Picking baseball's division favorites is an exercise best reserved for late March, when position battles are resolved, injury inventories are complete and the spring training frauds are weeded out from the real things.
The day after Valentine's Day, this job is about as hazardous as a luge trip, a vice presidential quail hunting excursion or volunteering for security detail at the local Danish embassy.
This much we know for sure: The American League is infinitely stronger than the NL. By the estimates of most executives, eight of baseball's best 10 teams reside in the AL. And no matter how hard we try to single out early favorites, some team is going to emerge from the pack unexpectedly, contend for a postseason spot and make lots of noise in October. Can you say 2005 Houston Astros?
That said, here are our choices to finish in first place in Major League Baseball's six divisions this season:
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
New York Mets
The 2005 Braves showed how foolhardy it is to pick against a team assembled by John Schuerholz and managed by Bobby Cox. Despite entering the season with Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan at the corner outfield spots and suffering enough injuries to hasten the arrival of 18 rookies, the Braves won their 14th straight division title. But they enter this year with no Mike Hampton, no closer, no natural leadoff hitter and Edgar Renteria, fresh off a 30-error season, replacing Rafael Furcal at shortstop.
On the bright side, the Braves always seem to find a way, and a 15th consecutive title would certainly help Schuerholz's book sales.
Which brings us to the Mets. The always aggressive Omar Minaya filled a major hole in the lineup by acquiring Carlos Delgado to play first base, signed Billy Wagner to replace Braden Looper as closer, and picked up a new catcher in Paul Lo Duca. If David Wright continues his progression and Carlos Beltran bounces back from last season -- when he arrived with "savior" hype only to post numbers eerily similar to Mark Kotsay and Brandon Inge -- the Mets might be on to something.
Several questions linger. Jose Reyes is miscast as a leadoff hitter, Kaz Matsui is miraculously still around, and the Kris Benson and Jae Seo trades have left the Mets with little cushion in the event that age finally catches up with Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine. Jose Lima, whom the Mets signed to a minor-league contract, probably isn't the answer. But you don't make this much noise without the accompanying burden of expectations, and the Mets have established themselves as the team to beat in the division, if not the entire National League.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals didn't engender much goodwill among the locals with a nondescript offseason. They finished second in the A.J. Burnett bidding, made several uninspired moves, then got in a dustup with an insurance company over the presence of hidden contaminants on the site of the new Busch Stadium. (Insert obligatory Sidney Ponson wisecrack here.)
With little help available on the farm, the Cardinals decided to tinker around the edges. Junior Spivey, Larry Bigbie and Juan Encarnacion are the leading candidates to replace Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker. That's likely to put more pressure on MVP Albert Pujols, the interminably banged-up Jim Edmonds and third baseman Scott Rolen, whose recovery from a shoulder injury will replace the annual Rick Ankiel watch as the most intriguing story line in Jupiter, Fla.
The Cardinals won the NL Central by 13 games in 2004 and cruised to an 11-game margin over Houston last season even with Rolen missing 106 games. They scored 171 more runs than they allowed -- the widest margin of any big-league team -- and it's hard to argue that the Astros closed the gap. The Cubs, as usual, have questions, and the Brewers might still be a year away from serious contention.
Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan will continue to ride the starting rotation. Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Matt Morris, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan combined to make 160 of 162 starts, and St. Louis' rotation ranked second to the White Sox with 1,048 innings pitched. With Morris out, Ponson in and Mulder and Marquis entering their free-agent "walk" years, the Cardinals might require similar good fortune to win their third straight title.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
San Francisco Giants
This is the toughest call of the six divisions. The Padres found a way to retain Trevor Hoffman and Brian Giles and added Mike Cameron and Mike Piazza, but have serious starting pitching issues. The Dodgers should be better, but when you're counting on healthy seasons from J.D. Drew and Nomar Garciaparra as part of the improvement, it's a coin flip.
Then there are the Giants, who are gearing up for one final fling before they devote themselves to mall trips and bingo night at the assisted living facility.
The shortstop (Omar Vizquel) turns 39 in April. Barry Bonds is 41, Moises Alou is 39, and general manager Brian Sabean's latest trade acquisition, outfielder Steve Finley, will turn 41 in March and fell off a cliff statistically last season in Anaheim.
