We'll wrap it up with the top 10 rosters -- an early "power rankings" as players trickle into Spring Training camp.
Keep in mind that this is not solely based on last year's results (otherwise, this would be a very easy list to compile) or this winter's moves, but rather a look at the broad scope of each roster. Who has the depth, experience and upside to best survive the grind of a 162-game schedule? Who has the managerial might and/or front-office faculty to get the most out of their rosters and make adjustments on the fly?
Chemistry is incalculable, as is that special ingredient that allowed the Giants to climb from the brink of elimination to the top of the pile last October. All we can do right now is assess what we see on paper, so here's my best attempt at such an assessment.
10. Rangers: Yeah, yeah, they fell apart at the end of 2012. And yes, it's been a weird winter in which they got beat out on Zack Greinke, lost Josh Hamilton to a division rival, didn't pull the trigger on Justin Upton, couldn't pry away Giancarlo Stanton and found out their right fielder is being investigated for performance-enhancing drug use. I still see this as a club fully capable of winning 90-plus games because of the strength of its lineup (with potential upside from Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt), the depth of its pitching staff, and perhaps most important, the resources in money and/or prospects to plug holes as the season evolves. The Rangers remain an elite ballclub.
Pressing question: With Hamilton gone and Nelson Cruz possibly facing discipline, how strong is the need for another bat?
9. Cardinals: An extremely well-run organization that doesn't panic in the face of adversity or prominent personnel departures, the Cardinals are girded well against the disappointing news that Chris Carpenter won't pitch this season. They have rotation depth, a bullpen that improved considerably as 2012 evolved and a lineup that would likely hold up well even in the American League.
Pressing question: Surviving Carpenter's absence is one thing. But can Jaime Garcia really stave off doctor-recommended left shoulder surgery and be effective? And either way, should the Cards seriously consider reuniting with Kyle Lohse?
8. Braves: A deep rotation, a behemoth of a bullpen, a lineup loaded with players in their purest of prime years. Definitely a lot to like here. While I still see the Nationals as the stronger overall unit in the National League East, that doesn't preclude the Braves from making their lives difficult this summer. It should be an entertaining race.
Pressing question: Obviously, Chipper Jones is outright irreplaceable, but can Juan Francisco and/or Chris Johnson adequately fill the hole at the hot corner?
7. Angels: There are lots of question marks in the Angels' rotation, which is why I don't have them higher, despite ranking them No. 1 on my lineups and defenses lists. But Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson should keep the Halos steady, albeit not spectacular, in that area, and the bullpen should be at least league average. The big difference-maker, obviously, is their loaded lineup, which has the potential to take them a long way.
Pressing question: We know a lineup featuring Mike Trout, Hamilton and Albert Pujols has the ability to score a ton of runs. But can a rotation that swapped out Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana for Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton adequately prevent them?
6. Blue Jays: Big winter does not always equate to big winner. But what a winter for Toronto. The Blue Jays completely reinvented their rotation, a group that is now loaded with experience, and their lineup has the potential to be as dynamic as any in the game. The AL East is -- finally -- wide open for the Blue Jays, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos has done everything in his power to capitalize on that opportunity.
Pressing question: There are individual questions about each of the new acquisitions, but the overriding question is whether all the disparate pieces will coagulate into a cohesive whole under skipper John Gibbons.
5. Dodgers: Now the pacesetters in player payroll, the Dodgers have made it clear they will leave no stone unturned in their quest for top talent. A $200 million-plus roster is not free of major question marks, though, as the Dodgers are vulnerable on the left side of their infield and are lacking a leadoff man. But they will have a strong rotation, deep bullpen, impressive middle of the order and, oh yeah, the resources to keep adding on. They're going for it in a big way.
Pressing question: Are they really going to leave Hanley Ramirez at shortstop?
4. Giants: All right, Giants fans won't be happy to see their club ranked anywhere other than No. 1 (hey, at least I put them ahead of the Dodgers), but remember, this is a preview, not a recap. The Giants have great leadership and scouting, and they have that special something that has led them to step up in the big moments in plenty of close games and two of the past three Octobers. They could very well do it all again in 2013. But an honest evaluation of their roster does invite scrutiny of the lineup, and it remains to be seen if last fall's workload will catch up to the pitching staff. With all that said, this is obviously an elite club with more than a minimal amount of magic on its side.
Pressing question: What are they going to get from Tim Lincecum?
3. Reds: It is impossible to overstate how impressive the Reds' pitching staff was last season, given the reputation of their home ballpark. And I love the addition of Shin-Soo Choo (I just don't love him in center field), as it gives the Reds the potential to return to the top of the NL in run production. I had the Reds at No. 8 among the best lineups, No. 6 among rotations, No. 7 among bullpens and No. 5 among defenses. A very strong club in all facets, including the bench.
Pressing question: Will Aroldis Chapman's transition to the rotation be a success, and how big of an impact will his absence have on the bullpen?
2. Tigers: The AL champs underachieved for most of 2012 and they were swept out of the World Series. But the depth of their rotation (which I had at No. 2) and the potential of their top five spots in the batting order (with Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez now aboard) is a compelling combo. Defense and bullpen questions aside, Detroit would be an elite club in any division. The fact that it resides in the AL Central makes it all the more capable of flirting with a triple-digit win total. So if you had to bet your life on a team reaching the playoffs (and please don't), the Tigers would be your best choice.
Pressing question: Is Bruce Rondon ready to step into the closer role? And if not, who is?
1. Nationals: Considering I had the Nats listed as the No. 7 lineup, No. 1 rotation, No. 3 bullpen and No. 4 defense, I'd say they've earned this place in my personal rankings. Will they earn it on the field? Well, they did have the best regular-season record in the Major Leagues last year and have improved this winter. Their blend of power, speed, experience and upside and their depth in all the major facets of the game is about as good as one could hope for going into a season. Manager Davey Johnson has said he plans to retire at the end of 2013, and this club gives him a real shot at retiring on top.
Pressing question: Right now, the big question is whether Gio Gonzalez will face any discipline as Major League Baseball investigates the South Florida doping scandal, as that would obviously have a big impact on the rotation.
Honorable mention: You're not likely to find an independent projection that definitively puts the A's ahead of the Angels and Rangers. What does that mean on the field? Absolutely nothing, as 2012 can attest. But if I'm honestly evaluating every team's depth of talent and track record, I have to go with the Angels and Rangers ahead of the A's, much as I do love what Oakland accomplished last year and could do again on the might of its young pitching staff. ... The Rays made my rotations, bullpens and defenses lists but didn't crack the top 10 overall because ... I'm a hypocrite, I guess. I would put the Rays just a bit outside the top 10 until we see what, if any, impact James Shields' absence has on the rotation and what they get out of Wil Myers this season. ... When was the last time we went into Spring Training with the ability to mount a reasonable case that neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox should be included in a list like this? I definitely don't rule out either club winning the AL East, but at this particular point, the questions outweigh the answers. Same goes for the Orioles.
All right, plenty of fodder for discussion (and attacks on my intelligence) here. Have at it in the comments. And play ball.