Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cigarettes and chocolate milk

Okay, a bit of housecleaning here. First and foremost, I figure that a running series will function as an effective spur to my writing more frequently, plus I've largely ignored music commentary for the past couple of months, so here's the scoop. I've been going through my records for the past two hours, and plan on writing blurbs for each five star album I've ever heard over the coming months. Literally thousands of discs have graced the stereo over my lifetime, and especially over the past decade, but I'm pretty chintzy when it comes to doling out perfect ratings. At last count, fifty-nine artists managed to pull it off (there are numerous instances where a single entity has two or several five star efforts) . There's also a lengthy honourable mention list of 'four-and-a-half-bordering-on-five,' which I'll publish shortly. My selection criteria was basic: if there was even a nanosecond of dwelling upon whether the record in question belonged amongst the cream, it was punted to the runner-up stack.

Record-geek list-fetishism aside (Nick Hornby's legal team on line one), some commentary on a couple of other things.

First of all, I'm loath to bring up the subject, but Susan Boyle. Can we stop the self-congratulation about this, please? If you watch that clip, and who hasn't, there's literally laughter coming from the audience before she bursts into song, yet we're supposed to accept that a single competent performance from a figure viewed as a bog monster mere seconds earlier had inalterably morally shifted this bunch of judgmental, shit-for-brains jackals? I'm sure Ms Boyle is a nice lady and all, and she sings well, but this isn't even about her: it's about us. We're hypocrites and marionettes: the entire scenario was obviously jerry-rigged by the show's production team, essentially heartwarming-by-numbers. If there were a show full of Susan Boyles, nobody would watch. I've crossed swords with many people about this already, and suspect that it would be more socially acceptable to blurt that Terry Fox was a complete asshole rather than question the piety of Saint Susan. Enough! Again, this isn't about Boyle herself, but can we go back to manufacturing genuine emotion ourselves, within our own social circles, without having media conglomerates do it for us over the teevee? I'm willing to be tagged a grump and curmudgeon on this. Matter of fact, it would be a badge of honour. Now, let's talk about something else.

Secondly, on a more positive note, I'm a huge fan of the new phalanx of basic Facebook fan pages. What I refer to is friends becoming fans of generalities, such as music and sleep. In this spirit, I searched for pages using these terms, and each had their backers. There's no fudging any of these figures, and they're the real deal:

Oxygen - 19,366 fans
Trees - 24, 189 fans
Breathing - 43,573 fans
Blinking - 344 fans

Like, aren't we fans of life's wallpaper by default? When did supporting these things require an opt-in clause, like a Ralph Nader PIRG or something? This is my personal fave, as shared with several co-workers:

Existence - 262 fans

Do we really need to fly the flag that we're happy to basically exist? Is anybody really on the fence about this issue? Good times. I work in front of a computer all day, and have become mildly addicted to Facebook, so I notice these things. I'm not proud or anything; it just sort of happened...

Finally, on the lighter side, a right-wing luddite spewing blue-collar patois over demonstration-button techno. My brother Jud put it best:

This is horrible. Horrible. But I couldn't resist the lure of sharing a video of Don Cherry hesher-toasting over a flaccid Eurovision-lite backing track. Honest, I have to warn you that - to quote Charlie Brooker - your eyes may very well spin around and vomit down their sockets.

In all honesty, this clip has long been the great whale to my Captain Ahab, and it finally surfaced on YouTube. I recall watching it as a dumb kid on Rock 'Em Sock 'Em 5 (I believe), and even my then sarcasm-bereft junior self recognized this as a serious shark-jumping moment. If you can make it to the forty-five second mark before your small intestine begins leaking, you're a stronger person than I.

Anyway, yeah. My top rekkids coming soon.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Gopher balls (NL)

For your perusal, I present the belated Senior Circuit picks. I wrote most of this on Monday, so it doesn't really factor in Tuesday's action, which included a blue-ribbon performance from my under-the-radar Wild Card pick. Of course, the best news to emerge from yesterday's slate was the mammoth 6 RBI performance from my boy Adam Lind, as Toronto went on to crush the woeful Tigers 12-5. And this came mere days after a suddenly feisty Cito Gaston called Roger Clemens 'a complete asshole' - maybe this year isn't going to be so bad after all!

