The season starts is just a handful of hours, and I have just one thought going through my head, one word, really: “Baseball. Baseball. Baseball. Baseball. Baseball.” I have no idea why I can’t be a grownup about the start of the season, but here I am, 35 years old, and I feel like a little kid waiting for Christmas morning. One game today, a dozen tomorrow, and we’re off on the six-month thrill ride that is the baseball season. What teams will grab our attention like the White Sox did last year? What players will make the leap the way Derrek Lee and Mark Buehrle did? I want to know these things, and for all the picking and prognosticating and PECOTAing, the only way we’ll find out is to watch the stories unfold.

The last week’s travel schedule forces me to compress the entire National League into one space to get these out before Opening Day. I want to make one note here: there are some differences between my picks in these columns and the ones I submitted for staff picks. The others were done earlier and more hastily; these are my “official” picks.

NL East

I’m not picking against the Braves, and if this is the year that turns out to be a bad idea, I’ll live with it. The three teams atop this division are reasonably close in talent, so I’m going with the team with the best management. Even without Leo Mazzone, the Braves return Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, two men who have a track record virtually unmatched in baseball history.

Consider the actions of the NL East contenders over the past week. The Mets have yanked Brian Bannister essentially up from Double-A to be their #5 starter, more or less because he looked good in spring training. This is in lieu of using Aaron Heilman, who has the repertoire of a starter and has been ready for a rotation job for a while. This also entailed sending down Heath Bell, who’s probably a better pitcher than any Mets reliever save Billy Wagner.

Then there’s the Phillies, who just dealt live–albeit wild–arm Robinson Tejeda to the Rangers for David Dellucci. While the deal doesn’t look that bad from a talent standpoint, it’s an awkward fit. The Phillies have three outfielders with a track record of playing just about every day, while at the same time they are a bit thin from the right side of the bullpen, especially with Ryan Madson now starting.

Meanwhile, the Braves have been trying to deal from their pitching depth to get something they very much need: a platoon partner for Adam LaRoche. John Thomson‘s elbow pain killed any chance they had of making a deal (for now), but the rumors that had them swapping Thomson for the Pirates’ Craig Wilson made sense for them.

If this is a close race, and it should be just that, I’m inclined to think the edge will go to the team whose front office gets it done. Pat Gillick shouldn’t be blamed for the sins of his predecessor, of course, and Omar Minaya has only been in charge of a real team for a year. Perhaps they will both shine this summer; until I see that, though, I have to go with the Braves, who have the talent to be competitive and the management to win.

I should note that I’m not completely sold on one of the Braves’ young stars. Jeff Francoeur is talented, and brings more to the table than just his bat. However, his 58/11 K/BB in 2005, and his collapse down the stretch, have me convinced that he’s not ready to hold a major-league job. The Braves should keep Kelly Johnson and Matt Diaz close at hand, because a platoon of those two would be more productive than I expect Francoeur to be.

The Phillies have terrific core talent on the field, and adding Aaron Rowand was a nice move that gave them the center fielder they’ve been needing. The problem I see is that they might need to score 900 runs to win. They do not have impressive starting pitching, and it’s not the kind of rotation that will pitch deep into games. Combine that with a bullpen that is shaky from both a performance and a health standpoint, and it’s possible that the Phillies will lose a lot of games in the sixth through eighth innings. For them to win, a number of pitchers will have to have years at the top of their range; there’s an argument to be made that having Rowand in center field makes that a possibility.

The Mets were my pick a couple of weeks ago, even with their dysfunctional lineup. I look at the decisions over the past two weeks, however, and I just can’t see how they’ll win. Jose Reyes and Paul Lo Duca 1-2? Endy Chavez on the roster? Bannister over Heilman? A bunch of pitchers over Bell? David Wright batting sixth sometimes? (Lo Duca #2/Wright #6 may be the worst lineup idea since Fox elected to anchor its Monday nights with “Skin.”)

And I haven’t even used the words “Martinez” and “toe.”

The Marlins will be better than you might think, thanks to a decent rotation and a pretty good power core. On the other hand, they’re lousy up the middle, with Reggie Abercrombie (“TOOLS!”) winning the center-field job and a Triple-A middle infield of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. Their bullpen is pretty bad, although I like the addition of Todd Wellemeyer.

The Nationals are worse than last year, and remember that they weren’t as good as their record then. They are going to struggle to score, and deservedly so given decisions like Brad Wilkerson-for-Alfonso Soriano and Brandon Watson over Ryan Church. That this team can’t find a way to get Church into the lineup would be surprising if it wasn’t completely consistent with their approach. Let’s get an owner and a new management team in here already.

