Ranked in the order of my pre-season picks.

NL East
Atlanta Braves
Which of these extreme veterans will be the first to falter and be replaced?

  1. Chipper Jones (39)
  2. Jorge Posada (39)
  3. Manny Ramirez (39)
  4. Ivan Rodriguez (38)
  5. Todd Helton (37)
  6. Miguel Tejada (37)
  7. Johnny Damon (37)
  8. Hideki Matsui (37)
  9. Vladimir Guerrero (36)
  10. Lance Berkman (35)

It’s a trick question; the idol Pudge fell a long time ago. If Chipper joins him, the Braves can always retrieve Martin Prado from the outfield. The team’s outfield depth is thin enough that if such a move is necessary—or Jason Heyward spends time on the DL, or Nate McLouth is again McLousy—the Braves offense could be seriously depleted.

Philadelphia Phillies
So much of this spring has been focused on how disappointing the Phillies might be in spite of their rotation’s terrific front four due to all the injuries. That is a key story given how Halladay and pals were previously billed as an instant ticket to the World Series, but I’d rather focus on a positive story: Ryan Howard has gone all the way from overrated to underrated. He hit .276/.353/.505 last year and it was called a disappointment. It was, but only in comparison to his previous four seasons. His power was down and so was his patience, but he was also hurt. It has become a cliché to say that Howard has “old player skills” and so his age-30 season was the first sign of his being washed up. This is a very clear case of premature burial.

Florida Marlins
One of the players I'm most excited about seeing over a full year in the majors is Logan Morrison. You can’t get too worked up about batting orders, but I can't understand why, confronted with a player of his patience, you wouldn't bat him first or second. It has been more than 10 years since the Marlins had a 100-walk season (Gary Sheffield in 1997). Morrison is the best bet for a second, though he might not get there if he’s buried at the bottom of the lineup.

Washington Nationals
Last year, the Nats had a team on-base percentage of .318, good for 12th in the league. The addition of patient Jayson Werth balances out the loss of Adam Dunn (Werth actually took more walks last year), but with Rick Ankiel, Danny Espinosa, Pudge-Rod, and perhaps even Ian Desmond likely to struggle to reach .300, the team as a whole could suffer the same fate. Just three teams since 1999 have had an OBP of .300 or lower—the 2002-2003 Tigers and last year’s Mariners. The Nats will have a hard time joining them, but with a little extra effort they just might do it.

New York Mets
I shouldn’t have placed the Mets down here. They should easily be better than the Nats; I was just caught up in a mood of anti-Wilponism. In pure baseball terms, I have two great curiosities: can R.A. Dickey do an encore of what was one of last season’s great baseball stories? He had a fairly good spring once he made some mechanical adjustments, but his whole 2010 was so unlikely it’s hard to believe he can keep it up. The other question, and this is one that will consume New York all season long, is how Jose Reyes does in his walk year, and if the Mets will try to keep him—and if he’s too good, will they be able to afford him?

NL Central
Cincinnati Reds
This is an obscure thing to be thinking about going into Opening Day, but I am fascinated by Miguel Cairo. When he was with the Yankees, their radio play-by-play man, John Sterling, was borderline obscene in the compliments he heaped on Cairo. You would think that this inoffensive utilityman could leap tall buildings in a single bound, heal the sick, and win the blue-ribbon at the State Fair for best blueberry pie. In his first stint with the Yankees (2004) he was handy, hitting .292/.346/.417, but was no miracle-worker. His second time around (2006), he was just bad (.239/.280/.320), and that Joe Torre found reasons to give him starts at first base merely emphasized his shortcomings. In fact, Cairo’s bat seemed to have given its last measure of full devotion to Torre in ’04, managing only .249/.298/.330 in 398 games from 2005 through 2009. Last year, it miraculously revived, Cairo hitting .290/.353/.410 while playing six positions, and I kept wondering what Sterling would have said about him if only he followed baseball. Now I’m curious if the now 37-year-old can do it again, and how quickly Dusty Baker will notice if he can’t.

Milwaukee Brewers
I’m not sure how you would rank the most unlikely benches in major-league history, but the Brewers’ opening reserve cadre of Wil Nieves, Jeremy Reed, Craig Counsell, Erick Almonte, and Nyjer Morgan strikes me as a leading candidate. Even when Jonathan Lucroy and Corey Hart come back and push Mark Kotsay and George Kottaras to the bench, the Brew Crew’s chances of getting a pinch-hit home run this year are about 10,000 to one.

