If...TGG’s Picks for the 2010 Season

The prophets at This Great Game wade through the cloudy depths of dense details to establish who will thrive, dive and try to stay alive in the majors in 2010.

By Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio, This Great Game
Posted March 30, 2010

This Great Game Opinion.

If. Dennis Hopper once said that “if is the middle word in life.” For many major league teams boning up for the 2010 season, if is the first, middle and last word. This team will do well, if. That team has a chance to make a run, if. The rising star can make a difference, if.

With an increasing supply of fragile ballplayers flooding the clubhouse, it’s more clear than ever that there are no guarantees in baseball. One team’s good fortune becomes another team’s run of bad luck. Or so the theory goes, but don’t tell that to the majority of teams struggling to maintain a healthy roster.

For veteran prognosticators like us, trying to predict the coming season seems to be more of a minefield than ever before. Look at the New York Mets last year. All they needed to dominate the National League was to fix their bullpen. They did that. So what happened? The rest of the roster collapsed under the weight of pain. Sure, the Mets could have won the East and made the bulk of us who told you so look like the second coming of Nostradamus. If…

So we move forward, seeing what 2010 should bring—but blind to what curves it will throw. All things being equal, we stand firm in our confidence to guess. In fact, I pledge not to make use of the word “if” even once below. Now there’s a challenge.

Final note: Ed Attanasio is focused on interviewing ex-ballplayers and could not reveal his picks in detail, but does list his choices for divisional, pennant and World Series winners at the bottom of this page. So you have me, uncontested but firm in my thoughts.

No ifs, ands and buts about it.

NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

NL East

Charlie Manuel, the skipper of the two-time defending NL champion Philadelphia Phillies, has lost 60 pounds during the offseason—and he’s hungry for revenge, saying this spring, “I want the Yankees.” He may get them again, but it won’t be a cakewalk getting there. The Phillies were unstoppable on offense in their march to the World Series last year, and with once-and-current Phillie Placido Polanco replacing Pedro Feliz at third base, they’re going to be even tougher to get out this season. The big offseason acquisition for this team, of course, had nothing to do with hitting: Roy Halladay is anticipated to be an upgrade to Cliff Lee and should help take the pressure off the back end of an otherwise standard rotation. The bullpen remains Philadelphia’s biggest wound to expose, especially with Brad Lidge still struggling to return to good health. But consider this: The Phillies reached the World Series last year in spite of Lidge’s awful 7.21 ERA as closer. How can it be any worse this year?

The Atlanta Braves are tough to pin down. Just when you think they’re due for a fall, they rise up. When it seems the roses are ready to bloom, the cold front moves in. Last year was one of those occasions where the Braves, without warning, turned a little nothing into a little something. Bouncing off that late-season success and flirtation with the postseason, there’s a sense that the Braves are ready to make a good run at it. They have the accessories to make it happen: A starting rotation that, on paper, is the division’s strongest and dependent on comeback efforts from Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson; rebuilt closer Billy Wagner, trying to prove his pre-Tommy John value; and a fair everyday lineup that could get a positive push with young outfielders Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward, the latter a major sensation at spring training with tape-measure shots smashing one windshield after another. How timely this potential Atlanta uprising could be for Bobby Cox, who’s calling it a career after this season regardless of what happens. I’m staying the course with the Braves’ momentum; let’s see whether the Braves can.

After picking the New York Mets to win the NL pennant each of the last three years—and having my fat hat handed to me in the form of a dunce cap each time—I feel the urge to forever banish them from such lofty expectations. Emotions aside, the Mets have had their chance, and they now risk heading toward a lengthy, unremarkable era. Picking up Jason Bay was a nice catch, but his presence is hardly a cure-all as the team has an awful lot to overcome—starting with bad health, as the epidemic of pain that inflicted this team last season has continued into 2010 with Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes still chopped up. Even David Wright, the one star who managed to avoid the disabled list last year, is having his head messed with (both figuratively and literally) between expansive Citi Field dimensions and aggressive opposing pitchers. The Mets do have a roster worthy of the postseason, but don’t you get the sense that the team’s karma is way too shot to inspire any confidence? I do. One thing’s for sure: Should the Mets not get ace pitcher Johan Santana at full strength for the entire season, forget it.

