Possibly the silliest phrase in Major League Baseball at the moment is "World Series favorite." To predict which clubs will survive the 162-game grind to win their division at a time of great competitive parity in the sport is difficult enough. To project which club will be hot enough, lucky enough and deep enough to survive and thrive in October is all but impossible.
So, please, don't take what follows as a prediction, by any stretch of the imagination. This is merely an early power rankings for a league in which the power has, arguably, never been distributed more evenly. I can count on one hand the number of teams I legitimately don't think have a shot at the playoffs in 2015, and I don't think I'd even have to use that whole hand.
So "Top 10" is, in this instance, an arbitrary cutoff point, and it is bound to flabbergast more than a few of you.
This is an early stab at the top 10 overall.
Let me just say from the start -- and this is coming from a guy firmly on the Royals' bandwagon a year ago at this time -- that while I wouldn't feel right leaving the defending AL champs off my top 10, I'm a bit worried about their bid to repeat. There will be a different sort of pressure placed upon this club in 2015, so one wonders if it'll be able to maintain that loose and carefree feel that fueled their eight straight postseason victories last fall.
More to the point, their run production is very reliant on comeback candidates Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios, who endured major power outages last year and will be playing their home games in a big ballpark, and Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who have to prove they can extrapolate their postseason showing over the course of a full season. Furthermore, their James Shields-less rotation is very reliant on the health of Danny Duffy, who battled shoulder issues late last season, and Yordano Ventura, whose small frame saw a rise in innings workload of over 37 percent in each of the last two seasons. We also know, too well, how quickly a bullpen strength can morph into a weakness as wear and tear accumulates.
So that's why I don't have these guys higher, Royals fan. Fire away. But with all that said, the speed and defense, the bullpen track record and the organizational standard for solid pitching are all major assets in a deep and daunting American League Central. So we'll see.
Robinson Cano's arrival last year legitimized the M's as a viable ballclub, and Felix Hernandez is on the short list of greatest arms to never throw a postseason pitch. Is this the year the M's, who fell so tantalizingly close last year, get over the October hump? I'll say this: They've got as good a shot as any club in the AL.
Color me skeptical about Nelson Cruz's ability to post another 40-homer season when he's playing his home games at Safeco Field, but he does balance the middle of the M's order between Cano and Kyle Seager, and the new Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano platoon should also help. Most important, the Mariners have arguably the best rotation in the AL, with huge upside potential in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. They've also got a bullpen that stranded runners at a historic rate in 2014 and should remain a strength.
Why don't I have the M's higher? Because you've got to prove it. The front office, for one, has to prove it can make the impact in-season acquisitions when the inevitable needs arise (last year, Austin Jackson, Chris Denorfia and Morales didn't move the needle offensively), and all these on-paper offseason advancements have to bear tangible fruit. But it's hard not to love where the Mariners are headed.
8. Red Sox
So many questions here, entering camp. Do they need an ace (i.e. Cole Hamels), or is a ground-ball-leaning staff with a few bounce-back candidates in Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson enough to eat up innings and hand it over to what could be a solid bullpen? How will the still-crowded outfield alignment sort itself out? Can Hanley Ramirez play left field? And if not, will the defensive struggles affect his bat? Are Xander Bogaerts, Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts going to be impact players? What does Dustin Pedroia have left in the tank?
How the heck should I know? I just know that there is enough discernible depth here to make the worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first concept realistic, at the very least. The AL East seems totally wide open. And while the Red Sox might have to get creative in trades both before and after Opening Day to claim it, I like their chances of doing so.
It was a weird winter in Baltimore, to say the least. Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller have all departed, yet the payroll has gone up and the O's, in the minds of many, haven't really done anything to build off last year's momentum.
Maybe, for that reason, they don't belong in this top 10. Maybe I should be swept up enough in the bigger winters in Boston and Toronto, in particular, and have them above the O's. I don't dismiss those arguments at all.
What I do know is that the returns of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and the mere possibility of returns to prominence in power for J.J. Hardy and consistency for Chris Davis are enough to make me think the lineup will still be a selling point, the pitching staff should again be short on starpower but long on stability (particularly if Kevin Gausman and/or Dylan Bundy break out), the defense should be second to none and the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette tandem (however much longer it lasts) deserves the benefit of the doubt.
PECOTA and ZiPS both have the O's as a sub-.500 team. I'd be more worried about that if they didn't have the same projection for them a year ago, when they wound up winning 96 games.
San Francisco is seventh in wins over the last five seasons yet first in World Series titles. That's all that matters, and that's all that should matter. Some people will view this relatively low ranking for the defending champs as a slap in the face, another reason for the Giants to prove people wrong, blah, blah, blah.
Look, this isn't about disrespect. This is just an honest evaluation of how hard it is to repeat in this game. It hasn't happened since the Yankees' 1998-2000 repeat, and that was a much different time in baseball. The Giants, with their every-other-year championship trend, know well the hangover effect that can come with a World Series run. And with Madison Bumgarner, in particular, having accumulated 270 innings of work last year, they could face that issue yet again. This is all on top of replacing Pablo Sandoval and Mike Morse's power potential in the middle of the order.
But there's still, obviously, a lot to like about the Giants. Matt Cain and Angel Pagan are coming back. Joe Panik is settled in at second. The rotation options run deep, the managerial machinations are unmatched and the championship culture is well-established. Ultimately, the Giants were an 88-win team in the regular season last year, so there's room for regular-season improvement.
