“So, whaddaya think?”

That question, delivered with just about that diction, is everywhere for me these days. As I approach the end of a week in New York–during which I’ve shattered every personal record for caloric intake, by the way–I find myself surrounded by curious friends and family asking me the one question I don’t think I can answer to their satisfaction.

Over the past couple of years, the differences in talent among the 30 MLB teams have been narrowing. There are some notable outliers, particularly on the bad side, but beyond those it’s very difficult to ascertain which of the muddled middle will rise to the 88-win level that marks a true contender for a playoff spot. This isn’t quite the NFL, where entire seasons come down to who has a key injury or who wins a couple of coin-flip games. However, MLB has entered an era of NFL-like parity, regardless of what the payroll data tells you. You only need to look at the trade-deadline activity the last two seasons, when more than half the teams in baseball were either buyers or in limbo, to see the lack of stratification.

So in reading these picks over the next few days, keep in mind that the middle 22 or so teams in the game are bunched very tightly. How they align will have as much to do with the things we cannot predict with much certainty–injuries, fluke seasons, record in close games–as with the things we can. I’m not throwing up my hands, I’m just acknowledging the parity.

For the first time in a few years, I think the Yankees are the best AL East team heading into the season. Despite a flawed roster–lots of money invested in so-so starters, a poor bench, some aging regulars–the core talent is too good for the competition. This is a 900-run offense with Johnny Damon atop the lineup, even if Damon loses some OBP in the move south. I am pretty well convinced that the team won’t endure the season with the declining Bernie Williams at DH, and an addition there will be the last piece of a very powerul puzzle.

I may be shorting the Yankees some runs allowed, but when you consider that a ton of things went wrong last season and they allowed just 789 tallies, an 18-run jump–roughly what I expect the league to add per team–seems fair. The front of the rotation should be more productive, an improvement that will make up, statistically, the 160-odd random good innings they got from Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon last year. Even with Damon, the Yankees have a so-so defense; he has more range than Williams, and that’s about all you can say. The combination of right-handed groundball pitchers Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang with a right side of Robinson Cano and Jason Giambi is a mismatch of Lovett/Roberts proportions. Nevertheless, the great offense will be enough for 92 wins and a ninth straight division crown.

The Red Sox are going to miss the postseason for the first time since 2002, as they’ve gotten worse enough at the plate to slide under 90 wins in a league where a number of teams are getting better. As much as I like the pickups of Hee Seop Choi and Wily Mo Pena–that’s really one tasty fusion DH–Choi won’t be starting the season in Boston and Pena may be a year away from claiming regular status. This lineup is larded with guys in their early thirties who fall short of the level of “superstar” and have shown enough decline of late to warrant concern about their 2006 performance. Their depth–the Sox’ backup infield is better than the Royals’ starters–and the lineup core still means 870 runs or so.

I’m less enamored of the pitching staff, which is relying heavily on pitchers with battered bodies who haven’t shown any indication that 2006 will be different than 2005. Trading Bronson Arroyo for Pena was a good move in the long term; in the short term, it removed one reliable source of league-average innings, something this team lacks. The bullpen is also a patchwork, heavily right-handed in a lefty-power-laden division and suddenly quite old. Francona doesn’t have the personnel to get matchups nor does he have many candidates for two-inning stints. It looks, in fact, a bit like the 2003 bullpen that caused such consternation. Barring in-season upgrades–quite possible given the system’s depth and the caliber of the management team–the 2006 Sox will not prevent enough runs to reach October.

For all of the money the Blue Jays spent, this team isn’t good enough to push aside the two in front of it. Even if they get worth-the-money seasons from A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, that probably only allows them to tread water. No team in baseball did more damage to its defense, especially its infield defense. The Jays’ surprisingly good run prevention in 2005 was due to that defense, in support of pitchers like Josh Towers and Gustavo Chacin. Even Roy Halladay, a few notches above that level, was a beneficiary. Those three pitchers may allow as much as an extra hit per start in the aggregate, driving up their ERAs and cancelling out the free agents’ performance. The Jays allowed just 705 runs last season on the strength of their defense; they’ll allow more in 2006, and many people will scratch their heads and wonder why.

What the Jays’ really needed was a high-impact bat. Troy Glaus became their best hitter the day he arrived, and he helps, but the rest of the lineup isn’t very impressive. The Jays don’t have a high walk rate or great power, and they hit a lot of ground balls. Perhaps more critically, they don’t have readily upgradable holes, save perhaps for right field, where Alexis Rios can’t hit like a shortstop much longer without losing his job. Even with Glaus, the Jays will lose some ground at the plate and once again finish a season within shouting distance of par.

I like the Orioles better than picking them for fourth place and 82 losses indicates. They could be very strong up the middle with a break or two (Corey Patterson finds 2003 again, Brian Roberts is fully healthy) while both Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera, are poised to improve considerably, giving the Os an above-average rotation. However, their lack of quality players on the corners–few teams in baseball are less impressive in the “hitters’ spots” of DH, first base and the outfield corners–and a bullpen shakier than a pop-singer’s marriage are barriers to contention. It’s worth mentioning that the Orioles were probably not as bad as their 74-88 record last season; they collapsed after the loss of Roberts, among other blows to what was a promising first two months. I actually think this team has more 2006 upside than the Blue Jays do, because their flaws can be repaired more readily during the season.

The Devil Rays, with a young and powerful lineup and a young and…ambulatory…pitching staff, are going to play a lot of entertaining baseball games. The storylines aren’t much different than they were a year ago, with the team needing to move talented veterans while they have trade value and make room for some of the game’s most highly-regarded prospects. The pitching staff is at least a year away from being worthy of the offense, however, and will put a terrific burden on the defense to keep run prevention down. There is upside in that notion: if Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Joey Gathright were to play enough innings together, they could allow 40 or 50 fewer runs than the 957 I predict. That’s not an alignment we’re likely to see, unfortunately.

Yankees     92   70      910   807
Red Sox     88   74      871   810
Blue Jays   83   79      765   738
Orioles     80   82      741   742
Devil Rays  66   96      811   957

Thank you for reading

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