(Predicted order of finish)
1. Atlanta Braves
Maybe two years of playoff-free Octobers will make Braves fans appreciate how good they had it — and how good it can be again, very soon. It won't be easy beating out the Mets and Phillies, but Atlanta has the talent to rack up another division title, even without Andruw Jones. Just for old time's sake, Tom Glavine is back in the rotation with John Smoltz. All they need is to acquire Greg Maddux, bring in Leo Mazzone, and they can party like it's 1995. The new guard — Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann — is in full bloom, while Chipper Jones still has life, and Mark Teixeira will be playing for a fat new contract.
2. New York Mets
As long as they don't remember September, and one of the great collapses in baseball history, the Mets will be fine. Luckily for them, none of their fans, nor the New York media, will ever bring up how they lost 12 of their last 17 games — including an 8-1 debacle against lowly Florida on the final day — to watch the Phillies blow right past them into the playoffs. Nah. Won't happen. The Mets made a huge pitching acquisition over the winter — but enough about Matt Wise. This Johan Santana fellow should also help.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Ryan Howard was the MVP in 2006, and Jimmy Rollins won it last year, so it's now second baseman Chase Utley's turn. Utley has finished in the top 10 the past two years, so it's not a big reach. The point is, the Phillies have huge star power at their nucleus. They have flaws, but the Big Three will carry them a long way. The key to Philadelphia advancing back to the playoffs could well be the transition at closer, where Brett Myers moves back into the rotation. Brad Lidge, run out of Houston, takes over the ninth inning.
4. Washington Nationals
The Nationals have a great new ballpark, and a really bad team to put in it. You can always count on GM Jim Bowden picking up intriguing, high-risk, high-reward players, which explains why Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge are now in D.C. Bowden also has a never-ending fascination with Wily Mo Pena, who is the most fearsome-looking mediocre hitter in baseball.
5. Florida Marlins
It's hard to remember if the Marlins are building, rebuilding or re-rebuilding. At least they finally have realistic hopes of obtaining the long-coveted new stadium (target date: 2011) that they hope will end their days as a chronic team-in-waiting.
1. Chicago Cubs
Lou Piniella got the Cubs tantalizing close to their first World Series appearance since 1945 — but we've seen that act before. The inevitable heartache this time was a three-game sweep by Arizona in the first round. Not to worry; the Cubs are positioned to make another strong postseason bid, and for long-suffering Chicago fans, that's more than enough reason to bask happily in the Wrigley sun all summer long. The only prominent addition from outside the organization is Kosuke Fukudome, late of the Chunichi Dragons. The Cubs hope their jump-start comes from a couple of kids — catcher Geovany Soto, who hit .389 in an 18-game audition, and Felix Pie, provided the twisted testicle he suffered in spring training gets untwisted. Ouch.
2. Cincinnati Reds
Dusty Baker, back in the dugout after a one-year respite, inherits a team teeming with possibilities. The Reds quietly have amassed one of the finest collections of young talent in baseball, led by outfielder Jay Bruce, Baseball America's No. 1-rated prospect. Meanwhile, they had two pitchers unexpectedly emerge in Florida with sensational springs — Edinson Volquez, obtained from Texas in a winter trade; and Johnny Cueto, who has pitched just four games above Class AA.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
It's hard sometimes to realize the Brewers are, more or less, a competitive team. They made a strong bid last year for their first playoff berth since 1982, and should contend again. After watching free-agent closer Francisco Cordero take Cincinnati's money, they are hoping that his replacement, Eric Gagne, resembles the Texas version of 2007 (2.16 ERA in 34 games) rather than the Boston version (6.75 ERA in 20 games). The best news for the Brewers is they have Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun for all six months. Prince Fielder, too, and that could mean upward of 90 homers between them.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates haven't had a winning season since Barry Bonds left in 1993. This probably won't be the year, but at least the Pirates can throw out a decent rotation for a change. Ramp up the excitement if Zach Duke can figure out where he left his game the past two seasons, since his sizzling rookie showing. The burning issue in spring training was whether Nate McLouth or Nyjer Morgan would win the center field job. If you had McLouth in your office pool, take a bow.
5. Houston Astros
The Astros are now three seasons removed from their lone World Series appearance (a sweep by the White Sox), and they, too, are hurting. Manager Cecil Cooper, who begins his first full season after taking over in late August for fired Phil Garner, inherits a lackluster rotation — Roy Oswalt excepted, of course. But their new closer, ex-Diamondback Jose Valverde, led the majors with 47 saves last year.
6. St. Louis Cardinals
Rumor has it the Cardinals won the World Series two years ago. They can relive those memories as they battle to stay out of the cellar. No team with Albert Pujols will ever be truly horrible, but Pujols has a torn muscle in his right elbow that will eventually need surgery. Considering the Cardinals' bleak outlook, this might be the time to get it done. Besides Pujols and Yadier Molina, their lineup has been turned over almost totally since whipping Detroit in the '06 World Series.
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks are convinced you haven't seen anywhere near the best from the likes of Justin Upton and Stephen Drew, rookies thrown into the fire last year, or even Chris Young, who hit 32 homers. They'd settle for status quo from Brandon Webb and newly acquired Dan Haren, who give them a potent one-two punch atop the rotation. If they can coax new life from an old warhorse, Randy Johnson, coming off back surgery, the D-backs could be celebrating in October for the second time in seven years.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
The big issue last season for the Dodgers was the supposed rift between the veterans and the new guard of young players. The Dodgers wisely stuck with the kids, because their major influx of talent — including James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Chad Billingsley — should make them a contender for years to come. New manager Joe Torre has a reputation for favoring veterans, but that might have been just a New York thing. Andruw Jones, who even in a bad year hit 26 homers for the Braves last season, and catcher Russell Martin, a rising star, give them added pop.
3. Colorado Rockies
The Rockies could go on to win multiple championships, but they'll never match their stretch-drive momentum last year: 21 wins in 22 games to come from nowhere to grab the NL pennant. But then came the interminable wait for the World Series, which sapped their mo' and greased the way for a Red Sox sweep. The heart of the lineup is still fearsome, but you have to wonder how hard it will be to recapture the magic. Matt Holliday is the glamour boy, Todd Helton the sentimental choice, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has Derek Jeter presence and offense, with range.
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres' most vexing problem is an uncommon one: Their catchers, Josh Bard and Michael Barrett, can't throw anyone out. Last September, Padres opponents succeeded on 93.6 percent of 44 stolen-base attempts. Padres pitchers had the lowest ERA in baseball last year, but it didn't stop them from dropping their final three games — including a 13-inning, loser-out showdown with Colorado — to miss the playoffs.
5. San Francisco Giants
The theme of the Giants' spring was how relaxed things were without Barry Bonds and his entourage. Perhaps, but without Bonds and his bat, the Giants have nothing. The Barry that remains — Zito, and the final six years of his $126 million contract — looks like an unmitigated disaster. He faced 72 batters this spring before registering his first strikeout. The Giants, in fact, looked like the worst team in baseball this spring. Their slim hopes are centered on promising young pitchers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.