St. Louis Cardinals
Last year, the Cardinals ranked 21st in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. Is there any reason to think that with the help of outfielder Lance Berkman, shortstop Ryan Theriot, and second baseman Skip Schumaker, they won’t challenge for last this year?

Chicago Cubs
As I said, you can't get too worked up over batting orders, but I recall Carlton Fisk batting second in 1983, a move which was given much credit for invigorating the White Sox on their way to a 99-63 season. Geovany Soto is one of the few on-base threats the Cubs have, and one bit of evidence that Lou Piniella was slipping or distracted or both last year was that he kept the catcher pegged to the bottom third, listing him seventh or eighth in about equal measure. He had 20 totals starts batting out of those two positions. He can do more in the second spot in the order than Starlin Castro can, and I hope that Mike Quade is enough of an out-of-the-box thinker to notice it.

Pittsburgh Pirates
They have a better bench than the Brewers and a worse rotation than the Houston Astros. That and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee. I have a childish hope that Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald will suddenly find themselves and justify predictions of success now years old, but that’s probably just whimsy—when they get to that part in “Peter Pan” when you’re asked to applaud if you believe in fairies, I never sit on my hands. …I am very interested in what Tony Sanchez will do this year and how quickly he can get to the majors, a moment that will complete the Pirates’ current collection of promising position players.

Houston Astros
Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please: For this evening’s performance, the part of “shortstop” will be played by no one. Thank you… Back in the early 1980s, you used to hear a lot about the decades-long inability of the Mets and White Sox to find a star third baseman. Until Howard Johnson, the Mets never had one (although Wayne Garrett wasn’t a terrible player by any means), while the Pale Hose went from Willie Kamm to Robin Ventura with only a few brief years of Bill Melton to offer them solace. The same is true of the Astros and catchers. I saw Andy Ashby, Mark Bailey, and even Mitch Meluskey, so I know it’s possible for a Houston backstop to hit something, but I despair of seeing one hit again before I’m too old to say “Taubensee” without drooling. With Jason Castro out for the year, the ‘Stros will once again see too much Humberto Quintero, which leaves me only this to offer as a consolation: Quintero may be a better hitter than Gustavo Molina. Maybe.

NL West
San Francisco Giants
In a reversal of last year's Buster Posey shenanigans, the Giants give us instant gratification with Brandon Belt. There must be something addictive about winning championships, or Brian Sabean wouldn’t have been so eager to neglect his future arbitration possibilities. One hopes that (A) Belt can hit enough to stave off a demotion when Cody Ross comes off the disabled list, and (B) the additional production somehow makes up for Miguel Tejada, who could go down as one of the big mistakes of the offseason.

Los Angeles Dodgers
They should pitch well if healthy, and as a devoted Don Mattingly fan I will be rooting for him to be the greatest skipper since John McGraw. Unfortunately, there is nothing to like about their offense. PECOTA thinks very highly of young Jerry Sands, who hit .301/.395/.586 with 35 home runs in a 2010 split between the Midwest and Southern Leagues. He had a nice spring training (.313/.405/.594, but just 32 at-bats) for what that’s worth, and the sooner he can replace the disappointing and depressing James Loney, the better.

Colorado Rockies
I wonder if Troy Tulowitzki will win the MVP that Derek Jeter somehow never did. In a fair world, Jeter would have had one and maybe as many as three, but let’s not go there as this is supposed to be about the Rockies. I am unduly troubled by the sheer number of guys named “Matt” in the Rockies pen and what that will mean for my ability to identify them all should I appear on a quiz-show program being broadcast live to Japan, which I am actually doing on Friday. But why would they ask that question? That would just be cruel.

San Diego Padres
The Padres don’t exist for me until Jaff Decker comes up, because I don’t think I’ll really have fully experienced everything baseball has to offer until I’ve seen a player named “Jaff.” …What I most admire about the Padres is that they weren’t fooled by their own press and dispensed with gutty/gritty/gung-ho/gamer David Eckstein in favor of Orlando Hudson’s more corporeal tools. …As measured by WXRL, last year’s Padres had the eighth-best bullpen of all time. Relief staffs are so volatile that you don’t see a lot of encores that high up on the list. If Bud Black can pull off a repeat he will have identified himself as either very good or very lucky, which is perhaps the same thing.

Arizona Diamondbacks
This has been talked about all over the place, but I just can’t understand both why Brandon Allen isn’t on the roster and what justification about half the roster has being there ahead of him. Maybe his mistake is in not being a former Yankee… I’m already counting down the moments until Russell Branyan replaces Juan Miranda in the starting lineup. It might even take place before the D’backs are mathematically eliminated, which will happen in five… four… three…