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Experts Picks Roundtable

tampabay-rays.jpg's resident experts provide explanations for their 2009 preseason predictions.

Tom Verducci:Mets.The Mets are loaded with players in their prime years and double-sealed their fatal leak of last season, the bullpen, with Frankie Rodriguez and J.J. Putz.

Jon Heyman:Cubs.They're due. And so am I. They have the best and deepest starting rotation, serious firepower in their lineup and a solid bullpen, as well. And no kidding, their luck has to change sometime.

Ted Keith:Yankees.In CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett the Yankees have managed to significantly upgrade the strikeout potential of their pitching staff. Add in Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte the Yanks boast an experienced and talented first four in the rotation that is as good as any in baseball, and is a perfect fit for postseason play. The offense should be fine, but with so many aging players their window might be closing a little bit, and you know they'll make any move necessary to ensure that they don't miss a second consecutive postseason.

Cliff Corcoran:Red Sox.The Red Sox won the World Series in 2007 and made it to the seventh game of the ALCS last year. They have a core of players who are either in their prime or approaching it (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie, Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, JonathanPapelbon, Manny Delcarmen and Justin Masterson, of whom none is older than 30). In the offseason they added a lot of high-upside depth (Rocco Baldelli, John Smoltz, Takashi Saito and Brad Penny, to which I'd add top rotation prospect Clay Buchholz, whom I expect to rebound impressively). I think the Sox will squeak by the Yankees in the ALCS and make quick work of their NL opponents.

David Sabino:Rays.The funny thing about the defending AL champs is that no regular player had a career year in '08. This season Carl Crawford is healthy again, Pat Burrell has been added to an already potent lineup, Evan Longoria keeps getting better and despite beginning the year in the minors David Price will extend an already deep rotation, which will mean an already solid bullpen won't be taxed. Joe Maddon & Co. have executed a rebuilding plan to perfection and this is the year it all comes together.

Albert Chen: Rays.They may not win 97 games again, but the Rays are improved from last year. They'll get 20-25 starts out ofPrice, the bullpen's deeper and the defense will be better. Not to mention Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton all had down years.

Lee Jenkins: Cubs.The Cubs have a true No. 1 starter, depth in their rotation, depth in the bullpen and the National League's most potent offense with the addition of Milton Bradley. They also have the resources to help themselves at the trading deadline, perhaps with Padres ace Jake Peavy, whom they nearly acquired over the winter. First-round flameouts in the past two years do not suggest that the Cubs are cursed. They suggest that the Cubs are close.

Tom Verducci:Braves. They lost 90 games last year, so they could have one of the biggest win improvements in baseball -- though they haven't bridged the gap on the Phillies and Mets.

Jon Heyman:Cardinals.No team with Albert Pujols can really be considered a sleeper team. And that probably goes for Tony La Russa, too. They always outperform and have proved that they can overcome mediocrity to win the World Series, which isn't an easy thing. It doesn't hurt that they had a great spring, either.

Ted Keith:Reds.They have a wealth of quality young players, both in the rotation (Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto) and in the lineup (Jay Bruce and Joey Votto) and play in a division that's wide open, aside from the Cubs. They haven't even had a winning record since 2000, but anything less than that in 2009 will be considered a major disappointment.

Ben Reiter:Marlins.They could have a top-five pitching staff, led by Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson, both of whom were terrific after the All-Star break last year. The offense remains powerful, even after trading away first baseman Mike Jacobs (32 home runs). Fredi Gonzalez's young crew might still be a year away from contending with the Mets and Phillies, but they should improve on last season's surprising 84-77 record. How about a Rangers-Marlins World Series in 2010?

Albert Chen:Tigers.Cincinnati and Kansas City both have the potential to surprise, but I think the Tigers will be the team that goes from worst to first. I like what they've done to improve the team defensively (they have the best left side of the infield with Brandon Inge and Adam Everett) and this year the lineup will live up to expectations.

Joe Lemire: Braves.Odd for a recent powerhouse to be considered a sleeper. The overhauled rotation will give Atlanta quality and quantity innings, but there are, of course, questions. Can an injury-prone bullpen (here's looking at you, Mike Gonzalez and Peter Moylan) consistently produce? Can Jordan Schafer provide a necessary top-of-the-lineup spark? And will a non-traditional lineup (i.e. no big bopper) score enough runs via situational hitting to compete with the Mets and Phillies? Or, alternately, can Jeff Francoeur recapture his rookie season magic with his new approach and stance and be that feared No. 3 or 4 slugger? If the answer is "yes" to all or most of those questions, the Braves could challenge their northeastern rivals.