The Florida Marlins are amazing. Here’s owner Jeffrey Loria pocketing all this money he could be spending on players, putting most of it into a rainy day fund worthy of the second coming of Noah’s Ark—and yet, for all their low-budget shenanigans, the Marlins continue to play damn good baseball. There’s something here for the Pirates and Padres to learn, given they’re the current heir apparents to the Marlins’ philosophy. The glory of the Marlins’ lean times are coming to an end; with a new ballpark a few years away and a big black number listed on the balance sheet, Loria & Company have been cornered by both the union and fellow owners at gunpoint to start spending the profits. And so they have. Current staff ace Josh Johnson has been given four years and $39 million rather than get traded for more prospects, and that may just be the beginning. This is bound to raise the stock of the Marlins for the future, but for now the team is a work in progress. The starting rotation is young and promising but as fragile as a china shop waiting for the bulls to roam through—while the bullpen, healthy or not, is weak. The offense, led by shortstop Hanley Ramirez and reigning rookie of the year Chris Coghlan, is strong yet wild, and will not make inroads unless center fielder Cameron Maybin can finally prove his worth and become a reliable leadoff hitter—thus transferring Coghlan more aptly to the second spot in the order. The Marlins show promise—they always do—but the path to that growing light at the end of the tunnel is littered with landmines.

Needless to say, there’s perception problems for the Washington Senators, er, Nationals, who continue to confound long-time D.C. baseball fans into barking every year: “Why us?” The question this year for those fans is not whether the team will compete but, rather, can it avoid a third straight year with 100 or more losses? The Generals, er, Nationals have cleaned up their Acta (that’s fired manager Manny Acta) and are now attempting to clean up their act, starting with the purge of star cancer Elijah Dukes. (I’m guessing that Gilbert Arenas won’t be asked to make a clubhouse appearance anytime soon.) The Nixons, er, Nationals have some talent, with quality hitters in Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, newly-arrived starting pitcher Jason Marquis (who impressed a mile high in Colorado last year) and returning staff leader John Lannan, whose sub-4.00 ERAs over the last two years deserve more than an 18-28 record. Beyond that, the Whigs, er, Nationals are horribly thin at pitching and in need of a more sound batting order. There’s some hope with former Pirate Nyjer Morgan (who hit .351 after his trade to Washington last summer) and, of course, the future-is-now moment that will likely occur later this year when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound in a D.C. uniform. But in total, Washington remains first in war, first in peace and last in the National League.

NL Central

Matt Holliday must be the luckiest guy in the world. After producing gaudy numbers in the thin atmosphere of Denver, he now assumes another statistical luxury: Batting in front of Albert Pujols, only the game’s best hitter, all while his personal hitting coach (Mark McGwire) has come out of a lengthy exile to give tips on his every swing. Will the St. Louis Cardinals feel his luck? Absolutely. And it’s not just because of Holliday, which gives the Redbirds a dynamic 3-4-5 punch (the “5” is Ryan Ludwick, who’ll likely see some choice pitches as Holliday and Pujols often reach base ahead of him), but because of two other heads-up acquisitions: Starting pitcher Brad Penny, lousy last year in Boston but solid in San Francisco, suggesting his home is with the NL; and infielder Felipe Lopez, a dependable hitter who somehow went unsigned all the way to the start of camp and could (or, really, should) be an everyday starter. Depth is an issue, as the talent meter slackens off considerably past the marquee, but the Cardinals have the gas to get to the postseason thanks to the aforementioned star hitters and two terrific pitchers in Adam Wainwright and the bionic Chris Carpenter. With veteran guidance from manager Tony La Russa and his loyal (and valuable) pitching lieutenant Dave Duncan, St. Louis should bag its second straight divisional title.

