PREDICTION COLUMN: And hold your laughter until the end

(Prediction Column)

By Hal McCoy

Baseball season officially began last week when the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres played a two-game series in Korea.

They split the series so it can be safely predicted that both the Dodgers and Padres will at least lose one game and win one game.

The rest of the MLB world begins play Thursday and predicting how the long, long season will play out is like the Ringo Starr song, “You know it don’t come easy.”

Predictions are precarious. There are injuries, there are trades, there are slumps, there are unexpected rising stars. Lining them up in expected order of fiinish is Pyrite, the high-falutin’ name for fool’s gold.

And only fool’s try to do it. So here is this fool’s yearly attempt to play Guess How They’ll Finish.

Because the Cincinnati Reds are a mere 50 miles down I-75 and so many fans in the readership area live and cry with the Reds, the predictions start with the National League Central.

With the way Reds played at the end of last season and the way so many young players played the part of rising stars — Matt McLain, Elly De La Cruz, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Spencer Steer, Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbott and others — expectations are higher than the light standards in Great American Ball Park.

Injuries, though, already have hit McLain, T.J. Friedl and others, plus the 80-game suspension of highly-touted Noelvi Marte due to PED usage.

Those are example why the prediction racket is difficult. It happens to every team. Spring training barely commenced before the New York Yankees lost Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge. Injuries strike like summer heat lightning.

Nevertheless, a deep-dive into a cloudy crystal ball reveals some feathers, indicating the St. Louis Cardinals are going from last to first in the NL Central.

The Birds have improved their pitching and winning usually begins and ends with pitching. They’ve added three starting pitchers, former Reds right-hander Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson.

And they still have first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the best all-around third baseman in baseball.

The Chicago Cubs finished second to the Milwaukee Brewers last year, one game ahead of the Reds. This time they’ll finish second to St. Louis, again ahead of the third place Reds.

Even though they lost pitcher Marcus Stroman, they have 16-game winner Justin Steele and they wisely re-signed free agent Cody Bellinger, coming off a career year to show the way offensively and to be a steady hand among mostly young, talented players.

And they lured Craig Counsell, one of baseball’s more cerebral and likeble managers away from Milwaukee.

The Reds, the youngest and potentially the most exciting team, are just that. Young and potential.

While the front office addressed and overdressed the infield, it failed to obtain much-needed outfield help and pitcher Frankie Montas is not the veteran help the pitching staff could use.

But De La Cruz alone should be worth at least half the price of an expensive MLB ticket.

The Brewers lost pitcher Corbin Burnes and Counsell and did little in the off-season to defend their division championship. Pittsburgh? The Pirates continue their 25-year rebuilding plan.

NATIONA LEAGUE CENTRAL: St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinntati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh.

The toughest division in all of ball probably is the National Leaague East. Defending champion Atlanta (102 wins), Philadelphia and the New York Mets all have first-place talent. That’s why Atlanta will not repeat. And the Phillies, who beat the Braves in the playoffs, will finish third.

Atlanta has the offense, led by Ronald Acuna Jr., but could use the days of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery for its pitching staff. The Braves do have 20-game winner Spencer Strider and acquired Chris Sale.

Even though the Mets strangely fired manager Buck Showalter, the franchise filled in a lot of gaps in the off-season to an already multi-talented group like Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor. The Mets will be baseball’s surprise/shocker this season.

Miami is young and improving and Washington is still in the league with a patriotic well-lit view of the Capitol Building far beyond National Park’s left field stands.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST: New York, Atlanta, Philadephia, Miami, Washington.

The popular pick in the Natonal League West, every year because of its multi-biillions in spendable cash, is the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not here, even though the inhabitants of Chavez Ravine have Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Shohei Ohtani. One wonders if the recently surfaced Ohtani gambling story might be a season-long distraction.

Arizona was the stunner last year, coming through the playoffs as a wild card team to the World Series. The Diamondbacks have young stars Corbin Carroll and Gabe Moreno, plus solid pitching in Zac Galllen, Merrill Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez. A solid team. No wild card path this year. A solid NL West title

San Diego has Manny Machado and a nice ball park. The Padres lost Juan Soto, Blake Snell, Josh Hader, Nick Martinez (to the Reds), Seth Lugo, Drew Pomeranz and Trent Grisham.

San Francisco made some quality moves and Colorado is still in the league with a panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains beyond the Coors Field center field wall.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST: Arizona, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado.

The weakest and worst division is the American League East, which means even the Cleveland Guardians are in the hunt, with Minnesota a contender, followed by Detroit, Kansas City and Chicago is still in the league and has a depresssing view of the burned-out Cabrini-Gtreen slums.

The American League East has five teams that could win the East, Central or West. Baltimore is the up-and-coming team, followed by New York, Toronto (with or without Joey Votto), Tampa Bay and Boston is still in the league and is worth seeing balls bounce off the Green Monster, mostly against Red Sox pitchers.

The American League West has defending World Series champion Texas, but the Rangers will finish second behind Houston, followed by Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles is still in the league and is in sight of Disneyland. But Mike Trout won’t be standing in front of a camera saying, “I’m going to Disneyland.”

WORLD SERIES: Atlanta (via wild card) beats Houston, four games to two.

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