National League

NL East

1. New York Mets. Despite playing in this killer of a division, I truly do believe that they have a shot at baseball's best record, and are probably the most complete team top to bottom. Much like those Rivera-Wetteland Yankee teams, games have essentially been reduced to six or seven innings with J.J. Putz and K-Rod waiting in the bullpen. There's been much wringing of hands about Rodriguez's drop in velocity, as he's mostly hitting 90-92 nowadays, but you wouldn't have known it from watching him last year. Johan Santana will get his NL Cy Young one season late, and the remainder of the rotation is serviceable, if unspectacular. In terms of the lineup, the only truly weak link is Luis Castillo at second (Brian Schneider couldn't hit his way out of a wet paper bag, but is good defensively and handles pitchers well, and Daniel Murphy is going to be fine in left, as he hit .348 with 17 RBI during spring and then homered in the opener). The bench is presently a bit iffy, but look for Omar Minaya to recify that during the season via prying bats from financially-challenged bottom-feeders.

2. Florida Marlins. I think I love them, so what am I so afraid of? Their general scrappiness and pluck under the tutelage of manager Fredi Gonzalez caught my eye last year, but they're graduating to Wild Card status this season, mark my words. Hanley Ramirez is your 2009 National League MVP, Cameron Maybin will take top rookie honours, and expect to hear Ricky Nolasco's name in the Cy conversation. Nolasco finished fifth amongst starting pitchers last season in my beloved WHIP (1.10), and the remainder of the young rotation, which features anti-household-names Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Anibal Sanchez (okay, I think he had a no-no a couple of years back, so is marginally known) should be gangbusters. Buttressing Ramirez in the middle of the order is future Yankee/Red Sox/Mets second baseman Dan Uggla and a rejuvenated Jorge Cantu, who, aside from their cool uniforms, provided some of the only highlights for a disappointing Mexico team at the WBC. Owner Jeffrey Loria is a fucking scumbag (ask me about his ransacking of the Expos), plus Miami is a gawd-awful sports town, so it pains me to make this prediction in a way, but the 326 or so die-hards should start saving for playoff tickets.


3. Philadelphia Phillies. They're going to be good again, but I just don't see them keeping pace with the top two. Swapping Pat the Bat for Raul Ibanez is a wash offensively, but the latter is a comically bad fielder, regularly driving my M's-fan buddy Corey to forehead-slapping and expletive-spewing. Seriously, watching him from the outfield bleachers at Safeco gives you a genuine perception on how wonky he really is out there. Generating runs isn't going to be an issue, but after Cole Hamels and the wizened Jamie Moyer (who you just know is going to get his 10-15 wins), the rotation kind of alarms me. Joe Blanton looked good okay after being acquired during the stretch drive last year, but his early season numbers in Oakland's pitcher-haven of a park were awful, plus I don't trust Brett Myers. Key setup guy J.C. Romero is gone for the first 50 games for juicing, and the law of averages says that Brad Lidge can't pull off another perfect season as closer.

4. Atlanta Braves. There are many question marks on paper, but this is a solid team that has an opportunity to put on a decent performance in baseball's toughest division. Chipper Jones is only playing his usual 90-120 games, but will post the numbers he always manages to, Brian McCann is one of the better hitting catchers in the game, and I was a backer of young'un Jordan Schafer even before he hit one out and was later intentionally walked (!) in his first career game the other night. Pitching seems a bit dodgy: Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez will effectively chew innings, but Jair Jurrgens sounds like the name of a shampoo, and I don't know what the Jesus a Kenshin Kawakami is (after doing some research, he's a Japanese import who seems to have pitched his way into the rotation, but walked more than he struck out in spring). Never count out a Bobby Cox team, the cagey old bastard.

5. Washington Nationals.
The most entertaining thing about this team is that both recently acquired Scott Olsen and lunatic outfielder Elijah Dukes are graduates of an anger-management program, so maybe they can bond over beating the shit out of teenaged ballboys they perceive as looking at them askance. Dukes seems to be getting a lot of love from fantasy columnists in the leadup to the season, but I'm more of a Lastings Milledge fan. With Dukes, Milledge, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, and Austin Kearns all active, this team has way too many outfielders, while largely bereft of talent at other positions. It kind of reminds me of playing franchise mode in video games with the 'computer teams can make trades' option selected. What always happens is that clubs end up with, say, both David Ortiz and Albert Pujols at first base while some stiff like Sal Fasano is the everyday catcher racking up 160 games played. Still, the simple departure of shady Jim Bowden is a step in the right direction for this team.