Kevin Millar was there when the Boston Red Sox snapped an 86-year World Series drought in 2004, and now the Chicago Cubs have brought him on board, perhaps solely in the hopes that he’ll play the good luck charm and séance the Cubs toward ending their own long, dry championship spell. Rubbing the rabbit’s foot may be the only thing left in the Cubs’ book of tricks 102 years after winning their last title, but they accomplished a few other things this past offseason to get back on a more substantive track toward success: Getting rid of Milton Bradley, closer Kevin Gregg and a bankrupt ownership group whose Job One was to sell. So is Lady Luck ready to smile upon Chicago baseball? Yes, but only on the South Side (more on that later). The Cubs do have an impressive lineup headlined by Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto—but the trick is to keep them healthy; the rabbit’s foot didn’t come through on that last year. Pitching is a bigger concern. Some wonder whether ace Carlos Zambrano has his head in the game anymore and whether Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny belong in any rotation, let alone the Cubs’. And in the bullpen, Carlos Marmol may be the game’s wildest closer, constantly messing with the blood pressure levels of the Wrigley faithful. The Cubs should nip at the Cardinals’ heels, but that’s it.

The Cincinnati Reds continue to have that look of enticement, any minute ready to burst forth to the top of the standings. Their offseason signing of Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman and his 100-MPH fastball could aid a rotation already on the brink of greatness, with the continued maturing of young Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto to join veterans Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. (And don’t forget Edinson Volquez, due back from his Tommy John sabbatical later this year.) The Reds’ main issue, ironically for a team that plays in a hitter’s park, is hitting. Joey Votto is a major slugging force so long as his mind and body can stay healthy for 162 games; Jay Bruce, the team’s other, highly regarded young slugger, hit .457 in his first 12 major league games—but only .226 since. There are recently arrived veterans Scott Rolen, Ramon Hernandez and Orlando Cabrera to back the young boppers up, but they’re clearly on the downside of their careers. A year ago, I saw the Reds with the guarded potential to become last year’s Tampa Bay. This year, they may just be this year’s Cincinnati.

It’s great to see a “small-market” franchise like the Milwaukee Brewers juicing up the town and bringing three million customers through the turnstiles. But the honeymoon to the team’s recent successes is about to end. On the surface, that statement seems rather melodramatic—after all, there is Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, arguably the game’s best 1-2 punch, right? Yes, there is. But what’s beyond those two on the Brewers? Not much at all, it seems. There’s a precipitous drop-off in the lineup after Fielder and Braun, the rotation is experienced and promising but hardly overwhelming, and…just how ageless can closer Trevor Hoffman, who turns 43 in October, continue to be? The Brewers could prove me wrong and put it all together with some unexpected growth from youngsters like shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Carlos Gomez, but likely it’ll be a tough year on the team’s Mojo, which could really disintegrate should midseason rumors of a trade involving Fielder (a free agent after this season) run rampant and follow through to fruition.

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Russ Ohlendorf says that his team has a chance to be very good this year. Right—and the Somali Pirates have a very good chance of being admitted into the G-8. The team that hasn’t had a winning season since the first Bush administration has bottomed out on salary—even the Marlins are spending more nowadays. Pirate management has proclaimed that they won’t unload talent as they did last year, an easy thing to say when most of what they currently have comes priced very cheap. Actually, the Pirates have put themselves together a good little lineup, with few holes and lots of promise; they just need someone within that group to step it up big time and hope they don’t get rewarded for it by getting traded. On the mound, the continued development of our optimist Ohlendorf will be pivotal for a rotation that is still in search of itself. There is some galvanization taking place in Pittsburgh and it appears a departure from last place is quite possible, but a winning season is an altogether different story.

The Houston Astros have become kind of like the guy who gets ignored in a conversation of six until someone else in the group looks at him and blurts, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were still here.” The Astros have practically become baseball’s Invisible Man, an irrelevant team that’s not terrible—not yet—but has seemed to lost that drive to do something about it. It may stay that way as long as Drayton McLane, who looked this past winter into selling, stays put in his office. There is talent on this team such as outfielder Carlos Lee and ace pitcher Roy Oswalt, but what are they really doing? (Not much, lately.) What the front office has done is bring in players that haven’t stirred up much excitement in town. Yes, they signed ex-Phillies Pedro Feliz and Brett Myers, but those two players are not the reason Philadelphia won back-to-back NL pennants. And the Astros patched up their bullpen after closer Jose Valverde’s departure with Brandon Lyon—named by ESPN as the worst free-agent signing this offseason—and former Marlin Matt Lindstrom (5.89 ERA in 2009) because, why have one bad closer when you can have two at twice the price? Allowing myself to borrow from the Oscar-winning film Chicago, the Astros will feel like Mister Cellophane, because opponents can look right through them, walk right by them, and never know they’re there.

