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  THE 42ND ANNUAL BIG BLACK TABLE BASEBALL PREVIEW.  
   
   
 

Before we get started previewing the 2005 Major League Baseball season, we have to get this out of the way. We'll mention it this once, and then we'll be done with it, we promise:

A Note On Steroids

It is important to note that what we think of steroids will be irrelevant and prehistoric in five years, if it isn't already.

In 20 years, this era will not be looked at with the scorn of "the Steroid Era." It will be looked at with amusement, back when "performance enhancers" were so crude, detectable and bad for you. Whether or not it's "good" that it's a natural evolution of the game is behind the point: It simply is. Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame, and so should Barry Bonds (obviously). The recent hullabaloo is simply because a bunch of middle-aged sportswriters are cranky because "baseball isn't like it was when I was a kid." Yeah. And there are Wal-Marts everywhere now, too. Deal with it.

As in any endeavor, baseball players will take whatever they can to allow them to become better players and prolong their careers. Can we agree, really, that the only real issue with "steroids" is they are bad for you? (Put this way: Isn't a cortisone shot to relieve shoulder pain a "performance enhancer?") In 10 years, or even now, they will have make "performance enhancers" that have no side effects. They will make the muscles stronger, make it easier for players to rebound for workouts, might even, lo, increase their hand-eye coordination. If there are no long-term effects from the drug -- which will surely be taken orally, rather than via those nasty syringes everyone is so scared of -- and they only benefit the player … how are they any different from a cortisone shot?

Every era has its scandals and players with unfair advantages. This is called "sport." Babe Ruth didn't face black pitchers. Mickey Mantle didn't have to deal with the Internet. Henry Aaron didn't face pitchers who worked out year-round. This is how it works. We are fooling ourselves if we believe one can legitimately compare different eras in baseball. You can do it better than you can in football or basketball, sure. But you still can't do it very well.

Baseball will always be changing. People throw their hands in the air about "steroid" abuse because sometime down the line, they convinced themselves that, if they'd only caught a break, they could have played in the major leagues. It's the "normal people" game. But it isn't. Baseball is naturally evolving toward a model that only those in the prime physical condition for the game will succeed, and working toward that condition will involve more than just drinking Ovaltine before the game and a Scotch and soda afterwards. This is fine. There is nothing wrong with this.

In other words … we'd all be a lot better off if we just shut up about steroids already, because none of us has any idea what we're talking about. So that's what we're gonna do.

To that end, here's The Black Table's official 2005 Season Preview, as always, way too long and way too wordy to escape the slippery slope of glorious and lubricating self-indulgence.

Teams are in order of predicted finish, unless of course you're a Yankee, in which case the author will happily accept three-year, $6.1 million contracts to change them.

(Note: The team logos are linked to the best weblog about each team, though it's possible we just missed yours, so don't be mad. As much as some might believe weblogs are the exclusive property of New York media rejects, the best use of the medium is by baseball fans, many of whom are professional writers by day and baseball nerds by night. No real fan of a team can survive without checking out these sites on a daily basis. So dig in.)

 

 
       
 

 

 
     

Boston Red Sox

It seems odd to say this, but almost six months after the fact, the sheer absurdity of what happened with the Boston Red Sox last October

 
 

still seems underappreciated. You can watch the postseason highlights forever, you can listen to Curt Schilling cement his reputation as sports' biggest blowhard (honestly, if Schilling's vocation were religion rather than baseball, he'd be Jimmy Swaggert), you can even, if you dare, go see the waste of otherwise perfectly serviceable carbon that is Jimmy Fallon in the upcoming Fever Pitch. No amount of exposure can do last October justice. The improbability of it is staggering; it's like getting every single game in your NCAA tournament bracket correct and winning the lottery while being struck by lightning. The closest anyone has come to capturing this, as far as we can tell, is the new Vanity Fair piece by Seth Mnookin, which reveals that general manager Theo Epstein, after the ALCS Game 3 disaster, spent the evening getting bombed with his friends and begging to the baseball gods "to get at least one win." (It also reveals that owner John Henry spent the ninth inning of Game 4 writing out his conciliatory speech for the press, which is such a damning detail it's a wonder he can even accept his World Championship trophy with a straight face.)

The point: After October, it doesn't seem fair that there should be a 2005 season at all. Boston should get the year off. And considering the actions of the Boston fan base since winning the World Series (and subsequently another Super Bowl), the rest of us should get the year off too. The Red Sox were the only thing that gave the frat party denizens of Boston any gravitas; with their victory, they have now simply become obnoxious Abercrombie & Fitch assheads who have inexplicably become, of all things, cocky. One would think one breakthrough year after 86 years of misery would instill in Red Sox fans a measure of humility and restraint. One would be wrong. (I am aware I am gleefully generalizing in a ludicrously broad fashion. It's fun! Come on in! The water's great!)

We're all going to have to get used to it, because the Red Sox aren't going away anytime sooner than the Patriots did. The Sox lost Pedro Martinez after being outbid on a contract they should have sprinted from in the first place, but more than made up for him with cheaper signings of David Wells (who will never, ever go away), Matt Clement and Wade Miller. The offense should be just as strong as last year's and even added shortstop Edgar Renteria, who, while overrated, shores up the defense and will be worth his four-year contract for at least, well, a year-and-a-half.

One could make the argument that last year's victory over the Yankees was the victory the Red Sox had been waiting for, the first step in winning the great war. But Epstein has done something that George Steinbrenner has not done; he has put together an outstanding team that will also flourish in the future. The war isn't not just starting: It's already over. The Red Sox have won. The Yankees just don't know it yet. The notion of the hard-luck Red Sox fan has been obliterated. We, including the Red Sox fans, who now will have to release the collegiate lifestyle sometime before 35, are all the poorer for it.

