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Want to win a bobblehead??

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Tim Thompson
March 29, 2012

We're one week away from the first pitch of the 2012 season at Miller Park and the beginning of the Crew's defense of the National League Central Division crown. You can almost smell the legions of grills wafting a hazy cloud of charcoal smoke over the parking lot, see the green grass stretching across the outfield and hear the crack of the bat. Ah, baseball has returned.

To celebrate the new season, and to have a little fun over the next week, I propose a friendly contest among friends. I have an extra John Axford and Randy Wolf bobblehead and Iím offering one up as a Peace & Glove prize to the person whose prediction comes closest to the National League Central standings come October. Post a comment below listing how your guess. The scoring will be as follows:

1st place=12 points

2nd place=10 points

3rd place=8 points

4th place=6 points

5th place=4 points

6th place=2 points

Tiebreaker 1=Guess the number of Brewers wins

Tiebreaker 2=guess the number of Cubs losses

Game on. Let's see who comes closest! Now for my season preview and official picks:

When it comes to my expectations, for both the team and individual players, I am and always have been optimistic. The only time I can remember not being optimistic about something is when they robbed Mr. Sveum of the managerial job after the 2008 season and gave it to Ken Macha instead. I may have resembled Randy Quaid in "Major League II" for part of that season, so I wonít get started on those wasted years.

Iím not one who believes my team is going to the World Series every year, but every year my optimism has me believing that all the right pieces will fall into place and we will be one of the more competitive teams in the division. If you, as a fan, arenít optimistic about your team's upcoming season, you should re-evaluate your team loyalty. For the vast majority of my life that optimism has been met with a Cubs-like reality by the all-star break, but every year hope springs eternal.

When I look at the Central Division, I see two groups: the top three teams and the bottom three teams. Fans of any one of the top three have reason to believe they will be the team on top at the end of the year, while fans of the bottom three have reason to believe their team won't be looking up from the cellar. Baseball is a game of streaks and any team could, in theory, have that miraculous kind of year where everything clicks and find themselves in the playoff hunt. Likewise, any team can implode and find themselves out of the hunt by August. Itís hard to make predictions based on "miraculous" seasons. Did anyone in the country pick Lehigh over Duke?

The three teams I see in the top half of the division are the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals. I do not believe that any one is drastically better or worse than the other two, but they definitely have better odds than the remaining three. What will separate these three teams is the unpredictable things like injuries and MVP, Cy Young, or rookie of the year performances. Barring a hot streak by one team or another, they will probably all be within striking distance when the calendar turns to September.

I know there are those who can look at these teams without bias and use logic and reasoning to determine who has the best chance of winning the division. I do that as well, but my optimism shines through into my logic and reasoning. I do fully expect the site's resident odds-maker and knower of the finer details to explain why he believes each team will finish. I also expect him to have as good of a chance at winning as anyone else. (Iím looking at you, you Kiomohican!) Probably to no one's surprise, my heart and my eternal optimism have me picking the Brewers to repeat as NL Central champs.

Donít get me wrong, Iím not picking the Crew based solely on heart and optimism. I do have logic and reasoning on my side, as do the other teams. However, itís the optimism that has me believing the pieces will fall into place more so than the other two contenders.

We return all five of last year's starting pitchers. Shaun Marcum had a rough postseason and a slow start to this season, missing a good chunk of spring training, but letís not forget he was without a doubt one of the reasons we did what we did last year. The rest of the starters seem to be healthy, and if Greinke doesnít sign an extension before opening day we always have the hope of the impending free-agency "career year" weíve seen many times before. We lost Takashi Saito in the seventh inning, but if the starters and middle relief can hold a lead into the eighth we will be tough to beat, with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford in line for the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. Granted, all must stay healthy, but I like our pitching staff.

On the defensive side we upgraded the left side of the infield with the signings of former Cubbie/Pirate Aramis Ramirez at third base and former Brave Alex Gonzalez at short stop. The only other defensive swap is at first base, where long-time prospect Mat Gamel finally gets his shot. I really donít know if that will be a defensive upgrade or not. Many critics didnít like Prince at first, but I was always optimistic about his performance. Gamel's main defensive problem when he played third was throwing, so hopefully he can field equal to Mr. Fielder. The Brewers added Japanese player Norichi Aoki, but otherwise the outfield remains intact from last year with NL MVP Ryan Braun (itís as sweet as ever), Corey Hart, Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan all back in uniform.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out on the offensive side. As owner Mark Attanasio put it, "We lost a Silver Slugger at first base, but we added one at third base and I donít think enough people are making that parallel." If Aramis can do what he did last year and for most of his career, he should provide adequate protection for reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun (does that sound awesome or what?). And if Mat Gamel can finally meet expectations, there is no reason to think we wonít be the same caliber team as last year. To me, the offense is tough to predict because someone like Carlos Gomez, when healthy, is amazing to watch track down balls in center field, but not necessarily as amazing at taking a pitch.

So thatís part of my logic and reasoning behind putting the Crew at the top of the standings after 162 games. I would love to hear your comments on why my GUESS is accurate or why you have a better guess. If you donít want to share your reasoning, simply put the six teams in the order you think they will finish, guess the Brewersí total wins and the Cubsí total losses, and you will be entered to win a (blank) bobblehead! Even though the guesses are irrelevant until the end of the season, I may post the standings at different times throughout the season. I will contact the winner through Gazettextra.com to notify of the prize. I will give away the bobblehead whether I receive one entry or 100!

Just to avoid any legal stuff, I do want to state that this contest and the prize awarded have no affiliation with the Janesville Gazette or Bliss Communications. Winner must be alive to claim the prize and have an active Gazettextra.com account (so I can contact you). The winner will have the choice of either bobblehead. Entries must be posted by 3:10 p.m. on April 6. In the event of a tie after the two tie breakers, I will draw a random winner from any and all who have tied. Anyone who posts a guess is eligible to win, other than myself!

My picks:

1st place=Milwaukee Brewers

2nd place=St. Louis Cardinals

3rd place=Cincinatti Reds

4th place=Pittsburgh Pirates

5th place=Chicago Cubs

6th place=Houston Astros

Tie-breaker 1=Brewers will win 94 games

Tie breaker 2=Cubs will lose 88 games

I did actually have the Reds picked to finish second until newly signed closer Ryan Madson was lost for the season. That may not be a deal breaker, but it's a rough way to start.

One of my favorite people to follow on Twitter is @WISportsBlog. He is the authority on all things related to Wisconsin sports. He's also about to learn how to be dominated in fantasy baseball. I touched briefly on the Crew's upcoming season, but if you want in depth preview of the entire National League Central you must read @WISportsBlog preview here.

Good luck and go Brewers!



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