Oh, I just have to get this off of my chest: the Sporting News yearbook is listing the top three third basemen in team history for each club, and number one for the Nats is Tim Wallach. Um...no, he's an Expo, so spare us the defiling of my childhood. I've never been a supporter of transplanted teams maintaining histories of franchises over that of cities: fans in jilted towns are distraught enough without the indignity of having prized civic milestones and revered figures adopted ready-to-wear by a new group of backers that wouldn't know them from a hole in the ground. It reminds me of when the Winnipeg Jets were spirited to the Arizona desert (to Count Bettman's delight), and the 'Goals For Kids' jersey shoulder patch and fans doing the playoff 'whiteout' were adopted. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure fans in Phoenix thought they were doing the 'Peg a favour in maintaining those traditions, but it only served to keep old wounds open. In the interest of full disclosure, this burst of nationalist sentiment could have something to do with the fact that I'm spinning Stompin' Tom vinyl as I type this.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs. Respect. The Z is a bit of a head-case, granted but the rotation is top notch overall, the bullpen's loaded, and, with the likes of Aaron Miles and Joey Gathright, the bench is strong and flexible. Apparently Milton Bradley has been behaving, and if Lou can keep him from being a distraction, he should have a monster year batting between Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. I love Geovany Soto, and gritty Reed Johnson is platooning in center field: he was one of the more underrated Jays during his time in Toronto, and a fan favourite due to his hustle. Easily the class of this division.

2. Cincinnati Reds. This is my backup sleeper behind the Marlins: unfortunately, I don't think they have quite enough to catch the Cubbies, but it should still be an overall enjoyable season in the Queen City. Start with the dynamite young rotation: Aaron Harang is going to bounce back, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto are exciting, Homer Bailey should improve, and Bronson Arroyo is decent. I could easily see four of the starters winning at least twelve games. I'm also impressed with the batting order that GM Walt Jocketty (which, by the way, is one of the best baseball names out there, along with Skip Schumaker of the Cards: somebody get these guys a snuff endorsement already) has put together. If Willy Taveras can stay healthy, he's an ideal leadoff guy, Brandon Phillips borders on five-tool, and there's adequate power with Edwin Encarnacion, Joey Votto, Ramon Hernandez, and phenom Jay Bruce in the mix. Ditching Adam Dunn's one-dimensionality should be addition by subtraction, as this is a lineup of useful multitaskers. Ninety wins isn't out of the question.

3. St Louis Cardinals. Average. Based on the sum parts of their talent alone, the Cards look pretty decent, but I just don't have a great feeling about them. If Pujols remains healthy, he'll take his usual run at MVP, Khalil Greene is an upgrade at short (though the idea Tony LaRussa was floating about batting him in the cleanup spot is ludicrous), plus Rick Ankiel should be good for thirty homers. That said, Troy Glaus is out for the forseeable future, and I have questions about starting pitching. Adam Wainwright is a serviceable number one, but journeyman Kyle Lohse was re-signed for over $10 million per year: I don't particularly want to live in a galaxy where Kyle Lohse is making lottery money. I'd love to see ex-Jay Chris Carpenter battle back, but that's a massive 'if.' Making matters worse, the team drafted Scott Boras' kid, which is just a total karma-killer.

4. Milwaukee Brewers. The major question mark for the Brew Crew concerns pitching, though CC Sabathia moving on means that the catering budget may have dropped sufficiently to free up money for pursuing an arm. Yovani Gallardo has fantastic stuff, but he's still fairly unproven, and the team did reach terms with Braden Looper, who should eat up quite a few innings. Offensively, this group should steam right along. I see Prince Fielder leading the National League in homers this time around, which would be one giant leap for maligned vegetarians such as myself. By the way, would it have killed someone to have snapped a photo of Prince and Sabathia sitting side-by-side on motorcycles during CC's brief time in Wisconsin? It will be interesting to see if Rickie Weeks can finally break out; he may need a change of scenery at this point. Ken Macha is the 'that guy' of managers, in Sports Guy parlance.