Lee Jenkins: Marlins.Every few years Florida's young players cycle through, and with Cameron Maybin at the head of the list this season, the Marlins have the stuff to be this year's Rays.

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Tom Verducci:Angels, AL West.The A's don't have enough established pitching to push them for six months. The worst-kept secret in baseball is that in the AL West you only need to be better than three teams to go to the playoffs, and often one or two of them aren't even close to winning.

Gennaro Filice: Cubs, NL Central. The Cubs easily took the Central in 2008 and then distanced themselves from the rest of the division even more with a few positive offseason additions (Milton Bradley and Kevin Gregg). Truth be told, they could have the best offense and pitching staff in the Senior Circuit. Don't blow it, Cubbies ...

Cliff Corcoran: Cubs, NL Central.The Cubs won the NL Central by 7.5 games last year and should win it by more this year now that the Brewers are without aces CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. Milwaukee could compensate for one of those losses with a strong season from 23-year-old Yovani Gallardo, but the Brewers still don't have a solution for the other. The only other team I like in that division is the Reds, who finished 23.5 games out last year and would do well to simply finish with a winning record for the first time since 2000.

Ben Reiter: Angels, AL West.I'm not as sold on the Angels as many others seem to be -- it's never good when you're forced to start the season with your two best pitchers (John Lackey and Ervin Santana) on the DL -- but Oakland and Seattle could be awful, and Texas, I think, is still a year away. The Angels should run away with their fifth division title in six years, but I expect that run to end in 2010, when the Rangers finally add some pitching (in young prospects Neftali Feliz andDerek Holland) to their potent offense.

Albert Chen: A's, AL West.Surprisingly, it was the A's in the AL West. I love Oakland's young pitching and Matt Holliday gives them the big bopper they needed. Meanwhile, the Angels have a ton of major issues in the rotation (with John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvin Escobar sidelined), the Rangers still don't have enough pitching (they're a year or two away), and the Mariners won't be able to score enough runs.

Jonah Freedman: Angels, AL West.How do you pick against a team that has won its division four times in five years, never makes any major tweaks to a system that works and operates in what has become the easiest race in the game to call?

Tom Verducci: Yankees, AL East.Nothing against New York. It's just that the AL East has the three best teams in baseball, all of whom should win at least 92 games. One of them is going home.

Jon Heyman: Red Sox, AL East.Any of three teams could easily win this division. The Rays won it last year and should improve with added experience, plus a full year from emerging star Evan Longoria and the presence of Pat Burrell, a needed right-handed threat. Yet I still have them third.

Ted Keith: Yankees, AL East.People are no doubt tired of hearing it, but there are three teams in this division that not only could win 90 games but should win 90 games. No final order would truly surprise me.

Joe Posnanski: AL Central. The American League East is a war zone, but I think the American League Central could be the most competitive. All five teams have flaws.

Gennaro Filice:Twins, AL Central. I lost sleep over this one -- seriously. For three straight nights my mind was clouded with thoughts of Grady Sizemore, Zack Greinke's psyche, Detroit's payroll, Minnesota's rotation and Chicago's blue-collar efficiency. I wouldn't be surprised by any of these five teams winning the division (OK ... a Royals title might catch me off-guard a bit). In the end, I went with old faithful, Ron Gardenhire's Twinkies.

Cliff Corcoran: Red Sox, AL East.The three best teams in baseball are in the American League East, where the Red Sox and Rays finished two games apart last year. The Rays will counteract the regression they're likely to experience with the additions of David Price in the rotation, Pat Burrell in the lineup, a revamped right-field platoon and the possibility of a fully healthy B.J. Upton. The Yankees made dramatic improvements over the winter, both by making a big splash in the free agent market (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira) and by getting some of their old war horses back in fighting shape (Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui). And they have a chance for even more improvement with Joba Chamberlain moving to the rotation full time, Robinson Cano trying to bounce back from an awful season and Brett Gardner facing an equally low standard in center field. Those three could finish in any order atop the division. It's just a shame that one of them will miss the playoffs.

