Cooking up a winning dish for 2012

Counting down the 30 teams to the one that will be left standing at the end

Originally Published: April 3, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Uh-oh. It's that time again. Time for me to put on my swami headgear and play Stark the Great Prognosticator.

Or, if you want to get all technical, the Not So Great Prognosticator.

Either way, if you read on, I promise to tell you who's going to win the 2012 World Series.

Then, you can get right to work sending your sympathy cards and emails to the "lucky" winners immediately thereafter. As anybody who has followed my picks through the years could tell you, clearly, that team is doomed. Doomed.

I've written this exercise in non-clairvoyance for a dozen years now. I wouldn't say I've never been right. (Hey, 2004 Red Sox, you'll leap to my defense, won't you?) But in general, let's just say I'm pretty sure you could round up a herd of wild antelopes, have them make this pick, and they'd have every bit as good a shot at hitting on it as I do.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
James Guillory/US PresswireAlbert Pujols has his eyes on winning the World Series in his first season with the Angels.

Unlike those wild antelopes, I've at least asked everyone I ran into in the last two weeks of spring training what they think. So I guarantee only that while I'm pretty much certain to be wrong, it will be an informed brand of ineptitude, anyway. And that's the best kind … I think.

But what I've learned through the years is that it doesn't matter how much wisdom you attempt to accumulate. As last season reminded us, stuff is about to happen this year that nobody could see coming. Nobody. Not just on April 4, either.

Heck, suppose you'd looked at the standings last Sept. 4 and told everybody around you the St. Louis Cardinals were about to win the World Series? Sheez, the laugh track would have been so raucous, you'd have sworn you were at a Will Ferrell show.

And then, of course, it happened. Of course it did.

So what you're about to read isn't intended to be my application to The Amazing Kreskin School of Infallible Premonitions and Telepathy. It's called …

Fun.

What a concept. And since we're having fun here, there's an excellent chance you're getting hungry out there -- and not just for a bunch of baseball tidbits, either.

So to help us slice down the field this year until we can pick a winner, we're about to deep-fry up a format that any concession-stand devotee could relate to. And by that I clearly mean …

We're going "Top Chef" on you.

So instead of asking these teams why they thought they'd win the World Series, the question I asked them instead this spring was:

If this baseball season were an episode of "Top Chef," what dish would YOUR team be cooking up?

The answers were brilliant -- a veritable feast of culinary genius.

"We'd start off with some stone crabs," said master Rays cookmeister Joe Maddon, "because that's our [Class] A-ball affiliate, the Stone Crabs. … And then the thing we'd really be looking for this year is the chateaubriand. We really have to understand how to cook that properly, where it's nice and pink in the middle, very tender around the edges. And if we could get to where we could prepare ourselves a well-prepared chateaubriand, we've got a very good chance of getting to the promised land. And why chateaubriand? Because it's just a great word."

"We'd definitely go with a jambalaya, Creole-style," Phillies gourmand Jimmy Rollins said, "because we've got a lot of stuff mixed in right now. A little andouille sausage, some chicken, throw in some shrimp, add crawfish and finish it off with lobster. Not real spicy. Just well-seasoned."

"I'm going to say shepherd's pie," said Braves sous-chef David Ross, "because we've got a lot of good ingredients. And if you mix them right, it's going to be really good. What we've got here is not the fancy stuff. Just the meat and potatoes and the beans and carrots. You know what I mean? We don't have a lot of that fancy stuff, like the dessert or the sugars. There's no froufrou around here."

"We'd be making rice and beans, with picadillo," said Marlins basting -- er, hitting -- coach Eduardo Perez, "because it's got a lot of flavor. … And we're going to be grinding it all together in a nice base -- a nice, Ozzie Guillen base."

Wait. An Ozzie Guillen base? Should we be looking for that at Williams-Sonoma or something? What kind of cook is Ozzie Guillen, anyway?

"He's Emeril Lagasse to the fifth," Perez said, "with a little 'bam' added in there. Hey, Emeril's got some zest, just like Ozzie has zest."

But we regret to inform some of our aspiring chefs that, zest or no zest, not everyone will be allowed to hang out in the kitchen this season with Emeril and Ozzie. So it's time to reveal the contestants who didn't make it past the microwave. Sorry, friends:

Stay out of the kitchen

Astros, Orioles, Pirates, Mets, Mariners, A's, Cubs, White Sox, Padres, Royals.

These are the 10 teams the foodies we've surveyed think have pretty much no shot to be cooking in October. Some are building. Some are rebuilding. Some are in flux. Some are just a mess. Regardless, I'm guessing all 10 of them could whip up, say, an edible grilled cheese. And a couple of these clubs could be in a whole different place a year from now. But for the moment, hey, sorry, no soup for you.