Best mascot ever.

5. Houston Astros. People have been predicting the demise of this bunch for the past three or four years, yet they always seem to end up around the 85-win mark. Still, the run ends here: I see them being fairly dreadful this time around. It's a bad sign when the redoubtable old warhorse Doug Brocail is still kicking around in their bullpen. Roy Oswalt is Roy Oswalt, and Wandy Rodriguez should be a decent sleeper, but the bottom three rotation spots are seriously suspect. I figure that karma also feeds into their impending suckitude, as they play in a park named after juice (which is just weird, and I feel the same way about Tropicana Field), plus it has that fucking train and idiotic hill in center field that reeks of trying too hard. Moreover, it was originally corporately christened for oil company succubi.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates. First of all, I'm not exactly sure what happened to that Tom Gorzelanny guy: somehow he managed to win 14 games for a putrid team a couple of years back, yet people have figured out that he actually sucked like a bucket of ticks the entire time. Secondly, Nate McLouth is fantastic, though I don't see him duplicating his all-world season from a year ago. Third, their offensive fortunes largely rest on the shoulders of the brothers Laroche, so pardon my skepticism. Fourth, I freely admit that I know nothing about this team, and why would I? They're so forgettable that, before writing this, I undertook a crash course of sorts, yet actually did see them on WGN last season several times. This could seriously be the most anonymous team in pro sports of the past ten years, supplanting that New York Islanders team from a couple of years ago that Mike Comrie led in scoring. And the worst part is that there's not even really an excuse: yeah, they're a mid-to-small-market club, but their payroll is around $50 million. I have the Marlins going to the playoffs, and theirs is around $30 million! Sigh.

Where have you gone, Tom Gorzelanny? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers. I'm not completely sold on the LAD, but they should essentially take this division by default. As far as offseason signings go, that Manny guy is okay, but they had me when they inked the O-Dog. Biases aside (he's a personal favourite), I think Hudson will fit in nicely with what's looking like a pretty solid infield also featuring Rafael Furcal, steady Casey Blake, and young gun James Loney. Also, I'm solidly on the Russell Martin bandwagon nowadays. While never doubting his talent, for some reason I believed that he was kind of a head-case, but seeing him grit it out for Canada in the WBC (seemingly #1 on the give-a-shit meter) disabused me of that idea. Jonathan Broxton should succeed at closer, but Hong-Chih Kuo is waiting in the wings should he falter. Though young, the starting pitching will be fine. Speaking of which, is Jason Schmidt still lurking around? If yes, it's kind of like a hobgoblin rattling chains in a manor attic at this point.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks. Their pitching depth is admirable, but a .251 team batting average last year? Sweet Jesus. The majority of the lineup is young and strikeout prone (Mark Reynolds in excelsis), plus the bench is pretty thin, with the only truly plausible options sitting at has-been Tony Clark and the heinously overpaid Eric Byrne. Still, they simply can't be worse offensively than they were last season. The aforementioned hurlers give the team an outside chance at a pennant: besides able veterans Webb, Haren, Garland, and Davis, phenom Max Scherzer, who was brought to my attention by workplace arch-nemesis Jason Li (check out his Hobbyboxco card store found in the 'Honourary Conjecturists' links above) has a chance to make a real impact. The bullpen is a bit iffy: Chad Qualls converted his first save opportunity today, but he and incoming setup man Jon Rauch rival a truckstop whore (my old job) in the blowing department. In other news, this blog has no class.

3. San Francisco Giants. I'm not quite as high on this bunch as a sleeper as many others, since obviously the offense reeks to high heaven. Bengie Molina is in the cleanup spot, and he couldn't even wrest Toronto's starting catching job from the immortal Gregg Zaun a couple of years back (though, admittedly, Zaun's unique ability to turn opposing players to stone with a single glare may have also played a role in maintaining that platoon situation). On that note, watching Bengie leg out his sole triple as a Jay was easily the most entertaining moment for T.O. fans since Joe Carter's 1993 round-tripper, and it actually gives that milestone a run for it's money. Digressions aside, I maintain that they'll finish behind the Arizona Dirty Snakes: the Tim Lincecum factor is essentially cancelled out by Brandon Webb's presence in Phoenix, and the remaining D-Back starters are better 2-5. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is ever made into a TV series (I smell a sitcom...), casting Barry Zito as The Albatross is a no-brainer. Apparently he had a good spring, and, to his credit, there was a bounceback of sorts during the second half last year. The 'pen is looking pretty decent with steady Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry setting the table for closer Brian Wilson. One sleeper worth keeping an eye on is young first baseman Travis Ishikawa, who hit over .300 with 7 HR in the spring.

