Of all the preseason prognosticating we do, the toughest task is picking the American League East. It's like an organic chemistry weeder class: If you make it through, everything else seems easier.
Once you settle on an AL East winner, you probably know your pick to take the pennant. And unless you really like the Phillies, your World Series victor should be the same team.
That's the AL East in the 2000s. A team from the division has reached the World Series in nine of the last 12 seasons.
By October, it will be 10-for-13.
The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are simply too good. They rank among the top five teams overall.
Maybe the top four.
Maybe the top three.
Even in the most offensive of divisions, pitching and defense matter. And that's why the Red Sox will celebrate on Oct. 3 ... at Fenway Park ... after a win over the Yankees in Game 162.
But that is probably the minority opinion. Of the 15 scouts and executives I polled on Thursday, all but two picked the Yankees to win the AL East.
I have two main reasons for picking the Red Sox: improved starting pitching, with the addition of John Lackey; and better athleticism among the everyday players, which translates to improved defense and baserunning.
Clay Buchholz is a huge key to the season, particularly if he's able to outperform his Yankees counterpart, right-hander Phil Hughes. I think he will.
For all the concern over Boston's offense, this is almost the same lineup that ranked third in the majors last year in runs scored. While no one can deny the impact of Jason Bay's departure, the Red Sox will have Victor Martinez for a full season and should get increased production at shortstop.
And the Red Sox won't have to deal with a slumping designated hitter for the first two months, either. If David Ortiz, in the final year of his contract, has another funk like he did last year, the team can simply find someone else to do the job.
In fact, the Red Sox have plenty of money, and plenty of prospects, to procure in-season replacements at various stations around the diamond. Their financial resources give them a big advantage on the Rays -- but not the Yankees.
2. NEW YORK
I picked the Red Sox to finish ahead of the Yankees at the start of spring training. But I'll be honest: I've been very tempted to change.
When the Yankees are coming off a World Series victory, you're supposed to take them to win the division the next year.
"Would be stupid not to," one scout told me. "Tremendous talent and excess dollars to fill some holes down the road."
Another scout reminded me that the Yankees probably have the best offense in baseball. And they do. Last year's 915 runs, the most in the majors, tell you that.
So what gives?
It's simple, really: They will miss Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, and I wonder if this is the season when the wear-and-tear on their aging core results in one injury too many.
But the Yankees are going to have another great team. They should make the playoffs again. But the Red Sox' pitching staff will allow them to stay close through the summer, and their younger legs will make the difference in the end.
3. TAMPA BAY
How can I put this team in third place?
No matter what, a worthy club from this division will miss the postseason. The Rays are the likeliest candidate to meet that sad fate.
Money is one major reason. If the Red Sox or Yankees sustain a major injury, they can buy an expensive replacement during the season. The Rays can't -- at least on the same level. Their tighter payroll is absolutely a factor, despite the creativity of general manager Andrew Friedman.
Case in point: With the versatile J.P. Howell on the disabled list, the Rays will be shorthanded in the bullpen to start the season.
The Rays will count on some young players this season, but that's fine, because they are good young players, like right-hander Wade Davis and infielder Sean Rodriguez. Carl Crawford, an All-Star in his prime, is beginning what is probably his final season in Tampa Bay.
The team's biggest question might involve one of its most experienced players: Pat Burrell. He's hitting .174 this spring and hasn't offered much hope.
It might be hard to tell by the Orioles' record -- they were, after all, 15-39 against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays last year -- but this is a team on the rise.
You probably know about Matt Wieters, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound, slugging, switch-hitting stud catcher. He turns 24 in May. By then, he should be well on his way to a standout first full season in the majors.
After posting the worst ERA in the majors last year, the pitching staff should be noticeably better. Kevin Millwood was acquired to be the veteran No. 1 starter. Young pitchers Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and David Hernandez are one year older.
Will it be enough for the Orioles to have their first winning season since 1997?
Nope. But wait 'till next year.
The Blue Jays are rebuilding, which isn't easy.
Check that: They are rebuilding in the AL East, which can look downright ugly in the early stages.
This will probably be a difficult year on the shores of Lake Ontario. Roy Halladay is gone. Shaun Marcum is the Opening Day starter. And while Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are capable of having good seasons in the rotation, most of the Jays' best pitching prospects aren't ready yet.
Aaron Hill might be the best player in baseball that almost no one talks about. He hit 36 home runs and drove in 108 RBIs as a second baseman last year. But this isn't a good team to play for if you want notoriety.
The best thing to happen for Toronto this year would be a productive showing for Vernon Wells. Forget about trade value -- with his mega-contract, he has virtually none -- but the team would be delighted to see that Wells can still be a valuable contributor after last year's disappointment (.260, 15 homers, 66 RBIs).