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Projected Standings for the 2006 Season

By Tom Tippett
March 31, 2006

How much, and how well, will Barry Bonds play? Will Roger Clemens pitch this year, and where? Which leadoff-hitting center fielder will do more for his team, Johnny Damon or Coco Crisp? Have the Mets added enough talent to end the Braves division-winning streak? Will Toronto's spending spree pay off? Who will be the biggest surprises and disappointments in 2006?

Those questions, and many others, will be answered over the next 26 weeks. In the meantime, lots of writers, talking heads, fantasy baseball advice services, and other baseball analysts are busy telling you what they think is going to happen. We've been doing the same thing each year since 1998.

As always, this project has been a great learning experience. While projecting stats and ratings for more than 1800 players, tracking offseason player movement, and setting up pitching rotations, batting orders and depth charts, we're forced to look at every team in great detail.

We don't claim to be able to predict injuries, career years, managerial meltdowns, blockbuster trades, slumps, bad calls, and everything else that makes the baseball season such a joy to follow. But in the eight years we've been doing this, our preseason projections have proven to have some value in setting expectations for the coming season. (See 2005 Predictions -- Keeping Score for more on how various predictors have fared over the years.)

Methodology

In a minute, we'll show you the projected final standings for the 2006 season, but before we do, let's review how we got here.

Using stats from the major leagues (provided by STATS Inc.) and the minors, we projected the 2006 performance of each player by evaluating his performance over the past three years. Each stat line is adjusted for factors such as the level of offense in the league, the home park (for both major-league and minor-league stats), the effect of facing the DH (for minor-league and AL pitchers), and the competitive level (majors, Japan, AAA, AA, A).

For each player, these adjusted stat lines are averaged (with more weight on recent seasons, performances at higher levels, and seasons with lots of playing time), adjusted for age, and projected into the league and park where he will compete in the coming year.

We also project each player's left/right splits and assign ratings for skills such as baserunning, throwing, defensive range, and bunting.

After the players have been rated, we assign them to their new rosters and set up a manager profile for each team. These profiles consist of starting rotations, bullpen assignments, projected starting lineups against left- and right-handed pitchers, and depth charts for each position.

When everything is in place, we play out the 2006 season using our Diamond Mind Baseball game. This program simulates every pitch, with the game's computer manager making the decisions about starting pitchers and lineups, game tactics and substitutions. Because luck can be a significant factor in any single baseball season, real-life or simulated, we run the season 100 times and average the results.

Factors and non-factors

It's worth taking a moment to review what is and isn't taken into account in this process.

As you can tell from the previous section, we do take past performance into account, both at the minor-league and major-league level, including the Japanese leagues. We don't look at winter ball, spring training, or other foreign leagues such as Mexico.

We do put a lot of weight on the context in which a player's stats are compiled. Park factors, league averages, and the DH rule are a big part of our evaluations of past performance and our projections of future performance. And we do adjust for age.

We don't just look at projected batting and pitching stats. We do take defense, bunting, running and other skills into account. And we do take left/right splits into account. If a team is weak against one side or the other, that will show up in the results.

We do take injuries into account, in two ways. First, we discount past performances that may have been worsened by a player's attempt to play through a physical problem. Second, when setting up our manager profiles for the coming season, we take playing time away from anyone who is known to be injured going into the year. We don't, however, project more injuries for players who have been hurt often in the past. In our simulated seasons, every player has the same chance of losing time to injury.

We don't put any weight on the reputation of the manager. Our computer manager handles every team the same way -- it acts according to the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. If a team is full of mashers who can't run, you won't see a lot of one-run tactics. A team full of speedy singles hitters will run, bunt, and use the hit and run more often.

In other words, we don't give a team a few extra wins because they have a highly-regarded manager. In the years we've been doing this, we haven't seen very many examples of a manager consistently over- or under-achieving relative to our projections. Generally speaking, our results have proven to be more accurate when we ignore the managers.

We don't put any weight on the typical springtime comments of players and agents. If someone "is in the best shape of his career", "has a new changeup", "dropped 20 pounds over the winter", "is excited about joining his new team", or "added 15 pounds of muscle in the weight room", we take a we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it attitude.

We do take strength of schedule into account. We're simulating the actual 2006 schedule, so if a division is strong or a team's inter-league schedule is weak, that will show up in the results. That's true at the player level, too. If you're a right-handed pitcher with a big left/right split and you play in a division loaded with left-handed hitting, that's going to hurt your performance.

We generally don't try to predict what the overall level of scoring will be. If you look at the league averages from year to year, you'll see some examples where offense rose or fell in response to changes in rules, changes in equipment, new or renovated ballparks, or other clearly identifiable factors. But there are plenty of other examples where offense rose or fell with no clear reason in sight.

If offense is down this year, lots of people will say it's because of the expanded drug testing program. That may be the real reason, or it might just be one of those random fluctuations. And what if offense is up this year? How will the experts try to explain that? Again, there may not be a simple explanation. It may just be one of those years when scoring goes up for no apparent reason.

So don't put too much stock in the absolute number of runs scored or allowed in our simulations. More important than these raw numbers are the relationships among them. It's more meaningful to focus on a team's run margin and how their runs for and against compare to their rivals and to the league averages.

Projected 2006 standings

Here are the projected final standings, based on the 100 seasons we simulated on March 27th. Anything that happened since that date is not reflected here. Trades, roster decisions, and new injury reports may have altered the landscape a little.