Gregg Zaun. You'll be granite soon.

4. Colorado Rockies. Downside: Good B.C. boy Jeff Francis is done for the year, the Matt Holliday trade has left an gaping crater in the lineup, Todd Helton will inevitably be injured within the calendar month, and no more Brian Fuentes. Upside: Clint Hurdle smacks gum like nobody's business. This is going to be a generally dreary summer in the Mile High City, but there are a few things worth watching. Foremost amongst the positives, Ubaldo Jimenez naturally possesses some of the best stuff in the National League, only he's presently afflicted with a bad case of Daniel Cabrera syndrome (meaning his control is roughly on par quality-wise with that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Secondly, although losing Fuentes is obviously a complete and total drag, it does give Manny Corpas an opportunity to regain the role he occupied during the Rocks' Series run a couple of years back. Huston Street has first crack at the stopper job, but even if Corpas has a nice year in the setup role, it could bode well for his future prospects as a ninth-inning guy. I've read nice things about this Ian Stewart kid as well, and he ended up starting at second base in the opener. Denver sports fans are really taking it on the chin at the moment, what with the middling Rocks, Cutlergate, and the suddenly lousy hockey team. My advice: take a deep breath and focus on the Nuggets instead, plus I just have a weird hunch that the Avs are going to win the NHL draft lottery and wind up with John Tavares.

Come on, we all knew that I'd work hockey into this somehow.

5. San Diego Padres. Potentially one of the worst teams in my lifetime. Wasn't Chris Young, like, a super-prospect as recently as a year or so ago?

NL Wild Card: Florida.

NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez, Florida.

NL Cy Young: Johan Santana, New York.

NL Rookie of the Year: Cameron Maybin, Florida.

NL Manager of the Year: Fredi Gonzalez, Florida.


ALDS: Indians over BoSox, Rays over Angels.

NLDS: Cubs over Marlins, Mets over Dodgers.

ALCS: Rays over Indians in six.

NLCS: Mets over Cubs in four.

World Series: Mets over Rays in five.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Gopher balls (AL)

Hey, guys. The season is almost upon us, so welcome to Jared's 2009 fearless baseball predictions!* I plan on posting the American League today, then the National League and postseason picks tomorrow. Before reading, bear in mind that I'm a music/hockey geek masquerading as a diamond authority, so take these picks with a grain of salt. Actually, nah: kneel before them, and commit this post to memory, because truer picks were never presented within blogospheria. I sort of went chalk, but there are a couple of surprises that I genuinally believe will occur. There are brief synopses for each team, but I plan on writing a full Blue Jays preview within the next few days, so essentially their capsule is empty. Well, save for a shot of raw pessimism. I love them and all, but Jesus wept. Oh, and my fantasy league this year is AL-only, so I'm less-versed in the Senior Circuit. Anyway, here goes: the only other thing I feel requires mentioning beforehand is that the NL East is the best division in baseball, not the typically slobbered-upon AL East. There are four teams in that NL East group who I feel have a legitimate chance of making the Series, and when was the last time you were able to say that about any division?

* There was actually fear aplenty. Oh Christ, the fear...

American League

AL East

1. Tampa Bay Rays. Don't believe the backlash, gang: the notion of having the Yanks and Sox once again contesting the division is traditionalist comfort food, but this bunch isn't going away. I steadfastly think that Joe 'Hipster-Glasses' Maddon has the best group of talent in baseball, and what is rarely factored in when analyzing their chances for the coming season is that Carl Crawford, probably their best player (with apologies to Evan Longoria, who will be amongst the best anywhere within 365 days or so), had a dreadful season last year. He has something to prove, and now has Pat Burrell batting behind him, which, by the way, may turn out to be the best acquisition of the offseason (no more heckling Philly fans). The rotation goes four-deep, with Shields, Kazmir, Garza, and Sonnanstine. Wait, what am I saying - a measly four? Factor in David Price, who will be in South Florida within a month or so, and they throw out five total studs. I think Dan Wheeler will end up with the closer role ahead of vet Troy Percival due to injury/attrition, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not to spoil my playoff picks tomorrow, but expect an epic Rays-Tribe battle at some point during the coming postseason.