 

 
     

New York Yankees

What would happen, do you suppose, if the Yankees actually missed the playoffs? It has been so long since Steinbrenner's boys didn't at least

 
  reach the postseason -- 1993, to be exact -- that the notion seems absurd. A postseason without the Yankees would be like an Oscar ceremony where no one wears a tux.

But it's going to happen one of these years. It's very possible it could be this one. The Yankees, being the Yankees, retooled their whole team in the offseason. They brought in (deep breath) Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Jared Wright, Tony Womack and, for a victory lap, Tino Martinez. These were among the hottest names on the free agent market (except for Johnson, whose arrival in a trade was inevitable), and the Yankees scooped them up like they were on Supermarket Sweep.

This is all fine and good, of course; this is what that Yankees do, after all. But each of those additions has one thing in common: They're all on the downsides of the careers. Sure, they're "veterans," but hey, so is Jim Bunning, and he can't even tie his shoes. Add them to the rest of the Yankees roster, which counts Derek Jeter, 30, as one of the young guys, and you can see this team cannot sustain last year's level of performance for much longer.

So here's how this season could play out. The Yanks start off red-hot after an unnecessarily emotional opening series with the Red Sox. They jump out to an AL East lead … and then the injuries come. Johnson and Kevin Brown go down for extended periods, as do Jason Giambi (surprise), Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. Wright and Pavano struggle with the bright lights of New York. Mariano Rivera finally starts showing his wear and tear. And next thing you know, the Yankees have lost eight of 10, and the tabloids are losing their collective minds. And with no farm system left at all, the Yankees would have little to offer in midseason deals to patch holes. The Yankees would be stuck, painted into their own corner.

Nightmarish scenario? Yes. Unlikely? Probably. But certainly possible. The rest of the American League is just about to catch up with the Yankees. If they haven't already. It's just a matter of time. If it happens this year, Randy Johnson is destined to be the goat. But the seeds of the Yankees demise were set in long before the Unit pulled on those nine-foot pinstripes. Not that that will make him feel any better. What's the workman's comp for cameramen pounded on the street, anyway?

 

 
     

Baltimore Orioles

For a team that has perhaps the most popular Latin player in the game, two guys who testified in front of Congress about steroids, a pitcher who spent

 
  part of his summer in a jail in Aruba and a bench player whose father is just the type of guy who might write about all this -- national baseball correspondent for the Los Angeles Times Ross Newhan -- it was still considered a quiet offseason for the Orioles.

Part of this is because of the new team in Washington, D.C., which, while wretched on the field, will at least siphon off some headlines. But mostly it's because the Orioles remain stuck in neutral. Much of this could be due to the odd front office arrangement the team has: dual general managers in Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan. Much like when two authors co-write a book, it's difficult to tell who's in charge … who's got the real voice in the organization. (Though, all told, it's probably just owner Peter Angelos.) The Orioles are an upper-class team forced to be the middle-class in their own division. It'll be fun to watch all the balls fly out of Camden Yards, but the Orioles have no real plan to make an appropriate leap past the East's big dogs.

 

 
     

Toronto Blue Jays

Last year was a complete disaster for the only foreign team left in the game, if you can count Toronto as a foreign city and not, say, Chicago

 
  North. (By the way, how long until Skyy vodka sponsors the dome? Or should we just let the sky sponsor itself?) The Blue Jays seemed to have a reasonable plan in place; keep the costs down, load up on young hitters with plenty of potential and hope the pitching at least doesn't fall off the mound. In the first two months of the season, all of this went wrong. The Jays were mired in last place before anyone remembered that the season had even started.

Ultimately speaking, this was probably for the best. Even in a best-case scenario, the Jays weren't going to compete with Boston and the Yankees, and the early face-flop helped expedite that realization. GM J.P. Ricciardi -- a former protégé of the Moneyball nerds in Oakland -- played the youngsters most of the way, and even though it led to 94 losses and last place, it at least was cheaply done with an eye on the future.

Unfortunately, that future still has the Red Sox and Yankees in the same division. The new ownership group in Toronto has pledged to raise the payroll considerably over the next few seasons, but it's difficult to understand why, except as a blatant public relations ploy. The Blue Jays will never be able to compete with the Big Two financially, and despite some young promising hitters like Vernon Wells and Orlando Hudson, there isn't enough in place here to put the team even close to being in the same league. The good news? The Jays were open minded enough to allow Sports Illustrated scribe Tom Verducci to go through a week of spring training with them, leading to one of the more enjoyable pieces the magazine has run in months. Verducci made his name as one of the few national reporters to comb the steroid beat (for better or worse), but since then, he has stepped up as one of the premier sportswriters in the industry. Verducci has a beat reporter's dogged persistence and Franz Lidz's attention to detail and love and language. He has, almost overnight, become the magazine's most valuable asset. And he even looks believable in a Jays' uniform. More believable than Frank Catalanotto, anyway.

 

 
     

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Have you done your fantasy draft yet? Did you notice that a bunch of Devil Rays were taken unusually high? Aubrey Huff. Carl Crawford. Scott

 
  Kazmir. Toby Hall. This is a team with much potential and even some star power, if, of course, you knew any of the stars' names. They have a charismatic manager in Lou Pinella; our favorite move is when he picks up a base and throws it. You keep waiting for his back to give out.

Unfortunately, the Devil Rays have two major problems. One, they have no fans, which means they have no money. Two, they play in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles, who are infinitely more wealthy, and the Blue Jays, who are smarter and more careful about how they spend their (still more) money. The Devil Rays are a lost team, destined to serve as a farm team to their supposed competitors. People talk about how the Red Sox and the Yankees are the favorites to make the playoffs no matter what, because they will feast on weaker foes. They play the Devil Rays a total of 38 times. That's what they're talking about.

 

 
       
     
     

Chicago White Sox

One of these days, it has to come together for the White Sox? Doesn't it? The South Siders have a rather unique penchant these past few years for

 
  making the exact right move at the exact right time, and having it violently blow up in their face.