Legend
W, L, Pct, GB -- average wins, average losses, winning percentage, games behind leader
RF, RA -- average runs for and against
#DIV, #WC -- number of division titles and wild cards (fractions given for ties)

AL East         W   L   Pct  GB   RF   RA  #DIV   #WC

New York       93  69  .574   -  889  771  66.5   8.8

Boston         86  76  .531   7  850  784  25.5  15.0

Toronto        83  79  .512  10  802  780   8.0   9.5

Baltimore      74  88  .457  19  767  830         2.0

Tampa Bay      70  92  .432  23  769  889



AL Central      W   L   Pct  GB   RF   RA  #DIV   #WC

Minnesota      90  72  .556   -  745  664  49.3  12.2   

Cleveland      88  74  .543   2  794  703  33.3  18.2

Chicago        86  76  .531   4  760  725  16.0  11.7

Detroit        79  83  .488  11  753  769   1.3   3.3

Kansas City    62 100  .383  28  715  882



AL West         W   L   Pct  GB   RF   RA  #DIV   #WC

Oakland        96  66  .593   -  827  673  93.5   1.5 

Texas          81  81  .500  15  839  843   0.5   7.0

Seattle        80  82  .494  16  737  747   4.0   5.0

Los Angeles    79  83  .488  17  711  732   2.0   5.8



NL East         W   L   Pct  GB   RF   RA  #DIV   #WC

New York       87  75  .537   -  767  735  34.0  12.0 

Philadelphia   86  76  .531   1  775  729  36.0  10.3

Atlanta        85  77  .525   2  763  734  25.0  13.0

Washington     75  87  .463  12  715  773   5.0   1.0

Florida        69  93  .426  18  709  818  



NL Central      W   L   Pct  GB   RF   RA  #DIV   #WC

St. Louis      95  67  .586   -  781  664  85.5   4.8 

Chicago        85  77  .525  10  735  704   8.5  26.0

Milwaukee      79  83  .488  16  736  746   2.5   7.3

Houston        78  84  .482  17  720  754   2.5   5.0

Cincinnati     77  85  .475  18  724  760   1.0   1.5

Pittsburgh     75  87  .463  20  706  765         1.0



NL West         W   L   Pct  GB   RF   RA  #DIV   #WC

Los Angeles    86  76  .531   -  780  726  42.0   9.0

San Francisco  86  76  .531   -  818  761  47.0   5.5

San Diego      77  85  .475   9  705  728   5.5   1.5

Arizona        76  86  .469  10  771  830   5.5   1.0

Colorado       67  95  .413  19  766  910         1.0 

Postseason qualifiers and other general observations

The recent trend toward increased parity has continued into 2006. For the first time, 27 of 30 teams qualified for the post-season in at least one of our simulated seasons. Only the Marlins, Devil Rays, and Royals failed to reach October.

The Marlins can be forgiven -- they've won two of the last nine World Series, and they made a conscious decision to retool for their next run at the big prize.

You can make a case that the Devil Rays are acting rationally, too. Stuck in a division with the big-spending Yankees and Red Sox, plus a Toronto team that spent aggressively this winter, it may be in their best interest to build a war chest while giving their kids one or two more years to develop, then loosen the purse strings to make a run at the big boys.

I don't know what to say about the Royals. Maybe they have a plan that just hasn't worked out, or maybe they don't have much of a plan at all. It's hard to tell.

It's hard to tell with the Rockies, too. They managed to grab the wild card in one of our simulated seasons, but that doesn't mean they're on the road to being a serious contender any time soon.

The Pirates, another team with one lonely wild card berth, seem to be the mirror image of the Devil Rays. While Tampa Bay is loaded with good young position players, Pittsburgh is stocking up on young pitching, though they've had trouble keeping those arms healthy. It's possible we'll see a time in the not too distant future when both teams leap into the talent market to shore up the other side of the ball and make a run at the postseason.

Only two teams are likely to run away and hide. Oakland appears to be far superior to its rivals in the AL West, and the same is true (again) for the Cardinals in the NL Central. The Yankees are another possibility, but the health of their starting rotation is a big question mark, and they may not be able to put their best arms on the mound on a regular basis.

The apparent parity in the National League is striking. With the exception of the Giants, every team scored between 705 and 781 runs, on average, in our simulations. And the Giants could easily drop back into this range if Bonds runs into more health problems this year.

I won't be surprised if the season ends with all 30 teams posting a winning percentage between .400 and .600. And I won't be surprised if we need a tie-breaking playoff game or two to decide who makes the post-season.

Team comments

In these team comments, we'll make occasional references to team efficiency. After each season , we look at the statistical output of each team (offense versus pitching/defense), the runs it was able to generate and prevent, and its win-loss record, pointing out teams that did more with less and vice versa.

One way to evaluate team production is to compute total bases plus walks (TBW) produced and allowed. When we refer to TBW differential, we mean the difference between these two figures. History tells us that if you outproduce your opponents by 150 TBW or more, you have a good chance to be playing in October.

AL East

New York Yankees (93-69, division title 66.5%, wild card 8.8%)

It wasn't that long ago that we were routinely projecting 100-plus wins for this team. They're still our pick to win the division, but as their nucleus ages, they're drifting slowly back to the pack, and their margin for error is shrinking. Fortunately for New York fans, the same thing appears to be happening to the Red Sox.

The addition of Johnny Damon fills the only hole in the Yankees lineup, center field. Some say it also fills the need for a true leadoff hitter, but I say that Derek Jeter has been doing just fine in that role. Still, it doesn't hurt to add another potent bat, and the starting lineup now features eight players who are likely to collect Hall of Fame votes some day. Needless to say, we're projecting them to lead the league in runs by a good margin.

After a season in which the Yankees used 14 starting pitchers and needed 51 starts from hurlers outside their five-man rotation, the big question is whether they can prevent enough runs to maintain their lofty standing. Our simulations answered that question in the affirmative. The New Yorkers finished in the middle of the pack in pitching, and that was enough to put them on top of the division in two-thirds of our simulated seasons.

Boston Red Sox (86-76, division title 25.5%, wild card 15%)

I have less confidence in this projection than usual. To be more precise, while the win total for every team can vary around the averages that you see here, I believe there's more room for variance in the Red Sox outcomes.