2. Boston Red Sox. Harrumph. Alright, so they'll be good: Nicky Lau* will sleep well this year, since even though the lineup is suspect, the forty-six-deep rotation will head to the rescue. Isn't Brad Penny anchoring the rookie ball rotation or something, considering that they have nowhere else to really stick him? Sporting! Complaining aside, this crew is clearly superior to the Yankees: they've becoming acclimatized to the Manny void, and good-guy Jason Bay has largely won over Fenway in his place. Granted, there are health questions about Big Papi and Lowell, but those circles can be squared. On the mound, I'd happily go to war with Lester, Beckett and Matsuzaka, plus they have Smoltz (who is apparently amazing in the room, no matter what he physically contributes) and Buchholz waiting in the wings. Papelbon is obviously one of the best closers in baseball, but an underrated pick-up was Takashi Saito, who I've always really liked: move over, Scot Shields, as the premier AL setup guy. In sum, they'll battle the Rays to the bitter end, and emerge with the Wild Card spot.

*Cameo from a Red Sox fan friend of mine.

Jon Lester: I hate you for your competence.

3. New York Yankees. Simply put, I'm not sold. I could easily see A-Rod missing more time with phantom injuries, the lineup is creaky from age, and AJ Burnett is a monstrous ass who doesn't show up unless a new contract is in the offing. Joe Girardi deserves better than this soap opera, as I think he's a great manager. I believe Torre was the perfect alpha figure for this bunch, as he's a 'reluctant' celebrity, while Girardi is more of a nuts-and-bolts baseball man, which doesn't alway succeed with the pinstripes. To wit, he thrived with underfunded Florida. Blame Billy Martin. I sincerely do think CC Sabathia will come through this year with 17-22 wins, but it won't be enough: Wang will end the year as the second starter, displacing Burnett, but the overall hijinks will reduce the team to 80-85 wins. Girardi is fired, destined to take a job in a smaller market where he can thrive.

4. Baltimore Orioles. Nick Markakis is one of my favourite players in the league to watch, but I would still charitably give them 75 wins at best. Matt Wieters will be up soon, which is kind of a drag, since my guy Gregg 'Grumpy' Zaun is catching in the meantime. I see Canadian TV analysis in his future: fuck, in the interest of full disclosure, he very well could be my favourite player. Bedraggled intro to this preview aside, they're in the wrong place at the wrong time: if they were stationed in, say, the NL Central, I could see them achieving .500, but it's perpetual cannon-fodder status in the AL Ea$t. Pitching-wise, I'm not entirely sold on George Sherrill as the closer, and think Chris Ray will retake the gig. The rotation is pretty goddamn shaky: Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson are both pencilled in, so do a few dozen rosaries for O's fans tonight.

5. Toronto Blue Jays. Le sigh. As mentioned above, my full team preview will be up within a few days, so, in two words: lost season. Vernon Wells is an idiot. Aaron Hill and Doc Halladay rule. JP Riccardi getting shit-canned is my World Series.

Some JP action.

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians. I'm going off the board with this pick: not only do I think that the Central is Cleveland's to lose, but they'll win more than the 85-90 games that are generally prescribed to take the division. As a matter of fact, bet the Tribe to challenge for home-field throughout the ALDS and ALCS, partly because the AL East titans will be cannibalizing each other, but mostly because I just think this group is going to succeed mightily. First of all, Grady Sizemore is my MVP pick: he put up a gaudy 33 homers and 38 steals last year, and should have a better Travis Hafner (who everyone has written off) batting behind him this time around. Victor Martinez will have a bounce-back year, Kelly Stoppach will pick up where he left off, Mark DeRosa epitomizes 'solid,' and Shin-Soo Choo will build upon a stellar WBC, plus Asdrubal Cabrera will flash a nice glove at second before being granted honourary citizenship in Narnia after the season thanks to his name. Pitching-wise, I'm a big Fausto Carmona fan, and think that the loss of Jake Westbrook for the first couple of months will easily be mitigated by Cliff Lee and the emergence of Anthony Reyes. People expected big things of Cleveland last season and were bitterly disappointed, hence the lukewarm prognostications this spring. I'm buying low and planning on selling high, though: those moon-sized expectations were a year early, but look for the Indians to come through in ought-nine.