Sign David Wells? A proven winner. Well-done. Wells had his only poor, injury-ridded season.

Trade for Carl Everett and Roberto Alomar? Nice. Both ended up hurt, malcontent and ineffective.

Bring in Bartolo Colon for a season? A strikeout guy. Vital. Hey, look, he just ate Ozzie Guillen.

General manager Kenny Williams has been close to being fired for five years, and every time he's just on the edge, he makes a good deal … which then fails. Repeat. The White Sox have been consistently competitive for nearly a decade now, yet only has one playoff appearance to show for it. The Sox were then swept. Good moves, followed by failure.

Which is why, if just to tilt at windmills, we think this could be the Sox's year. Why? Because Williams finally made a dumb trade, of course! His offseason shipping of slugger Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for scrappy but slumpy speedster Scott Podsednik. The former Brewers centerfielder is expected to be the new face of the franchise, a hustling, baserunning demon who sets the table for big bobbers Frank Thomas (still alive, somehow) and Paul Konerko. Problem is, Podsednik doesn't get on base enough and gets thrown out stealing too often. And he's teaming at the top of the order with new Japanese second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, a definitive unknown quality. The team is also counting on a dynamic Cuban due of former Yankees, Jose Contreras and octogenarian Orlando Hernandez, to anchor a shaky rotation with Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland.

Williams, essentially, is betting on luck. He needs everything to break right. But everything has broken wrong for this team for so long; isn't it time luck turned its way? The bet here is yes.

 

 
     

Minnesota Twins

Quick: Which baseball team has the wealthiest owner? The Yankees? The Red Sox? The Dodgers? The Cubs? Nope, nope, nope and nada zilcho nerp.

 
  It's the Minnesota Twins, the quote-unquote "financially challenged" team. According to Forbes, Twins owner Carl Pohlad is the 92nd richest man in the United States. (That's actually his highest ranking ever; he was 272nd in 2001 … you know, the year MLB almost contracted his team because it was so "poor.")

The Twins have won three consecutive AL Central titles, and have been lauded for pulling off such successes in the wake of said financial difficulties. (That the division is full of mismanaged teams has a little to do with that as well.) This year, the team even had the nerve to pat itself on the back for locking up all-world lefthander Johan Santana for four years and second ace Brad Radke for a hometeam discount. Attendance hasn't budged all that high upward in that time, which could be a case for not pouring money back into the team or might have something to do with a fanbase that's still pretty pissed off for being jerked around so much four years ago. (And that ridiculous "stadium" doesn't help either.)

In other words: The Twins are due for a karma smackdown. Young prospects like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are exciting, but the infield is unsettled, the rotation thin behind the two aces and the bullpen still recovering from a postseason breakdown last October. Everyone's picking the Twins to breeze to another division title. But it feels like the Twins are idling, content to hold the status quo and expect the other AL Central teams to continue to choke on their lapels. It ends this year. One wonders if Pohlad will even notice.

 

 
     

Cleveland Indians

While watching the NCAA Tournament this past month, and witnessing the amazing run the top-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini have made -- forcing a

 
  potentially serious opening day or national title game? dilemma this Monday -- it has been surprising to note how little has been made of Illinois' mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Two years ago, the Chief -- a skipping, dancing, woo-wooing "symbol" for the Illini sports teams that is inevitably portrayed by an Aryan frat guy named Steve -- was being debated on the front pages of The New York Times: Racist mascot or honorable tradition? As a University of Illinois graduate who has long since tired of the debate and therefore has no stance on the issue other than "please just make it go away," this is pleasing. As an observer of continued muted resistance to the Indians' smiling, ludicrously caricatured Chief Wahoo, this is maybe, on the whole, not all that surprising after all.

The Indians are the hot pick to challenge the favored Twins this year, but it's difficult to see why. Any team that is allowing Juan Gonzalez to keep one of its top prospects (Grady Sizemore) off the field is just asking for trouble. "Ace" C.C. Sabathia will start the season on the disabled list, and replacement "ace" Kevin Millwood has been comically overrated since he joined the league. This has the feel of a team that, despite last year's flirtation with .500, is still a year way from really competing for a division title. Anyone who says otherwise is clearly cukoo for Cocoa Puffs. (Sorry. If you stop reading now, we don't blame you.)

 

 
     

Detroit Tigers

The baseball world is a better place when the game is thriving in Detroit. The city has a long history of baseball, it has a new stadium that looks pretty

 
  even if it's surrounded by decay and hey, to quote one Washington D.C. local official, "it's always good when black people like baseball." And, unlike other cities that have apparently given up on the game (Tampa Bay, Miami, Minneapolis), Detroit seems eager to support its team; attendance shot up last year, thanks mostly to, you know, no longer being one of the worst teams in the history of sport.

Ownership has the right idea … kind of. Thanks to the boost in attendance, the ownership group loosened the purse strings and went after some free agents. Unfortunately, the city they were trying to bring the free agents to was Detroit. Carlos Beltran, J.D. Drew, Pedro Martinez … free agents took turns trying not to laugh when their agents called them and said, "So …. whaddya think of Detroit?" The Tigers were left with overpaying for questionable players who couldn't find anyone else to take them. Troy Percival and, most incredibly, Magglio Ordonez were signed as big-ticket guys even though both of them will be lucky to stand without paid assistance in three years. They are big names for the sake of big names.

This worked last year with Ivan Rodriguez, though, to remind, he has three more years of balky -- such a baseball word: balky. No one has ever used the word "balky" except baseball managers, players and, oddly, those who raise horses -- knees and $10 million yearly checks to sign. Like the city of Detroit itself, you have to feel for the Tigers. They're trying to get people excited. They're trying to clean things up. They're trying to be a real city again. But they're just too far behind; everyone just keeps skipping off to the suburbs, where the hotels have cleaner towels and the credit cards have little gold strips around them.

