Time to gaze into the crystal ball

My fantasy baseball drafts are finally in the rear view mirror and the start of the season is right around the corner, so what better time to do a preview?

In the typical gut feeling/shoot from the hip/off the top of my head approach, here’s my quick take on the teams that will win their divisions and revel in fortune and glory and the ones that will finish in last place and wallow in shame and despair by the time the 2011 season is in the books. For good measure I’ll also throw in a team I think has the next best shot at first place in each division.

AL WEST

Fortune and glory: I’m a lifelong A’s fan so how can I pick anyone other than Oakland to win the division? I’ve touched on my reasons for optimism for the boys in green and gold and my doubts in previous posts, but when you get right down to it I like their chances in the AL West. Am I biased? Of course I am.

Next best shot: Texas Rangers. They’re the defending AL champs so I’d say that gives them a solid shot at repeating as AL West division winners. In fact, I’m willing to concede that they’re the favorite to come out on top in this division. I’m not sold on their pitching staff but the Rangers’ offense looks so strong that it might not matter.

Shame and despair: How can I pick anyone other than the Seattle Mariners to finish in last place? I love Ichiro and King Felix as much as the next guy but there’s no way this team does anything other than pull in behind the A’s, Rangers and Angels.

AL CENTRAL

Fortune and glory: Chicago White Sox. Adding Adam Dunn to an already powerful lineup and getting a consistent full season out of Gordon Beckham should provide more than enough offense to help the White Sox unseat the Twins in the AL Central. On top of all that I think they have the best pitching staff in the division even with Jake Peavy coming back from an injury and Bobby Jenks moving on to the Red Sox.

Next best shot: Minnesota Twins. I swear that I don’t have it in for defending division champs, I just don’t think they have the offense and pitching to keep the White Sox from pulling away in the dog days of summer.

Shame and despair: I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Cleveland Indians will be pathetic losers in 2011. What do Tribe fans have to look forward to? How about Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall starting productive careers, Fausto Carmona bringing in a prospect or two at the trade deadline, a recovery from knee problems by Grady Sizemore, a solid season out of young closer Chris Perez and finally getting something productive out of Matt LaPorta?

AL EAST

Fortune and glory: Boston Red Sox. They managed to stay in the playoff picture late into 2010 despite losing stars such as Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury to injuries and all they did in the offseason was load up with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Hard to pick against them heading into Opening Day.

Next best shot: New York Yankees. Yet another bold call on my part. With the 2010 divison champion Tampa Bay Rays losing a ton of players in the offseason the Yankees look like the only real threat to the Red Sox. There’s more than enough offense for the Evil Empire to score with the best of them but the starting pitching may not be up to the challenge.

Shame and despair: Baltimore Orioles. I actually think they’re a mildly intriguing team with an interesting mix of homegrown talent and some new veteran players but they’re in a terrible division to develop in. The Red Sox and Yankees are powerhouses, the Rays should still be relatively competitive and the Jays are coming off a decent season so that leaves the Orioles as the only team left to occupy the cellar in the AL East. Sorry guys, I hope you prove me wrong.

NL WEST

Fortune and glory: San Francisco Giants. Good gawd, I hate writing that. As a Bay Area resident and die-hard A’s fan I can’t even begin to describe how sick and tired I am of hearing about the “World Champion Giants.” But it’s hard to bet against these guys in the NL West right now. The stellar pitching staff returns to defend the title and San Francisco will benefit from a full season of Buster Posey and Cody Ross, a comeback season by suddenly-svelte Pablo Sandoval and the eventual promotion of Brandon Belt.

Next best shot: Colorado Rockies. Jim Tracy’s club, led by superstars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, have a knack for going on insane hot streaks late in the season. They managed to make a push for the division title late last season despite losing Tulo, closer Huston Street and No. 2 starter Jorge De La Rosa to injuries at various times. A relatively healthy season could land them at the top of the division.

