NL East


      Mets: The Mets have the best team in the National League, with enough punch to compensate for an aging and not-so-great starting pitching staff. Frankly, though, the Mets would be a second place team in the American League West, a third place team in the AL East and a fourth place team in the AL Central.


      Braves: Before last season, Atlanta made the playoffs l4 straight years. Pitcher John Smoltz, who’ll be 40 in May, was the only member of the Braves to experience all of those great seasons. A tremendous pitcher and team player, Smoltz moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen, but is back as a starter as the Braves beefed up their bullpen in the off-season. The Braves could challenge the Mets if the Joneses – center fielder Andruw and third baseman Chipper – stay healthy all season and produce up to their capabilities.


      Phillies: Philadelphia can contend with the Mets and Braves. But can first baseman Ryan Howard come close to last year’s production (.313, 58 home runs and l49 runs batted in)? Second baseman Chase Utley also provided plenty of punch (.309, 32HR, 131 RBI). The addition of pitcher Freddy Garcia, who won l7 games for the White Sox last season, means the Phillies can compete for first and possibly win it.


      Marlins: Florida has some good young talent but doesn’t look improved. Last year’s 78-84 record under fired manager Joe Girardi will not be toped this year under new skipper Fredi Gonzalez.


      Nationals: Washington will go down as the team’s new stadium goes up. The loss of free agent outfielder Alfonso Soriano to the Cubs will keep the Nationals from improving on their 71-91 record of 2006.


NL Central


      Cubs: Chicago will top the division this year. Alfonso Soriano adds power, speed and excitement to the lineup. Soriano, Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez should account for at least l00 home runs. If pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood can stay off the disabled list, the Cubs, under new manager Lou Piniella, will run away with it.


      Brewers: Milwaukee added pitcher Jeff Suppan, who starred in the postseason for St. Louis. The addition means the Brewers are contenders and no longer pretenders.


      Cardinals: Obviously weakened by the loss of Suppan, St. Louis still has plenty. Third baseman Scott Rolen and first baseman Albert Pujols are among the best run generators in the league. Shortstop David Eckstein, who has a great name but is not Jewish, usually manages to get on base in key situations and plays his position well despite having a poor arm.


      Astros: Houston added outfielder Carlos Lee and his yearly 30-plus homers to a weak-hitting lineup, but the loss of pitcher Andy Pettitte to the Yankees hurts. Even if Roger Clemens re-signs for the last few months, Houston has problems.


      Reds: Cincinnati lost some fringe players and added some fringe players. All told, there’s no reason to believe the Reds can improve on last year’s mediocre 80-82 record.


      Pirates: Pittsburgh has some good young players mixed in with some bad old ones. But the team should be improved with the addition of lefthanded batting first baseman Adam LaRoche (.285, 32 HR, 90 RBI, in 2006 with Atlanta). The Pirates are capable of winning l0 more games than last year’s 67 and may pass the Reds.


NL West


      Padres: San Diego has a top pitcher in 26-year-old, 6-foot-10 Chris Young, who looked like Cy Young on the road (6-0, 2.41 ERA) last year. There’s no reason to think he won’t improve his performance at home this season. By adding veteran Greg Maddux (l5-l4 last year) to go along with Young and all-star Jake Peavy, the Padres have three top starters and a bullpen headed by Trevor Hoffman. Rookie third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff can hit for average and power. Good pitching in a weak division should propel the Padres to the top.


      Dodgers: Los Angeles lost Maddux but added Jason Schmidt, who was ll-9, 3.59 ERA, with the Giants last year. The Dodgers are a better hitting team than the Padres and could well pass them in this weak division.


      Giants: San Francisco lost Schmidt but replaced him with Barry Zito from Oakland. The Giants have a lot of mileage in their starting lineup. Shortstop Omar Vizquel turns 40 this month. Center fielder Dave Roberts will be 35 in May. First baseman Ryan Klesko will be 36 in June and Mike Sweeney 37, Barry Bonds will be 43 in July and Rich Aurilia and Ray Durham started the season at 35. The team trainer has his work cut out for him


      Diamondbacks: A fourth place team in a division of several fourth place teams. Randy Johnson, 44 in September, is 20 victories short of 300. Arizona has a good manager in Bob Melvin and a new bench coach in Kirk Gibson, two old friends from their Detroit Tigers playing days, and could pass the Giants.


      Rockies: Colorado looks like it has last place locked up. Someone to watch is rookie Chris Iannetta, one of the best catching prospects around. Iannetta is good defensively, can hit for average and reach double digits in home runs. Another one on the Rockies to watch is outfielder Matt Holliday. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder hit .326 with 34 homers and ll4 RBIs. Holliday has a toothpaste ad smile and Tom Cruise-type looks. Madison Avenue would be all over him if he were playing in New York.


AL East


      Yankees: Even if Carl Pavano cashes his checks while on the disabled list, New York’s starting pitching, while not as good as Boston’s, will be bailed out by the great reliever Mariano Rivera. Add a lineup chock full of some of baseball’s best hitters, and the Yanks will win more often than any other team in their division.


      Red Sox: Boston has had eight starting second basemen and six starting shortstops in the past l0 seasons. Julio Lugo, most recently with the Dodgers, is the latest shortstop import, while rookie Dustin Pedroia tries his luck at second base. Medics and manager Terry Francona will monitor the amount of warm-ups Jonathan Papelbon makes this year as shoulder problems cropped up from overuse. Papelbon appeared in 59 games in relief last year and his 0.92 ERA gave the Red Sox many winning opportunities.