 

 
     

Kansas City Royals

Well, that didn't work. 2003 was a pleasant experience for Royals fans, a rare foray above the .500 mark. Much of that success was achieved with

 
  young players, so GM Allard Baird, reasonably believing that said young players could only improve, brought in a few veterans like Juan Gonzalez and readying for a pennant run. Some misguided souls bought into the whole charade, even going so far as to pick them to win the division last year.

There are no such illusions this year. The Royals have cleared the decks and are playing a bunch of rookies on the cheap this year. In some cases, that works fine, like in the case of Zack Greinke, who is just waiting to turn into prime-era Greg Maddux, you watch. In just about every other case, the Royals are flailing, tossing moist excrement to the wall and hoping something leaves a mark that doesn't eat through the paint or kill the goldfish.

In other words, the Royals are giving up on this season, and likely next, and perhaps even the one after that one, in an effort to decipher what exactly they have for the future, whenever that future might be. And one of the most underrated fanbases in the country continues to starve for something, anything, to root for. Our suggestion: Root for players who used to play for the Royals, like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and, inevitably, Greinke. Think of it like rooting for your alum's players in the NBA. Might be the best these doomed franchise can hope for.

 

 
       
     
     

Oakland Athletics

Let's see if we can make it through an A's preview without the buzzwords.

... deep breath ...

 
 

 

In the offseason, noted g----s general manager Billy Beane, subject of the bestselling book M-------l, realized that because of f-------l r------s and the team's l-w p-----l, he could no longer afford to keep two of the team's B-G T---e starting pitchers, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Relying on the team's s-------l a-----s models, using principles first touted by author (and current Boston Red Sox employee) B--l J---s, Beane flipped the two starters for cheap, younger players with high p------l and u----e. Many in the industry, distrustful of Beane's M-------l methods, have criticized the trades as waving the white flag and are eager to see Beane fall on his face.

But Beane, the g----s, might have a few cards up his sleeve. The rotation, while young, is enormously talented, and the offense should be improved from last year, thanks to the addition of Jason Kendall, the continued improvement of Bubba Crosby and the continued reliance on on-b--e p--------e (abbreviated as O-P) machines like Erubiel Durazo and Eric Chavez. Add in Beane's talent for late-season "H--y S--t!" trades and the prevalence of minor league talent (most notably those from the famous 2003 M------l d---t), and the A's could shock everyone this year, causing players-turned-bloviating-announcers like J-e M----n to eat their words on a Sunday nightly basis.

 

 
     

Anaheim Angels

We are calling them the Anaheim Angels, and that's all there is to it. When they move to the greater Los Angeles area, they can be called the

 
  Los Angeles Angels, or the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, or whatever. Though we do enjoy the ESPN abbreviation of "LAA;" it always makes us start singing.

The Angels are a popular pick to repeat as AL West champions, and it makes sense: Much of last year's team is returning, and they still have guys with neat names like "Chone," "Erstad" and "Dallas." But something still smells off about this year's incarnation. Maybe it's the shaky pitching staff: after the portly and unreliable Bartolo Colon, there are journeymen like John Lackey and Paul Byrd who are just trying to hoist the game into the seventh inning so the bullpen can take over. Maybe it's the dogged resistance to taking a walk. Maybe it's just lingering Rally Monkey aftereffects.

With owner Arte Moreno pulling out the checkbook for all the high-ticket Latino free agents, and a farm system that ranks among the major's best, the Angels, if run correctly, could dominate this division if they keep their heads on straight. But this year, there are only really two teams to worry about: Oakland, and the Yankees. They only need to pass one to make the playoffs. Ironically enough … this year, the Yankees might be the easier bait.

 

 
     

Seattle Mariners

The most lovable thing about Ichiro Suzuki -- and there is much to love -- has to be his first name. What is it about the Japanese that inspires us to

 
  punctuate almost every name they have with an exclamation point? Ichiro! Ichiro! The slap-hitting speedster (!) broke a single-season hits record so old (!) that no one even remembered it was a record. Watching Ichiro! is like watching an unusually tall lightning bug. It's somewhat surprising he doesn't hit a single every time he comes up.

It's a good thing Ichiro! had such a historic season last year, because little else in Seattle was worth watching. The Mariners impersonated their home city's weather last year: dreary rain, slothful, unending. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong three or four times for the Mariners last year. The starting lineup forgot its walkers in the dugout, and the pitching was like a guy raising from the depths of the sea without depressurizing: at first a bloody nose, then a headache, and then POOF, complete implosion.

The crumpling put the franchise in a difficult position. Seattle is an ideal market for baseball, with a loyal fanbase and deep-pocketed owners, but that fan base was unlikely to sit around for a six-year rebuilding process, particularly in a division that looks radically different than it did five years ago. So the Mariners signed two of the biggest (literally) free agents on the market to man the corners: first baseman Richie Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre. That should make the offense tolerable to the pallet -- it will be fun watching Ichiro! fly around the bases when Beltre jacks one in the gap -- but the pitching is still in ruins and isn't likely to pick up in time. The 2005 Mariners are like Japanimation, really; lots of flashing bright colors and excitement, and a very real possibility to cause seizure. Somebody put a wallet in this team's mouth!

 

 
     

Texas Rangers

Chan Ho Park will ultimately be remembered for two things.

1. Giving up two grand slams in one inning to

 
 

former Cardinals headcase Fernando Tatis.
2. Single-handedly costing the Texas Rangers Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano (ultimately) and any chance of competing for the American League West title.

In 2001, the Rangers gave Park a five-year, $65 million contract. $34 million of that has already been paid. They have handed Park $170,000 for each of his 200 strikeouts during that period. Last year, the Rangers paid Michael Young, one of their best players, $450,000 total. The Rangers still have $31 million to go. Texas would do anything to send Park back to Korea. Preferably North Korea.