All teams have risk factors, but some teams have more than others. Health is always a risk, but more so for an older team (Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, David Wells, Mike Timlin, JT Snow) and for players who have had a recent history of serious injuries (Schilling, Keith Foulke) or nagging injuries (Josh Beckett, Trot Nixon). Other risk factors include a sudden decline in performance (Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta), position changes (Kevin Youkilis), and personality factors such as an on-again-off-again preference to be elsewhere (Manny Ramirez, Wells).

To illustrate my point about variance, I'll look at two of the 100 seasons we simulated, one very successful, one a disaster.

In season number 30, Boston won 102 games and topped the division, ten games ahead of New York. Coco Crisp posted a .362 OBP and scored 121 runs. Lowell and Loretta bounced back. Wily Mo Pena had a breakout season. David Ortiz was his usual self, while Manny blasted 49 homers and drove in 143 runs. Foulke returned to his 2004 form, saving 36 games and posting an ERA in the low twos. Jonathan Papelbon was a stud in a setup role. Schilling won 20 games. Tim Wakefield pitched well and got a ton of run support en route to 22 wins. And, almost without exception, everyone else did their job.

In season number 88, Boston went 70-92 and finished fourth. Alex Gonzalez didn't hit at all. Lowell did not bounce back. Ortiz hit only 35 homers and drove in only 101 runs. Pena was no better than he was with the Reds. Jason Varitek had an off year. Youkilis was exposed in his first full season as a regular. Matt Clement pitched like he did in the second half last year. Foulke was nothing special. Schilling was 12-17 with a 4.90 ERA. Rudy Seanez was brutal. Timlin finally showed his age. Wakefield had one of those years when his knuckler didn't knuckle, posting a record of 8-16. And to top it all off, they were outscored by only one run but fell 11 games short of their pythagorean record.

Each individual element of these scenarios is plausible. It's the combination that can produce the variance. More often than not, a team will experience a mix of good and bad and wind up roughly at their expected level. But once in a blue moon, everything clicks or everything falls apart.

The bottom line is that I really have no idea what to expect from the 2006 Red Sox. They could be great. Or not.

Toronto Blue Jays (83-79, division title 8%, wild card 9.5%)

No team made a bigger splash this past winter. Toronto made some of the biggest free agent signings, committing well over $100 million in long term deals for AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan, and Bengie Molina. They also traded for Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay. So why are they stuck at 83 wins?

The pitching staff finished in the middle of the pack in our simulations. A full season from Roy Halladay was a big help, but Ted Lilly didn't fare well in the wake of his miserable 2005 campaign. Burnett was good, but he's leaving a pitchers park and joining a DH league. And the schedule is a killer. Five of the league's top eight offenses are in this division, meaning that Toronto (and the others in the East) are facing good-to-great lineups in all 76 of their intra-divisional games. That makes it tough for any pitching staff to put up great numbers.

The Blue Jays offense is pretty good, but not good enough to rival the two teams they need to catch. They have some hitters to be feared, but they also have some weak spots, and overall they're not a great on-base percentage team.

Finally, this is not a great defensive team. They gave up a Gold Glove second baseman in the Glaus deal, and Glaus won't remind anyone of Scott Rolen at third base. Russ Adams makes a lot of errors at short, as does Glaus at third.

Baltimore Orioles (74-88, no division titles, wild card 2%)

In 2005, the Orioles were 10th in both runs scored and runs allowed, finishing 21 games out of the division lead, so it's easy to forget how good they looked in the first half. They led the division by as much as 4-1/2 games and held first place for more than two months before collapsing to a 27-48 record after the break.

Their problems were injury-related to some degree. Only one player (Miguel Tejada) appeared in 150 games or more, and only four surpassed the 121-game mark. Brian Roberts looked like an MVP candidate early but spent time on the disabled list and came back to earth over time. Erik Bedard was looking great before he was disabled for a couple of months.

Since the end of last season, Baltimore added catcher Ramon Herndandez, first baseman Kevin Millar, center fielder Corey Patterson, and starter Kris Benson. More importantly, they held on to Tejada, who asked for a trade and later rescinded that request. None of the newcomers projects to be a significant upgrade over last year's counterparts, and with no fresh talent emerging from the farm system, and no compensation for the loss of closer BJ Ryan, it's easy to see why Baltimore would struggle in the face of two big-spending division rivals and an improved Toronto team.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (70-92, no postseason appearances)

This projected win total is par for the course for the Devil Rays, who are building a good pool of young position players but have not yet chosen to spend any of their dollars or prospects to bring their pitching staff up to a contender level.

Offensively, the Rays are looking much better, finishing 7th in scoring in our simulations. That's up one spot from last year. But the lack of investment in pitching, coupled with the killer intra-divisional schedule, portends another season in which Tampa Bay ranks last in run prevention.

A year from now, maybe BJ Upton and Delmon Young will be ready to bolster a young lineup that's bound to improve on its own anyway. Maybe that's when Tampa Bay will pull the trigger on a major upgrade to the pitching staff.

AL Central

Minnesota Twins (90-72, division title 49.3%, wild card 12.2%)

The Twins faltered in 2005 after a run of three straight division titles, but they're our favorites to make it four out of five. Once again, young talent is the key to any success they'll have this year.

The starting rotation appears to be the cream of the crop. It's anchored by Johan Santana, Brad Radke, and Carlos Silva, three men who were among the very best in the league in fewest pitches per out recorded last year. Add Scott Baker, who posted a 3.19 ERA in nine starts, either Kyle Lohse or top prospect Francisco Liriano as the #5 starter, and one of the game's best bullpens, and enemy hitters will be seeing one live arm after another.

Offensively, the Twins will benefit from another year of development from catcher Joe Mauer and shortstop Jason Bartlett, a full season from center fielder Torii Hunter, the additions of third baseman Tony Batista and DH Rondell White, a legitimate leadoff hitter and terrific fielder in second baseman Luis Castillo, and a rebound season from Justin Morneau.

In our simulations, this staff led the league in pitching. The offense was no powerhouse, but it provided enough run support to make them the favorites to win the division.