NL West

What follows is my ultimate love letter to those who’ve thought I had it in for the Colorado Rockies all these years: I’m picking them to win the West. And that’s no small feat, given this division has become one of baseball’s toughest. The Rockies have a good hitting nucleus, featuring established stars Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton; two young outfielders (Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez) whose continued evolution could become frightening to opponents; baseball’s best bench, projected to include Seth Smith, Ryan Spilborghs, Jason Giambi and Melvin Mora; a sound rotation that, thanks to the Coors Field humidor, appears to have tamed the mile-high madness of offensive mayhem; and a bullpen that has done the same and can still click even as closer Huston Street begins the season on the shelf. On top of all of this is the fact that the Rockies just feel it right now; led by reigning NL Manager of the Year Jim Tracy, the team may have more confidence coming into this season than two years ago, when they were fresh off their surprise NL pennant. There will be no such surprises this year.

The San Francisco Giants could catch the Rockies, but they need a lot to go their way. Hitting would be a start. As usual, the team could not land the big fish slugger it so desperately needs (not so much because of money but AT&T Park’s reputation as a bruise on hitters’ egos), so it went the roundabout route and picked up middle-resolution guys like Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff—the latter an enigma who can either shine (Baltimore, 2008) or stink (Detroit, 2009). At least there’s enough bulk in the lineup so that catcher Bengie Molina will no longer bat cleanup (he’s slated to hit sixth). So again, it all comes down to pitching for the Giants—and that, they most definitely do have. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are proven, distinguished and still quite young; Barry Zito looks at long last to be feeling comfortable within his massive contract; and Jonathan Sanchez has absorbed some confidence on the coattails of his 2009 no-hitter. (And don’t forget 20-year-old Madison Bumgarner, who’ll likely show up sometime this year and, many people believe, brings as much potential as Lincecum.) The bullpen matches the rotation as one of the game’s best, with closer Brian Wilson constantly playing with fire but managing to douse the flames before it’s too late. There’s little question that the Giants will often hold opponents to three runs or less; the bigger question is whether they can often score three runs or more.

This sums up the offseason for the Los Angeles Dodgers: Their biggest acquisition was a guy named Jamey (Carroll), their biggest departure a gal named Jamie (McCourt). That the team couldn’t (or wouldn’t) focus on strengthening itself while the McCourts monopolized the legal gossip community is troubling and will likely cost it a third straight NL West title. The Dodgers do retain their impressive hitting lineup that, after the Phillies, is the league’s strongest; the key is whether Manny Ramirez, who suddenly became mortal after his embarrassing suspension for female fertility drugs, can bring the big numbers back as he approaches his 38th birthday. The Dodgers have the making of a solid rotation, so long as Clayton Kershaw can pitch past the sixth inning, Chad Billingsley doesn’t carry over his second-half slump from 2009, Hiroki Kuroda stays healthy and Vicente Padilla can win over his teammates (something he failed to do in Texas). The challenge is there for manager Joe Torre, for who some believe is running the Dodgers for the last time.

The weight of the West will ultimately prove too much for the Arizona Diamondbacks, despite the fact that they’re not nearly as bad as people think. Forget last year’s depressing cellar dwelling; critical injuries and the premature firing of Bob Melvin so early in the year doomed the Diamondbacks. Starting fresh this year, the Arizona lineup looks improved with Conor Jackson back and Adam LaRoche taking over at first base, a black hole for the team last season. But one-time ace Brandon Webb continues to be a question mark with a troubled shoulder that just won’t heal, while the rest of the rotation beyond the reliable Dan Haren (including newcomers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy) has, by and large, been blasted in spring training—and their bullpen remains particularly weak, with mental midgets for veterans in Bob Howry and Aaron Heilman. The Diamondbacks will notch a few more runs this year; they’ll just be giving up a few more as well.

