
AL West: Ed's picks
AL West: Eric's rebuttal
Postseason/Awards: Eric's and Ed's picks

NL East: Eric’s picks

I feel the pain of the typical New York Mets fan. For the last two years I’ve embraced this team as the National League’s best—jeez, I even picked the Mets to win it all last year. So I sat and watched the Mets’ progress, staking my baseball forecasting reputation and ego along the way. And for two years in a row, I’ve gotten sucker-punched late in the game as has the Shea faithful, watching the Mets unable to seal the deal as they devolved from clutch to klutz down the stretch.

So now comes the $64,000 Question: Do I bite at the bait again and hope that the third time is the charm?

I’ve got to, brother. For the Mets in 2008, it unfortunately became all about the bullpen—one that blew a franchise-record 29 save opportunities, nearly twice as many as Philadelphia, the team that once again stole the NL East away from them. So they appropriately went about an overhaul, bringing in not one but two marquee closers in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. Rodriguez, whose 62 saves set an all-time record last year, will be the closer while Putz, recovering from an injury-scarred off-year in 2008, will set up. The addition of these two, combined with a maturing rotation featuring John Maine and Mike Pelfrey (following up on veteran ace Johan Santana), has to be considered a major improvement for the Mets. Add to that a solid (if not terribly balanced) hitting lineup with Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and a revived (in late 2008, anyway) Carlos Delgado, as well as the intangible of playing in a new ballpark—which typically gives the home team an initial boost—and the Mets are bound to produce substantial gains in the standings, without collapse on their end and without apology on this end.

So why do I pick the Mets at the expense of the reigning world champion Philadelphia Phillies? It’s more to do with the Mets just looking better, but it’s not going to be an easy task for the Phillies to repeat, even without the upgrades in New York. After all, the Phillies had everything going their way last season; they were, for the most part, injury-free, had unexpected success from a fair rotation, and their bullpen was darn near perfect. The Phillies obviously are talented, with a smashing offense that, unlike the Mets, can deliver from the top of the order to the bottom. But can Lady Luck smile on this side a second time? There’s bound to be injuries and other absences (reliever J.C. Romero is already out 50 games because of his illegal performance enhancement), 46-year old Jamie Moyer cannot annually win 15 games forever and closer Brad Lidge, sooner or later, is finally going to blow a save. Outside of the modest upgrade of bringing Raul Ibanez into left field to replace the departed Pat Burrell, the Phillies have largely stood pat in the offseason—and that can be a dangerous thing.

The Florida Marlins nearly became the first team in major league history to field four infielders with 30 homers each. But if you listen to the horror stories about the team’s defense, you would have thought they were also the first group of infielders to each commit 30 errors. The Marlins are a sloppy, undisciplined (they struck out a major league-high 1,371 times in 2008) and inexperienced team, yet they have the talent and potential to make a sudden rush to the postseason if the stars and planets align, or at least before money-conscious owner Jeffrey Loria tears them all apart once again. It’s a tall order to be sure, but here’s the background to consider: An MVP candidate in shortstop Hanley Ramirez; an All-Star in second baseman Dan Uggla; a potential All-Star in Cameron Maybin, a speedy center fielder who was 16-for-32 in call-up action late last year; and ace-like stuff from starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco and the potential for more from Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad, both of whom pitched exceptionally well late in 2008. But overall, the rotation is iffy with a recent history of major injuries and inconsistency, and the bullpen could be a prime issue if new closer Matt Lindstrom (five career saves) doesn’t work out. The Marlins could surprise, but there’s a lot of educating still to be done with this young school of fish.

The Atlanta Braves used to be called America’s Team, but after being dissed right and left by free agents this past winter, Nobody’s Team might be more appropriate. It’s like the guy who’s ready to make a deal with you, holds out his hand to shake to it, then quickly pulls it away and yells, “Psych!” Jake Peavy, Rafael Furcal and Ken Griffey Jr. all teased the Braves just short of signing on the dotted line this offseason, and it left a foul taste both in the Atlanta clubhouse and front office. There were some players who said yes to the Braves, including pitcher Derek Lowe and outfielder Garret Anderson, but the Braves were hoping for more of a boost if they truly hoped to contend in 2009. The rotation is still reeling from last year’s savage depletion in which marquee starters Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine all went down with season-ending injuries; Smoltz has left, Hudson’s not expected to return until late (if at all) this season, and Glavine looks to have only a few wins left in him. Lowe will ease the pain, as might Javier Vazquez (acquired from Chicago) and Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami. At the plate, the Braves lack punch from the outfield and Chipper Jones, the team’s one true star hitter who batted .364 last year, isn’t getting any younger (he turns 37 in April). Long-time manager Bobby Cox says this may be his last year, and if the Braves finish, as we expect, sour rather than sweet, the decision will be an easy one for him.

Last year I looked at the futures board in Nevada and felt that smart money could be spent on the Tampa Bay Rays, at 150-1, to win the World Series. On my last check at the sportsbook, this year’s longshot status belongs to the Washington Nationals at 200-1. Take my advice: Keep your hard-earned money. The Nationals are not a fairy tale in the making and are certain to remain a deadweight in the NL East. For a team that has so many problem children (outfielders Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and, now, pitcher Scott Olsen) in the clubhouse, it’s amazing how those players’ reputations for bad behavior have lately been trumped by the misbehavior in the front office, which has been embroiled in a skimming controversy and refused to pay rent last year on a new ballpark built almost entirely on the backs of D.C. taxpayers. In all fairness, last year’s 59-102 record was partly due to numerous key injuries and general inexperience, so it might be rash to expect a repeat of that magnitude. The fledgling issue has been addressed by bringing in veteran slugger Adam Dunn, who’s hit at least 40 homers five years running, and starting pitchers Olsen and Daniel Cabrera—two guys thought to still have some upside but have shown mostly disappointment to date. The offense looks more potent and, well, the rotation has more than a few throwers who say they’ve pitched in the majors before, unlike the last few years. But this is still a franchise, on and off the field, in desperate search for itself. At 200-1, there’s a better chance in 2009 of an economic recovery than the Nationals winning anything.

NL East: Ed’s rebuttal

I agree with you on this one, Eric. I like the New York Mets to win the NL East and then proceed on to the World Series, where they will defeat the Boston Red Sox in six games. They just have too much of everything, and with that lineup they will score enough runs to mask any shortcomings they do possess, which are few. Adding two top relievers is a brilliant idea—you can never have enough good arms in the bullpen. In the playoffs (and in the World Series, I predict) J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez will pay huge dividends. When you only need your starters to go six or seven innings at the most, it gives you a more than distinct advantage.

