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For the last five or six seasons I’ve taken my own informal look at the state of baseball before the first pitch is thrown on opening day. This year I have to conclude that baseball is actually healthier than it’s been in years. Now there are those of you who’ll wonder just what criteria I base that on, so here goes. My criteria is very simple, I assess just how many teams are realistically eliminated from the playoff hunt before opening day. Those are the teams who’ll usually deal with very low attendance, lack of fan interest and just won’t be all that interesting to watch. For the record, the worst season in the last 5 years featured 16 teams who were realistically non contenders, even for a Wild Card slot on opening day.
I tend to divide the teams into four categories based upon my opinion of the likelihood of them making the playoffs. Those categories are Likely, Some Chance, Longshots, and the Eliminated. This year the field is pretty wide open. Let’s start in the National League where either due to competitive balance, or competitive mediocrity only a handful of teams can be excluded from contention. So without further ado:

NL West – This is one heck of a competitive division – but fortune looks like it will be wearing Dodger Blue this season.
Likely: Dodgers (Adding a real ace pitcher in Jason Schmidt puts them over the top)
Some Chance: Padres (No real improvements but still a pretty good team), Diamondbacks (Bringing back Randy Johnson certainly won’t hurt them and makes their pitching a lot more formidable than it was last season).
Longshots: Giants (Adding Barry Zito was a lateral move since they lost Jason Schmidt, but Barry is another year older and they failed to address the loss of Moises Alou’s bat)
Eliminated: Rockies (yet again).

NL Central – The Cardinals are kings here by default in a division that is essentially up for grabs
Likely: Cardinals (the World Champion Cards won the division with a dreadful record in 2006 but they didn’t need to be better)
Some Chance: Brewers (Adding Jeff Suppan and Claudo Vargas bolsters their pitching considerably), Astros (Losing Pettitte hurts, but their offense should be better – they’ll need to sign Clemens), Cubs (They spent the money and have the potential in pitching, but it’s still potential)
Longshots: None.
Eliminated: Reds (Could use Pete Rose in the lineup were he reinstated), Pirates (the ship has sunk and the team is treading water).

NL East – The Mets so ran away with this division last year and its hard to really see the enhanced Phillies, or the rebuilding Braves or Marlins making a realistic jump to knock them off.
Likely: Mets (Scary offense, pitching believe it or not might be better than last year but still shaky)
Some Chance: Phillies (adding Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton is a huge boost to the rotation, but Eaton is a big question mark, and they will miss Bobby Abreu in the lineup).
Longshots: Braves (A lot riding on the back of a very young core but much potential), Marlins (Still growing up, but they may be developing the best pitching in the game).
Eliminated: Nationals (New owners will bring changes, but it’s going to take time).

With the National League under our belt it’s time to look at the ultra competitive American League with its weak Western division, ultra competitive Central, and the extremely expensive Eastern race.

AL West – an up for grabs division that isn’t exactly frightening.
Likely: Angels (Better offense, good pitching)
Some Chance: A’s (Losing their best pitcher and their best offensive player and replacing them with lesser guys isn’t likely to help), Rangers (So much potential on paper but the Rangers rarely make it translate).
Longshots: None.
Eliminated: Mariners (Just too many questions)

AL Central – The oh so competitive Central is another division which could be a real toss up, but no one here is going to win by default, to win here you’ll have to be good.
Likely: White Sox (Perhaps the best balanced team in the division).
Some Chance: Twins (Losing Liriano to injury for the season hurts the rotation which was their cornerstone), Tigers (Pitching is still very suspect).
Longshots: Indians (Everyone else save the Royals have better pitching)
Eliminated: Royals (Not ready for prime time)

AL East – it would be hard not to predict that the AL East will finish in exactly the same order, yet again.
Likely: Yankees (Bringing a proven Andy Pettitte back sure won’t hurt them)
Some Chance: Red Sox (what the heck does Daisuke Matsuzaka bring to the table?)
Longshots: Blue Jays (So many dollars spent for so much potential)
Eliminated: Orioles (still no pitching), Devil Rays (still no hope)

Summary: by my count that means there are only 8 teams who on opening day who are all but eliminated before the first pitch is thrown. That’s the fewest amount of absolute non-contenders in the years I’ve been doing this assessment. That may make this a banner year for baseball with good stories, good games and good races. I can hardly wait.