We're picking the Giants because, at this writing, they're counting on 400-450 plate appearances from Bonds. With Bonds restricted to 42 at-bats last season because of injury, the Giants' run total declined from 850 to 649 and their team OPS (on-base plus slugging) percentage dipped from .795 to .714. Given how precious Bonds' at-bats are, it's no wonder manager Felipe Alou has floated the possibility of batting him second to squeeze out a few more plate appearances.
The Giants also need a big year from Jason Schmidt, who could combine with young Matt Cain, the newly signed Matt Morris and changeup artist Noah Lowry, the NL Pitcher of the Month for August, to give San Francisco a nice rotation. And a full season from Armando Benitez should help the bullpen, which led the majors with 28 blown saves.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
New York Yankees
General manager Brian Cashman, given a chance to put his stamp on things, is trying to refrain from the spend, spend, spend way of thinking. The Yankees hung on to Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang rather than deal them for high-priced veterans last summer, and they refused to be used as a pawn to jack up free agent Johnny Damon's price. They managed to land Damon, nevertheless, simultaneously weakening the Red Sox while lengthening out an already potent order.
Add Damon to the lineup and get more production from Jason Giambi, who slugged .463 before the All-Star break and .604 after it, and the Yankees look like a fair bet to surpass their 2005 total of 886 runs scored.
Ultimately, it's all about pitching and health, and whether New York's aging starters can make the requisite appearances. Randy Johnson allowed a career-high 32 homers last year, and his ratio of 8.42 strikeouts per nine innings was his lowest since 1990. And Mike Mussina is 37 and coming off some late-season elbow issues. You get the picture.
The Yankees have $61 million invested in Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, so they'll get every opportunity to make an impression. But the desperation that forced Cashman to go searching for bodies last year now gives manager Joe Torre more options. Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon showed that they're able to step in and produce, and Cashman has assembled a deeper and versatile bullpen even with the departure of Tom Gordon through free agency.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Chicago White Sox
GM Kenny Williams spent half his winter doubled over in pain because of kidney stones, but it didn't impede his ability to think clearly. He changed the look of the batting order by acquiring Jim Thome, dipped into the farm system to pry Javier Vazquez loose from the Diamondbacks, and picked up Rob Mackowiak as a third-base hedge in case Joe Crede's back acts up.
It remains to be seen whether manager Ozzie Guillen, now a full-fledged celebrity, is as good at maintaining harmony as he was in cultivating it, or whether Thome can rebound from injury to upgrade a middle-of-the-pack offense. The Sox went 61-33 in games decided by one or two runs last season. Don't expect that again. And closer Bobby Jenks still must prove he can handle success, keep his weight in check and answer those nagging maturity questions over the course of an entire season.
The division is also packed, with Cleveland coming off 93 victories, Minnesota stacked with pitching and Detroit a potential dark horse under new manager Jim Leyland. But the Sox are loaded in the rotation, and Williams, to his credit, didn't let sentimentality stand in the way of self-improvement. The White Sox are just back from the White House and they've gotten better. You sure can't pick against them.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
The Astros' resurgence from 15-30 to World Series participant obscured a neat little come-from-behind trick in Oakland. The Athletics, buried at 17-32, went 71-42 the rest of the way only to fade late and finish seven games behind the Angels in the West.
The Big Three are now in three different time zones, but GM Billy Beane has quietly assembled an impressive staff. The A's held on to Barry Zito and have three 24- or 25-year-old starters (Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton) with breakthrough potential. Throw in innings-eater Esteban Loaiza, Kirk Saarloos and Joe Kennedy, and they have enviable depth. They're also covered at the back end, with Rookie of the Year Huston Street.
The A's ranked sixth in the league in runs while breaking in rookies Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson, and they've added Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley to the mix. Manager Ken Macha's biggest chore might be finding enough at-bats to keep Jay Payton from becoming one very unhappy Athletic. Don't be surprised if he gets traded in spring training.
Oakland has one of baseball's best and most unsung middle-infield combinations. The Athletics went 55-29 with shortstop Bobby Crosby in the lineup and 33-45 without him. Second baseman Mark Ellis, recovering from shoulder surgery, ranked third in the American League with a .344 batting average after the All-Star break. He also had the best zone rating of any big-league second baseman.
Ellis, who signed a two-year, $6 million contract two weeks ago, needs five homers to reach 33 for his career and break the record for a native South Dakotan. That might be enough to win him a spot on the state's baseball Mount Rushmore with Sparky Anderson, Dave Collins and Terry Francona.