It's a 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half-a-pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses. We're on a mission from God.
Ah ... wait. Sorry, wrong opening. That's from the Blues Brothers.
Here's the proper opening for 2007:
|Having a better pitching staff will help Terry Francona's Red Sox capture the AL East. (Getty Images)|
AL East: 1. Boston, 2. Yankees, 3. Toronto, 4. Baltimore, 5. Tampa Bay.
Swear on a stack of Bibles, until mere hours ago, I had the Yankees winning their 10th consecutive division title. Then word filtered that they actually are considering Carl Pavano as their opening day starter, and I think I wrenched my back jumping off that bandwagon. Yeesh. You can't measure a season on opening day, but if Pavano is starting, that's a miserable sign of what's down the road for Yankees pitching. Why are you going to Triple-A, Phil Hughes? A Yankees nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Whoo, whoo, whoo.
The Red Sox aren't perfect, but if they can keep Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew out of diapers and on the field, they have three imposing sticks -- don't forget David Ortiz -- and a deeper rotation than New York. And that's what wins it for the Red Sox. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett will be more fun than a walk on the Freedom Trail.
Toronto's rotation falls off after Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, and without Justin Speier (now with the Angels), the Blue Jays might have difficulty getting to closer B.J. Ryan. Baltimore is still owned by Peter Angelos, though the O's bullpen shouldn't be such a 0 again. Tampa Bay has too many outfielders and not enough pitchers.
AL Central: 1. Detroit, 2. Cleveland, 3. Minnesota, 4. Chicago White Sox, 5. Kansas City.
|Gary Sheffield might just be what the Tigers need to win it all. (Getty Images)|
Detroit is reminiscent of last year's White Sox: A World Series team that actually got better during the winter. So based on the way the White Sox tailed off in the aftermath, no way I should pick the Tigers first. But they're the best on paper, especially with the addition of Gary Sheffield, and even if Justin Verlander had the spring blues and Kenny Rogers is out, they have the best manager in Jim Leyland.
Cleveland is poised to surprise a whole lot of people. I wrestled with picking the Indians to win the division, based on the fact that Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and Co. are going to score a bunch of runs (second in the AL in 2006), they have a solid rotation (fourth in the AL in '06) and their bullpen should be better. But I can't see Eric Wedge outmanaging Leyland.
The smartest pick might have been to just go with the Twins. What they do annually is unbelievable, and in MVP Justin Morneau, batting champ Joe Mauer, Gold Glover Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and Cy Young winner Johan Santana, they're loaded with studs. But there are rotation questions that guys like Boof Bonser and Matt Garza must answer. Brad Radke retired, and Francisco Liriano is injured. Depending on that rotation, the Twins could finish anywhere from first to fourth.
The White Sox can bang with anybody, but their pitching scares me. Mark Buehrle was bludgeoned this spring, and closer Bobby Jenks was both overweight and ineffective. Kansas City will be better.
AL West: 1. L.A. Angels, 2. Oakland, 3. Texas, 4. Seattle.
When Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver return in the coming days, the Angels will be deeper in the rotation, bullpen (Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Speier), lineup and bench than anybody else. Best news this spring for manager Mike Scioscia's club was the good health of left fielder Garret Anderson. After back, neck and leg issues, the Angels think Anderson is healthier than at any time since 2002. Scouts who have watched Anderson agree, and that could spell a very potent middle of the lineup if a healthy Anderson teams with a healthy Vladimir Guerrero. Watch rookie second baseman Howie Kendrick, too. The kid can hit.
Oakland will be much happier if Rich Harden makes more than 30 starts, though the Athletics always find a way to win. Eric Chavez, Milton Bradley, Nick Swisher and Bobby Crosby all are capable of 25 or more homers. Because of the Angels' depth, health is a huge key for the A's.
Texas is getting there with its pitching, but Kevin Millwood as the No. 1 is far from a slam dunk ... and Vicente Padilla, Robinson Tejada and Jamey Wright? New manager Ron Washington will need some Grecian Formula. The Mariners will be better -- and more inspired -- when they change managers.