Because of that albatross, the Rangers have been unable to pursue any pitching help, which they desperately need, despite the admirable patch-and-fill job put together by pitching coach Orel Hershiser last season. And, despite public appearances, the Rangers' offense, despite young stars like Hank Blalock, Mark Texiera and Young, gets an unnatural boost from a launching pad home park. Last year was a nice little story, the plucky Rangers thriving after the loss of the best player in franchise history. It was smoke and mirrors. The Rangers will be lucky to win 75 games this year.

 

 
       
     
     

Florida Marlins

For a team that has no fans, the Marlins nevertheless continue to occupy an unnaturally prominent place in baseball history. They have won

 
  two World Series despite never winning a division championship. They play in a stadium whose nasty, overcharging landlord used to own the team and now hates them (the feeling is mutual). They have one of the lowest attendance figures in the game yet still can scrap up the money to sign free agents like Carlos Delgado and Al Leiter. And, sheesh, they wear teal. And their mascot is a marlin.

And they're the most dangerous team in the National League this year. The Marlins were the one team no one wanted to face in the playoffs last year because they're the one team that does everything well. Speed? Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. Young starting pitching? Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and A.J. Burnett. Bullpen? Guillermo Mota. Power? Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell and the newly signed Delgado, an acquisition that changes the balance of power in the division. Putting him after the still-only-21-years-old Cabrera makes the lineup almost unfairly dangerous.

Which means: The odds are excellent that the pieces could be in place for the Marlins to go for a third championship in eight years, despite, as mentioned, having no fans. You think the Yankees are the most hated team in baseball? Florida is a team with no boosters constantly stealing titles from loyal fan bases. It's a good thing the Red Sox finally won a title, or their fans would burn Pro Player down. (Which would be fine with the Marlins, actually.) Cub fans: Your turn.

 

 
     

Philadelphia Phillies

Funny thing, fandom. For the past few years, the most popular figure in Phillies baseball was former manager Larry Bowa. He was the public face of the

 
  franchise, the emotionally volatile raconteur, the guy who jumped up and waved his hands in the air like an idiot when the team won, and growled and cursed when they lost. A former broadcaster, Bowa was, essentially, a fan; a fanbase that is legendary for its own volatility and inability to restrain its emotions looked at him and saw themselves.

Yet, the past two years, the Phillies have been NL East favorites going in before drastically underachieving in the regular season. The shift in blame went from the players directly to Bowa, which was understandable, considering his well-documented weakness for in-game management and tendency to make his players, you know, hate him. When Bowa was fired in the offseason, and Charlie Manuel was hired, the publicity focus went from "Root For Your Boy Bowa" to "Hey, We Have a New Manager Now! All Will Be Well Again!"

Which makes a modicum of sense, actually. The Phillies, while aging, are still well-balanced; the team is good at everything and outstanding at little. In the long grind of a baseball season, this is an excellent strategy; consistency is valued more than flashes of brilliance. But with some back-ended contracts, the Phillies better take advantage while they can. Jim Thome is already gimpy, and the fans won't fill a flashy new ballpark forever if they're constantly disappointed. Charlie Manuel, a low-key, likable guy, is expected to be the calming influence the team lacked with Bowa. He'll have to pull it off, because if he doesn't, well, he better get real used to dodging beer bottles.

 

 
     

New York Mets

New York City is a baseball town, and always will be. Last January, on the day the New York Jets played an AFC Divisional Playoff game against the

 
  Pittsburgh Steelers, the back page of the New York Daily News did not contain a picture of Chad Pennington, or Herman Edwards, or even that weird fan in the fireman's hat. No. It was a picture of Mets general manager Omar Minaya. This was January.

This works out perfect for New York. Unlike the other two major sports, baseball has no salary cap. The Knicks sign Allan Houston for too much money, and their team will suffer for a decade because of it. The Giants make a draft mistake, or pick the wrong head coach, and the unforgiving nature of the league punishes the misstep tenfold. But in baseball, specifically New York baseball, you can make mistakes. You can sign Tom Glavine for too much money in the twilight of his career. If it's a mistake, that's OK; just sign Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran the next offseason, and everyone will forget Glavine, a future Hall of Famer, even plays for your team. The Mets and the Yankees can afford to throw money at problems because they can spend all they want. Hence, the baseball teams -- the last few years of Met "baseball" notwithstanding -- can never fall too far back. Meanwhile, the Knicks jump up and down and spin in circles if they can sneak in the playoffs as an eight seed. And they will do so for a very long time.

So there's much excitement around Shea Stadium this year. But despite the additions, this team has big huge gaping holes all over the place. The pitching staff is either old or wild (Kaz Ishii is the Japanese Rick Ankiel, except he can't hit), the bullpen is a minefield and the lineup is still relying on gimps like Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd. There is hope in Queens, and that's great; Mets fans are due for something to care about other than losing out on sweepstakes hosted by local newspapers. The Mets might be on the right track -- until those big multi-year contracts come home to roost in a couple of years -- but Shea, come the postseason, is going to look exactly like Madison Square Garden does around that time: empty.

 

 
     

Atlanta Braves

It's time. No, seriously. We really, really mean it. We're willing to stake our flimsy reputation on it. This year, finally, is the one where the Braves'

 
  string of 13 consecutive division titles ends. (13! 13! Think about that. The last time the Braves didn't win the National League East, the Yankees lost 95 games. 95! The Yankees!) Bobby Cox has won a division title every single year he has started the season as Braves manager. Because the Braves have only won one World Series in that time -- and have a bloated, pathetically content and indifferent fanbase -- this fact has gone underappreciated. It shouldn't.

But it ends now. It has to.

Five reasons:

1. The Braves are counting on John Smoltz. No pitcher has ever come back from closing for three years -- after a career of starting -- and just picked up right where they left off. The Braves think they're getting the late '90s John Smoltz. They aren't.

2. The rest of that rotation. Even if you give Smoltz the benefit of the doubt, and you think Tim Hudson will be as dominating as he was in Oakland, the other three starters -- John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez and Mike Hampton -- scare no one.