2. Minnesota Twins. Ron Gardenhire is the shit. Please, you have no comeback. He looks like a slovenly tool-and-die representative, but possesses one of the best minds in the game: hell, you know you've made it when people have to hesistate a second to remember who Tom Kelly is. I'd see Minny challenging Cleveland for the division title, only Joe Mauer's health is a major uncertainty at this point, plus the rotation is greener than T. Boone Pickens' born-again environmentalist persona. That said, Francisco Liriano is going to be in the Cy discussion, plus Glen Perkins is a total sleeper. Joe Nathan is back as well, which is never a bad thing. In terms of hitting, Justin Morneau will get his .300-25-110 from routine, Delmon Young came on in the second half last year, and Denard Span has a chance to establish himself as one of the league's better leadoff hitters. Mauer or no Mauer, they're still going to bump their heads on 85 wins.

3. Kansas City Royals. In spite of crummy crowds during the lean years, I think that Kansas City is a great baseball town, so it's fun to see a young bunch the area can rally around this season. Trey Hillman is a nice manager, and he handles young players remarkably well (prima-donna, Jose Guillen veteran types not so much, but who fucking cares). The endorsement from Bill Simmons has kind of led this bunch to fashionable pickdom; I don't see them in the postseason this time around, but they should challenge the Twins for second, and have a really sporting chance at cracking .500. It starts with the pitching. First of all, Joakim Soria in the 'pen: I honestly do think he's the best closer in the majors presently. Zack Greinke has always had Robert Kron syndrome for me*, and I think he's going to be spoken about in the company of the top five AL pitchers this season. Gil Meche is never pretty, but he'll get his 12-15 wins. I think that Alex Gordon will experience a mini-breakout at third this year, plus I just dig the look of this lineup. It appears destined to manufacture runs efficiently, what with Crisp and DeJesus at the top, and reliable Gordon and Jacobs to knock them in.

*Robert Kron syndrome: Back in the early 1990s, the Vancouver Canucks had the titular Czech winger in the fold, and he was noticeable every shift, making a pest of himself against the top line of the opposition. Alas, he rarely scored, so his contributions weren't particularly chronicled. It was much the same with Greinke throughout the first few years of his career: he always owned the Jays, but didn't have spectacular overall stats.

4. Detroit Tigers. This is just wholly depressing: apparently attuned via osmosis to the great state of Michigan's sinking fortunes, the team is essentially carrion. On the bright side, I do see them topping their 74 wins of last year, but Dave Dombrowski essentially assembled this unit like a sports neophyte lumping together a stacked video game team. Miguel Cabrera is going to battle the aforementioned Grady Sizemore tooth-and-nail for the MVP, Granderson and Mags are rad, plus Justin Verlander is going to have a bounce-back season, but the rest of these retreads? Please. I'm a believer in Armando Galarraga (most outlets have him greatly regressing), but have no faith in Bonderman, Edwin Jackson, or Nate Robertson. Fernando goddamn Rodney is the closer, and Joel Zumaya (the should-be finisher) is hurt yet again. Is Jim Leyland still allowed to smoke in the dugout in these enlightened times? Probably not, but we should grant an exception: the man is going to need a good butt or two this year.

Jim Leyland radiates dissatisfaction via his constipation face.

5. Chicago White Sox. These guys are due to combust. Kenny Williams is one of the top five GMs in the game, and Ozzie Guillen is...Ozzie (read: wildly entertaining), but I just see it all going pear-shaped this season. Jim Thome is ancient, Paul Konerko is visibly on the decline, and Jermaine Dye has seen his best days. One thing I do like about this club is their young pitching (Floyd, Danks, et al), but they aren't at the point where they can right the ship. Carlos Quentin will rebound after the hothead incident that possibly cost him an MVP, though.