I visited San Diego late last summer expecting to hear nothing but profane groaning over the state of the San Diego Padres. To my utter surprise, what I got instead was optimism and numerous thumbs-up’s from Padre fans of all ages, happy over the departure of underachieving veterans and the subsequent rise of the hungry new kids on the block. For a team that appeared destined for 100 losses last year, a 75-87 finish was, to the fans, most satisying. The new Padre regime continues to settle in and the payroll is skimming rock bottom, and as feisty and determined as the new roster appears to be, it doesn’t hide the fact that the Padres are still undermanned and will likely spend the season looking up in the standings. There is some short-term hope; catcher Yorvit Torrealba, so pivotal in the Rockies’ run last season, comes to town as does pitcher Jon Garland, and those kids—shortstop Everth Cabrera and outfielders Kyle Banks, Will Venable and Tony Gwynn Jr.—should likely improve, though it’s a matter of how quickly. Trade rumors persist over breakout closer Heath Bell and slugger Adrian Gonzalez, who hit over .300 with 28 homers just on the road last year; should they go, the rebuilding process in San Diego will intensify. Otherwise, the Padres have a slim shot at crashing the party in the West.

AL East

The clash of the titans renews itself yet again as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox square off for bragging rights in the AL East—and beyond, as it is often demanded. Both teams have hardly stood pat this offseason and have made numerous moves to get ahead of one another. That said, who will win out this year?

The Yankees will. In fact, they likely clinched the East the day they picked up flashy, multi-faceted center fielder Curtis Granderson from Detroit. Granderson has shown in the past that he’s capable of sensational numbers (in 2007, he hit .300 with 38 doubles, 23 triples and 23 home runs) and although his stats have since declined, he’s still dangerous and bound to get a boost being inserted in the talent-rich Yankee lineup. It’s a matter of how the Yankees use him; he’s currently projected to bat seventh when, frankly, he should be leading off and creating havoc ahead of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Beyond Granderson, the reigning world champs further sweetened their odds when they traded expendable (thanks to Granderson) Melky Cabrera to Atlanta for pitcher Javier Vazquez, who, after a terrific effort with the Braves, gets a second shot in pinstripes (his first go-around, in 2004 with a 4.91 ERA, was not a success). Injuries and the accelerated aging of the team’s many vets are the only things standing in the way of another Yankee pennant.

Meanwhile, some believe that the Red Sox are in a rebuilding mode. Actually, it’s more like a makeover. It’s been widely written that the accent of the Red Sox’ redesign is on defense, and for good reason; the team’s three new position regulars—center fielder Mike Cameron, third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Marco Scutaro—are all handy with the glove and definite defensive upgrades to their predecessors. On offense, it could be argued that the Red Sox have a more consistently talented lineup from top to bottom than the Yankees—yet they lack the star MVP element unless David Ortiz returns to monster form after a frustrating 2009. The pitching also remains sharp, with more quality starters than the Red Sox can allow; John Lackey joins the rotation to complement Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and either Clay Buchholz or Tim Wakefield. And Jonathan Papelbon remains one of the game’s best closers, anchoring a sound bullpen. The Red Sox will continue to win and Fenway Park will continue to sell out; it’s conceivable that both they and the Yankees will win over 100 games this year. But the pressure is on the Sox to prove they can top the champions. That will be tough.

There’s a big sign hanging in the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training clubhouse that says, “What’s Important Now?” The caps of each letter are exaggerated by design so it can easily be read to say WIN. But between the Yankee-Red Sox chokehold in the East and looming free agency for some of their star players, the Rays are probably more apt to hang another sign that abbreviates out to HELP. This is a year where it could go either way for the Rays; they could (and do) have enough muscle to overachieve and match the Yanks and Red Sox—until they get a fancy new ballpark and $100 million payroll, overachievement is simply the only way—or they could collapse after a rough start with mid-summer trades of Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, each in the final year of their contracts. For now, Tampa Bay is about as well rounded as ever; Pena, Crawford and Evan Longoria are proven hitting stars, second baseman Ben Zobrist could add to that list, the rotation continues to strengthen and the bullpen finally has a solid closer in ex-Brave Rafael Soriano. All of this is culled under the sharp, watchful eyes of popular manager Joe Maddon, but even he knows that What’s Important Now is just to survive and hope for the best.