David Sabino: Twins, AL Central.The AL Central is anybody's guess because every team has obvious flaws yet also has the potential to win if the stars align correctly. The constantly overachieving Twins got the nod simply because of the addition of third baseman Joe Crede and the continued improvement of Francisco Liriano in the second year of his comeback from Tommy John surgery. But Chicago (hole in center, inexperienced infield), Detroit (iffy rotation, barren lower third of the lineup), Kansas City (defensively challenged) and Cleveland (annually underachieving) all have a chance to win a division that may be separated by 10 games from top to bottom.

Jonah Freedman:Indians, AL Central. The AL Central will be this year's version of the '08 NL West: Any team that approaches 82 wins has a shot. And pretty much any team in the division can get there -- even the Royals.

Tom Verducci: AL East.We know about New York, Boston and Tampa Bay. Baltimore is going to take a noticeable step forward, and Toronto once again will be among the elite pitching teams in the league.

Ben Reiter: AL East.The three best teams in baseball might all reside in one division -- and that's awful news for one of them.

David Sabino: AL East.The AL East is clearly the class of the majors. The Orioles have a strong bullpen and are building a solid young nucleus that stresses speed and defense. Toronto has taken a step back but still has the league's most consistently great starter (Roy Halladay), the division's best lefty relievers (B.J. Ryan, Scott Downs) and a lineup that will have no trouble scoring runs now that Travis Snider has stabilized left field.

Joe Lemire: NL East.From top-to-middle it's the AL East; the narrowest margin for error from top-to-bottom belongs to the AL Central; but for the best overall talent it's the NL East, even with the Nationals among the dredges of baseball. Each of the other four teams has a reasonable shot at the division or wild card. The Mets and Phillies remain the class of the East, but the Braves' improved rotation will keep them in the running until September and the Marlins will find a way with their patchwork, pre-arbitration-eligible nucleus.

Albert Chen: NL East.The Mets and Phillies aren't as good as the Rays and Red Sox, but the NL East is the deepest -- deeper than the mighty AL East -- with the Braves and Marlins lurking as potential sleepers. Any of those four teams has a shot at playing in October.

Jonah Freedman: AL East.The AL East, by far. I'm not exactly sticking my neck out here, but the three-way battle between the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays is perhaps the top storyline in the majors. And it's about time a third team -- with staying power -- broke up the duopoly.

Ted Keith: NL West.No surprise here. No team in the division has won more than 90 games since 2004 and until it shows otherwise there's no reason to think any team will this year.

Cliff Corcoran: AL West.The West was the Angels' almost by default last year. Yes, the Halos won 100 games but that was in large part because the second-best team in their division, the Rangers, went 79-83. The Angels were 36-21 (.632) against the rest of the AL West last year, and only the A's have improved, though not dramatically.

Ben Reiter: NL Central.This division, which is filled with mid-market teams, appears as if it will bear the brunt of the recession, and no club except the Cubs made any significant offseason moves (I'm not counting the Brewers' acquisition Trevor Hoffman, who's already hurt). I actually think that the economy could make this one of the most competitively imbalanced seasons in recent history, and seven of my eight playoff picks are big-market clubs.

David Sabino: NL Central.The top of the division isn't so bad, as Lou Piniella's Cubs and Tony La Russa's Cardinals will be in the thick of the race all season. But if any of the four remaining teams somehow contends for a spot in October, it would be a major surprise. The Pirates and Reds are finally cashing in on their farm systems, while the Brewers and Astros have serious pitching questions and are both in decline.

Albert Chen: AL Central.There's not a 90-win team in the AL Central, which means the opportunity is there for the Royals to make some noise if Billy Butler and Alex Gordon have breakout seasons.

Jon Heyman:Ryan Howard, Phillies.He's won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and a World Series, and in some ways he's still underappreciated. He's always a threat to go deep, especially in Citizens Bank Ballpark. And the new slender waistline can't hurt, either.

Ted Keith:Albert Pujols, Cardinals.With Pujols the Cardinals will always have, at worst, an outside chance at contending. Without him they have no chance. He's still in his prime and the numbers he's putting up are simply staggering.