I like the Philadelphia Phillies to give the Mets a tough run for their money this season, and in the end I think they’ll get the Wild Card spot, barely edging out the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Phillies are a solid, top-tier team with tons of talent, but the Mets are just stronger and deeper. They got some great starts from a few arms last year (Joe Blanton, Jamie Moyer and Brett Myers) that they won’t be able to count on this season, in my opinion.

The rest of this division is re-building or regressing, with maybe the exception of the Atlanta Braves, who will make a run at some point, but then fade into the sunset in the hot, humid months of summer.

NL Central: Ed's picks

The Chicago Cubs have massive talent. You don’t have to be Peter Gammons to see that the Cubs are absolutely loaded. There’s no question about that. The only question to ask is how and when will the Cubs blow it? Will it be in September, in the playoffs or in the World Series? Will it be a guy named Bartman or a random goat or will this team disintegrate all on its own? It’s been 101 years since they won it all and my prediction is that Chicago will once again fold up in the NLCS, to either the Dodgers or the Mets. But, in the meantime, it should be a glorious season in Chi-town. I’m touting the Wrigglers to win the NL Central for a variety of reasons. I selected them to win the division last season, as I recall (I’m trying to forget most of my ’08 picks), and with more depth and experience this year, the Cubs are a no-brainer to capture the Central. It’s hard to find many holes here—speed, power, defense, pitching, relief—they have it all. They added Milton Bradley, who I predict will be out with an injury by June. Bradley is a great player when he wants to play nice; but he’s also fragile, both mentally and physically. On offense, you’ve got some real stars—like left fielder Alfonso Soriano, first baseman Derrek Lee, catcher Geovany Soto (Rookie of the Year in 2008) and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. They lost some power when Mark DeRosa left for Cleveland. It will be interesting to see how center fielder Kosuke Fukudome does this year. He had a great regular season but choked in a major way in the playoffs against the Dodgers. Chicago’s starting rotation is one of the strongest in the NL, featuring names like Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden. Closer Carlos Marmol should have a great year as well. Sometimes the best off-season moves are the ones you don’t make. Except for losing Kerry Wood, this staff pretty much remains the same. And that’s good news—for now.

Last season, a hurricane waylaid the Houston Astros. This season it won’t take as much. The only substantial loss from this squad was third baseman Ty Wigginton, but other than that, the team is basically the same. Major concerns have to be their starting pitchers (join the crowd—I’m seeing a lot of pretenders in the 4 and 5 spots with most teams; get ready for some 15-14 scores) and depth. The offense is led by first baseman Lance Berkman, who had a breakthrough season last year and should be even better in 2009 if he can stay healthy; left fielder Carlos Lee and shortstop Miguel Tejada (he can still hit even if he’s a bad liar). The pitching staff has Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez and a bunch of guys who should probably be in Triple-A. Jose Valverde is a solid closer who can get the big outs in the ninth; if and when the Astros’ starters are able to keep them in the game. Big questions: Can guys like center fielder Michael Bourn and catcher Humberto Quintero step up and contribute? The Astros are a fairly decent team and have the potential to surprise, weather permitting.

For the Cincinnati Reds, the days of the Big Red Machine are a thing of the very distant past. This is one vehicle that even a Big Three bailout package can’t save. Cincy has experienced nine consecutive losing seasons and are hoping that this may just be the year they break that downward trend. Don’t hold your breath. The Reds are going in a different direction this year, replacing their power (Adam Dunn is long gone) with speed and defense. It’s a good idea, except for the fact that they play in the number two ballpark for dingers. What this means is that opponents will be hitting home runs out of Great American Ballpark, while the Reds just stand there and watch. Not a great idea. The main reason that I like these guys to finish third in the division is because they have a lot of very good, young players, like leadoff center fielder Willy Taveras, first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips, right fielder Jay Bruce and catcher Ramon Hernandez (okay, he’s not young, but he is solid). The big question will be starting pitching, which starts with Aaron Harang and Edinson Volquez, last year’s very pleasant surprise . But after that, there are more question marks on this team than you’ll find on the Riddler’s green tights. Can Homer Bailey live up to expectations? Can Bronson Arroyo step up? Cincinnati’s bullpen, led by Francisco Cordero is strong, but can the starters hold leads long enough to let them do their job? Too many questions; too few answers.

They make beer in Milwaukee, not wine, but you’d never know by listening to the Milwaukee Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio, who has been whining about a salary cap after losing pitching ace CC Sabathia to the free-spending Yankees. Milwaukee made it to the postseason for the first time in 26 years and then folded like a cheese omelet to the Phillies, with Sabathia leading the choke parade with an embarrassing performance. This year’s team won’t have its number one starter, nor will it have its former number one, the injured Ben Sheets. Sure, the Brew Crew has some great young players, such as second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop J.J. Hardy, left fielder Ryan Braun and first baseman/behemoth vegan Prince Fielder. But the rotation is weak and should get lit up all season, as guys like Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush and Manny Parra will not be up to par. Why this team added Trevor Hoffman to their bullpen is a mystery to me and looks like a desperate move to replace another washed-up reliever named Eric Gagne. Hoffman is done and so are the Brewers—at least this year.

If St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa isn’t burnt out yet, the trials and tribulations of the upcoming season will put him there. I hope a disappointing season won’t cause him to drive drunk, but it could. Last season, La Russa was able to use smoke and mirrors to hide major deficiencies within his pitching staff. This year he will not be so lucky. Sure, the Cards have some solid hitters—most notably first baseman Albert Pujols, right fielder Ryan Ludwick and former “Wild Thing” pitcher, center fielder Rick Ankiel; they can all produce runs, there’s no doubt about it. But, the mantra of 2009 is pitching, pitching, pitching—and like many teams in both leagues, St. Lew is lacking. They’ve got Chris Carpenter (who still hasn’t proven he’s 100% back from injury), Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse, but after that, it’s a crapshoot. St. Louis will get out of the box with a decent start, but will fade during the hot, humid months of summer. The only thing keeping them out of the cellar is the fact that Pittsburgh has dibs on the bottom of the NL Central.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a study in how not to build a franchise. They have a great stadium, some very decent young talent and a minor league farm system that will undoubtedly produce more stars down the road, but if there was such a thing as an MLB Stimulus Package, Pittsburgh needs it—bad. Looking at their 18th consecutive losing season, the old days of We Are Family with Willie Stargell leading the way, are a distant memory. The Pirates’ new slogan should be “We Are (Dysfunctional) Family”. Promising future stars include first baseman Andy LaRoche, center fielder Nate McLouth and pitchers Paul Maholm, Ian Snell and Zach Duke, but this team is still a couple of years away. The Pirates lost 95 games this year and might just hit the 100 mark this season.