Shame and despair: San Diego Padres. I can easily see them going from almost first in 2010 to undeniably worst in 2011. They had one great hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, and they traded him for a bunch of prospects who probably won’t help the big league club this year. Manager Bud Black seems to have a knack for getting the most out of his roster so the Padres may be able to surprise some people and leapfrog into third place. My dark horse to be the NL West’s cellar dwellers are the Los Angeles Dodgers. I can’t quite put my finger on it but my gut tells me they could do a major face plant this year.

NL CENTRAL

Fortune and glory: Cincinnati Reds. Their rotation is a little banged up right now but I think they have enough depth to get through the season and it’s hard not to like a lineup powered by Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. As long as manager Dusty Baker doesn’t run his starting pitchers through a meat grinder the Reds should do just fine.

Next best shot: Their rotation is going to miss Zack Greinke for a little while but that shouldn’t hurt them too much in the big picture. If they only have pending free agent slugger Prince Fielder for one more season they’re making an aggressive run at the playoffs by adding Greinke and Shaun Marcum to the rotation.

Shame and despair: They’re the Pittsburhg Pirates for crying out loud, how can I pick anyone else to finish dead last in this division? The Houston Astros should give them a run for the money as the worst team in the National League.

NL EAST

Fortune and glory: Philadelphia Phillies. I’m as worried about Chase Utley’s knee as the next fantasy baseball geek, I think their offense is in decline and I’m not in love with the Philly bullpen. But I think that over the long haul of the season their star-studded starting rotation should be enough to carry Charlie Manuel’s crew into the playoffs.

Next best shot: Atlanta Braves. They’re getting a lot of positive buzz in spring training and I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see them take advantage of some tough breaks in Philadelphia and finish the season in first place. Hard-hitting Dan Uggla and rookie Freddie Freeman should be welcome additions to Atlanta’s lineup and new manager Fredi Gonzalez has some power arms in the bullpen to work with. One random thought on the Braves: Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe are going to be closing their eyes and cringing every time a grounder is hit to Uggla by the All-Star Break.

Shame and despair: New York Mets. I really think the Mets are going to be horrible in 2011. David Wright and Jose Reyes can only do so much, the pitching staff looks weak and the rest of the lineup is unimpressive. Maybe Johan Santana and some of the reclamation projects in the rotation have surprisingly good years, Carlos Beltran enjoys a healthy season, Ike Davis blossoms into a monster hitter and the Mets finish in the middle of the pack, but I’m not betting on all those chips falling into place.

WILD CARD

Whoever doesn’t win the NL East (Phillies or Braves).

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

I hate this portion of any preseason prediction because at this point in the year looking ahead to the playoffs is even more of a crapshoot than the rest of the writeup. There’s just no way to guess what teams will make surprising key trades during the year and who’ll be hot and healthy when October rolls around.

Even though this makes me cringe, here are my playoff predictions …

NL champ: Philadelphia Phillies (the Braves are my dark horse here)

AL champ: Boston Red Sox (the A’s, of course, are my dark horse here)

World Series champ: Red Sox

I think the Phillies and Red Sox have more than enough talent to win it all and they have the money to make a move at the trade deadline if they’re really hurting somewhere. I also think that the Phillies might be able to make a late-season surge through the playoffs if Utley and Brad Lidge can at least get healthy for the last couple of months of the season.

I’ll try and revisit this post at the end of the season because one of the fun things about being a baseball fan isn’t being right, it’s being surprised by how wrong your assumptions are. What makes the game so fascinating is the fact that you really do have a chance to see and learn something new over the course of every season.

Maybe Jack Cust hits 50 homers for the Mariners and they win the AL West even though I think they’ll be cellar dwellers. Maybe the Phillies struggle through injuries and off years by their stars and they finish more than a half dozen games out of a playoff spot even though I think they’re going to land in the World Series.

There’s only one way to find out whether I’m right or wrong on these predictions and that’s to play ball from Opening Day through the last out of the World Series. If I’m lucky the guys in white shoes from Oakland will be spraying champagne when it’s all said and done.

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