Cleveland Indians (88-74, division title 33.3%, wild card 18.2%)

The 2005 Indians did everything right except win the close games. They outscored their opponents by 206 runs and outproduced them by 497 total bases and walks, far exceeding the next-best team in the majors, and leaving the rest of the AL Central teams in their dust. Unfortunately, a 22-36 record in one-run games left them behind the White Sox and out of the action in October.

These results indicate that Cleveland will be hard-pressed to repeat that level of statistical dominance on either side of the ball. The club was fourth in runs scored and first in runs allowed in 2005 but dropped to sixth and third, respectively, in our simulations.

When a team has a big year, it often means that they were unusually healthy and fortunate enough to have most of their key players perform at the high end of their normal range. That was certainly true of the 2005 Indians, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that we're projecting them to pull back from that peak to some degree.

The few offseason roster changes shouldn't hurt the team too much, but they won't help either. In left field, Jason Michaels replaces Coco Crisp in a move that might add a little on-base percentage but gives up a little power and a lot of defense. In the rotation, Kevin Millwood is out and Paul Byrd is in, and that's likely to be a downgrade. In the bullpen, Guillermo Mota replaces Arthur Rhodes, and that could go either way.

Chicago White Sox (86-76, division title 16%, wild card 11.7%)

Yeah, I know. Most everyone else is picking the defending World Series champs to at least repeat as division winners.

The 2005 White Sox were 9th in the league in scoring and 3rd in runs allowed. If that's all you knew, you'd conclude that this was a good-but-not-great team, wouldn't you? What if I also told you that Cleveland (4th and 1st) and Los Angeles (7th and 2nd) ranked higher in both categories? And that Chicago was 6th in the AL in run differential?

First and foremost, it's important to understand that the White Sox squeezed everything possible out of their 2005 talent, and then some. Their top four starters never missed a turn, and they needed only two others to share the #5 spot. They won 10 games in which they were trailing after seven innings, second best in the league behind the Yankees. They were 35-16 in one-run games, not counting a bunch of close wins in October.

I'm not saying they were lucky. Some of that success was the result of good front office management (investing heavily in starting pitchers and a good defense) and good on-field management (exploiting the team's assets to manufacture runs and pressure the opposition). But there was some luck involved.

Pitching is still an asset. In our simulations, Chicago was fourth in the league in runs allowed, down only one spot from last year. If they stay healthy, the rotation should be among the game's best, and Brandon McCarthy may be better than some of the guys in the rotation, so they can handle an injury to a starter without skipping a beat. That's a luxury.

Nevertheless, I think the pitching could slip a little, for two reasons. First, it's unlikely that everyone who had a great 2005 will be able to sustain that level of performance. Second, they lost an excellent defensive center fielder when they traded Aaron Rowand to Philadelphia for Jim Thome, and that'll show up in the pitching stats somewhere.

Offensively, the Sox maintained their 9th place ranking in our 100 seasons, picking up about 10 runs per season in the process. You might think the addition of Thome would crank up the volume much more than that. He'll help, no question, but have you looked at their on-base percentages? The top five guys are pretty good, but the four guys at the bottom of the lineup are all projected to be well below the league average. That'll kill more than a few rallies and limit the number of times they cycle through the really good hitters.

Don't get me wrong. I like many of the things they've done in the past couple of years. I like pitching and defense, productive outs, aggressive but prudent base running, clutch hits, and all the other things they did right in 2005.

And it's good to see teams succeed with very different styles. The 1990s Yankees wore down the opposition with a relentless and patient batting order. The 2001 Diamondbacks rode a pair of dominant starting pitchers who combined for 80 starts and 596 innings, including the playoffs. Three of the last four champions won with pitching, defense and situational hitting. And the 2004 Red Sox did it with a devastating offense, a pair of aces, and a gutsy closer.

So, all of you on the South Side of Chicago, I'm not being critical of your beloved White Sox. I'm not saying they can't win it again in 2006. I'm just suggesting that you savor 2005 without assuming that everything will go right again this year.

Detroit Tigers (79-83, division title 1.3%, wild card 3.3%)

This isn't a bad team, and I think they could be one of the year's pleasant surprises. With three good teams to climb over, it would be a stretch to see the Tigers finish atop the division, but I wouldn't be shocked to see that happen.

Detroit was in the middle of the pack in runs allowed in 2005, but they could take a leap forward. They added Kenny Rogers, who is coming off a terrific year despite his anger issues, and one or more of their young starters may put it all together this year. Jeremy Bonderman could do that. A top prospect like Justin Verlander or Joel Zumaya might surprise. Perhaps Mike Maroth or Nate Robertson could shave a little off his ERA.

Offensively, the team has more work to do, coming off a season where they were 10th in scoring. They were weak at catcher (Ivan Rodriguez lost his power), shortstop (Carlos Guillen was hurt), center field (Nook Logan can fly but he can't hit), and right field (Craig Monroe and Magglio Ordonez weren't quite up to the standards for that position). Rodriguez could bounce back, Guillen and Ordonez might be healthier, and Curtis Granderson should provide a big upgrade over Logan in center.

I'm not suggesting that it's likely that the Tigers will be legitimate contenders for the division title, but they're not that far away, and if three or four things go their way, they could be right in the thick of the race.

Kansas City Royals (62-100, no postseason appearances)

I can't think of a less interesting team to write about. If their lack of top flight talent wasn't enough, they're now seeing some of their better players drop in value. Zack Greinke was supposed to be the staff ace, but he left camp weeks ago to work with a sports psychologist. Runelvys Hernandez has shown great promise at times, but he's been put on the disabled list for "lack of stamina", which sounds like a polite way of saying that he's too heavy to pitch effectively.

The Royals project to be 13th in the league in both run scoring and run prevention, and they project to have the worst record in baseball. Enough said.

AL West

Oakland Athletics (96-66, division title 93.5%, wild card 1.5%)

Here we go again. It seems as if we project the Athletics to win the AL West every year. For a few years, that made us look very smart. But then Oakland coughed up a late-season lead to the Angels in each of the past two seasons even though they were statistically superior to their rivals both years.