AL wild card: Cleveland.
And Yankees fans blame Pavano and A-Rod.
AL champ: Detroit
Tigers were close in 1983 before winning in '84. Sometimes you've got to learn from the process.
AL MVP: Sizemore, Cleveland.
It's coming. Why not this year?
AL Cy Young: Santana, Minnesota.
Nobody is better. But look out for Oakland's Harden, Seattle' Felix Hernandez and Toronto's Halladay.
Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Boston.
It's a rule: If somebody other than the Yankees wins the AL East, that club's manager is pretty much the automatic pilot of the year.
Rookie of the Year: Matsuzaka, Boston.
Difficult to see this one going any other way. But here are two others who could win it any other year (or this year if Matsuzaka becomes the game's biggest disappointment): Kansas City third baseman Alex Gordon and Tampa Bay outfielder Delmon Young.
Comeback Player of the Year: Zack Greinke, Kansas City.
Good spring, and it's hard not to pull for the kid. There are plenty of candidates, but I can't see Sammy Sosa lasting the full summer in Texas, I can't see closer Eric Gagne staying healthy in Texas -- he'll start the season on the DL -- and Oakland's Harden and Bobby Crosby are too fragile, too. The Angels' Colon, the 2005 Cy Young winner, is a dark horse.
Home run champ: Hafner, Cleveland.
Boom, boom, out goes the baseball in Jacobs Field.
AL surprise team: Cleveland.
If the Indians get any relief pitching at all -- any relief -- they're going to be in contention all summer.
AL Disappointing team: New York Yankees.
Pavano on opening day?! Andy Pettitte's back already is acting up. They're trying to run Alex Rodriguez out of town. If Jorge Posada goes down, who's going to catch? Joe Torre?
NL East: 1. Philadelphia, 2. N.Y. Mets, 3. Atlanta, 4. Florida, 5. Washington.
|Jimmy Rollins' confidence may upset the rest of the NL East. (Getty Images)|
Speaking of which, Tom Glavine is a Hall of Famer, but after him, the Mets are putting an '85 Thunderbird engine in a 2007 Lamborghini. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Moises Alou will leave opposing pitchers lying awake at night. And Oliver Perez, John Maine and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez will put them back to sleep. Paging Mr. Mike Pelfrey: Can you develop more quickly, please?
Atlanta was the chic pick to bounce back until Mike Hampton went down. The Braves bullpen is much, much better, and Scott Thorman will be fun to watch at first. Florida's kids are primed to take a step back -- unless you think every single one of them is that good. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez definitely is, but can Dan Uggla approach 30 homers again?
Say this for the Nationals: Lots of people think they're so bad that they will lose between 115-120 games. But mark it down: It won't happen. Washington is bad, but this is the declawed National League. If the Nationals were in the AL, they're be a shoo-in for 120 losses. In the NL, pencil 'em in for 98.
NL Central: 1. St. Louis, 2. Milwaukee, 3. Houston, 4. Chicago Cubs, 5. Cincinnati, 6. Pittsburgh.
Four words: Watch out for Milwaukee. The pick here is St. Louis, mostly out of deference toward what the Cardinals accomplished and what they continue to accomplish under manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan rather than a slam-dunk sense that the Cardinals are ready to win again.
They could, but they need lots of answers behind Chris Carpenter in the rotation. Center fielder Jim Edmonds is toward the end of his career. Third baseman Scott Rolen and La Russa could begin another Cold War. Still, the Cards have one of the best pitchers in the game in Carpenter and one of the best players in Albert Pujols. That counts for a lot.
The Brewers are deeper than they've been in years. Young position players like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Billy Hall and Corey Hart are coming into their own. Jeff Suppan knows how to win and provides an anchor for the rest of the rotation. Ben Sheets feels good. And, as my pal Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel notes, they're on a 25-year baseball cycle in Milwaukee -- the Braves won in 1957, the Brewers reached the World Series in 1982 ... and 25 years later, can they? Sure they can.