The Howie Kendrick trade leads me to believe they need a strong (not gargantuan, by any means, but strong) season out of Josh Hamilton and so far, no good on that front, with Hamilton doubtful for Opening Day after shoulder surgery. The Halos could have a lot riding on new acquisition Matt Joyce and the booming young bat of C.J. Cron, with the usual expectation of excellence out of Mike Trout and the hope that Albert Pujols can approximate his 2014 totals.
The real reason the Angels won the AL West by 10 games last year was because they reinvented themselves -- in some cases, on the fly -- from a pitching standpoint, with a big breakout season from Garrett Richards, a surprise showing from Matt Shoemaker and a bullpen rebuilt as the year went along. That bullpen, now with 100 percent less Kevin Jepsen, needs to be stable, and Richards' recovery from knee surgery needs to be seamless.
But the Angels should still have the pieces to contend in an AL West in which the Mariners are knocking on the door, the rebuilt A's remain a threat and the Rangers and Astros do not profile as the 90-loss pushovers they were a year ago. Much like the Tigers, they could finish first, they could finish fourth. None of us is smart enough to know.
The clock is ticking on the Tigers' vaunted core, and that core was no doubt depleted by Max Scherzer's free-agent departure. There are big questions here -- about Justin Verlander's ability to reinvent himself, about Miguel Cabrera coming off major ankle surgery and Victor Martinez coming off knee surgery, about a bullpen that was a Detroit disaster zone last season and especially last fall. On top of all that, there are three clubs (the Indians, White Sox and the defending AL champion Royals) who profile as serious candidates to overtake the Tigers in their bid to win a fifth straight Central crown. You could tell me the Tigers will finish first, and you can tell me the Tigers will finish fourth. I'd believe you either way.
But with a nod to precedence and prominence, I'm ranking the Tigers ahead of those three teams for the regular-season outlook until they prove otherwise. Shane Greene is a big X-factor for this rotation, Yoenis Cespedes, in a contract year, means a lot to this lineup (particularly if Cabrera and V-Mart are slowed early in the season) and Joakim Soria and Bruce Rondon could make or break the bullpen.
The Tigers had to spend an absurd amount of money to build this star-laden club, and they've had to expend a tremendous amount of creativity to keep its window open. This, like every year in Motown, is a "World Series or bust" season.
Playing in possibly the deepest division in baseball -- now that the Cubs are relevant -- hurts the Cards' ranking ever so slightly, as does the possible vulnerability of the rotation (Adam Wainwright has averaged 244 1/3 innings per season since his 2012 return from Tommy John and had minor elbow surgery over the offseason, while Michael Wacha dealt with shoulder issues last summer) and the obvious need for improvement from a lineup that averaged just 3.8 runs per game last year. The emotional and fundamental impact of Oscar Taveras' untimely death is another challenge.
With that said, this rotation, if healthy, once again profiles as one of baseball's best, and Jason Heyward should shore up the top end of the order considerably. The Cards' farm system isn't loaded with as many impact talents as it was a couple years ago (primarily because several of those guys have graduated to the big leagues), but there are still quality trade chips at play here for John Mozeliak to work his midseason magic.
Until further notice, the Cards are still the favorites in arguably baseball's best division. And if recent history is any indication whatsoever, you can probably pencil them in for the National League Championship Series, too.
The nerd numbers (and by that I mean the PECOTA projections) really, really, really love this Dodgers team. The system picks them to win 97 games, by far the most in baseball.
I don't think it's going to be quite that easy, particularly given how much the Padres have improved the outlook of the NL West. But while I don't know if the win total itself will improve on last year's 94 mark, I do think the Dodgers project to be a better ballclub than they were last year. They'll be dramatically better defensively, they'll have better options in the back end of their rotation (albeit with some major injury question marks), they'll have a lineup with a nice blend of youth and veteran presence and their bullpen, which killed them last October, shouldn't be the bloated albatross it once was.
The other, undeniable factor here is that the Dodgers have the resources in both prospects and finances to improve in-season, with a proven roster architect in Andrew Friedman manning the switches.
This seems to happen every year. Those of us who analyze and/or yammer on about baseball for a living or a hobby fall in love with the Nats' roster because it has depth and balance and very few, if any, obvious holes. In two out of the last three years, we were right, as the Nats posted the best record in the NL. But this club has yet to prove it can win in October, as many of you (and I'm looking at you, Cardinals fan) will eagerly point out.
I get that. But again, this isn't about October. This is about being properly positioned to get there. As was the case with the 2011 Phillies (who, for the record, stand as the most recent Major League club to win 100 games), the Nats have a rotation worth writing home about, with Scherzer locking arms with Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez (and Tanner Roark providing luxurious depth in that department). They've got a good defensive alignment (though we'll see how Yunel Escobar handles the shift to second), they've got a deep lineup (especially by NL standards), they've got real growth potential if Bryce Harper stays healthy, they've got depth in both established and young arms to make a midseason move, should a need arise. Oh, they also play in a division that features not one but two rebuilding teams, which shouldn't hurt their win percentage.
What does all this guarantee the Nats? Absolutely nothing. But they're in good shape entering camp.
Honorable mentions (just missed the top 10):
Pirates. Deep and flexible lineup, sturdy rotation with huge upside in Gerrit Cole and excellent bullpen and defense.
Blue Jays. Very good chance Toronto breaks baseball's longest playoff drought and wins the AL East. Dynamic lineup.
Indians. Deeper than they get credit for, and manager input still matters.
White Sox. Revamped lineup and lengthened rotation make them a legit threat to win the Central.
A's. No telling what Billy Beane's retooling leads to in the win-loss column, but still a deep roster.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.