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On waiting until the last minute to make predictions

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Over the last two weeks I've linked to 62 predictions in the Frosty Mug that projected the Brewers' position in the NL Central: the average projection was 3.18, or a little worse than third place. I'm not quite optimistic enough to project the Brewers to win the Central, but I do think they're better than that. Two of the nine voters in this post have the Brewers winning the Central, with an average ranking of 2.3. I think that's a little closer.

Here are my picks:

1. Chicago Cubs (86-76)

They're easily the consensus picks to win the division. The Cubs appeared in first place on 26 of 26 ballots collected by The Hardball Times. For about the 101st consecutive season, they're a trendy pick to win the World Series. I'm willing to call them the odds-on favorite in the Central, but not a prohibitive one, because i think this Cubs team could be a disappointment and a disaster.

Milton Bradley is a great bat when he's healthy, but he's averaged just 80.5 games in the outfield over the last eight seasons, and hasn't played 100 games in the field since 2004. We also have yet to see how his sunny disposition will respond to playing frequent day games in Chicago with Carlos Zambrano, who could be one more Red Bull away from a meltdown at any moment. Rich Harden could win the Cy Young if he makes 30 starts, but a 60 inning season is just as likely.

Make no mistake, I think this team is good, but I'm not confident enough in them to hand them the division. I think they'll be 2009's most disappointing playoff team: They'll perform dramatically below expectations, but somehow stay in the race and win the division in the last week of the season. I also think there's a small chance they could collapse entirely, like the 2008 Tigers.

2. Milwaukee Brewers (85-77)

The Brewers will need a little help from the Cubs to make the playoffs. I've mentioned several times in comments of other posts that I would not be surprised with a finish anywhere between 78 and 88 wins. If the Cubs only win 86, then that leaves the Brewers in playoff contention. They're likely not good enough to win the 90 or so games it will take to win the Wild Card, but I do think they'll be in the division race down the stretch, and I do think they'll have an opportunity to play in October again. I just think they'll finish a little short of it.

3. St. Louis Cardinals (81-81)

Not a bad team, but not a good one, either. Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols give them just enough to stay on the fringe of the division conversation, but there's not enough here to win over the course of 162 games. They'll make a run in September to inch back into the fringe of contention. That finish will make it look like they were closer than they were, just like they did in the last week of the 2008 season.

4. Cincinnati Reds (80-82)

Behold the trendy pick. They've gathered some pitching, gone young on offense and convinced the pundits that they're ready, but they won't hit enough to compete. Certaintly, they'll strike out a lot less without Adam Dunn, but they'll miss his power. This team does have a lot of young pitching but, among active managers, Dusty Baker may be the man least qualified to maximize their abilities and keep them healthy.

5. Houston Astros (72-90)

I'm not sure I understand why, but the fact that this Astros team isn't very good will surprise a fair number of people, including Cecil Cooper, who predicted this team could win 90 games and could be the first manager fired in 2009. Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman could be cornerstones for a lot of franchises, but the Astros don't have enough to follow them: Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz are all opening the season in the rotation. If Oswalt or Berkman miss significant time, this team could flirt with 100 losses.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (65-97)

While the 2-5 teams seem to rotate around a bit in the other predictions, almost everyone seems confident the Pirates will finish in last place, and it's hard to argue with them. Unlike past seasons, they're headed in the right direction and won't be this bad forever, but they're not there yet, and they'll be hard-pressed to compete with the Astros to stay out of the cellar.