Think of the baseball season as a big birthday cake. Bakers fuss over it, creating numerous layers. It sits in the oven for months, then is wheeled out and the party's on.

And, sure enough, some team will jump out of it, icing flying everywhere, and shout, "Surprise!"

Every season, the game is blindsided by pennant-race crashers. Big market, small market. Fat payroll, shoestring. Doesn't matter. There's always someone breaking through the barriers, tilting the playing field.

Who will be the surprise teams of 2007, and enjoy the last laugh? Surprises come in grades; you don't necessarily have to be winning, or even playing, in October to rack up shock points.

Someone could be this year's Marlins -- who needed nametags and chaperones but still rattled the NL East to the wire. Or the Dodgers -- who were hastily assembled and wound up in the playoffs.

We don't exactly know which team will wear Cinderella slippers (and not just its rookies, on those cute dress-up travel days). But we can virtually guarantee from where it will rise.

The Central Division. AL, NL -- whatever. Baseball's heartland will again be the incubator for miracle. There are basically two reasons for knowing this:

• Central teams already have a track record for jumping out of the weeds. No one else has been making World Series three seasons after losing 119 games (Detroit) or three months after sporting a losing record (Houston), or taking home the trophy after an 83-win campaign (St. Louis).

• There are still plenty of Central candidates in the underdog kennel. Teams which have been in the dark for so long, they are natural dark horses. Neither the Pirates nor the Brewers have had a winning record since 1992, and even the Reds have been below .500 since 2000. Another erstwhile powerhouse, Kansas City, has been in the dumps since 1995 except for a brief spike in 2003.

We're formally making the booty call: Look out for the Bucs to find the buried goods. For a couple of reasons, neither of them named Bay or LaRoche.

Pirates, in case your pop culture radar is on the fritz, are huge these days (there is even an official Talk Like A Pirate Day, every Sept. 19, we kid you not). And the Bucs hosted the 2006 All-Star Game.

This goes beyond the obvious link to Detroit having been the site of the 2005 Midsummer Classic; there is an amazing historical correlation between serving as Star host and imminent success. Short version: the Mariners (2001), White Sox (2003) and Astros (2004) are other recent All-Star hosts to quickly make it big.

Oh, you want some more practical reasons? The Bucs turned the rare luxury of two crack closers into the loud left-handed bat they'd sorely missed; with Adam LaRoche joining Jason Bay and bat champ Freddy Sanchez, they can swashbuckle with the best of 'em. But they aren't through with rare luxuries: three lefty starters (Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm) will lead the trail to the treasure.

A healthy Ben Sheets joining Jeff Suppan atop the rotation can lift Milwaukee, where Prince Fielder is the biggest thing since pull-top cans. The Reds chased the leaders to the wire, even with Ken Griffey Jr. sitting out most of September. Junior broke his hand in that pre-Christmas home accident, so maybe the bad stuff now is safely part of his offseason regimen.

Over in the AL, the Royals went old school by signing only pitchers -- and lots of them -- headlined by Gil Meche. With a soft lineup, manager Buddy Bell can't fight firepower with firepower, so he was given the arms to keep him in every game.

The Royals winning big would be a surprise. The Cubs, not so much -- even though they lost only four fewer games in 2006. But by spending freely on marquee players, the North Siders have also bought high expectations.

The Mariners and Rangers are two of five clubs that have never made a World Series. They could make this one, out of an AL West that no longer has a Zito and still doesn't have a bodyguard for a Vladi.

Baltimore, itself without a winning record since 1997, has a rotation that could sustain long winning streaks. Arizona could have a Randy Johnson flashback. And no one had better turn their backs to the Braves, who might be on the ground floor of another dynasty.

Say, what's with all the "could," "might" and "can"? You want us to just make the call and give you the season's upstart darlings?

What, and spoil the surprise?