I'm not too worried about a three-peat, however. This is Oakland's best team in years, and as I'll explain in a bit, I don't see the Angels as being nearly as strong a competitor this time around.

After sinking to the bottom third in scoring after the departures of Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, Oakland has been climbing back up the rankings. Last year, they were 6th in the league in runs, and they rose to 4th in our simulations this spring. With each of the first eight hitters in the batting order projected to be above the league average in OBP, some by a large amount, this lineup is going to sustain long rallies and grind down opposing pitchers on a regular basis.

Add the league's second-best pitching staff and you have the makings of a runaway division winner. The rotation is headed up by Barry Zito and Rich Harden, the rest of the starters are solid, they have one of the league's best closers in Huston Street, and the rest of the bullpen is deeper than most.

Texas Rangers (81-81, division title 0.5%, wild card 7%)

Will a retooled starting rotation lead to great things in 2006? Maybe, but it doesn't look that way. Texas was 12th in runs allowed last year, and that's where they ranked in our simulations of the 2006 season.

Yes, they added Kevin Millwood, Adam Eaton, and Vicente Padilla, but the rotation isn't noticeably better than it was a year ago. Kenny Rogers was their best pitcher in 2005, and he's in Detroit now. Chris Young was their second-best starter, and he was traded to San Diego for Eaton and reliever Akinori Otsuka. And Padilla's stats don't translate well to the American League and a good hitters park like Ameriquest Field.

Offense is not a problem. The park helps, but there's some real talent, too. The Rangers were third in the league in runs in 2005 and again in our simulations.

Some of the names have changed, but the profile of this team isn't much different. They won 79 games a year ago, and although their underlying stats supported a record that was a few games better than that, they still look like a .500 team.

Seattle Mariners (80-82, division title 4%, wild card 5%)

The Mariners have been pretty bad for a couple of years, so I'm a little nervous about seeing them finish ahead of anybody in this challenging division. Let's see if we can construct a reasonable argument to support these simulation results.

First, let's see where they came from. In 2005, they won 69 games. The statistical indicators are mixed, but generally support a win total of about 72, so they were a little better than their record indicated.

Second, they were 13th in the league in scoring, ranking among the worst in the league at catcher, second base, third base, and center field. The signing of Kenji Johjima should solve the catcher problem. We're projecting Adrian Beltre and Jeremy Reed to improve upon their 2005 numbers, so things should be better at third and in center. Second base is still a problem, but Roberto Petagine provides an interesting option at DH. All in all, the lineup should be a little better.

Third, the pitching was improved in our simulations. It may be asking a lot of a 20-year-old, but a full season from phenom Felix Hernandez is a big part of this story. Add newcomer Jarrod Washburn, then project slightly better results for Joel Piniero and Gil Meche, and you've picked up a few more wins.

Is that enough to vault the Mariners over the Angels or another of their rivals? I'm not convinced, but I thought this team was pretty good last year, and I still see them as better than most people think.

Los Angeles Angels (79-83, division title 2%, wild card 5.8%)

Yes, I know, this one looks very strange. The Angels are two-time defending champs in the AL West, they won the World Series as recently as 2002, their manager has a track record of overachievement, and we're picking them for last place. Are you kidding me?

The Rangers, Mariners, and Angels were so tightly bunched in our simulations that we might as well say it's too close to call. An average of 1.7 wins separated second place from fourth. All three teams made the post-season between 7.5% and 9% of the time. The run margins were close, too, with Texas at -4, Seattle at -10, and Los Angeles at -21.

In other words, the simulation results do not make a compelling case for the Angels finishing last. They strongly suggest, however, that the Angels aren't much different from a lot of other teams, and are a good distance behind the Athletics.

Defensively, the Angels were second in the league in pitching last year thanks to a strong and unusually healthy rotation backed up by a terrific bullpen. Despite the loss of 60 starts via the departures of Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn, the pitching still looks quite good. Ervin Santana is projected to improve, Kelvim Escobar should be healthier, and Jeff Weaver is a pretty good #5 starter. In fact, pitching wasn't a problem in our simulations, as the Angels finished in the top five in runs allowed.

On the other hand, offense was a major problem, with the Angels finishing dead last in the AL in scoring. They were 7th in 2005, so what accounts for the decline?

The lineup lacks power but doesn't lack low-OBP guys. Garret Anderson is a shadow of his former self, and he's been battling a foot problem all spring. Darin Erstad was the league's worst offensive first baseman last year, and now he projects to be one of the league's worst center fielders. Catcher Bengie Molina took his bat to Toronto. The lineup features only two players, Vlad Guerrero and Dallas McPherson, who are likely to top 20 homers. In other words, they'd better make sure their outs are productive if they want to scratch out a decent number of runs.

Finally, I believe some of the young hitting prospects have been over-hyped. Three of the top four teams in LA's farm system play in very good hitters parks, so it's easier to pile up bloated offensive stats in that system. The Angels play their spring training games in Arizona, which always features a ton of offense, so you need to take their spring stats with a grain of salt. The bottom line is that their young hitters project to be good but not great in the big leagues, at least at this stage of their careers, so they're not likely to rejuvenate an otherwise anemic batting order.

I'm quite aware that the Angels could do enough of the little things, as has been their habit for several years, to finish second in the division. They might even make another serious run at Oakland. But I don't see this as a very good team, and I won't be at all surprised if they struggle.

NL East

New York Mets (87-75, division title 34%, wild card 12%)

The good news is that the Mets go into the season with close to a 50-50 chance to be playing in October. The bad news, at least for the team's investors, is that they had to lay out mucho dinero for Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado, and Billy Wagner to move from 71 wins in 2004 to contender in 2006, and they still cannot be considered a clear favorite.