Braves       90   72      748   665
Phillies     86   76      841   763
Mets         84   78      732   685
Marlins      71   91      632   699
Nationals    62  100      562   691

NL Central

The Cardinals should decline a bit from their 2004-2005 level, as they are getting older without integrating much young talent. They’re still enough better than a weak field that it won’t matter; they’ll be setting the playoff rotation by mid-September. If there’s a concern, it’s that they’re a bit more reliant on the superstars than they have been in recent seasons; any missed time by Albert Pujols or Jim Edmonds would leave the offense with a major problem. They could have some OBP issues if players like Juan Encarnacion and David Eckstein don’t sustain their 2005 levels.

The Reds have the most upside of the other five teams, and they could be interesting if they somehow managed to stay under 850 runs allowed. I don’t really see it happening; they have a below-average rotation and poor bullpen pitching in front of what might be the NL’s worst defense in a very good hitters’ park. In a best-case scenario, their five starters stay healthy and provide league-average performance, while some combination of Ryan Wagner (who I really like this year), Matt Belisle and Todd Coffey emerge as a 1-2 combination in the bullpen.

The Cubs start the season with eight figures’ worth of pitching on the disabled list. Flu-like symptoms, I think, not anything having to do with their arms or legs. Still, it’s hard to see them hanging with the Cardinals or the trailers in the NL East without getting lots of good innings from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The rotation without those two (and bizarrely, without Jerome Williams) is unimpressive, and not enough to support a good bullpen and average, average-plus offense. Juan Pierre was a pretty good pickup for a team that lost a lot of runs to having lousy OBPs in the top two spots last season. Even if Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez slide back a bit, the Cubs could be just as productive simply for being more efficient. Without the two power arms, though, that just keeps them around .500.

The Astros have some star power, and an awful lot of guys who will have .320/.480 seasons. It’s hard to sustain an offense with this many low-OBP guys, and this much imbalance in the lineup (seven right-handed hitters and Lance Berkman). They’ll allow a lot more runs this year as well; the 681 figure I use reflects the small possibility that Roger Clemens rejoins the rotation for part of the season. Without Clemens, that figure could go much higher.

The Brewers will regress a bit, largely because I don’t think their pitching can be as good as it was last year. Guys like Derrick Turnbow, Chris Capuano and Matt Wise were at the top of their range. (Note: I said similar things about the Indians going into last year, and we saw how that turned out.) For a nominally up-and-coming team, they have a lot of thirtysomethings in the lineup, none stars, so normal aging could leave them with a lot of holes in the lineup. I think this is a team to watch in 2007 and beyond, and that this is the year for them to make midseason deals with that in mind.

The Pirates might get to the All-Star break before they start a pitcher older than 24, and they’ll do that with two catchers who have a combined 228 games of major-league experience. This is going to be a fascinating experiment in testing the value of battery age and experience. The Pirates’ offense will prevent the results from showing up in the standings, but this team may end up as one of the better young rotation/catching combinations in recent memory. I still think the Pirates need an ownership change to become a real contender, but there are a lot more reasons to watch this team than there have been in a few years.

Cardinals    94   68      850   730
Reds         83   79      901   879
Cubs         83   79      764   753
Astros       80   82      681   687
Brewers      77   85      710   741
Pirates      67   95      669   788

NL West

The Dodgers are the strongest team in a weak field. Their rotation lacks upside, but it will be good for low-end quality starts, the kind that get people riled up about the stat. Those starts, however, will be more than enough to support an offense and a bullpen that will be much improved over last year, a combination of health and new additions. The Dodgers will get league-average OBP or higher from six or seven lineup spots this year, and they have better depth to cover for injuries than they did a year ago. In the pen, setting aside the closer types, there are power arms like Yhency Brazoban and Hong-Chih Kuo (and Jonathan Broxton starting the year in Triple-A).

It’s going to be a little strange watching Ned Colletti and Grady Little get credit for the Dodgers’ success this year, much as it was strange watching Paul DePodesta get credit for the 2004 team that was primarily the handiwork of Dan Evans. If Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew have big years, and Derek Lowe and Brad Penny rack up win because of that, remember who it was who brought those players into the fold.

This is going to be Logan White’s team soon enough, anyway. He’s just that good.

