It is time to make our picks for the 2007 season, our annual opportunity to look really stupid. No apology is needed for missing badly, as everyone did on the 2006 Tigers, because such misreads substantiate the greatest part of the game, its unpredictability. Only in baseball could a few of us in 1991 pick the Angels to win the AL West and the Twins to finish last (seventh!) only to have the Twins finish first and Angels finish last (seventh!).
That brings us to 2007. We are looking at a season that has the potential to make us look really stupid, which is great, it is why this promises to be a fabulous baseball season. Having seen 28 of the 30 teams in spring training hasn't made for easier choices, it has only made things more confusing. Call it what you like -- parity, whatever -- but the only thing that was clear in Florida and Arizona this spring is that little is clear: at least 20 teams, and maybe as many as 24, have a chance to make it to the playoffs. There are so few really good teams and so few really bad teams, just a bunch in the middle. And that is good.
This was a typical day in spring training. On the first day of the exhibition season, the enthusiasm in Cubs camp was ridiculously high, especially from manager Lou Piniella, who said his team "has as much talent as any team I've managed,'' which includes two good Yankee teams, the 1990 world champion Reds and the 2001 Mariners who won 116 games. Piniella's optimism was shared by every Cub, including reliever Will Ohman, who said "for the first time that I've been here [10 years], we have confidence beyond hope.''
We left thinking that the Cubs -- who lost 96 games last year, who have a potentially terrible outfield defense, who are counting on the return of oft-injured pitchers -- can win the NL Central. The next day, at another camp, a close friend, and an astute judge of the game, volunteered without hesitation and with conviction, "how bad are the Cubs going to be?''
The Cubs mirror the entire NL Central. The division has no solid favorite. It has four, maybe five, teams that can win. And a sixth team, the Pirates, is much improved. Two Pirates, noting that the Cardinals won the division (and the World Series) last season with only 83 wins, said "we can win this division.'' Picking the winner of the Central is difficult, but not as difficult as picking the fifth place team in the division. We had finally decided, after much thought, on the Reds despite their upgrades to their defense and their pitching. We asked a friend, a veteran of such difficult choices, to name the fifth-place team in the NL Central.
"I don't know,'' he said, "but it's not the Reds. I really like them.''
It's the same in every division. The Giants, for instance, have potentially terrific starting pitching, led by Barry Zito ("a better athlete than we were led to believe,'' said pitching coach Dave Righetti) and Matt Cain, whose stuff is hellacious. A TV guy who has seen the Giants a dozen times this spring said, "they're going to finish last, they won't win 65 games.''
The Diamondbacks have a chance to have very good starting pitching. A colleague picked them to win the West., but another colleague picked them fourth, saying "how are they going to win that division with a bunch of kids starting for the first time?'' Padres pitcher David Wells said his team has potentially "sensational'' starting pitching. Agreed, said a writer, "but they don't have anyone in the order who really scares anyone.''
Similar discussions took place within the NL East where the Mets, Phillies and Braves have a chance to win the division. "People are making a big mistake counting us out,'' said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. In the AL West, several injuries this spring to the A's has given every team in that division a chance to win. In the AL East, the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays are contenders, and the Orioles really improved their bullpen.
And then there is the confusing AL Central. The Tigers are the prohibitive favorite (finally, something that's relatively clear) because they have most everyone back from last year, and added pieces, including Gary Sheffield. But it gets complicated after that. There are the Indians, the chic pick to win the Central. Then there are the Twins, who won the division last year, and have the MVP (Justin Morneau), the batting champion (Joe Mauer) and the best pitcher in the game (Johan Santana) on their team. And then there are White Sox, the 2005 world champions who won 90 games last season. So, who do you pick for fourth place in that division? We asked three learned writer friends, and got three different answers: Indians, White Sox and Twins.
So, as we make our final picks, we are completely uncertain on what to do. This is not fence-sitting or being indecisive, this is just the hardest year to pick in recent memory. It's virtually guaranteed that a team that most picked fourth in a division, maybe lower, is going to make the playoffs. But thankfully for some of us, we won't have a repeat of 1991 when we got first place and last (seventh!) place mixed up: there are no seven-team divisions.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.