That's it. Pitching and defense and being able to play small ball when small ball needs to be played. That was the lesson in all of it. So the White Sox win. Everything.
American League Central:
The White Sox set a course for better pitching, better defense and more speed last season. They were right on all three counts. We should not forget that they also hit 200 home runs, so it wasn't as though they were back in the era of the dead ball. But they were on the cutting edge of the new direction in baseball, which is a return to the beautiful basics.
White Sox pitching dominated the 2005 postseason, to the tune of an 11-1 record. Since then, they added Javier Vazquez to the starting rotation. And they strengthened their bench with Rob Mackowiak and Alex Cintron, not to mention adding potential pop in the DH spot with Jim Thome.
They're all set. The only thing you wonder about is how the White Sox will make the transition from being the ultimate underdogs, breaking an 88-year World Series drought, to being the favorites. Those are two dramatically different roles. But the talent and the direction are obviously there.
The Cleveland Indians will contend. They were the Wild Card leaders late in the chase last season, but a final-week collapse did them in. This is still a developing team, but it is, again, sound in the basics, and it has one of the game's best but still under-publicized players in Grady Sizemore. The Indians can't be projected ahead of the White Sox, but they could be the AL Wild Card team.
The Minnesota Twins can pitch with the best of them. Johan Santana is incomparable. Both the rotation and the bullpen are deep enough. The question will be whether the Twins' offseason lineup additions were enough to get them back to the top of the division. In another division, yes, but in one with the White Sox, probably not. Still, the Twins will be contenders.
American League East:
Here's a shocking development. It's close, close, close between the Yankees and the Red Sox, the perennial one-two finishers in this group. And this year, the Blue Jays aren't that far away, either.
The Yankees win because their everyday talent is little short of astounding, even better than last year's edition with the addition of Johnny Damon in center. The Yanks don't have the world's best pitching, but with their run-producing capabilities, it should be enough to triumph, at least until October.
You could pick the Red Sox if you believed that two things would happen: Curt Schilling would hold up the whole way, and their closer would be the Keith Foulke of 2004 rather than 2005. Boston's offense will not be quite as scary as it was in the past, but the Red Sox will follow the general direction of the game with improved infield defense.
The Blue Jays made the AL's biggest offseason splash and the biggest offseason improvements. They will be genuine contenders, but to win the division, they would need a second starter behind Roy Halladay to put up a very big season, and it hasn't happened yet for A.J. Burnett, et al.
American League West:
You can flip a coin between the Angels and the Athletics here. These are admirable clubs, both with the essentials in starting pitching, relief pitching and defense.
What makes the Angels a photo-finish winner here? Their offense is more diverse. They can manufacture runs. There will be times when they won't manufacture quite enough runs, but this has been a find-a-way operation and you can't ignore that.
Whichever club does not win this division should be a prime candidate for the Wild Card berth. The recent trend of the Wild Card winner's position essentially belonging to the AL East runnerup probably will be broken this year. It is difficult to imagine a second-place team better than either Oakland or Los Angeles/Anaheim, unless you imagine, perhaps, Cleveland.
The Texas Rangers? Not a new story. If the pitching picks up, they obviously have the run producers to make a move. With the addition of Kevin Millwood, their chances improved, but probably not enough to make a dent in the California twosome atop this division.
National League Central:
The St. Louis Cardinals were the best regular-season team in baseball the last two years, and they aren't going away. They've suffered some losses (Matt Morris, Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders), but on the flip side, suppose they actually keep Scott Rolen healthy for an entire season. The Cardinals can score big or play small ball. The pitching staff, led by NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, is still more than sound. And the Cardinals typically catch the ball better than almost anybody. Young catcher Yadier Molina is a glowing example of somebody who, as manager Tony La Russa has suggested, is so good defensively that he could go 0-for-the-season and still be a plus.
The gap between the Cards and the rest of the division may be shrinking, though. Milwaukee has improved. Pittsburgh has improved. The Brewers broke a 12-year streak of losing seasons last year and have the talent to take a step forward. The Pirates are still on a losing streak, but are indisputably building a sound base of talent.
The Cubs have a real leadoff hitter in Juan Pierre, and need, as usual, that elusive good health from some of the young pitching notables. The Astros were the Wild Card team for two straight years and were the NL World Series representative last year. If Roger Clemens returns, better late than never, there is no reason that they could not reach the postseason again.
This division should be more balanced, more compressed, more competitive than it has been the last two seasons. But the Cardinals still appear to be not only the best team in this division, but the best team in the entire Senior Circuit.
National League East:
The Mets are the flavor of the month. But the Braves are the division-winners of 14 straight seasons. You get your baseball traditionalist's card pulled for picking against the Braves before this streak runs its course.
The Mets have made undeniable improvements, bringing in Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner and Paul Lo Duca, among others. They now appear to have the personnel to make a postseason appearance plausible.
But when you look at the 162-game season, you look first at the starting rotations. And there, the Braves are deeper than the Mets. Oh, the Braves have some questions in the bullpen? They always fix those. There are plenty of talented arms; it is simply a matter of putting them in the right slots. Bobby Cox has a history of mastering this task, and he will continue to do so, even without Leo Mazzone.
If the Braves didn't lose last year, when they had to play the 18 rookies, when is it that they can be expected to lose? The farm system hums, the kids come up and then they play not like rookies, but like Braves. The faces change, the names change, but the success is never altered.
The Mets can make it close, but they look like prime Wild Card material. This is hardly a bad thing, when you look at the recent postseason history of teams in that role.
The Phillies have more than enough talent to stay in the hunt as well. But when one of the best closers in the game -- Wagner -- goes to a division rival -- the Mets -- it does not bode well for the balance of power tipping in the Philadelphia direction.
National League West:
The winner of this division should win more than 82 games this season. But not a whole bunch more. Parity flourishes here, which is what happens when nobody is really great and the Rockies are getting a little better.
If you simply looked at the rosters with which these teams open the season, you would pick the Dodgers to win the division. General manager Ned Colletti did a masterful job almost overnight of rebuilding a reputable roster. But the Dodgers are littered with health concerns. In the end, with all these health questions, you cannot fairly expect that all of the answers will be pleasant.
So you can pick the Dodgers to be close but not quite. The same goes for the Padres, the defending champions, who once again will be a decent but not imposing club. The addition of Mike Cameron in center is very nice for a club playing its home schedule in a spacious park, but it is difficult to see the Padres taking a major step forward.
The Diamondbacks have amassed some very commendable talent at the regular positions, but they don't appear to have the pitching depth to win the division. The Rockies, as earlier noted, are improving, but they're still a work in progress.
That leaves the Giants to win the division. A lot depends upon Barry Bonds. So this can't be a ringing endorsement, can it? But the addition of Matt Morris should help solidify the starting pitching. If Jason Schmidt comes back to form, and if Noah Lowry keeps improving, this is a rotation in better shape at the top spots than anybody else in the division.
And whatever else you say about the Giants, they have veterans all over the place who know how to win. You can fairly expect Bonds to play some, rest some, and be the center of a fair emount of controversy this season. Bonds' presence in the lineup obviously makes the Giants better, but that won't be the only Barry news this season.
And at the end, in October, the Chicago White Sox defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the 2006 World Series. This matchup -- and the eventual victory of the White Sox -- would be a victory for balanced, intelligent, alert baseball. And like the rest of this stuff -- you know, it could happen.
Mike Bauman is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.