AL West

1. Los Angeles Angels. Halo-bashing seems to be de rigeur this offseason, and the detractors do have some nice ammo. Key position players are aging and brittle, they've lost K-Rod, and the rotation is being held together with gum and twine. I appreciate the negatives, but, conversely, they're still in a weak division, have a nice bullpen, an above-average lineup, and the best manager in baseball roams the dugout. As per usual, the remainder of the clubs in the division will serve as a mere annoyance: the only obstacle this team faces, and it may be formidable, is injuries. John Lackey's return date is uncertain, and apparently Ervin Santana could be on the receiving end of a visit from Tommy John.

2. Texas Rangers. Andruw Jones somehow made this team, when he should realistically either be eating competitively or shagging flies in Rancho Cucamonga or some such outpost. Making matters worse, his roster spot was secured when the club cut blood-and-guts scrapper (and beloved ex-Jay) Frank Catalanotto. Fine, fine work, Jon Daniels: in the spirit of his predecessors, I can hear him yowling 'ah can't quit yew, washed-up veterans.' Questionable personnel decisions aside, I kind of like this team. I've been a big fan of Jared Saltalamacchia since he was brazenly stealing ABs from my then-fantasy-catcher Brian McCann in Atlanta a couple of seasons ago as a rook, Michael Young is one of the more underrated hitters of the last five years (I maintain that his stats would be strong in any ballpark), Josh Hamilton is the real deal, and their second baseman is named 'Elvis.' Taylor Teagarden looks like a beast, and should spell Saltalamacchia at catcher plus DH fairly regularly. Those assets aside, please note that there are no kind words extended towards their pitching staff. I'm not sold on Vincente Padilla, Kevin Millwood is Kevin Millwood (a workmanlike innings-eater, nothing more), and the remainder of the rotation is unproven. I do think that Frank Francisco is going to do a nice job as closer, though.

Saltalamacchia rules!

3. Oakland Athletics. Picking this hastily restocked bunch to make noise is roughly on par fashion-wise with auto-tune abuse in pop music (seriously, that Kanye record is amazing, but he has a lot to answer for), but something smells funny here. Yeah, they snared Matt Holliday and Orlando Cabrera, plus the washed-up husks of Giambi and Nomar, but the rotation is a septic tank. Justin Duchscherer, the one starter you could plausibly take home to meet your mother, starts the year on the disabled list, and last year's pleasant surprise Dana Eveland nearly pitched his way to Sacramento during spring (and yes, I did draft him on my fantasy team, goddamn it). My best guess is that they'll be within a few games of .500 in July and decide to blow the thing up and start anew. Trevor Cahill is an interesting pitching prospect, though, and should get a good look.

4. Seattle Mariners. Yeah, I gave second and third thoughts to the idea of this team somehow being a 'sleeper' of sorts in this division, as I quite like the M's and want them to succeed, but fuck it: they're just terrible. As if the potpourri of has-beens and never-will-bes fouling rookie skipper Don Wakamatsu's lineup card aren't egregious enough, Ichiro starts the season on the DL with a bleeding ulcer (which probably surfaced when the enormity of his woeful teammates hit him), plus for some insane reason they're starting Jeff Clement in the minors this season. On the positive side of the ledger, I've always been an Adrian Beltre fan, as his stats are more than respectable considering he plays 50% of his games in hitter-unfriendly Safeco. And, even though it's going to cost Clement playing time, only a scrooge would complain about the return of Ken Griffey Jr. It's blatantly designed to throw the fanbase a bone, but so what? They aren't going anywhere this season, so it's neat to have the favourite son come home for a farewell lap. I plan on hitting Safeco as per usual sometime this summer, and seeing Junior in M's colours one last time should be a trip.

AL Wild Card: Boston.

AL MVP: Grady Sizemore, Cleveland.

AL Cy Young: Roy Halladay, Toronto.

AL Rookie of the Year: Taylor Teagarden, Texas.

AL Manager of the Year: Trey Hillman, Kansas City.

Back tomorrow with the Senior Circuit, playoff picks, and record of the week. It won't be done until after the 'Nucks game, though. Yeah! Oh, I forgot one of my favourite facets of baseball season: going to Vancouver Canadians games at Nat Bailey Stadium. I have Wednesdays off this summer, so should be bleacher-bumming at many a nooner, especially since my place is within walking distance of the park. Let it begin!

The Nat.