The good news for the Baltimore Orioles is that they won’t finish in the AL East cellar for the first time in three years. The bad news is that they’ll lose more games than win for the 13th straight year, which would leave them two shy of the all-time AL record (Philadelphia-Kansas City A’s, 1953-67). Modest enhancements have been made on offense; Miguel Tejada returns to the Orioles and will take over at third base while, across the diamond, Garrett Atkins tries to become reborn following a dismal end to his Colorado tenure. The lineup will be further invigorated with the likely maturing of catcher Matt Wieters and outfielder Adam Jones. But as the Orioles are all too aware, all the hitting in the world doesn’t do any good unless the pitching is there—and of late, it hasn’t. That might be changing. Kevin Millwood gives the rotation veteran presence it badly needs, lightening the burden off up-and-comers Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen, two guys that will hopefully expel the notion that an Oriole starting pitcher doesn’t come automatic with an ERA over 5.00. The Orioles are climbing the ladder and perhaps they can ultimately keep the A’s in the recordbook, but this is not an overnight process.

It’s official: Post-apocalyptic times have reached the Toronto Blue Jays. Armageddon took place with the departure of star pitcher Roy Halladay and nuclear winter set in as the Jays looked themselves in the mirror and saw the wasted remains of a team littered with underachieving hitters and a fragile, inexperienced rotation. Erase any hope that Adam Lind and Aaron Hill will match last year’s breakout hitting numbers, and the Jays could be a virtual lock for 100 losses this season. A year ago, rookie pitcher Ricky Romero was a nice touch to a decent Toronto rotation; now, he’s practically the de facto ace. And that tells you pretty much all you need to know about the state of Toronto pitching. The phoenix to rise from the ashes of the Halladay trade is in place, but that bird won’t take flight for years. In the meantime, it’s all about perspective for the Jays and their fans, enjoying baseball with almost no anticipation of success in the short term.

AL Central

The late, great Branch Rickey had a saying: Collect enough rocks and you’ll find a gem among them. In a sense, that’s the tact the Chicago White Sox are taking this year. Over the past nine months, they’ve accumulated so many players who’ve seen better days—Andruw Jones, Alex Rios, Omar Vizquel, J.J. Putz, Mark Teahen, Freddie Garcia and Juan Pierre—that at least at a few of them are bound to retain some of their glory and make a big contribution to the team. The group they’re joining is competitive enough already, with Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin in the heart of the order, a terrific rotation balanced between proven leadership (Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy) and rising stars (John Danks, Gavin Floyd) and a bullpen led by big, competitive closer Bobby Jenks. Throw in two more evolving position players in second baseman Gordon Beckham and shortstop Alexei Ramirez, and the sum total of the White Sox equals an outstanding shot at the AL Central crown. It should be enough for manager Ozzie Guillen to tweet with profane glee.

Everyone’s high on the Minnesota Twins, as last year’s divisional champs are betting their new house on the present with a payroll that’s close to $100 million. The momentum certainly is there; the offense is as potent as ever, with returning AL MVP Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer to be joined by newcomers Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy; it also doesn’t hurt to have a future Hall-of-Famer (Jim Thome) added to your bench. But a dark cloud hangs over Target Field, and it has nothing to do with the weather; closer Joe Nathan, who’s saved the Twins’ hide so efficiently and often over the last five years, is lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. This adds significant pressure on the rest of the staff, including a starting rotation that has been dynamite this spring but a weak point when it counted last year. (That Carl Pavano is your Opening Day starter is not a sign of strength.) The Twins’ sky-high expectations won’t lead to a crash-and-burn denouement, but a tempered perspective is well advised.

Miguel Cabrera got wasted with the enemy last October and, with it, helped waste away a postseason trip for the Detroit Tigers. Cabrera is now clean and sober and pledged to make amends—but are the rest of the reconstructed Tigers around him qualified to make another go at it? Johnny Damon has brought his winning spirit to Detroit (six postseason appearances over the last eight years for three different teams), but the Tigers will need to do more than rub shoulders with a guy’s who’s played often in October to get there. The departed Curtis Granderson will be replaced by top prospect Austin Jackson (dealt from the Yankees), who gets the starting nod in center field without ever having played a single major league game. The starting rotation is staunchly anchored by Justin Verlander but is otherwise vulnerable and dependent on the growth of fireballer Max Scherzer, who moves in from Arizona. Closing out will be Jose Valverde, underrated as underscored by 116 saves against just 18 blown over the last three years. The Tigers surprised me last year and I’m hesitant to reject them again as I did 12 months ago, but that’s where I’m leaning once more.

