What do we know? Not much -- yet
Here are some predictions, but many variables sure to be at play
There was a day this spring when we were watching a game with a group of very smart baseball people and the discussion point was whether the Reds were the biggest favorite in any of the divisions. Within a week, though, they'd lost Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey to injuries and Bronson Arroyo was being tested for mono and/or Valley Fever.
"Welcome to the flawed world of predictions," said a general manager. "I went to Spring Training thinking the Brewers were the favorites, then all of a sudden Greinke, Marcum and Parra were hurt. Who knows?"
It is comical when good-ol'-days writers bemoan consideration or discussion of injuries. Of course, the 1985 Cubs, then the defending National League East champions, began the season as the favorites, lost their entire starting rotation before Memorial Day and finished seven games under .500. Ditto the '87 Mets, defending World Series champions and a supposed lock for another pennant with their great starting pitching, only to have a plague hit that pitching, necessitating the use of Terry Leach, Don Schulze and Tom Edens as starters.
It happens. No one knows how well Chase Utley will come back, or if Alex Rodriguez can make it through the season without some flareup related to his hip. Or what happens with Justin Morneau's brave fight against post-concussive issues, or whether Brad Lidge will be healthy or Carlos Beltran can play 135 games or Dustin Pedroia's foot will hold up. Or if Greinke will make it back or how Kendrys Morales' leg will affect his hitting or what will be the future of Jake Peavy. And on and on and on.
We all make predictions, because we're asked. But we don't know. One NL team brought all its scouts in this spring and everyone who saw the Yankees and Red Sox picked New York to win the American League East, even though they agreed that with questions about Russell Martin, Jarrod Saltalamacchia might be the second-best catcher in the division, after Matt Wieters.
As much as it appears that the Yankees and Red Sox are the two best teams in the AL, there are no guarantees. They should score the most runs. Each team has tried to upgrade its bullpen, though they are uncertain how Rafael Soriano and Bobby Jenks will take to the seventh and eighth innings, uncertain who will end up getting meaningful outs against left-handed batters, uncertain about the back end of their rotations. In March, the Nos. 4-5 slots are Ivan Nova vs. John Lackey and Freddy Garcia vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka. In July, who knows?
One popular theory is that the deciding factor might be the pitchers in the third hole in the rotations -- old friends A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett, whose careers are remarkably similar:
Burnett: 5.36 ERA in 2010; 4.42 ERA from 2007-10; 3.99 career ERA.
Beckett: 5.78 ERA in 2010; 4.39 ERA from 2007-10; 3.96 career ERA.
Beckett's changeup is his second-most important pitch after his fastball, and its location and movement was very good this spring. Burnett's focus was good, his consistency not so. Each is capable of 200 innings and 16-18 wins.
Then we have the question of which pitcher the Yankees will decide to pursue during the season.
What is a major part of this race is the improved bottom of the division, knowing that once Joe Maddon figures out his bullpen, the Rays' pitching is going to be really good and lay the bridge until they trade James Shields at the end of the season to make room for Matt Moore (three scouts said he was the best young pitcher they saw this spring) and Chris Archer.
Toronto is on the verge of being a major power as the combination of GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell build a long-term solution. Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch and Brett Cecil will be very good. Adam Lind and Aaron Hill are expected to bounce back. Farrell, coaches like Brian Butterfield and Don Wakamatsu and the steadying influence of Jose Bautista will help Brett Lawrie, Adeiny Hechavarria and others make steady transitions into the lineup and remain for years. This is the best it's been in Toronto since the Pat Gillick era.
Baltimore is back on the rise. When Zach Britton comes up near the end of April, the rotation -- with Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Britton and Jake Arrieta -- will be the best it's been in years. And veteran signings will allow Wieters, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones to be who and what they are. Opening the season with Mark Reynolds batting seventh and Wieters eighth means the Orioles are going to score a ton of runs if Brian Roberts stays in the lineup.
The Tigers, White Sox or Twins can win the AL Central. Detroit's rotation could be dominant if Max Scherzer is as good as people believe. The White Sox bullpen has three power closers. The Twins are the Twins, as long as Morneau and Joe Mauer are healthy. Right now? White Sox.
West? One cannot get past Oakland's young rotation and its quality starts with the up-the-middle defense -- with Cliff Pennington, Mark Ellis and Coco Crisp -- and the additional offense of Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and the expected improvement from Daric Barton. But don't sleep on the Rangers -- especially if Alexi Ogando can start, which he's never done in his pro career -- or the Angels, if they get enough out of the Nos. 4-5 spots in their rotation to get to their bullpen.
It could be one of those years when the second-place team in each East Division ends up in the World Series, hence so many guesses at a Red Sox-Phillies Fall Classic. The Braves are good, they are deep and they have young pitchers everywhere. The Marlins missed on Matt Dominguez opening the season at third base, but could Mike Stanton hit 45 homers and Josh Johnson win the Cy Young? Of course.
The Mets are nowhere near as bad as their portrayals, and the Nationals' defense -- as well as the additions of Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa -- improves their chances of pitching well. Ankiel in center and Werth in right may make for the best-throwing two-thirds of an outfield in the game.
If Arroyo is, indeed, all right, the Reds are still the team to beat in the NL Central. That begins another debate: Who will have the biggest year between Rickie Weeks, Jay Bruce and Colby Rasmus? They all could help decide the division, if their pitching holds up. And the Cubs? Much, much better.
The Giants and Rockies were acclaimed the best teams in Arizona by other GMs, and will likely go into September on a collision course for first place and a run at the Wild Card position.
MVPs? Rodriguez over Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols over Troy Tulowitzki.
Cy Youngs? Any sane person would answer Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay, hence these picks of Jon Lester and Clayton Kershaw.
Rookies of the Year? Jeremy Hellickson over Michael Pineda, Espinosa over Brandon Belt.
And Manny Ramirez will put up .300/.400/.475 numbers for the Rays.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.