NL Central: Eric's rebuttal

It’s funny; Ed mentioned above that he tried to forget about his picks from last year, but this is the division he went a perfect six-for-six on—and secured bonus points for handing Milwaukee the wild card. I’m hoping he’ll forget this year’s picks on the NL Central as well, because my take is wee bit different.

Let’s get the Chicago Cubs out of the way first. Everyone seems to be giving the two-time defending division titlists an automatic bid for the postseason even before the regular campaign has begun. And the Cubs may get there. But it won’t be easy, and it likely won’t be as a first-place team. A few key departures—closer Kerry Wood and second baseman Mark DeRosa, both gone to Cleveland—have chiseled away more of the team’s dominance than some might believe. On the flip side, the Cubs have added Milton Bradley, who can put up electrifying numbers, but he’s a physically and emotionally fragile player who, if things aren’t quite going his way, may get sucked into a love-hate relationship with the vocal bleacher bums at Wrigley Field. The rotation seems solid, but can Ryan Dempster duplicate his out-of-nowhere success of 2008—and are the Cubs really serious about making Aaron Heilman, the poster boy for the Mets’ bullpen collapse last year, into a starting pitcher? Lastly, the Cubs are high on Carlos Marmol as Wood’s ninth-inning replacement, but if he can’t close out the Dutch, how’s he going to handle much more talented major league opponents? Okay, so all of the above is devil’s advocate talk, and Chicago is powered enough to win it all if everything clicks, but I just don’t see the Cubs phoning this season in like so many believe.

So here comes my curve, and it’s the St. Louis Cardinals. Last season, I predicted that Cardinals were one Albert Pujols elbow surgery away from collapsing to the basement. This year, I’m making it up to them by declaring them as my upset special in the division. So how do I rationalize my expectations for a team that lost some fine supporting players (Aaron Miles, Russ Springer, Braden Looper, Felipe Lopez) while dragging in well-traveled reliever Dennys Reyes and shortstop Khalil Greene (.213 in 2008) to improve all the way to the top? Well, how did they win 86 games with a no-name rotation and an ailing lineup for most of last season? Assuming they stay relatively pain-free in 2009, the Cardinals will impress. They’ll finally have former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter back in the rotation along with Adam Wainwright, who missed almost half a season last year; a potential Rookie of the Year in likely closer Jason Motte; sluggers Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel, a year removed from explaining their steroid past, will be able to focus more on baseball; and, most frighteningly for opponents, Albert Pujols, baseball’s best at the plate even while playing with a bum elbow, has had it fixed up. The final intangible involves manager Tony La Russa, who’s in the final year of his contract; there may be extra incentive to will his team extra hard to the postseason and retire as a winner in October, when he turns 65.

Ed talked harshly of the Milwaukee Brewers and directed a majority of his smack toward a member of his extended family—a guy who just happens to own the team. Family feuds aside, it’s hard to sense improvement in Milwaukee after losing its two best pitchers, CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. But don’t give up on the Brewers too quickly; they do possess one of baseball’s most potent hitting, led by Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Mike Cameron and Corey Hart, and their rotation, though wounded from the defections of Sabathia and Sheets, still isn’t half bad—and the talked-about emergence of potential ace Yovani Gallardo could further heal the wounds. What handicaps the Brewers’ chances is a weak bullpen, bolstered in relative terms only by Trevor Hoffman; yes, he is the career saves leader, but his devolution on the mound has been noticeable over the past few years and he’ll struggle to add onto his all-time total—especially now that he’s no longer performing in a pitcher’s park. The Brewers’ MVP this year could be general manager Doug Melvin because, like last year, the team needs a good midseason trade or two to reach the postseason—and it’ll be up to Melvin to commit.

Last year I thought the Cincinnati Reds had the Mojo to make a move for the postseason; perhaps I was, like Travis in the famed Levi’s commercial of the early 1980s, a year too early. Or so that’s the impression I’m getting, as pundit after pundit (Ed not being one of them) seems to be developing a love affair with the Reds’ chances for 2009. A lot of mid- and small-market teams with long, recent losing traditions are bragging about becoming this year’s Tampa Bay, and the Reds—who haven’t had a winning season in a decade—have accrued enough hot young talent mixed in with a smattering of veteran leadership to become the most promising of that lot. Just in the last year we were introduced to first baseman Joey Votto (.297-24-84), outfielder Jay Bruce (.252-21-52 in 108 games), and starting pitchers Edinson Volquez (17-6, 3.21 ERA) and Johnny Cueto (9-14, 4.81). The problem may lie more with the veterans; starting pitchers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo both had ERAs just under 5.00, catcher Ramon Hernandez (acquired from Baltimore) looks to be on the downside of his career, and speedy Willy Taveras, despite a major league-high 68 steals in 2008, hit an alarmingly low .251 at mile-high Colorado. I saw what I thought would be a better mix of talent last year in Cincinnati before the Reds went out and lost 88 games; maybe they’ll be the new Rays, but taking the express elevator to the World Series doesn’t happen every year in baseball.

How surprising was the second-half success of the Houston Astros last year? They had the majors’ best record after the All-Star break, and came awfully close to nabbing the wild card spot before being derailed by the hurricane and Bud Selig’s dubious ad-lib methods of rescheduling. How the Astros ramped up so well so late—despite a patchwork rotation, despite slugger Carlos Lee’s season-ending injury, despite a cooling off from MVP candidate Lance Berkman—requires an explanation akin to defying gravity, but maybe that’s why they’re called the Astros. Unless it’s an abundance of mirrors, Jedi mind tricks or just blind luck, it’s hard to see this roster being among baseball’s best. Most of the skepticism falls on the pitching. After solid-state ace Roy Oswalt, once-and-current Astro Mike Hampton is listed as the rotation’s Number Two, and he’ll live up to that billing in the most excremental way if he doesn’t return to his pre-reconstructive glory of old. And it gets worse: Brandon Backe returns after producing the worst ERA (6.05) among full-time NL starters in 2008. Perhaps the Astros will continue the momentum from the end of last season and pull off a big surprise, but I remain unconvinced.

The media are reporting a positive buzz among the Pittsburgh Pirates at spring camp. Maybe the chicken felt pretty good, too, before crossing the road. The Pirates are staring at the prospect of setting the all-time pro sports record for most consecutive losing seasons, and if management did anything in the offseason to prevent the Bucs from falling short of .500 for the 17th straight time, it hasn’t been noticed. Pittsburgh did almost nothing during the winter to address their many woes, and so the Pirates return to the field in 2009 with virtually the same cast as last year. That includes an offense with only one legitimate threat (center fielder Nate McLouth), or one and a half if Adam LaRoche takes his usual three months to warm up with the bat. Yes, the pitching staff that has potential, but we’ve been saying that now about the Bucs for the last three years, with no progress whatsoever (the Pirates walked more batters in the NL and struck out fewer batters than one team last season). The real question is not whether the Pirates will break .500 in 2009, but whether they’ll break .500 ever again.