With the Cleveland Indians, manager Manny Acta has arrived at one down-on-its-luck franchise after being let go from another (Washington). Some people have all the luck in the world—and Acta isn’t one of them. With the Tribe, he takes over a team that less than three years ago was within a game of the World Series and has since retreated into the low-budget depths of the AL through intensive housecleaning. Some of the bigger names from that recent and brief glory remain, but their shine has faded; Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner have been battered by a myriad of injuries, and exactly where have you gone, Fausto Carmona? Jake Westbrook is back after prolonged Tommy John recovery, and suddenly he’s the Opening Day starter. (You thought Carl Pavano was a bad sign for the Twins? This is worse for the Tribe.) Exacerbating things, closer Kerry Wood is back on the shelf and won’t return until a few months in. Probably the one Indian whose stock is rising is outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, which probably means he’ll be traded by midseason. Otherwise, the Indians’ everyday lineup might be confused for a replacement squad. Good luck, Manny Acta. You’re really going to need it.

It may seem like a sign of progress that the Kansas City Royals are scheduled to appear on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for the first time in years this coming season, but the way the Royals are looking, it’s quite possible the network is in scrambling mode to ensure that AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke starts that game. Should he not, what’s left of the Royals to view that evening will likely leave a good chunk of the audience to switch over to 60 Minutes. It’s back to reality for the Royals after a lot of prognosticators (not me) had this notion they’d be the surprise of the AL last year. Surprise! The team finished last again, and they’ll likely do it again this year unless Cleveland really falls through a sinkhole. Nothing in Kansas City has changed from last year in terms of quality; in fact, it’s probably worse. After Greinke, the rotation features Gil Meche, struggling with shoulder pain this spring, and three other projected guys (Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies) who combined to produce a 6.43 ERA after the All-Star break last year. And after the failure of free agent signings Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs to improve the offense last year, the Royals are trying it again with Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel—all to the yawns of their divisional rivals. Memo to the front office: Milk Zack for all you got, because he is all you got.

AL West

In a tight dogfight to the wire in what has turned into a far more balanced AL West, I still see the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim prevailing. As advertised, it won’t be like last year when the Angels all but phoned in the divisional title, yet although they’ve lost crucial team elements with the departures of Chone Figgins, John Lackey and Vladimir Guerrero, they’ve made significant additions to offset those losses and maintain talent depth that is still, easily, the division’s best. They’ve replaced the fragile Guerrero with the less fragile (and just as potent) Hideki Matsui, who knows a thing or two about October baseball; from St. Louis, the Angels have brought in Joel Pineiro, whose numbers were slightly better than those of Lackey in 2009; and don’t forget, lurking at the bottom of the rotation, there’s ex-Tampa Bay ace Scott Kazmir, who could give the team a big boost should he recover well from recent injuries. From the rotation to the bullpen to the hitting order, the Angels remain quite deep, they’re rich with postseason experience and they’re led by, arguably, the game’s best manager in Mike Scioscia. Lofty expectations are being made of the Angels’ divisional competitors, but the incumbent should be able to withstand the challenge.

Much has been made of the Seattle Mariners going for broke this winter, picking up prime assets in Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley. But before Mariner fans get in line for postseason tickets, their team needs to address some glaring holes that remain. Lee and Felix Hernandez make for what could be the game’s stingiest pair of 1-2 starting pitchers, but Ryan-Rowland Smith, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister make for one of its weakest 3-4-5. The same could almost be said for the everyday lineup; it’s fabulous with Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins leading off—but with 3-4-5, what do you got? The talented yet fragile, clubhouse-busting Bradley? Ken Griffey Jr., all 40 years of him? First baseman Casey Kotchman, still trying to prove his star potential? In short, the Mariners will be able to set them up, but they’re going to have a hard time knocking them in. There are other positives to consider in Seattle; center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and/or third baseman Jose Lopez could explode and give the Mariners that much-needed clean-up muscle; Erik Bedard could strengthen the rotation when he returns from his latest injury in June, and closer David Aardsma seeks to repeat his out-of-nowhere brilliance from last season. But there’s far too many question marks hounding the Mariners, making all those offseason gains a risky proposition.