On both sides of the ball, the Mets ranked 7th in our simulations. On offense, Beltran, Delgado, Cliff Floyd and David Wright are the featured players, but they'll be held back by a leadoff hitter (Jose Reyes) with a career OBP of .303 and a lack of offense from the second base position.

The pitching starts with Martinez and ends with Wagner. If I had to win one big game, and both of those guys were available, I'd feel very good indeed. Unfortunately, the rest of the rotation is spotty and the bullpen won't scare anyone until Wagner comes on.

Philadelphia Phillies (86-76, division title 36%, wild card 10.3%)

Who deserves to be listed first in the projected standings? The Mets averaged .2 more wins per season. Philly won the division 2% more often and made it into October 0.3% more frequently. New York outscored its opponents by 32 runs, the Phillies by 46. But maybe the closer position (Billy Wagner versus Tom Gordon) gives the Mets enough of an edge in close games to offset those extra runs. And, of course, Atlanta is that object in the side mirror that is much closer than it looks.

I can't say that I have a lot of confidence in the Phillies, not after they underachieved in each of the past three seasons. The first two years, onlookers could blame their failures on fiery manager Larry Bowa, but the results were no better in 2005 under new skipper Charlie Manuel.

The offseason saw Philadelphia make a few key moves, some good, some still to be determined. The best move was unloading Jim Thome's huge contract for Aaron Rowand, a decent hitter and terrific defensive center fielder. With Ryan Howard ready to take over for Thome, the team shouldn't lose much, if anything, at first base. Less clear are the swap, via free agency, of Wagner for Gordon, and the deal that sent Jason Micheals to the Indians for Arthur Rhodes.

Health is a concern. Left fielder Pat Burrell is still battling a foot problem, third baseman David Bell has had trouble staying on the field this spring, top pitching prospect Cole Hamels has back problems, and Randy Wolf is out for a few months while recovering from Tommy John surgery. This team doesn't have enough talent to survive too many trips to the trainer's room.

Atlanta Braves (85-77, division title 25%, wild card 10%)

Another year, another division title. Contrary to what you hear so often, the Braves do not have a 14-year winning streak. They were 6-1/2 games back of the Expos when play was halted in 1994. But 14 out of 15 is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Can they make it 15 out of 16? Sure they could. A lot of good young players gained some valuable experience in 2005, and none of their rivals has amassed enough talent to run away and hide. More than once in the past, the Braves looked vulnerable in March but came through when it mattered, a pattern that reflects well on GM John Schuerholtz, manager Bobby Cox, erstwhile pitching coach Leo Mazzone, and the players who formed the nucleus of the team during this amazing run.

This time, they'll have to do it without Mazzone, who left to serve in the same role for his friend Sam Perlozzo in Baltimore. Mazzone's reputation is such that many will begin to doubt the Braves, but with the rest of the core group of executives and players intact, I'm not ready to declare an end to this dynasty.

As has often been the case, the roster is a nice blend of veteran stars (John Smoltz, the Joneses) and promising young players (too many to name). And even if the simulations say that Atlanta is slightly behind the Mets and Phillies, who's to say that Schuerholz won't make that one key move, Cox won't get a little extra out of a player or two, or their player development staff won't produce another rookie surprise just when they need it? I'm not betting against them, that's for sure.

Washington Nationals (75-87, division title 2%, wild card 3%)

Montreal seems like a distant memory, what with the rousing success of the Nationals first season in the nation's capital. RFK Stadium hosted almost 2.7 million fans, giving birth to a new fan base even while its cavernous dimensions ended the life of many a potential home run ball.

With the park exerting a strong influence, Washington finished last in the league in scoring and fourth in fewest runs allowed. In 2006, the offense should be a little better due to the swap of Brad Wilkerson to the Rangers for Alfonso Soriano, the signing of Matt LeCroy, and a full season from Ryan Zimmerman.

I'm not sold on their starting rotation. Livan Hernandez and John Patterson should be fine, but the other options are questionable because of past performance (Ryan Drese and Ramon Ortiz), health (Tony Armas), or age (Pedro Astacio). Other than closer Chad Cordero, the bullpen won't scare anyone, either.

Florida Marlins (69-93, no postseason appearances)

I'm sure I'm not alone, but I have no idea what to expect from the Marlins this year.

For one thing, it's a little harder to project future performance for minor-leaguers than established major-leaguers because some youngsters make a smooth transition to the big leagues, others need to go through an adjustment period, and some never make it at all.

But there's a second force at work here. The Marlins don't care about winning in 2006, they're building for the long term. They may put their best team on the field this year, or they may play others who have less chance to succeed right now but have a brighter long term outlook. When setting up the roster and manager profile for this team, I wasn't at all sure who was likely to get the majority of the playing time at several positions. I'm not sure the Marlins will know that, either, until the season plays out.

At least one other predictor pegged the Marlins for 54 wins this year. That could happen, but I think they'll be quite a bit better than that. There's a lot of very interesting young talent here. I wouldn't be shocked if they hang around on the fringe of the division race for a good part of the season, though I don't think they'll be there in the end.

NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals (95-67, division title 86%, wild card 4.8%)

Ho hum. Another projected romp for the reigning kings of the NL Central division. Although we're projecting a smaller margin of victory than we did a year ago, it's hard to see anyone mounting a serious challenge to the Cardinals unless a whole lot of things go wrong in St. Louis.

The biggest change comes on the offensive side of the ball, where the Cardinals no longer possess a dominant lineup. They still have the game's best right-handed hitter in Albert Pujols, and they still have Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, but the supporting cast isn't nearly as good as it was in 2004 and 2005. It's hard to see how they'll get enough offense from the catcher, second base, shortstop, and corner outfield positions.

But the pitching and defense should lead the league in run prevention. The rotation is headed up by Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder, they have one of the game's top closers in Jason Isringhausen, the rest of the bullpen is solid, and they have no holes on a defense that includes Gold Glove caliber players at catcher and both corner infield positions.