Houston took a hit in losing Pettitte, and unless Roger Clemens comes riding in on a white horse. ... The Cubs grabbed everybody's attention, but they're serious about backing Lou Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano with Jason Marquis in the rotation?
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both are showing promise, and the division is wide open.
NL West: 1. Los Angeles Dodgers, 2. San Diego, 3. Arizona, 4. San Francisco, 5. Colorado.
Don't be fooled: The NL West is very good, but not as rugged as you might have been led to believe. It's about pitching, but will old guys Greg Maddux, David Wells, Jason Schmidt and Randy Johnson hold up all summer? Hope so, because it will be worth watching if they do.
The Dodgers are the pick here because they're a little more balanced and a little deeper than anybody else. Their Achilles' heel is an injury or two to Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra. Each is almost certain to land on the DL at some point, but one time each instead of multiple times each, and the Dodgers can still survive. They might not employ a Cy Young winner in their rotation, but they have five guys who will give them a chance every night in Schmidt, Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf and Brett Tomko.
What's the best division?
Total Votes: 21,402
San Diego had never won back-to-back division titles before, and its run for a third is dependent on somebody in the middle of their lineup flexing his muscles. Brian Giles? Mike Cameron? Adrian Gonzalez? But if the Padres don't score a ton, the other guys won't, either. In Jake Peavy, Maddux, Chris Young, Wells and Clay Hensley, and in closer Trevor Hoffman and setup men Cla Meredith, Scott Linebrink and Heath Bell, it will be another summer of woofing for the home boys in Petco Park.
Arizona has Brandon Webb and Johnson, but I don't know that Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin and Conor Jackson are quite yet ready to win. The Giants need Barry Zito to dominate and Matt Cain to grow into the Cy Young winner he can be, and even at that, their position players are all too far past their primes. Colorado? Good luck.
NL wild-card: New York Mets.
If they can stave off Milwaukee. And it's been years since I've used the word "stave" and actually mentioned Milwaukee as a contender.
NL champ: Los Angeles Dodgers.
Of an NL pack in which each team has flaws, reasonable pitching and the young legs of players like Russell Martin and Andre Ethier will carry the Dodgers. And manager Grady Little is a plus.
MVP: Pujols, St. Louis.
Get set for a great duel between Pujols and Philly's Ryan Howard. And look out for Houston's Lance Berkman, Pittsburgh's Jason Bay and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder.
Cy Young: Johnson. Why not? His 17 wins last season would have led the NL. Carpenter, Webb, the Cubs' Zambrano, the Padres' Peavy, Houston's Roy Oswalt and Milwaukee's Sheets all could factor in.
Manager of the Year: Ned Yost, Milwaukee.
|Keep your eye on Ned Yost's Brewers. (Getty Images)|
Rookie of the Year: Chris Young, Arizona.
The reviews are rave. But San Diego third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, Colorado catcher Chris Iannetta, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Arizona's Quentin are names to watch, and Atlanta's Scott Thorman and Martin Prado, too.
Comeback Player of the Year: Kip Wells, St. Louis.
As soon as Cards pitching coach Duncan gets a hold of him ...
NL home run champ: Howard, Philadelphia.
This man, in Philadelphia's homer-friendly ballpark, is unbeatable. Unless your name is Pujols, then maybe.
NL surprise team: Milwaukee.
See NL Central.
NL disappointing team: Chicago Cubs.
They'll be a lot better than the 96-loss embarrassment from a year ago. But $300 million spent over the offseason should carry a club into the playoffs, and I'm not convinced they have the rotation to get there.
World Series: Detroit over the Dodgers.
Say, in six games. And Tigers pitchers make it the entire way without committing one error!
First player traded: Lastings Milledge, Mets.
There will come a time when GM Omar Minaya finally realizes he's got to do what it takes to improve the rotation.
First manager fired: Mike Hargrove, Seattle.
And bench coach John McLaren replaces him. At least for this season.