In my 2012 official picks, I said the Pittsburgh Pirates were going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their last winning season with a Division Title.
It is an unorthodox pick, I will grant you. It is the kind of thing that could make me look very stupid at the end of the year. (Remember I picked the Oakland A's to win the 2009 World Series?)
But I am serious with my pick. And let me explain why:
THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL ISN'T PRETTY
Yes, last year the NLCS was a battle between two NL Central teams, the Division Champion Brewers and the eventual World Champion Cardinals. But both teams had key subtractions.
The Brewers lost Prince Fielder and any goodwill surrounding Ryan Braun. Yeah, he beat the suspension, but there will remain unpleasant scrutiny. They have a good pitching staff, but they might take a step back.
The Cardinals didn't lose anyone big. Just Tony LaRussa, Albert Pujols and Dave Duncan. With Chris Carpenter hurt (and no Dave Duncan to work miracles), a repeat title is not likely.
The Reds seem to be the consensus pick. But they are already hurting in the bullpen with Ryan Madson out. And Mat Latos is moving from pitcher friendly San Diego to hitter friendly and is a mystery.
The Cubs and Astros stink and won't be a factor.
If any division is ripe for a surprise winner, it is the NL Central. It probably won't take much more than 90 wins to take it. Plus more games against the Cubs and Astros means a bigger number in the win column.
LAST YEAR COULD HAVE BEEN A GOOD LEARNING EXPERIENCE
The Pirates were tied for first place on July 25th last year. They went 19-43 the rest of the way.
But maybe that mid season success mixed with late season failure will be good for Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata et al. They got a taste of something good and saw it slip away. That has to be more productive than just stinking from opening day to elimination.
Plus with the extension to McCutchen, the Pirates are showing a commitment that they are trying to build something rather then just be a AAAA team.
THERE IS ALWAYS AN OCTOBER SURPRISE
Just about every year there is a team whose season just makes no sense to the pre season predictors. Oh, I'm sure YOU had the Diamondbacks winning the west last year and Ian Kennedy becoming a 20 game winner.
Naturally you predicted 90 wins for the 2010 Padres... or the 2006 pennant for the Tigers, 2007 pennant for the Rockies or the Rays getting to the 2008 World Series.
Those Rockies were managed by current Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle, who basically rode a hot September all the way to the World Series.
I don't think the Pirates will get THAT far. But it isn't outrageous to think a young team filled with players who caught a glimpse of contention last year could build on that and take advantage of a weakened division.
Of course they could also lose 110 games. James McDonald, one of their hopefuls in the rotation, got completely shelled today. Who knows? This could wind up being my worst prediction yet.
But if I picked the Reds and they won, who would remember?
It's been long enough.