Gennaro Filice:Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. In the grand history of baseball only four players have produced 40-40 seasons (Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano). But this ultra-exclusive club could welcome a new member very soon. After sniffing it last season (33 homers, 35 steals), Hanley could reach 40/40 land in '09. (Those extra 25 pounds of muscle could slow him down a bit, though.)

Cliff Corcoran: David Wright, Mets.Wright is a 26-year-old superstar who does everything well. Everything. He's a superb fielder (though his Gold Gloves should have gone to Ryan Zimmerman or Pedro Feliz). He will steal 15-plus bases a year. While the Mets' bullpen was busy throwing the season away each of the last two years, he hit .354/.442/.615 and .397/.451/.575 after Sept. 13. With the bullpen fixed, his accomplishments shouldn't be overshadowed again, and in his age-26 season, he could accomplish more than ever before.

David Sabino: Josh Hamilton, Rangers.Last year was Hamilton's coming-out party, and 2009 promises to be the season in which the Home Run Derby hero reaches mega-stardom. Hamilton batted .304 and finished in the top 10 in the AL in RBIs, slugging percentage, OPS, hits, home runs, total bases, extra base hits and runs created, all while slumping badly in the second half of his first full season. With more experience and a higher comfort level he'll be in the thick of the Triple Crown category races again and has a chance to top .325, 40 home runs and 150 RBIs in a very strong Rangers lineup.

Joe Lemire: Pujols.He is baseball's undisputed best player, and there's no reason to think he won't have another MVP season to keep St. Louis at or above .500. Plus, his success homering on Buddy Day gets me every time.

Jonah Freedman: Manny Ramirez, Dodgers.You'll never see a more motivated Manny Ramirez than you will this season. He has everything to gain and nothing to lose. He's essentially playing for another contract, thanks to his opt-out clause, and I still believe that the bitter taste from his Boston exit affects him more than he's leading on. I expect Ramirez to have another dynamite year and to help make the cadre of young Dodgers hitters more dangerous with him protecting them.

Jon Heyman: Jon Lester, Red Sox.Dynamic stuff and tremendous poise mean he's ready to leap to the next level. That $30 million extension's going to look like a major bargain very soon.

Gennaro Filice:Roy Halladay, Blue Jays. No pitcher in baseball consistently gives his team a better chance to win than Halladay. Sorry, Johan, but nine career complete games just isn't going to cut it; not when Halladay had nine last season. With a little more offensive support this season, Halladay could win 22-plus.

Cliff Corcoran: CC Sabathia, Yankees.Sabathia quite simply is the best pitcher in baseball. He won the AL Cy Young in 2007 and was dominant for the Brewers last year. There's no reason to expect anything less from him this year in his age-28 season, as he's been conditioned to pitch 250-odd innings over the last two seasons and likely won't be asked to throw as many for the Yankees, who have a better bullpen than either the Indians or Brewers had last year.

David Sabino: Johan Santana, Mets.After posting a better ERA and WHIP in more innings than the top two finishers, it appears that the thing that kept Santana from the Cy Young Award in 2008 were his 16 victories compared to Tim Lincecum's 18 and Brandon Webb's 22. However, Santana made 11 appearances in which he allowed two or fewer runs yet either got a loss (four) or a no-decision (seven). Enter Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz, who will help Santana get back to the 20-win mark on the NL's best club.

Joe Posnanski: Santana.Santana was SO good last year and hardly anyone even noticed it. I think he will be even better in '09.

Joe Lemire:Josh Beckett, Red Sox.The numbers don't lie: In odd-numbered years Boston's ace is 36-25 with a 3.17 ERA; in even-numbered years he's 43-37 with a 4.29 ERA. Not only is 2009 an odd year, but also the Sox have assembled the best defense he's ever had supporting him.

Jonah Freedman: Halladay.Against all odds (and his team's likely lack of support), Halladay will take home his second Cy Young. He may turn 32 this season but the Jays ace is getting better with age, upping his strikeout count, innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Competition seems to bring out the best in Halladay, so bring on division rivals CC Sabathia and Jon Lester -- "Doc" will outlast them both.

Tom Verducci:Rick Porcello, Tigers.Matt Wieters might be the best rookie, but the Orioles still aren't going to be a playoff team even if he has a breakout year. Porcello, however, could be the difference in whether the Tigers go to the postseason or not.