3. The closer. The acquisition of Danny Kolb excited the Braves' "fans," but he has long been a lucky closer who can't strike anyone out. Atlanta tried to go cheap, eager to put Smoltz back in the rotation. It won't work.

4. Raul Mondesi. The Braves are counting on Mondesi to start in right field. For that, they deserve to lose.

5. It's time. The Braves have had a run of good fortunate that is unrivaled. It has to come tumbling down at some point. This is the year.

 

 
     

Washington Nationals

The disaster that the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals/DC Reunited franchise has been over the last five years is well-documented, most

 
  memorably in the new version of Baseball Prospectus 2005, which details in hilarious form the way Major League Baseball extorted the citizens of DC and then backed off when the populous rose up and said that, all told, they'd rather the negotiations be carried out using prison rules. The Nationals are finally ready to go this year, playing in a decrepit stadium that looks like Tupperware left in the microwave too long and with a general manager who signed free agents this season simply because he had nothing better to do.

New (and soon-to-be ex, as soon as they have a real owner, which we're not holding our breath for) Nationals general manager Jim Bowden was once the biggest young hot shot in the game. When he ran the Cincinnati Reds -- into the ground, really -- he was always the first person to remind you that he was the smartest person in the room, even if he had difficult writing his name in the dirt with a stick. After being mercifully fired by the Reds, Bowden spent time doing television work, most notably on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza," which, in a sane and just world, would make him a better candidate for execution than another GM job. But MLB handled the hiring of a new GM much better than it handled the stadium situation; it picked Bowden, who is a perfect patsy, just enough of a rube to do a bad enough job that the new owners will have no problem canning him when they take over. Whenever that is.

Bowden's two big-ticket signings this offseason were third basemen Vinny Castilla and shortstop Christian Guzman. Neither are unlikely to do much more than take up expensive roster spots and sign a bunch of autographs, which, in this first year and all its good feeling in DC, is likely all they will be asked to do. The chest of drawers are barren here, which is just the way baseball likes it. Fans will show up for the first couple of years, hope the stadium doesn't fall on their heads and enjoy some of that DC sunshine. Last place for these guys will work just fine; they'll even be considerate enough to do it without speaking French.

 

 
       
     
     

St. Louis Cardinals

Since 1976, only one other team in the National League has won more games than the St. Louis Cardinals won last year (the 1998 Atlanta Braves).

 
  The Cardinals had a historic season, boosted by career-best performances by Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and a criminally underrated pitching staff that led the major leagues in quality starts. It was second-best season in the history of one of baseball's most storied franchise.

And all anyone will remember, if they remember anything at all, is that the Cardinals punked out in four games against the Red Sox. It's similar -- in a frightening way to this Cardinals and Illini fan -- to what could happen to this year's Illinois basketball team if they do not win the national championship next Monday. An incredible season laid to waste by one bad week, or one bad night. That's sports.

The popular opinion is that the Cardinals will be down this season. The middle infield is entirely new, with David Eckstein and Mark Grudzelaniek taking over for Edgar Renteria and Tony Womack. The rotation lost its best postseason starter in Woody Williams. The big three -- along with late-season acquisition Larry Walker -- cannot reasonably be expected to duplicate the amazing numbers from last year. And the tragic tale of Rick Ankiel has cast a considerable pall over this year's proceedings.

But the Cardinals should still be considered the easy favorite in the Central. They've added Mark Mulder to anchor a rotation that could be even better than last year's, and the lineup and defense still are the best in the National League. And lest one forget: This is the final year for Busch Stadium. Built in 1967, the big round circle with arches will be torn down next winter for the "new" Busch Stadium being built next year (imagine Camden Yards, but with more red and less brick, if that makes sense. The final weekend's game, against the Cincinnati Reds on October 2, has been sold out for months. But with this lineup, and the feeling that the Cardinals are simply due to break through again, it almost certainly won't be the final goodbye for Cardinals fans. The postseason looks like a lock.

 

 
     

Chicago Cubs

In 1997, the film Wag the Dog was released, starring a still-breathing-back-then Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman as political operatives coming

 
  up with a PR campaign to distract the nation from nefarious dealings within the government. Last year, the Chicago Cubs were coming off a season that brought them closer to the World Series than anyone could have imagined. With a week left in the season, despite various injuries and a clubhouse atmosphere that resembled a Royal Rumble, the Cubs were in a position to claim the wild-card. In a short playoff series, a rotation of Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood would be a force with which to be seriously reckoned, if you are the type of person to use the word "reckon."

But the Cubs collapsed, choking away the easy spot by losing six of their last seven. The reasons for the collapse are plentiful -- Sammy Sosa, a limp-noodle bullpen, manager Dusty Baker's tendency to drop anvils on his pitcher's elbows -- but to hear the team tell it, the real reason was broadcaster Steve Stone. The former Cy Young winner and longtime WGN staple had been criticizing the team's chemistry and, specifically, Baker's management of his pitching staff. Baker went public with his complaints about Stone, so the last weekend of the season, when the Cubs merely needed to win two of three against the mailing-it-in Braves, the Chicago papers were not talking about the key series. They were talking about the "rift." Cubs fans could not be blamed for barely noticing their team was gagging a perfect opportunity.

Stone is now fired, which doesn't change all the problems that he was pointing out. The Cubs are in danger of missing the best window for a World Series they've had in decades. The pitching staff is in tattered bandages -- Wood and Prior will miss at least their first starts, and it can't be long now until Zambrano's arm goes all Dravecky on us -- and the offense, with the exodus of Sosa, has Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Nomar Garciaparra and a bunch of guys with the "veteran grit" Baker loves … and not much else. If the Cubs miss this rare confluence of circumstances where they're actually, you know, good, even the most loyal sun-drenched drunkard fans could end up disillusioned. Every year that passes without a title is a year off the clock; the Cubs had better hurry.