NL West: Eric's picks

With Manny Ramirez back in the fold, almost everyone is declaring that the Los Angeles Dodgers are the team to beat in the NL West.

Whoa there, Nellie.

The Dodgers are looking to be this year’s version of the 2008 Detroit Tigers. They are front-loaded with talent in the everyday lineup, with a hitting threat at every spot—from Ramirez to recent pick-ups Casey Blake and Orlando Hudson to young home-grown veterans Andre Ethier, Russell Martin and James Loney all reaching their prime. Like the Tigers of yesteryear, the Dodgers should knock opponents around—but they’re also likely to get knocked around just as much, thanks to a seriously weakened pitching staff. The departures of Derek Lowe and Brad Penny leave the Dodgers with just one bona fide sure thing, Chad Billingsley, in the rotation. Beyond that, there’s the maddeningly inconsistent Hiroki Kuroda; Randy Wolf, an oft-injured veteran who struggled at San Diego last year; 21-year old Clayton Kershaw, a highly-touted prospect likely not ready for prime time; and one-time ace Jason Schmidt—that is, if he can finally take the mound after spending the last two years AWOL with injuries. There’s less overall concern about the Dodger bullpen, but it does lack a definitive closer after the team gave up on Takashi Saito, who was lights out until injuries got the better of him in 2008. Now the job is up to Jonathan Broxton, who saved 14 games in Saito’s absence—but also blew eight other opportunities. In the modern, fickle world of the majors, where injuries and surprise teams come out of nowhere on a regular basis, it’s highly premature to anoint the Dodgers as NL West champs simply because Ramirez has returned; it serves to remember that, even when there was better pitching and Ramirez was hitting sky-high, Los Angeles was a solid but unspectacular 30-24 from the time he showed up.

So who inherits the top spot in the NL West from the Dodgers? Try the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have the most balanced and complete roster in the division. The D-Backs’ cache of hitting prospects, including Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds, began to show signs of strong maturity last year, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be getting any better. Outfielders Chris Young and Justin Upton (still only 21) could follow suit, sooner than later. But the true advantage for Arizona over the Dodgers is in the rotation, with two ace-quality starters (Brandon Webb and Dan Haren), a strong third man (new arrival Jon Garland, from the Angels) and young Max Scherzer, whose stunning fastball has drawn favorable comparisons to the departed Randy Johnson. The bullpen is a weakness, as is the failure of the impatient D-Backs to find a closer and stick with him; Chad Qualls, with 15 career saves, gets the audition this year. There’s obviously some fine tuning needed to mold Arizona into a serious contender; the hitters need to work at putting the ball in play (only Florida suffered more strikeouts in 2008), the fielders need to work on defense (especially Reynolds, who committed 35 errors at third) and the bullpen needs to rise to the occasion. But in this division, you don’t have to approach perfection to take the crown.

If you like your 2-1 and 3-2 games, the San Francisco Giants are your team for 2009. There’s no doubt the Giants can pitch, with an impressive rotation consisting of reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and 45-year-old Randy Johnson, who’s reported to the Giants this spring free of previous back problems. The central issue at AT&T Park, as it has been since Barry Bonds was let go, is the hitting—best exemplified by the continued presence of Bengie Molina (16 homers in 2008) in the clean-up spot. But while the Giants lack slugging muscle, they do have the ability to beat you one or two bases at a time with pesky hitters like Aaron Rowand, Randy Winn, Fred Lewis and newly-arrived veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria. And be prepared to add to this mix Pablo Sandoval, who made a meteoric rise from Class A to the Giants in 2008—hitting well over .300 each step of the way with bruising line-drive capacity. If the starting pitching stays above par, a restructured bullpen doesn’t collapse and solid clutch hitting becomes the norm, the Giants could possibly follow Arizona and Los Angeles above the .500 mark and make it a three-team race for the NL West title.

Omitting the Colorado Rockies from the above conversation is in no way meant to disrespect the team or its fans, who’ve enjoyed a love-hate relationship with me over the years. But the Rockies are in “flip my franchise” mode, a state of affairs made obvious with the trade of star slugger Matt Holliday to Oakland. Even with Holliday last year, the Rockies hit a franchise-worst .263—including a .278 mark at Coors Field, where .300 typically is the norm. But now that Holliday’s gone, the Rockies will have to rely on solid supporting cast members Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe to take center stage, for Troy Tulowitzki to return to freshman form after a disastrous sophomore campaign, and for Todd Helton, at age 35, to regain the health and prodigious power he once possessed in his 20s. Even if all of the above comes true in rose-colored fashion, the Rockies still has to contend with a battered rotation that has already lost Jeff Francis (shoulder) for the season, and could likely include Greg Reynolds (8.13 ERA in 2008), former Cub Jason Marquis (5.08 ERA over the last three years) and Greg Smith, one of three players acquired for Holliday and who, last year, struggled just trying to pitch in Oakland. (Imagine how Coors Field will greet Mr. Smith.) The bullpen, with Huston Street taking over for Brian Fuentes, may very well be the strength of the team—but as often is the case with the Rockies, relievers may be called upon more than they’d like and be left gasping for thin air by the time September comes around in Denver.

Lastly, deep down in beautiful Southern California (to say nothing of the NL West standings), life is not beautiful for the San Diego Padres. The players may not have thrown in the towel on 2009, but the owner sure has. Divorce will make you do that, as John Moores found out as he spent the offseason trying to unload high-salaried talent before simply unloading the whole team onto Jeff Moorad. The projected payroll for the Padres is at $45 million—a $33 million drop from 2008—and nearly half of that is bottled up with two players: Pitcher Jake Peavy (who the Padres desperately tried to trade in the offseason) and outfielder Brian Giles. Beyond those two guys and slugger Adrian Gonzalez (36 homers, 119 RBIs), there’s almost nothing to brag about in San Diego for 2009. The only quality starter after Peavy is Chris Young, and even he’s something of a question mark after an injury-plagued 2008. And get this: With the forced exile of long-time closer Trevor Hoffman, the Padres enter 2009 with a pitching staff that collectively has amassed a grand total of three career saves. But, hey, the Padres won’t have many leads to protect this season. Finally, don’t expect any white knights in shining armor to emerge out of the minors; the Padres’ farm system is ranked 29th out of 30 teams by Baseball America. I’ve seen first-hand how wonderfully laid-back people in San Diego are. Good thing, too, because they might be the only group of folks who can step into a major league ballpark and tolerate the ugliness that’s coming their way.