Chicago Cubs (85-77, division title 8.5%, wild card 26%)

A year ago, we projected 82 wins for the Cubs, at a time when many baseball experts were predicting a division title and a deep postseason run. We didn't think they'd score enough runs, we were concerned about the health of their top starting pitchers, and we saw the bullpen as a liability. As it happened, the Cubs finished the real season in fourth place with 79 wins.

This year, I was surprised when the Cubs were able to gain a few games and grab a few division titles in our simulations.

I figured the offense would be worse than it was in 2005. It would be asking a lot for Derrek Lee to put up another monster season, and newcomers Jacque Jones and Juan Pierre aren't projected to be especially good at the plate. The only reason for optimism was a full season from Matt Murton, who posted a .907 OPS in 160 plate appearances a year ago. Sure enough, the Cubs ranked 10th in the league in scoring in our simulations after finished 9th in 2005's real season.

The pitching was better, however. After finishing 7th in the NL in runs allowed last year, the Cubs were bested only by the Cardinals in our simulations. This assumes the team will get a total of 55-60 starts from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and with both of them starting the year on the DL, this could be a shaky assumption. With the additions of Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry, the bullpen should be improved.

Milwaukee Brewers (79-83, division title 2.5%, wild card 7.3%)

This is the first time in ages that we've projected the Brewers to have a non-trivial shot at the postseason, and I'm a little surprised they didn't fare even better. Last year's Brewers outscored their oppenents by 19 runs, tied for the league's fifth-best record after the all-star break, and appeared to be carrying some momentum into the offseason.

The pitching staff is projected to slip just a bit, from 6th to 8th in the league in runs allowed, partly because ace Ben Sheets is hurting and partly because we don't project Derrick Turnbow to match his outstanding 2005 season.

The offense is also projected to slip a little. Prince Fielder is a great hitting prospect, but it may take a little time before he can match or exceed the production they got from Lyle Overbay. At third base, Corey Koskie is projected to fall short of the combined output of Russ Branyan, Jeff Cirillo, and Wes Helms. And our projection system sees a small pullback for a few guys, such as Brady Clark and Bill Hall, who posted numbers in 2005 that were well above their established levels.

Houston Astros (78-84, division title 2.5%, wild card 5%)

After the Giants and Barry Bonds, the fortunes of the Astros might be tied to one player more than any other team in baseball.

For Houston, that player is Roger Clemens, who may retire, join another club, or return after May 1 to give the Astros another five months of Cy Young caliber pitching. If Clemens returns, is healthy, and pitches well, roughly 25 starts and 165 innings will be transferred to Clemens from guys like Wandy Rodgriguez and Taylor Buchholz. What's that worth? I'd put it at about five wins.

This team is offensively challenged, however. They finished 11th in scoring in 2005 and are projected for 12th this year. Jeff Bagwell's failed attempt to come back from his shoulder injury certainly didn't help. But that's not the only problem. Last year, the Astros were in the bottom 20% of the league at no fewer than four positions, and three of those regulars (Brad Ausmus, Adam Everett, and Willy Taveras) are back. The only change was in left field, where Preston Wilson hopes to improve things.

It's hard to say where the pitching will end up. With Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte heading up the rotation and Brad Lidge taking care of the ninth inning, it won't be terrible. Without Clemens, we have them finishing in the middle of the pack. With Clemens, they'd be challenging the Cubs for second.

Cincinnati Reds (77-85, division title 1%, wild card 1.5%)

This surprised me a little. I was expecting to see the Reds finish last, a couple of games back of the Pirates. Maybe they will, maybe they won't, but let's take a look at why the simulations have them at 77 wins.

The offense is a mixed bag. With an outfield of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, and Austin Kearns, plus promising young third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, the Reds have the nucleus of a very good offense. On the other hand, there's nothing special at the other positions, and Scott Hatteberg at first base is a major liability. Over the past three years, he's been below the league average for all positions, and way below the average for first basemen, and at age 36 cannot be projected for a turnaround.

The pitching looks to be better than it was in 2005, when the Reds were last in the NL in runs allowed. Bronson Arroyo and Dave Williams should take about 400 innings away from guys who stunk up the joint a year ago. In fact, the 2005 Reds gave 67 starts to guys who posted an ERA north of six and another 30 to a guy with a 5.36 ERA. The bullpen won't be great, but it probably won't be horrible, either.

It will take some time before the Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena trade can be evaluated. Based solely on our projections for 2006, the Reds got the better of it, by a small amount, and their simulation results improved as a result of that deal. However, if Pena can convert his raw tools into production, this could turn out to be a steal for the Red Sox, even if it takes Pena a couple of years to turn the corner.

Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87, no division titles, wild card 1%)

I was expecting, almost hoping, to see the Pirates do better than this in our simulations.

We've been hearing about their great young arms for quite a while, and I've been wondering whether 2006 might be the breakout year. But with veteran Kip Wells recently having had surgery, Sean Burnett and Bryan Bullington working their way back from their own surgeries, and John Van Benschoten dealing with shoulder problems, it doesn't appear that enough of the team's arms are ready to make noise this year.

The pitchers they do have -- Oliver Perez, Zach Duke, and maybe Paul Maholm -- will make the Pirates competitive, but they can't carry a team that can't score enough runs. Jason Bay, Sean Casey, and Jeromy Burnitz simply won't get enough help from the rest of the batting order.

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76, division title 42%, wild card 9%)

In GM Paul DePodesta's first season, the 2004 Dodgers were the surprise winners of the NL West crown. In his second season, the team was beset by a rash of injuries that dropped them into fourth place with 71 wins. Statistically, they weren't that bad, but Arizona and San Francisco squeezed a bunch of extra wins out of their numbers and moved ahead of LA in the standings. And that was it for DePo, who was replaced by former Giants assistant general manager Ned Colletti.

To all intents and purposes, the Dodgers and Giants finished in a dead heat in our simulations. LA led the standings by less than half a win per season, but the other indicators went the other way, though just by a hair. The Dodgers outscored their opponents by an average of 54 runs, the Giants by 57. San Franscisco took the division title 47% of the time to LA's 42% and qualified for the postseason 1.5% more often.