 

 
     

Cincinnati Reds

The most exciting superstar in the game is a big dumb 6-foot-6 former quarterback prospect for the University of Texas. He strikes out all the time, he has a little bit of a beer gut and he has a hockey

 
  fan's goatee. And he once hit a ball so far out of the Great American Ballpark, it actually ended up in Kentucky. Meet Adam Dunn. He's gonna hit 60 homers someday. You watch.

The Reds are a fun team to watch, because they score a ton of runs and give up even more. Eric Milton was, by far, the worst free agent signing of the offseason, and the bullpen is terrifying. The Reds are like RBI Baseball used to be; a ton of homers, 15-12 games, always getting your money's worth. They won't be very good, but they will always be enjoyable.

So why picked to finish third? Because the NL Central is a much worse division this year than anyone realizes. And Ken Griffey will play at least 130 games. And in the future, we really will all be wearing rocket packs.

 

 
     

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers were one of the more fun teams to watch last season, and that's not just because of the sausage races (which we hear was once also a fraternity hazing ritual). And they're going to

 
  become more fun to watch in upcoming years, thanks to prospects Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy and Richie Weeks. The rotation is thin this year, but Ben Sheets is the best pitcher you've never seen anywhere other than in the Olympics.

But the real reason to root for Milwaukee this year is that they are no longer owned by the Selig family. Of all the shady, nefarious dealings that have gone on in baseball the last few years, nothing was worse than allowing immediate family members of the commissioner own one of the teams. When you look at it, almost every single proposal MLB has made in the last five years has been directly beneficial to the Milwaukee Brewers. Contraction? Revenue sharing? Luxury tax? All of it meant money directly into the pockets of the Selig family. The new owners are taking over a franchise that has already sapped the money from a new stadium and is now appealing to the second-smallest market in the game. They are buying a used car. Nothing speaks more to the legacy of former car salesman Bud Selig's tenure than that.

 

 
     

Houston Astros

The Astros had their chance. Everything broke right for Houston last year, including a mad dash down the stretch that swiped the wild-card from the Cubs and Marlins. No-names like Brandon Backe

 
  and Chad Harville pitched inexplicably brilliant during the postseason, and they discovered the god-like qualities of closer Brad Lidge. And they still fell one game short because, of all people, Roger Clemens, who couldn't even outduel baserunning expert Jeff Suppan.

And it's all over now. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio will never get their rings. This team is old and strapped for cash. Carlos Beltran's fun cameo -- much like Randy Johnson's a few years ago -- has passed. The team has a thin pitching staff, a decaying lineup (with Lance Berkman out for the first two months) and little recourse for patchwork. The Astros are in serious danger of being out of the race by May. And if that happens, there will be no turnaround. Bagwell and Biggio could be flipped for a Chris Chelios-like victory lap with a contender. (Clemens could too.) The team will disintegrate, and will turn into the other NL Central has-beens, chasing the Cardinals and the Cubs.

The Astros' misery as a franchise has been underdocumented (this Slate piece from last year lists the heartbreaks well.) This year, Astros fans might suffer the most of all; their team won't even have the opportunity to break their spirits.

 

 
     

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates were once among baseball's most glorious franchises. Sure, they played in an ugly, cookie-cutter stadium, but they had style, they had pizzazz, they had a little goddamned

 
  spunk. We Are Family. Willie Stargell. Dave Parker. Kent Tekulve. Andy Van Slyke. Heck, Sid Bream.

The Pirates no longer have an ugly stadium. By all accounts, PNC Park is among the most valued treasures the game has to offer. But what's left adds up to little. The Pirates remain, like the Brewers and Orioles and Reds, in baseball's purgatory. Too cash-strapped to move up, too proud to tear it all down and just start over already.

This year's model could be the worst of recent-year Pirates teams. The Wilson twins (not actually twins) of Jack and Craig had career years last season that are unlikely to be duplicated. The only name synonymous with Pirate baseball in recent years, Jason Kendall, was traded to the A's for two expensive spare parts. There are only two names in Pittsburgh really worth knowing. First is Jason Bay, the reigning Rookie of the Year, a man who has the unique distinction of being traded by the last two Mets general managers. The other is Oliver Perez, a tall, lanky lefthander who looks smooth and strikes out batters by the bushel (and is only 23). Everything else about the Pirates this year is irrelevant. Oh, and Jose Mesa is still hanging around, which is kind of sweet. The big lug.

 

 
       
     
     

San Diego Padres

San Diego is one of those beautiful cities that deserves more athletic success than it receives. (It would help if they'd stop trading the Pirates the only two players who matter for a gimpy Brian

 
  Giles.) Even when the Padres have been good, their luck has been lousy. The team has made the World Series twice. They two teams they faced? The 1984 Detroit Tigers and the 1998 New York Yankees, perhaps the two best teams of the last 25 years. They were swept each time.

This year's team has some surprising oomph. The lineup has some pop with Giles, Khalil Greene, Phil Nevin and the out-of-nowhere Mark Loretta. Trevor Hoffman remains one of the most exciting closers in the game (along with the funky delivering Akinori Otsuka), and the young rotation, headed by Jake Peavy and a ready-to-bust-out Adam Eaton, is only improving (though imagine if they still had Perez). The Padres are a sleeper team this year, but they were that last year too. What will make the difference, in a division that's in flux, will be the performance of the starters behind Peavy and Eaton, most notably Brian Lawrence.

The Padres might seem like a team of the future, but they're not: They have a lot of ugly contracts -- including the three-headed dog that is Jeff Cirillo -- and their young stars will get more expensive before they get cheaper. They must make a run now, before the Dodgers payroll advantages kick in. Here's a bet that the Pads give their fans a Chargers-like glory run this year.

 

 
     

Los Angeles Dodgers

Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta is not a number-crunching nerd. He's a former athlete at Harvard, is tall enough to dunk and is a noted workout freak. Fine: So he wears glasses and

 
  knows how to operate a computer. Guilty on both counts.

