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Champs to chumps

Some things are easy to predict: Juan Gonzalez will eventually find his way to the disabled list. Baseball's bigwigs will find new and creative ways to look foolish in the face of the steroids scandal. (The doctor they trotted before Congress turns out to have a George O'Leary resume, and their response is that his credibility is impeccable? Please.) And jilted ex-mistresses who professes to have knowledge of stars' steroid habits always seem to have literary agents on speed dial.

Those are the slam dunks. Now for the tough calls on how the 2005 season will play out. As always, I reserve the right to change my picks come October.

East: Yankees; Central: Twins; West: Angels; Wild Card: Indians

No, that's not a misprint: I have concerns about the Red Sox making it back to the postseason. It's not the championship hangover, though the cult of Johnny Damon does seem to be a bit out of control. It's the rotation, which is one David Wells back strain away from chaos. (Matt Clement will find that the switch from the NL to the AL is a tough one.) It'll be close, but behind a breakout year from Jake Westbrook the young Indians will overtake Boston for the wild card.

East: Braves; Central: Cardinals; West: Giants; Wild Card: Marlins

This assumes the Giants have Barry Bonds in the lineup for at least the second half of the season; otherwise, the Dodgers will sneak to the top of the West. Even with Mark Mulder, the Cardinals are still thin on pitching; they'll have a hard-time winning 105 games again, but no one else in the division is ready to topple them. (Injuries to Mark Prior or Kerry Wood will doom the Cubs.) Mulder's former Oakland rotation mate, Tim Hudson, will love the switch to the NL. With him and John Smoltz atop the rotation, Atlanta is the league's most dangerous playoff team.

ALCS: Yankees over Twins; NLCS: Braves over Cardinals; WORLD SERIES: Yankees over Braves

AL: Gary Sheffield, Yankees; NL: Albert Pujols, Cardinals

Deep down, Sheffield probably feels like he was robbed of the award last season. To prove the point, he'll have another monster year. Pujols is simply the game's best hitter. With Bonds out, the MVP is his to lose.

AL: Randy Johnson, Yankees; NL: Tim Hudson, Braves

He gets to work with Leo Mazzone, pick John Smoltz's brain and face DH-less lineups -- Hudson will wish he spent his entire career in Atlanta. The Big Unit won 16 games with the woeful Diamondbacks behind him in 2004. His career high of 24 wins could be in danger this year.

AL: Nick Swisher, A's; NL: J.J. Hardy, Brewers

Milwaukee handed the shortstop job to defensive whiz Hardy, the first in a wave of prospects the Brewers expect to call up over the next two years. Swisher (29 home runs at Triple A last year), who will start in right, gets a chance to be known for something other than his role in Moneyball.

AL: Tigers; NL: Reds

If they get healthy years from Ken Griffey Jr. and Austin Kearns, the Reds will score enough to make up for a run-of-the-mill rotation -- enough to get to .500, anyway. Detroit made a 29-win jump last season, to 72. New closer Troy Percival will help them step up another 10.

AL: Rangers; NL: Mets

Texas was the surprise of the league in 2004, but made a mistake by not bringing in a rotation ace. Their spectacular bullpen will falter a bit, and the Rangers will slide back to mediocrity. Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran are nice additions for the Mets. Too bad they can't help a very shaky bullpen.

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