NL West: Ed's rebuttal

I disagree with you here, Eric. For an amazing baseball writer and one of the top prognosticators in the game today, in my opinion, you can be very naïve at times. Do you really think the Arizona Diamondbacks will be on top of the West when all the shouting is over? Do you truly believe that Arizona’s pitching staff will make it through the long hot summer? C’mon, son. You must be smoking some of the stuff that Michael Phelps has been getting if you don’t think the Los Angeles Dodgers will dominate this division from start to finish. The Dodgers have a great lineup and Manny Ramirez is the guacamole (or sour cream, whichever you prefer) on the taco that will take the Blue Crew to the playoffs. James Loney, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin and Andre Ethier will be one year better and a little hungrier after tasting the postseason last year, I believe. Sure, they lack great pitching. But, I think one or two of these strong arms (most notably Hiroki Kuroda and Clayton Kershaw) will step up and win enough games to take them to the Promised Land. With a potent offense and some solid defense, the Dodgers will be able to make up for the fact that they’re light on pitching.

The Diamondbacks have pitching (but it will fade—can you say Jon Garland, Doug Davis and so-called closer Chad Qualls?) and an offense with big holes in it. They will give L.A. some concern, sure—but that’s all. Kind of like a flea biting an elephant on its tail!

The rest of the NL West is best forgotten and doesn’t even deserve my comments in this forum. The San Francisco Giants have some great young pitching but no power, and the San Diego Padres have nothing at all.

AL East: Ed's picks

When we last saw the Boston Red Sox, they were a very tired and hurting team, with nagging injuries throughout the roster. Third baseman Mike Lowell (hip); designated hitter David Ortiz (wrist); pitcher Josh Beckett (various ailments) and closer Jonathan Papelbon (tired and spent) will all need to get better if Boston hopes to get into the playoffs in 2009. This team added old-school hurlers John Smoltz and Brad Penny during the offseason, but both are also coming off major injuries. So, why am I picking this team to win the AL East? Two reasons: One, Great young talent that will only improve, like MVP second baseman Dustin Pedroia, first baseman Kevin Youkilis and center fielder Jacob Ellsbury, and two, one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester leading the way. This team has the perfect mix of youngsters and veterans and should easily win over 100 games this season.

The New York Yankees may have a beautiful new stadium and three new stars to crow about, but in the end it’s the same old story with the Bombers. They still haven’t learned that it’s nearly impossible to fill holes in your roster with stop-gap, high-priced free agents. You can’t throw money at your deficiencies and expect it to work on a consistent basis. Sure, you can sign the big names (like CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett) with copious amounts of cash, but there’s one thing you can’t buy, and it’s called team chemistry. With Joe Torre’s book and the A-Roid controversy, not to mention “The Madonna Situation,” this team will undoubtedly offer sportswriters tons of copy. There’s no question that they still have a formidable lineup, with Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez representing a massively potent core to the power segment of their offense. From the mound, in addition to Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees have solid arms like Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettitte and closer Mariano Rivera, a future Hall-of-Famer. In the end, the Yankees will take the wild card spot, I believe, but will be overmatched by either the Angels of the Red Sox in the playoffs.

I didn’t see the Tampa Bay Rays coming last season, as my 2008 preseason picks had them sitting out the postseason once more. But, with a convergence of lights-out pitching, timely hitting, solid defense and great team chemistry, Tampa Bay got to the World Series before falling to Philly. Was last year a fluke? Well, not exactly. This team will continue to improve, and I see them winning at least 80-plus games this year. It’s just that New York and Boston are too strong and the Rays are too young with too many questions to repeat. Some of those uncertainties are: Will closer Troy Percival be back? Can rookie pitcher David Price step up to the starting rotation and make an impact? Will newly acquired, power-hitting Pat Burrell help lead this team of youngsters? Will the Rays be helped by adding versatile outfielder Gabe Kapler? With players like center fielder B.J. Upton, first baseman Carlos Pena and Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria at third, the Rays have a nucleus that will do them well in the future. Pitchers James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza are three strong arms who won a total of 37 wins between them. It’s wait ‘til next year for Tampa this year, I’m afraid. But, they’re still damn good.

The Toronto Blue Jays have wallowed in mediocrity for a while now, and things won’t be getting any better for Toronto anytime soon. Life couldn’t be worse for the Jays right now, with the team’s owner dying and the Canadian dollar falling. The Jays didn’t improve appreciably during the off-season, ether, after losing stopper A.J. Burnett to the Big Apple. With Shawn Marcum out for the year after Tommy John surgery, the Jays’ pitching staff could best be described as “Roy Halladay and the Usual Suspects.” With 32 saves and a 2.95 ERA last season, B.J. Ryan is a better than efficient closer. Offensively, Toronto’s lineup has the potential to be anemic. Right fielder Vernon Wells, DH Adam Lind and first baseman Lyle Overbay lead a motley crew that will be grossly overmatched against the better teams in the highly competitive AL East.

The Baltimore Orioles got stood up at the big dance called free agency. Mark Teixeira is a Baltimore native and A.J. Burnett lives nearby, but both players opted for New York, NY. The team did manage to keep Brian Roberts (who they will probably trade to a contender sometime this summer) and Melvin Mora is a bona fide star, but other than that, these Orioles are young, unproven and not have been battled tested yet. Their pitching is “Guthrie, Uehara and now starts the horror.” George Sherill is an all-star closer, but it won’t matter much, unless the starters can hold an occasional lead. Future stars like outfielder Nick Markakis, speedy center fielder Adam Jones, catching prospect Matt Wieters and outfielder Felix Pie are going to be stars—just not for a couple of years.

