What makes it so hard to pick the New York Mets to win the National League East is that it should be so easy.
Which is the rub. When you're expected to win in New York, you're under a magnifying glass and this season the magnifying glass is on, not the Yankees, but the Mets. And how will they react if they open the season with five straight losses? What will they do if Dwight Gooden sprains an ankle?
Will Darryl Strawberry start to sulk? Will management panic?
These are all the things that could go wrong with the Mets in 1986.
What dozens of baseball people expect is this: The best team in the game. Period.
They stockpiled high draft picks because they paid their dues, finishing last or next-to-last seven years in a row from 1977 until 1983. And when they went from 94 losses in 1983 to 90 victories in 1984, they not only had a talented young team, but a farm system that was loaded.
So as the Mets begin what should be an ascent to the National League East championship this summer, fans might also be seeing baseball's next dominant team, and one capable of running their string into the 1990s.
"I see Davey [Johnson, manager] wants us to dominate," Strawberry said last week. He winked a wink that said: No problem, adding, "Okay, we'll dominate."
Other NL East teams are already sick of the Mets, St. Louis pitcher John Tudor grumbling, "They act as if they've already won."
The Mets appear to be the best in a division that is so strong it might have replaced the American League East as baseball's best division, and although the Mets should win, the Cardinals and Cubs are more than capable.
Here then is a brief look at the division the Mets are expected to win: New York Mets: They've won more games the last two years than any other National League team (188), and they are only the second team in history to follow two 90-loss seasons with two 90-victory seasons.
They won 98 times last year despite Strawberry missing 43 games -- they were 20-23 without him and 78-41 with him.
Further, with some brilliant drafting and two brilliant trades -- Ron Darling and Walt Terrell for Lee Mazzilli and Sid Fernandez for Carlos Diaz and Bob Bailor -- they've assembled, over the past few years, the best starting rotation in the game.
They start with 21-year-old Cy Young Award winner Gooden, who went 18 starts without losing in 1985. They follow with Darling, 25, who won 16 games; Fernandez, 23, who allowed a league-low 5.71 hits per nine innings; and Rick Aguilera, 24, whose slider is surpassed only by his control.
Even if reliever Jesse Orosco blows another nine saves, the Mets have 25-year-old Roger McDowell, who may have the game's best sinker and who held opposing batters to a .158 batting average with runners in scoring position.
An offense built around Strawberry, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez should get even better the next couple of years when 23-year-old Stan Jefferson takes over in center field and 24-year-old Kevin Mitchell becomes an everyday third baseman. In short, take the Mets and give the points. Chicago Cubs: Don't forget the Cubs, who went 51-37 in games started by Rick Sutcliffe, Dennis Eckersley, Scott Sanderson and Steve Trout, and might have been as good as the Cardinals and Mets in '85 if injuries hadn't destroyed them.
If those pitchers stay healthy, the Cubs should be in the middle of the race, especially with shortstop Shawon Dunston in the lineup for an entire season. Even if outfielder Keith Moreland is moved in to replace third baseman Ron Cey, they have Jerry Mumphrey to take over Moreland's spot.
Their biggest problem remains middle relief, and that'll be very important if one of the s arters is hurt again. St. Louis Cardinals: The top of their batting order is still the best in the game, and if shortstop Ozzie Smith's shoulder is okay, their defense will be just as good. Catcher Mike Heath fills a big hole, and rookie reliever Todd Worrell will be up for an entire year.
It would also be easy to pick the Cardinals because of Manager Whitey Herzog, who does not make moves carelessly. But as the season begins, Herzog is trying to figure out how to replace not only Joaquin Andujar's 269 2/3 innings, but also many of Danny Cox's 241 (Cox is out about six weeks with a broken ankle).
This is not to say he can't do it, but a lot of things must fall into place. For instance, John Tudor, Tommy Herr and Smith matching last season's career years. Philadelphia Phillies: : After an 18-34 start and a 50-34 finish in 1985, they did not stand still. They picked up shortstop Tom Foley late in the season, then in offseason they acquired outfielder Gary Redus from the Reds for John Denny and outfielder Milt Thompson and pitcher Steve Bedrosian from the Braves for catcher Ozzie Virgil.
What they're left with is a team that is still very dependent on Steve Carlton's ability to bounce back from a 1-8 season and a serious shoulder injury.
They're also left with the makings of an excellent offensive team, with Redus and Thompson at the top of the order and third baseman Mike Schmidt and outfielder Glenn Wilson in the middle. Bedrosian helps the bullpen immeasurably and their bench is excellent. Montreal Expos: With Tim Raines and Andre Dawson in the last year of their contracts and both unhappy about what offers they've received from the Expos, this could be an interesting team. Raines and Dawson would have been the beginnings of a terrific lineup if rookie first baseman Andres Galarraga had had a good spring training (he didn't).
Whether he comes around probably won't matter because after Bryn Smith and reliever Jeff Reardon, the pitching staff has dozens of questions. Pittsburgh Pirates: With George Hendrick, John Candelaria, Al Holland and Bill Madlock gone and with Rick Rhoden, Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp on the trading block, the Pirates are beginning what will be a long, slow rebuilding process.
They're beginning with some kids named Joe Orsulak, Mike Brown, Bob Kipper and R.J. Reynolds and they have two of the game's best players in catcher Tony Pena and second baseman Johnny Ray. Otherwise, forget it.