      Blue Jays: Center fielder Vernon Wells, a future fixture as a commentator on ESPN, starred for Torontoby hitting .303, 32 homers and l06 RBIs last year. Designated hitter Frank Thomas, 39 in May, hit 39 home runs for Oakland in ’06 and joins a Blue Jays lineup boasting Tony Glaus (36 homers) and Lyle Overbay (22 homers). Ray Halladay, who had a terrific l6-5, 3.l9 ERA record last year, heads a pitching staff that will keep the Jays competitive.


      Orioles: Baltimore is just good enough to match last year’s fourth place 70-92 record. Shortstop Miguel Tejada set a team record of 2l4 hits to go with a .330 average and 24 home runs, but no other Oriole is capable of hitting over 20 round-trippers. Pitchers will surrender more runs than the hitters can muster.


      Devil Rays: Tampa Bay had the worst bullpen last year and will have it again – with some new faces – this year. Several good young hitters will watch helplessly as leads will disappear by the ninth inning.


AL Central


      Tigers: Detroit is even stronger this year with Gary Sheffield and should top baseball’s toughest division. Good starting pitchers in the minor leagues can’t find any openings in Detroit, a problem other teams dream of having.

      Indians: Cleveland doesn’t have a big name pitching staff but did revamp the bullpen enough to edge out the White Sox for second place. Newcomer Josh Barfield could star at second base and joins a lineup of good young hitters.


      White Sox: Chicago slipped to 90 wins last season and has to overcome stronger Detroit and Cleveland teams this season. The White Sox also have to worry about an exciting Cubs team taking a bite out of their newspaper space and fan base. The Sox do, however, have enough to contend.


      Twins: Minnesota lost veteran pitchers Brad Radke to retirement and Francisco Liriano (12-3, 2.16 ERA) to injury. The Twins still have great young hitters and a great starter in Johan Santana (l9-6, 2.77 ERA in ’06). But it doesn’t look like they have enough pitching to go to the top of the division.


      Royals: Kansas City would move up several notches in the National League, but the Royals are a last-place club in the AL Central. Third baseman Mark Teahan was hitting .380 for Omaha last year when the Royals brought him up, and batted .290 for KC with l8 homers (.355 in his last 46 games). The Royals have another great third base prospect in Alex Gordon, who hit .325 with 29 home runs for double-A Wichita last year. The Royals should win more than last year’s 62.


AL West


      Angels: Only four teams populate the American League West, and they’re all good enough (or bad enough) to battle it out for first place. The Angels should win it if they stay healthy. Opposing teams hate to see Francisco Rodriguez come out of the bullpen. He struck out 98 batters in 73 innings and posted a low ERA of only 1.73 in ’06.


      Rangers: Texas has one of the strongest lineups in the major leagues and one of the worst pitching staffs. The Rangers will outscore many opponents but won’t win enough games to win the division.


      Athletics: Oakland lost Frank Thomas’s big bat to Toronto, but signed Mike Piazza to fill the designated hitter slot. The A’s will miss Barry Zito, who never missed a start in more than six years. Bay Area fans will have to cross the bridge to San Francisco to see Zito pitch this year while Oakland sinks without him.


      Mariners: Seattle has a much better lineup than Oakland. Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki can be counted on to hit over .300 and first baseman Richie Sexson will hit over 30 home runs and knock in more than a hundred runs. But the Mariners can’t stay afloat for long as the aforementioned teams have better pitching.


World Series


      I’m predicting the Yankees will defeat the Cubs in five games in the 2007 World Series. Readers are invited to send their own predictions to me at [email protected]. Those who correctly pick the six division winners, the two World Series teams and the World Series winner will receive a baseball-related prize. If you don’t have e-mail, send your envelopes to The Jewish Press, Attn: Irwin Cohen, and they’ll be forwarded direct to my dugout. Include name, address, phone number and age.


*     *     *


      It was the tenth yahrzeit of Cal Abrams last month. A Jewish youngster from Brooklyn who made the Dodgers as an outfielder in l949, Abrams was traded in l952 and played for the Reds, Pirates, Orioles and White Sox until l956.


      After playing in the minor leagues, Abrams returned to the New York area, owned cocktail lounges on Long Island, and worked for New York City’s Off-Track Betting until l984. In the late 1980’s I was part of a group of Detroiters who raised money for baseball equipment for Israeli youngsters in what was then a fledgling little league operation.


      One of the members of our group, Dave Dombey (father of Rabbi Moshe Dombey, z”l), met Abrams in Israel and told him about the Israeli baseball program. Abrams went on to give baseball clinics in Israel and Dombey took many photos of the former big leaguer teaching proper baseball techniques with several Jerusalem landmarks in the background.


      It’s possible that some of the youngsters in the photos are now players in the Israel Baseball League. One of the three fields used by the IBL this summer should be renamed Cal Abrams Field.


      Abrams was a couple of days shy of 73 when he died in l997. He was buried wearing his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform – number l8, chai.


      Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul.

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Author, columnist, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed many legends of the game before accepting a front office position with the Detroit Tigers where he became the first orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring (1984).