AL East: Eric's rebuttal

The hard liquor started pouring in the worst way the day the news hit New York Yankee headquarters like a thunderbolt: Alex Rodriguez, their $275 million boy, admitted to taking steroids. Then came the good news: He hurt his hip and will miss the first month or so of the season. So how is this good news? Think. Rodriguez’s absence is a blessing in disguise, as it will allow the revamped Yankees—with high-priced CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett joining the roster—to gel quietly as a team within their New Yankee Stadium environs without the distractions of the A-Rod media circus. When Rodriguez does return, perhaps the attention won’t be as intense. Overall, the Yankees are bound to improve for 2009; the additions of Sabathia and Burnett suddenly make a once-suspect rotation look good, putting less stress on returning hurlers Chien-Ming Wang (54-20 career record), Andy Pettitte (14-14 in 2008) and would-be wunderkind Joba Chamberlain; 39-year old Mariano Rivera comes off an ageless (39 saves, 1.40 ERA) campaign at the closer spot and is 18 saves shy of becoming the second player to reach 500; and even though the lineup is filled with mid- and late-thirtysomethings, the presence of Teixeira and outfielder Xavier Nady (.305 average, 25 homers and 97 RBIs split between the Yankees and Pirates last year) should provide for some offensive rejuvenation. If the new Yankees can thrive rather than wilt under the intense Gotham spotlight, they’ll no doubt be in the hunt. But will they win the East?

Not so fast, say the Boston Red Sox. In tinkering with their roster for 2009, the Red Sox took a page out of the notebook of Al Davis, who thrived back in the 1970s at taking so-called reclamation projects off the scrap heap and returned them to star status for the betterment of his Oakland Raiders. The Red Sox have done something similar. Rather than pay the big bucks for prime time free agents, the Red Sox acquired John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli and Takashi Saito—all of whom have All-Star experience and, last year, all of whom feel from grace due to various injuries. At first I felt the moves showed the financial limits of what the Red Sox had to work with, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how shrewd it was; at least one or two of these guys may return to the levels of their past greatness and give the necessary bump to what is still an elite team with few holes. Ed has the Red Sox outpacing the Yankees in spite of the Steinbrenners’ latest spending spree, and I gotta agree with him. The hitting, starting pitching, bullpen, bench, manager, box office—it’s all solid. On top of that, the Red Sox can refocus on baseball from scratch after the Manny Ramirez soap opera, which possibly kept Boston from nabbing another world title. Abundant injury is the only thing that will stop the Red Sox this year.

The key to the success of the Tampa Bay Rays last year was confidence. This year’s key is not to get overconfident. There are many ways success can spoil the defending AL champions—the celebratory free luncheon circuit, for instance, or being sucked into thinking that you can be the comeback kids and win every game in the late innings. A lot of things went right for Tampa Bay last year, including the luck of competing in an AL East with a dysfunctional Boston team and a Yankee ballclub in need of new blood. They won’t have that advantage this year. They’ll still be good—they have accrued the experience of last season, added a nice touch to the roster by bringing in Pat Burrell as a likely DH, will see the continued maturing of future MVP candidate Evan Longoria, and they’ll cross their fingers that rookie pitching phenom David Price can deliver on the mound (though he starts the year in Triple-A). The mouse roared and took the fat cats of the AL East by surprise last year; they’ll be no such luck this season.

The Toronto Blue Jays have done an impressive job of staying competitive amid the harsh AL East environment over the years, but they’ve never been able to break through to the top. Burdened by intensified competition within the division, a weak and underachieving offense and an ailing rotation, this year’s Jays are vulnerable to the point that they might completely collapse, possibly to as low as 100 losses. It’s rough to make that claim given that Toronto’s pitching staff led the majors last season with a 3.49 ERA, but one starter (Shawn Marcum) is already out for the year thanks to Tommy John, another (Dustin McGowan) might return this season, and if the Jays badly stumble early on, the genuine ace of the pack, Roy Halladay—a free agent for 2010—could be traded, accelerating a late-season spiral into the basement. (Yes, even past Baltimore.) The Jays desperately need slugger Vernon Wells to finally start earning his big-time pay, and for Alex Rios to play at a level to make the Giants kick themselves for not trading Tim Lincecum one-up for him last year—if that is possible. For the most part though, Blue Jay Way will run into a dead end in 2009.

The Baltimore Orioles’ problem is the polar opposite of the Blue Jays’: They’re all hit, no pitch. They have four terrific batters in second baseman Brian Roberts, first baseman Aubrey Huff, third baseman Melvin Mora and outfielder Nick Markakis. Additionally, everyone’s agog over catching prospect Matt Wieters, who’ll likely knock incumbent Gregg Zaun out of the starting lineup sooner than later. But the rotation may be the majors’ worst, with only Jeremy Guthrie worthy of any confidence. After that, you have Radhames Liz, whose wildness has scared Oriole fans into thinking he’s the second coming of the departed Daniel Cabrera; Mark Hendrickson, who began 2008 as Opening Day pitcher for Florida and finished it in the bullpen; Rich Hill, who, depending on who you listened to, was either was hurt or just plain bad for the Cubs last season; and Japanese import Koji Uehura, whose terrific career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7-1 hasn’t translated into a terrific win-loss ratio (27-29 over the last four years). The bullpen, something of a disaster over the last few years, is likely to provide little if any relief. The Pirates are close to breaking the major league record for most consecutive losing seasons, but the Orioles, with another sub-.500 campaign likely in 2009, will make it 12 straight on their own—three shy of the AL record set by the 1953-67 A’s.

AL Central: Eric's picks

There appears to be a thin line between first and worst in the AL Central, in stark contrast to what we believed about this quintet before 2008. Back then, everyone expected a titanic struggle between Detroit and Cleveland, with overmatched Chicago, low-budget Minnesota and hopeless Kansas City opined far, far into the backdrop. How one year makes a difference; if ever there was a toss-up to be declared in baseball, it’s the 2009 edition of the AL Central. No team is dominant, nor will any be eliminated on Opening Day. For the last few weeks prior to this writing, I’ve been juggling, re-juggling and juggling yet again my predicted order of finish in this division. An intense game of musical chairs would be a less dizzying experience.

After all the juggling, I’ve settled on the Minnesota Twins to stand scalp, not head or shoulders, above the rest of the AL Central. The team that finished its first year at the Metrodome with over 100 losses in 1982 could very well finish its final year there with a divisional title. Last season, the Twins showed a remarkable confidence for a team that wasn’t terribly experienced, coming to within a tiebreaking victory of making the postseason. Unless injuries or the realization that last year was an overachievement tears this team apart, they’re only going to get better. They have a two-time batting titlist (catcher Joe Mauer), a former MVP (first baseman Justin Morneau), baseball’s most consistently stingy closer (Joe Nathan), a group of exciting, speedy young outfielders (Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez and Denard Span) and a tough, blossoming rotation that doesn’t waste pitches, helping the Twins to be far and away the last year’s leaders in walks allowed (just 2.49 a game). With only a handful of players at or above age 30, the Twins are a young and hungry team that has its head in the right place and its mind on first—which is where they’re likely to end up come the beginning of October.