The Diamondbacks are my pick for the NL wild card. They’ll be a much better team by the end of the year than they are right now, as the wave of young talent begins to crest. Conor Jackson has a job, Chris Young should get one once he’s healthy, Carlos Quentin, Carlos Gonzales and Stephen Drew are coming hard. With the right combination of events-let’s face it, some old guys are going to have to get hurt-this could be a .450 team before the All-Star break and a .600 one after it.

It’s not just that young talent, though. The pickup of Orlando Hudson, only the best defensive second baseman in the game, will have a disproportionate impact on the D’backs’ run prevention. They’re loaded with right-handed groundball pitchers who struggle against left-handed batters. Hudson can have a significant impact on guys like Brandon Webb and Orlando Hernandez, saving them a baserunner every now and then and turning big innings into small ones.

If the Diamondbacks can get into the wild-card race, I’m basically choosing between Josh Byrnes, Pat Gillick and Omar Minaya. I know who I pick.

The Padres are essentially the same team they were last year, a .500 squad with no distinguishing characteristics. They’re neither young nor old, neither a pitching team nor a hitting one, neither power nor speed. Eventually, you’d like to see them go to a three-thoroughbreds outfield and an OBP/doubles offense (think a team of Bip Roberts), but they’re a few years from making that happen. For now, they’ll give up a few too many runs (Shawn Estes?!?) for a team in that park, and be passed by at least two teams.

The Giants’ record depends almost entirely on what they get from Barry Bonds. There’s a better team around him, but still not a good one. In Brian Sabean’s defense, he’s got $18 million committed to Bonds, which makes it hard to have viable contingency plans. I expect Bonds to play in 90-110 games, starting maybe 75 of those, and be basically the player he’s been the last five years: high average, ridiculous OBP, great power. The Giants need more than that, however, and he’s just not capable of it.

The Rockies don’t have a very good pitching staff or defense, which you could live with if it meant they’d score 1100 runs. They won’t. They continue to fall in love with mediocre right-handed hitters who have massive home/road splits, a category that comfortably fits at least three starters (Matt Holliday, Clint Barmes and Garrett Atkins). This isn’t about how to win at altitude any longer; the Rockies haven’t show they have any idea how to win at any elevation.

Dodgers      90   72      740   672
Diamondbacks 87   75      814   783
Padres       82   80      688   693
Giants       80   82      745   767
Rockies      59  103      751   962

Picking the results of the postseason is hard enough, and silly enough, in October. Trying to guess them in March and April is six months’ moreso. With that said, I’d expect to see the A’s in the World Series. Their opponent could be almost anyone; I’ll go with the Braves, who fall to the A’s in six.

This was a column unto itself last year, but to be expedient-and because the season starts shortly-I’ll tack it on here. This information is written for informational purposes only, and does not serve as an endorsement of any activities.

I get asked a lot about the practice of wagering on the over/unders of team wins posted in Las Vegas and on gambling Web sites. There are a lot of people who think these numbers can be beaten, although I personally think that leaving your money out there for six months overwhelms any edge you might have on the bet.

With that said, I compared my predicted standings to the figures posted at last year, and the results were mixed. I argued that I would bet the house on the Yankees finishing under their posted 100 ½ wins, and they did, comfortably. On the other hand, of the four other bets I recommended, just one (Devil Rays under 69 wins), would have won. Of course, you would have made so much on the Yankees’ wager that you wouldn’t care.

This year, I matched up the Pinnacle numbers against my own again. My first reaction was to be surprised by the level of agreement between the two: 11 of the Pinnacle numbers are within three of the number of wins I project for the teams. Outside of that range, however, there is a lot fo disagreement. There are a whopping seven teams for which the Pinnacle number is at least ten wins higher or lower than my own:

Team       Sheehan   Pinnacle   Diff      Wager

D'backs      87         73        14       over
Royals       51       64.5      13.5      under
Nationals    62       74.5      12.5      under
Rockies      59         70        11      under
A's         101       90.5      10.5       over
Twins        94         84        10       over
Pirates      67         77        10      under

Setting aside the magnitude of the differences, were I to place wagers on these outcomes (and ruin my shot at the Hall of Fame? Never!), I’d be most comfortable with bets on the A’s over, Twins over, Royals under and Diamondbacks over, in that order. Nothing here has me as certain as I was about the Yankees’ figure last year, but I think on balance this group of teams offers better value than the four other picks I offered up a year ago.

3:29 to bliss…here’s hoping that all of your favorite players and teams give you moments to savor in the 2006 baseball season.

Thank you for reading

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