The resistance of the greater Los Angeles area to the extreme makeover that DePodesta has given to this franchise is confounding, to say the least. Until last season, the Dodgers had not won a playoff game in 16 years (last year, they won one; woo-hoo). The notion of "Dodger Tradition" had been left in the dust years ago. What, exactly, are fans hanging on to?

DePodesta might have made some odd choices (giving Derek Lowe so much money, for one) and some unlucky ones (trading for Brad Penny and Hee Seop Choi was a good move; it just didn't work out … last year, anyway). But he has changed the way a listless organization did business. He gave it focus, he gave it vision, he gave it a purpose. He has been given absolute freedom to run the Dodgers as he sees fit, despite local columnists -- most of whom were even worse at sports than they were at math -- feeling the need to take potshots at what they do not understand or, more accurately, choose not to.

That said, the Dodgers aren't a sure bet this year. The rotation, particularly with Penny's lingering injury, is unsettled, and relying on J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent to drive the offense is dangerous (definitely keep the injury-prone Drew away from Kent's motorcycle). Expect the Dodgers to fall just short; DePodesta and the front office will be wise enough to ignore them and continue going about their business unabated.

 

 
     

San Francisco Giants

There comes a point in time that matter must dissolve. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is simply the law of jungle, or the Samurai, whatever, maybe something to do with Avogadro's number,

 
  not really sure of the metaphor here. Point is, the San Francisco Giants have had their moments the last few years, almost all of which are tied to Barry Bonds, for better or worse. Whether or not Bonds will really be out half or all of the regular season -- and the bet here is that you'll see him before you expect -- this is a team that is long overdue for a collapse. Much in the way the Mariners imploded last season, the Giants are likely to be holding their heads, calling for Aleve and wondering what the heck happened by July.

Even before San Francisco signed mediocre geriatrics Moises Alou, Omar Vizquel and Mike Matheny in the offseason (combined age: 384), the Giants were building on shaky swampland. The entire offense revolves around Bonds -- it is Bonds, really -- and the pitching is strong with Jason Schmidt and new closer Armando Benitez … and mostly middling elsewhere.

It's simply a case of diminishing returns. When you sign a bunch of guys who are all past 30 -- and therefore past the Bell curve middle age of 27 -- they, by definition, are most likely to be unable to approach their career averages … past performances that the wishful thinking Giants are paying them so much money for.

Listen: It's impossible not to respect what the Giants are trying to do. They have realized that Bonds has put up four of the best seasons in the history of baseball over the last Olympiad, and they don't have a single World Championship to show for it. (Thank you, Adam Kennedy!) They have to put what they perceive as the best possible team on the field to make the most out of the final years of his career. Whether you like Bonds or not, anyone who claims he's not the best player in baseball is likely into soccer and/or shaves his legs. You have to take advantage while you can. But, as sad as it might be, the Giants have missed their opportunity. The scaffolding is collapsing all around them; by the All-Star Break, there will be nothing left of this team but a pile of twisted metal and, of course, some well-padded undergarments.

 

 
     

Arizona Diamondbacks

If we didn't know any better, we'd think of the Diamondbacks as the Enron of baseball. Let's get Arizona's offseason straight.

First, they told anyone who would listen that they

 
 

didn't have enough money to keep Randy Johnson around. (This was after they begged him to stay, of course, and after he "didn't" ask for a trade.) The perception was that the Diamondbacks -- who have deferred nearly $150 million in future salaries -- both couldn't afford to pay stars and couldn't compete. So Johnson was traded to the Yankees (of course) to relieve salary restraints. Fine. After that was cleared up, the Diamondbacks showed up at the winter meetings, continuing to plead an empty pocketbook. And then, out of nowhere … they signed Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz for a total of $88 million over the next four years?

Wha? Those who handle the pursestrings claimed they were showing their fans they were in the "competition business," which is always good when you own a baseball team. Odds are good the fans would have preferred just keeping Johnson around, one suspects.

This year's version of the D-Backs should be an improvement on last year's 110-loss debacle, which is as obvious as saying that the next Black Table story you read will be an improvement on this one. Arizona is still a long way from competing. But they do have an advantage: The soon-to-be-approved CEO of the Diamondbacks is former player agent Jeff Moorad. That's right: Agents are now officially owning teams. You honestly could not make this shit up.

 

 
     

Colorado Rockies

The difficulties of figuring out a winning strategy at Coors Field have been well-documented. It seems like Rockies management has tried everything. Load the lineup with sluggers? Didn't work. Put

 
 

together a team with speed and defense? Nada. A rotation filled with crafty curveballers? Uh, no, and you're an idiot for even trying that one, guys. How to win in Denver's elevation has confounded anyone who has run the franchise since the beginning.

Well, the 2005 Colorado Rockies are trying a new tactic, one that hasn't been done before: They're just putting out a lousy team for cheap. Hey, it's something. The Rockies have the overpaid-but-still-Hall-of-Fame material Todd Helton at first base -- not a steroid user, so you know -- and a bunch of green, hungry and gleefully inexpensive young turks everywhere else. The goal is simply to try to figure out what the heck will work and what won't. Considering the price, and how expensive past attempts to improve the team have been, it's not the worst plan.

But this year should be a rough one, to say the least. Over the last couple of years, tickets have been easier to come by for those visiting Denver in the summer. It'll be even easier this year.

 

 
       
           
 

American League Divisional Series
Boston over Anaheim in 4
Oakland over Chicago White Sox in 5

American League Championship Series
Boston over Oakland in 6

National League Divisional Series
Florida over Chicago Cubs in 5
St. Louis over San Diego in 4

National League Championship Series
Florida over St. Louis in 7

World Series
Boston over Florida in 5

 

Will Leitch is a managing editor of The Black Table. His second book, Catch, a novel, comes out in December and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.