With a new GM, a new manager (Grady Little), a new shortstop (Rafael Furcal), a new first baseman (Nomar Garciaparra), a new third baseman (Bill Mueller), and the likelihood that the training staff won't be spending quite as much time with their star players, the Dodgers appear to have just enough to be co-favorites in a weak division.

Their main weakness appears to be the pitching staff that isn't likely to be much better than the league average in runs allowed even with a boost from a pitcher-friendly home park. There are no studs in the rotation, and the bullpen looks quite ordinary even if Eric Gagne can return to peak form.

San Francisco Giants (86-76, division title 47%, wild card 5.5%)

Yes, the Giants finished third in 2005 with 75 wins, but they weren't that good. Outscored by 96 runs and outproduced by 277 total bases and walks, second worst in the NL to the Rockies, San Franscisco played more like a 70-win team.

However, it was a 70-win team with a #1 starter (Jason Schmidt) who wasn't 100%, a closer who missed half the season, and a dominant hitter (Barry Bonds) who didn't play until the second half of September.

The recipe for success in 2006 is simple -- get those three guys back, add a couple of hundred innings from Matt Morris, and throw in full seasons from Randy Winn (a mid-season acquisition) and Matt Cain (a youngster who posted a 2.33 ERA in 7 starts late last year).

There is no team in baseball more dependent on one player than this one. If Barry Bonds cannot play 145 games, as he did in our simulations, or if his body cannot perform at an all-time-great level, you can throw this projection out the window.

San Diego Padres (77-85, division title 5.5%, wild card 1.5%)

Well, they won the division in 2005, but that doesn't exactly provide a lot of momentum coming into this year. It was one of the weakest showings ever by a first-place team -- only 82 wins and a -42 run margin in the game's worst division.

After Jake Peavy, the starting rotation looks shaky. After Trevor Hoffman and Scott Linebrink, the bullpen is thin. The lineup lacks power, with only one player (Mike Cameron, with 22) averaging at least 20 homers per season in our simulations. It may not be the league's worst offense, but it's definitely below average, and with half their games in a great pitcher's park, they could easily finish last in the league in scoring.

Still, they have enough talent to finish around .500, and if a few things go their way, they could steal this division for the second year in a row.

Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86, division title 5.5%, wild card 1%)

This is going to be a very interesting team to watch. They're not ready to contend in a strong division, or even an average one, but they have some terrific young players, and that may be enough to carry them to the top of this division.

Joining a franchise known for reckless spending, new GM Josh Byrnes wasted little time in retooling the roster, unloading two big contracts (Troy Glaus to Toronto, Javier Vazquez to the White Sox) in his first few weeks on the job. He probably would have liked to find takers for Shawn Green and Russ Ortiz, too, both of whom have big-money deals and a recent history of less-than-big-money performances.

Arizona was 14th in the NL in offense from the catcher position, so the addition of Johnny Estrada should be a big plus. Chad Tracy probably won't replace Glaus's bat at third base, but he'll produce good numbers for a lot less money, and by moving across the diamond, he opens up first base for a combination of top prospect Conor Jackson and veteran Tony Clark. Another top prospect, Carlos Quentin, should see some meaningful playing time in right field.

The pitching staff is the big question mark. Brandon Webb is their only proven homegrown starter. If they are to contend this year, Webb needs to get a lot of help from Miguel Batista (acquired in the Glaus deal), two guys who are coming off bad seasons (Orlando Hernandez and Russ Ortiz), and a youngster like Dustin Nippert. The bullpen looks reasonable, and the defense up the middle (Orlando Hudson and Craig Counsell) should help, but the way things look right now, this team is going to give up a lot of runs.

Oh, by the way, the 2005 Diamondbacks set a modern record of sorts. With 77 victories and a -160 run differential that normally produces only 64 wins, Arizona became the first team since the advent of the 162-game schedule to win 13 more games than projected by the Bill James pythagorean method. In other words, their second-place finish was a bit of an illusion, so this team needs to improve just to stay where they were in the standings.

Colorado Rockies (67-95, no division titles, wild card 1%)

I'm tempted to cut-and-paste last year's comment into this space, the one where I wondered whether this club has a plan of any sort. For the second year in a row, Colorado failed to win 70 games, and it looks like that streak won't be ending any time soon.

In our simulations, the Rockies pulled off an incredible feat, finishing near the league average in runs scored despite playing in one of the best hitters parks in history. That's not easy to do, folks.

With the exception of Todd Helton, they don't have a single regular who would reasonably be expected to produce above-average numbers in a neutral park. Furthermore, if you discount Helton for his park and position -- first basemen are expected to be 9% above the league average -- his numbers aren't as impressive as they look, especially for a guy with one of the biggest long-term contracts in the game.

Summing up

Well, I've just spent two days writing fifteen pages of commentary about the most likely outcomes of the 2006 season. And that's after spending hundreds of hours projecting players, updating rosters, and setting up manager profiles. And, yet, I feel as if I don't have a clue what's going to happen this year.

The Yankees and Red Sox could dominate again, or age and injury could wipe out their financial advantage. The White Sox and Angels could pitch, field, bunt, and run their way to more postseason success, or their statistically superior rivals could blow them away. The Astros could fall apart and finish in the basement, while the Brewers take one more step forward and challenge for the division. Florida could be a lot better than anyone expects.

Maybe Kerry Wood and Mark Prior will come off the disabled list at 100% and pitch to the full extent of their talent for the rest of the year, leading the Cubs to their first World Series win since 1908, thereby following the lead of the Red Sox (first WS since 1918) and White Sox (first WS since 1917) and ensuring that the 2000s will forever be known as the decade when curses went to die.

Or maybe our projections will turn out to be right on the money.

But with so many good-but-flawed teams, and with so many races projected to be so close, almost anything could happen. And I can't imagine a better way to go into a new season.