Josh Hamilton believes the Texas Rangers will win 96 games this year. Nolan Ryan, the team’s president, thinks they’ll rack up 92. Others within the organization are predicting a divisional title. There’s so much euphoria being dreamt up at Ranger camp, I’m starting to wonder whether manager Ron Washington was the only one snorting up. On the heels of a surprisingly good campaign last year, the Rangers are undoubtedly feeling high—illicitly or otherwise—about their chances this season. I’m breaking my pledge to refrain from using the word if because, if any team is going to live by the word if this year, it’s the Rangers. Yes, Texas will go out and win its 90 games and then some, if new ace pitcher and medical ward veteran Rich Harden stays healthy and productive, if Vladimir Guerrero and Josh Hamilton don’t break apart like last year, if Scott Feldman can win anything near the 18 games he nailed down last year, if young Neftali Perez keeps scaring opponents with his 100-MPH heat, if first baseman Chris Davis can hit over .200 without racking up 200 strikeouts…if, if, if. For the Rangers to overcome all those if’s, they’ve got to stay sharp, healthy and focused. Summers in the Metroplex are long, hot and steamy, and the tales of tolls the stifling weather has taken upon Ranger players past and present are legendary. A tip for this team next spring: Keep your predictions to yourself.

Here’s one sign of hope for the minority of Bay Area baseball fans who root for the Oakland A’s: Your team’s a year older. For some teams (like the Yankees), that could be a curse; for the A’s, it’s a big blessing. So many youngsters rode the roster last year in Oakland, it made you wonder if the team belonged in the American League or the Pacific Coast League. But look at what some of these kids did: Closer Andrew Bailey deservedly won the AL Rookie of the Year award after leading a bullpen full of other young stud relievers; 21-year old Brett Anderson emerged in the second half as a potential ace in the making, part of a rotation that for a time last summer consisted solely of rookies; second-year shortstop Cliff Pennington made an admiral impression late in the year and speedy outfielder Rajai Davis, unceremoniously dumped by the Giants a year earlier, sparkled with a .305 average and a sackful of stolen bases. The A’s made one terrific offseason move by trading for San Diego third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, but made a potentially awful one by paying $10 million for former Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets, who’s been slammed around this spring. The A’s still have a low-budget mindset, and it will stay that way until they vacate the Coliseum to wherever Bud Selig tells them to go, but they still get a lot of bang for their buck. Just not enough to compete for honors as Best of the West.

Postseason Picks:

Welcome to the party, Ed. Without getting into detail above, TGG’s other half gives us his brief thoughts below, agreeing with me on the Phillies, Cardinals and White Sox—but also giving the nod to the Giants to win the NL West, Seattle in the AL West and—in a flip-flopping variation of my picks—the Red Sox to overcome the Yankees in the AL East, on their way to both the AL pennant and World Series podium. For me, it all comes back to the bank account of the Yankees. They’re just too flush in the vault, too true to their reputation, and too good on the field to not win it all for a second straight year. Of course, anyone else can hijack the Yankees’ best-laid plans. If…

Ed picks:
NL: Philadelphia Phillies (East), St. Louis Cardinals (Central), San Francisco Giants (West), Chicago Cubs (wild card)

NL Champion: St. Louis Cardinals

AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Chicago White Sox (Central), Seattle Mariners (West), New York Yankees (wild card)

AL Champion: Boston Red Sox

World Series Champion: Boston Red Sox

Eric's picks:
NL: Philadelphia Phillies (East), St. Louis Cardinals (Central), Colorado Rockies (West), Atlanta Braves (wild card)

NL Champion: St. Louis Cardinals

AL: New York Yankees (East), Chicago White Sox (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West), New York Yankees (wild card)

AL Champion: New York Yankees

World Series Champion: New York Yankees

The 2010 Midseason Report Card Our annual look at the best, worst and most unexpected during the first half of the 2010 major league season.

Fun Facts About Your All-Time Hit Leaders So you think you're smarter than the next trivia buff when it comes to major leaguers at the top of numerous hit lists? Here's 22 questions for you to prove it.

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Other Opinions from TGG

The 2010 Midseason Report Card
Our annual look at the best, worst and most unexpected during the first half of the 2010 major league season.

Fun Facts About Your All-Time Hit Leaders
So you think you're smarter than the next trivia buff when it comes to major leaguers at the top of numerous hit lists? Here's 22 questions for you to prove it.