The defending division champion Chicago White Sox aren’t going to disappear without a fight, but there’s a bit less punch in their fists. They’ve lost three veteran players (third baseman Joe Crede, shortstop Orlando Cabrera and starting pitching Javier Vazquez), brought almost nobody in to make it up, have age beginning to creep up on their remaining veterans and have major holes to fill in center field as well as both second and third base. Still, the White Sox are not to be taken lightly; they are potentially explosive, so long as the good Jermaine Dye shows up, Carlos Quentin stays healthy, Jim Thome doesn’t age too quickly and Paul Konerko regains the Mojo of his earlier, better campaigns; there’s good, young emerging pitching behind veteran Mark Buehrle, and they have an established closer in Bobby Jenks. Overall, the fact that the White Sox’ roster went into reverse during the winter likely handicaps the team’s chances in a division where progress has at least been attempted elsewhere.

The Cleveland Indians are, flat out, an enigma; in fact, they’re the epitome of the entire division. The Tribe is a pot full of players who in 2008 went from bad to good (Cliff Lee, Shin-Soo Choo) and vice versa (Fausto Carmona, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner). Will up become down and down become up again for these pivotal assets of the Tribe? Cross-fingered hopes for stability aside, the Indians did make a few nice moves in the offseason, bringing former Cubs on board in closer Kerry Wood and second baseman Mark DeRosa. The former should, if healthy, give the Indians long-overdue quality for the ninth inning, while the latter should set a proper spark to a lineup that could use just a little extra kick of juice. That upside is balanced with the downside of a rotation showing potential of getting steamrolled, and it could get worse if Lee reverts to horrid 2007 form; beyond he and Carmona, you have a staff that’s young, unproven or (in the case of former Yankee disaster Carl Pavano), someone trying to reach way back to a much better time. Shake it all up and it likely becomes a year in Cleveland much like the last one: 81-81.

People have already given up on the Detroit Tigers for 2009 the way they embraced the bejeezus out of them the year before, when many a prognosticator saw that prodigious lineup, became infatuated beyond belief and were convinced that the Tigers could just phone in the World Series. It was a lesson learned: Hitting by itself doesn’t win championships, and as I and some others who tore away from the pied piper foretold, the pitching would not be there to carry the Tigers into October. It won’t be there again this year; even the ace, Justin Verlander, needs to shake off a dismal 11-17 record and 4.84 ERA from last season. The Tigers picked up Edwin Jackson (14-11) from Tampa Bay, but they need far more to replace the same cast of characters in the rotation who stank up the joint last season (rookie Armando Galarraga excepted). The bullpen looks even worse, with lead reliever Joel Zumaya struggling to stay healthy and a new closer (Brandon Lyon, from Arizona) who hardly impressed at the job last season. What will keep the Tigers out of the basement will be its formidable hitting, still potent with Curtis Granderson, Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen. But the Tigers aren’t fooling anyone this year, least of all themselves.

Everyone’s high on the Kansas City Royals this year. This is the team, some pundits believe, that could become the 2009 version of the Rays. True, the Royals did make some approrpriate wintertime moves, bringing outfielder Coco Crisp from a championship environment in Boston and Mike Jacobs from Florida for some desperately needed pop. But if you think about it, these are two players who may not be starters on many major league teams. That they’re suggested to be saviors of sorts in Kansas City is somewhat alarming; their added value will be more incremental than impressive. Kansas City already has existing talent on the rise in starting pitcher Zack Greinke, closer Joakim Soria and shortstop Mike Aviles; beyond that, this is still a ballclub that’s undernourished and in need of some knockout talent, veteran or otherwise. The Royals may feel good about themselves right now, but if they don’t get out to a great start—and chances are, even in this wacky division, they probably won’t—the return of that sinking feeling may be as depressing as ever. Kansas City is no longer a terrible team; it’s just still not that good.

AL Central: Ed's rebuttal

Wow, Eric. You’re picking the Detroit Tigers to be second-to-last in this division? This is where we really differ. I believe the Tigers will live up to last season’s expectations and win this division handily. Their lineup is potent from top-to-bottom and they have just enough pitching to get the job done. The problems they had with their pitching will go away, allowing that amazing offense to strut it stuff. Don’t get me wrong—this will be a race. Cleveland, Minnesota and the White Sox will play good ball, but will essentially beat each other up in the end, while the Tigers cruise to the title.

AL West: Ed's picks

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lost an unholy free agent war, losing first baseman Mark Texeira, closer Francisco Rodriguez, starting pitcher Jon Garland and outfielder Garret Anderson. They did pickup some decent replacements with additions Bobby Abreu and closer Brian Fuentes, but, in the end, they’re probably a less formidable team than they were in 2008. The Angels’ offense is still a holy terror, led by Vladimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter and the aforementioned Abreu. L.A.’s pitching is the best in the West, featuring reliable arms like John Lackey, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver. The Angels will clinch the AL West title early in September, even after losing all those stars. That’s how heavenly they are when compared to the rest of this weak division.

No one knows where the Oakland A’s are going to be playing in the future. Will it be San Jose, Sacramento or the newest frontrunner, Milpitas? Who knows? Poor Fremont, no one ever remembers the city that almost gets a pro team (just ask Irwindale). Wherever they play, the A’s will be fairly exciting, having added names like Matt Holliday, Nomar Garciaparra, Orlando Cabrera and Jason Giambi. Eric Chavez is a great player, but he hasn’t been healthy in so long that A’s fans have probably forgotten about his glory days. Breakout stars for the A’s this year could include names like outfielder Jack Cust, first baseman Daric Burton and catcher Kurt Suzuki. Oakland’s pitching is not going to be pleasant to watch this season. Unless, of course, you like home runs. Justin Duchscherer is a proven winner, but guys like Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher, and closer Joey Devine are untested and unproven. Sorry, Mr. Beane. You did some great things with this team during the off-season, but Moneyball will come up broke again this year.

The Texas Rangers scored a ton of runs last season, but in the end it didn’t matter, because their pitching stunk up the joint and befouled the warm Texas air with long home runs and sizzling liners up the middle. The offseason didn’t offer the Rangers a lot to cheer about. Andruw Jones? Is that the best you can do? The offense will continue to be explosive, because second baseman Kinsler, outfielders Nelson Cruz, and Josh Hamilton, DH Hank Blalock and third baseman Michael Young are some of the best hitters in the AL. But, this team’s pitching will be deplorable again this season, led by Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Scott Feldman and a bunch of guys with ERAs over 5.00. Texas has all the bats it needs, but too few arms to make a run at the AL West crown.