Jon Heyman: David Price, Rays.There are lots of great possibilities here, but Price was a No. 1 overall pick for a reason. He's in the minors for now to monitor his innings (and maybe push back his clock), but he'll be up in time to throw at least 150 very impressive innings.

Ted Keith: Price.He's starting the season in the minor leagues but whenever he returns to Tampa Bay he'll have the ability to immediately transform that division race. He's talented enough to be slotted almost anywhere in the Rays' rotation, and depending on where he fits, should have a ripple effect on the rest of the staff.

Joe Posnanski: Price.I expect that Price will be the best pitcher on the Rays in 2009. He was one of my finalists for Cy Young Award.

Ben Reiter: Price.It has to be Price or the Orioles' Matt Wieters, both of whom will start the season in the minors but should be up after a month or so. Wieters, who some describe as "Joe Mauer with Power," should have the most impact going forward (by virtue of the fact that he's a catcher and will play every day), but I think Price will finish ahead this year -- mostly because he'll provide a jolt to a team that will be in the playoff hunt, whereas the Orioles shouldn't be anywhere close.

Joe Lemire: Trevor Cahill, A's (Or Brett Anderson or Vin Mazzaro).Certainly Wieters will have a nice year, but when it comes to impact in 2009, Oakland's promising starters are the wild card for the A's to possibly challenge for, well, the wild card. Based on the spring, Anderson seems most ready to contribute now, but Cahill and/or Mazzaro could fill that role, too. Of course, if Price is called up to the majors within the first month and immediately reaches his ace potential -- which is entirely possible -- he could be the difference-maker in the Rays pushing the Sox or Yankees out of the playoffs.

Jonah Freedman:Matt Wieters, Orioles.In terms of raw ability it's almost impossible to pick against Wieters. But potential's a tricky thing, and crushing expectations are even worse. The catching prospect may have to carry the weight of another futile season in Baltimore on his shoulders, and that won't be easy on him.

Tom Verducci:Chris Iannetta, Rockies. Big-time power that is not a Coors Field creation; he had a slightly better OPS on the road than at home last year. He just might lead all MLB catchers in home runs.

Jon Heyman: Paul Maholm, Pirates. And no, it's not because he retired Billy Crystal. Maholm responded to a contract extension by having a better spring than anyone. Springs don't count for too much, but he was simply dominating down in Bradenton.

Ted Keith: Justin Upton, Diamondbacks.Upton is still just 21 years old and entering just his third season, but it feels like he's been around much longer than that. He's never played more than 108 games, or had even 400 at-bats, But with consistent playing time and more experience, look for the numbers to rise across the board for the former No. 1 overall pick.

Ben Reiter: Adam Jones, Orioles. We know not to put so much stock in spring training statistics, but this Adam Jones made it rain down in Ft. Lauderdale this spring: Through Tuesday he was hitting .382 with three homers and seven steals. After a slightly disappointing rookie season in '08 (.270, 9 HR, 10 steals), the 23-year-old could go 25/25 this year, and the sky's the limit after that.

Lee Jenkins: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers.He got a taste of the majors last season, showing off some electrifying stuff. The Dodgers need a pitcher to emerge at the top of their rotation, and Kershaw's the most likely candidate.

Albert Chen: Shin-Soo Choo, Indians.Choo, who hit .343 with a 1.038 OPS in 58 games in the second half last year, is poised for a big year. The Indians have so much faith in Choo that they dealt away Franklin Gutierrez this offseason so that Choo could take over on a full-time basis.

Cliff Corcoran: Jayson Werth, Phillies.There are a lot of young players who showed signs last year indicative of a breakout season this year -- among them Joey Votto, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and Chris Iannetta -- but the guy I'm keeping my eye on is Werth. He entered last season as a platoon player and finished the year as the Phillies' everyday right fielder. This year he's the Opening Day starter (the Phils just released his 2008 platoon partner, Geoff Jenkins) and could very easily turn in a 30/30 season with 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored.

David Sabino: Alex Gordon, Royals.Since he was drafted with the second pick of the '05 draft the world has been waiting for a big year from the Royals third baseman who had a modest 16 home runs and .432 slugging percentage as a sophomore last season. He has looked much more comfortable at the plate this spring, though, and with a vastly improved lineup surrounding him the pressure will be off and his true talent should emerge.