I really thought the Seattle Mariners would put it all together in 2008. I studied their roster and figured there was no way they could fail. Well, where there’s a will there’s a way. Seattle played some of the worst baseball in franchise history, and I’m including the 1969 Pilots in that analysis. Now the team is in a long-term rebuilding phase. Led by the consistently flawless Ichiro and third baseman Adrian Beltre, the Mariners can still score runs. Ken Griffey, Jr. returns to the team where he started his HOF career with, to bat 7th and make an occasional ESPN Sports Center highlight reel with a great defensive play. But, after that—it’s a sad menagerie of wannabes, once-was’s, and never-will-be’s. Catcher Jeff Clement is a lifetime .227 hitter and ten-year first base veteran Russell Branyan is a .250 career guy, for example. Seattle’s pitching is iffy as well, led by Felix Hernandez and not much else.

AL West: Eric's rebuttal

Ed and I usually share the same opinion on the AL West, and this year…well, let’s just say, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. About the only thing more predictable is the order of finish in this division. Spot on, Ed.

Last year was supposed to be the year for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They had a talented and balanced lineup, a solid rotation and a brilliant bullpen. Everything went according to plan for the first 162 games, in which the Angels won a franchise-record 100—but a stumble in the ALDS infamously highlighted by a botched suicide squeeze attempt ruined the dream. If the Angels aren’t careful, they may not get a second chance at it; they’ve lost major contributors in Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, Jon Garland and long-time fan favorite Garret Anderson. They have filled in some of the blanks, with the serviceable Brian Fuentes replacing Rodriguez at the closer spot and Bobby Abreu—brought in a for a relative steal of a deal, at $5 million—taking over for Anderson. Overall, the Angels are not as well rounded; they have too many quality outfielders (almost all of them well over 30) and not enough quality infielders; perhaps Abreu or Gary Matthews Jr. can learn to play first base, where Teixeira’s departure has left a gaping hole. Fortunately for the Angels, the rest of the AL West is so weak, they’re likely to overcome their deficiencies and take their fifth divisional title in six years.

If anyone has a chance to catch the Angels, it’s the Oakland A’s. But they have to do it by August 1; if they don’t, general manager Billy Beane will pull the plug on the season by trading recently acquired star Matt Holliday, a free agent for 2010, to a contender for the usual prospects. Even if the A’s are in contention, Beane made trade Holliday anyway; last year, he dealt away half of the rotation and folded shop last July while the A’s were right on the Angels’ tail. (Oakland was 51-44 before the All-Star break; it was 24-42 afterward.) Last year’s absent offense (a major league-low .242 batting average) has been addressed with the addition of Holliday, the return of Jason Giambi and the free-agent signings of Orlando Cabrera and what’s left of Nomar Garciaparra. But the starting rotation, severely savaged by trades and injuries over the past year, has become the potential problem; Dana Eveland, with 11 career wins, is your Opening Day starter. The bullpen does look promising after remarkable results from first-year relievers Joey Devine (0.59 ERA in 42 appearances) and Brad Ziegler (1.06 ERA in 47 appearances), but it remains to be seen whether these youngsters can follow up with a rousing encore. Oakland does have an impressive recent history of young throwers who evolve fast and strong, and it’ll have to rely on that tradition to force the Angels to take a serious look in the rear-view mirror.

The Texas Rangers were the first team in history to lead the majors in hitting while being dead last in both pitching and defense. In other words, it was the same ol’ story in Arlington played to extremes. This year offers absolutely nothing new; the Rangers tried to bring in some new arms (Ben Sheets was ready to sign before the Rangers found out he had to go under the knife), but essentially they begin 2009 with the same staff that, in 2008, recorded a major league-worst 5.37 ERA and whose closer, C.J. Wilson, saved 24 games—with a 6.02 ERA. Perhaps the pitchers will learn from the past, or they’ll be resigned to the fact that they are who they thought they were. As usual, any salvation in Texas will have to come from the offense, which lost Milton Bradley to the Cubs but also offers up a treasure trove of up-and-coming bashers like outfielder David Murphy, first baseman Chris Davis and a catching tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden, joining veteran standouts Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Hank Blalock and Ian Kinsler. The cliché is as true as it is tired: Pitching and defense wins championships. Unless it’s the kind you find near DFW.

The Seattle Mariners are hoping that the nightmare of last season is over—but the aftereffects will take some time to clear. On the field and in the clubhouse, 2008 was a disaster, with team chemistry breaking badly into factions and finger-pointing. Some deadweight (Richie Sexson, Jose Vidro) has been cleared, but also gone are worthy talents like Raul Ibanez and J.J. Putz. What principally remains is Ichiro Suzuki, both star and symptom amid the poisonous atmosphere of last season after teammates grumbled that he was in it for himself. As I said then, anyone who gives you 1,805 hits and a .331 average in just eight years has to be doing something for the collective good. The big wintertime news in Seattle was the return of Ken Griffey Jr., but at age 39, he’s hardly the superstar of lore and, if anything else, will only succeed in putting smiles back in the clubhouse. Otherwise, the offense is dreadful—though it should be noted that third baseman Adrian Beltre is in the final year of his contract, and we all know how well he played the last time free agency loomed (.334 average, 48 homers and 121 RBIs for the Dodgers in 2004). On the mound, Seattle’s rotation, led by Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard, isn’t bad so long as it stays healthy, but the closer situation is so dire, the Mariners brought in Chad Cordero—who’s still piecing himself back together after major surgery late last year. The Mariners may catch Texas for third in the West—maybe even Oakland if the A’s collapse—but visions of contending are still faint.

Postseason/Awards Picks:

In some ways, Ed and I are starting to think so alike, it’s scary. We’re in sync with one another on our pennant picks, predicting a 1986 World Series redux between the Red Sox and Mets; I believe the Red Sox will get their revenge because Bill Buckner won’t be the “croquette rung” (Ed’s description) at first base, though there’s also a part of me that says I can’t embrace the Mets too much after letting me down the past two years. Conversely, Ed is going full throttle with those new New York Mets, with that new ballpark, new bullpen and all.—Eric

Eric's picks:
NL: New York Mets (East), St. Louis Cardinals (Central), Arizona Diamondbacks (West), Chicago Cubs (wild card)

NL Champion: New York Mets

AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Minnesota Twins (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West), New York Yankees (wild card)

AL Champion: Boston Red Sox

World Series Champion: Boston Red Sox

Ed's picks:
NL: New York Mets (East), Los Angeles Dodgers (West), Chicago Cubs (Central), Philadelphia Phillies (wild card)

NL Champion: New York Mets

AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Detroit Tigers (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West), New York Yankees (wild card)

AL Champion: Boston Red Sox

World Series Champion: New York Mets

The 2009 Midseason Report Card Our annual look at the best, worst and most unexpected during the first half of the 2009 major league season.

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