Meet me in the land of hope and dreams

Twins, Indians, Dodgers, Rockies.

They're long shots. But it's still tempting to let these four chef-testants slip into a side kitchen and at least stir-fry something or other. So gentlemen, start your woks:

Minnesota Twins

Twins

What's cooking: Joe Mauer (.358, with a .404 OBP) has had an awesome spring -- which upgrades this team's whole ambiance. Ditto Denard Span (.317, with a .400 OBP). Justin Morneau (12-for-his-past-27, with three homers, four doubles and 11 RBIs) has finally looked like himself over the past week and a half. And Francisco Liriano had an encouraging spring (33 K's, 5 BB in 27 IP). But …

Missing ingredients: Jamey Carroll as an everyday shortstop, at age 37? "I love him -- as a utility guy," one scout said. "But not every day." And the rotation is filled with the same question marks the Twins seem to stir up every year. "They've got a bunch of No. 4s and 5s," said the same scout. [Carl] Pavano can be a little better than that when he's going good but not now." And even Liriano's upbeat look under the palm trees is tough to trust, given his history. So thanks for playing.

Cleveland Indians

Indians

What's cooking: A month and a half ago, a couple of AL general managers were warning: Don't count out the Indians. Well, we know what they were thinking, anyway: that Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo were finally going to have That Year. That Grady Sizemore was due to get healthy. That Ubaldo Jimenez would get back into shape and rediscover his start-the-All-Star-Game delivery. And that, between Ubaldo, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and the newly acquired Derek Lowe, there were the makings of a rotation in there someplace. But …

Missing ingredients: Almost everything that could go wrong this spring did go wrong. Sizemore went down again. Santana couldn't get above the Mendoza line. Choo had only six extra-base hits in 69 plate appearances. Ubaldo was still a mess (47 baserunners in 23 innings). The Indians went 7-22 in the Arizona portion of their spring. And they were so desperate for a left fielder, they worked out Vladimir Guerrero and looked into trading for Bobby Abreu. "If you're even talking about getting Bobby Abreu," said one scout, "you're not doing too well. He used to be a great player, but he's not now."

Los Angeles Dodgers

Dodgers

What's cooking: Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten haven't been approved to start waving their magic wand -- or magic checkbook -- yet. So for now, the baseball team will have to hang in there on its own. And the good news is, Andre Ethier had a spectacular spring (.392/.429/.863). Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw look primed to do their award-winning thing again. And watch out for Dee Gordon (.381/.451/.492, with 11 SB). "By far the most exciting player I've seen in spring training," said one scout. "When he tries to steal, they're not even close to catching him. He's the kind of igniter I haven't seen in a while." All of that is swell, but …

Missing ingredients: There's still too big a drop-off from the star-caliber talent to the rest of the roster. Is a team that plans to give regular playing time to Juan Uribe, Juan Rivera, James Loney and A.J. Ellis going to win the World Series? Is there enough quality in this rotation beyond Kershaw? "After Kershaw," said the same scout, "it's all back-end guys." And is there enough depth in the system to make a big deal in July, once the new owners are allowed to pump money back into the baseball operation? Other teams don't see it. But crazy stuff always happens in this division. So it's tough to rule anybody out.

Colorado Rockies

Rockies

What's cooking: Any team with Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez on it is always going to be fun to watch on any given night. Todd Helton and Michael Cuddyer will have their moments. Jamie Moyer, age 49, is one of the best comeback stories of all time. And with Drew Pomeranz waiting in the minors and Jorge De La Rosa due back midseason after Tommy John surgery, their rotation could actually get better as the season goes along. But …

Missing ingredients: Yikes, are there a lot of questions. Can Rafael Betancourt close? Will Dexter Fowler ever turn himself into the impact player his skill set says he could be? What will they get out of Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco at third base? Is Jeremy Guthrie the ace they've portrayed him to be? Can Moyer and Coors Field coexist? "I think they have a chance to be better than people think," said one scout. "But they're too much of a work in progress to think they're going to win the World Series."

The kitchen isn't closed

Nationals, Reds, Brewers.

Now this gets fun. From here on, everyone we discuss has a shot to be still pan-frying away on Halloween. But these are three entries that really need a lot to go right.

Washington Nationals

Nationals

What's cooking: The whole sport is buzzing about this team. The only question is when the Nationals will be a force, not if. "The top three starters [Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez], stuff-wise, are as good a front three as you'll find," said one scout. "And Zimmermann might be the best of the three, even though he's under the radar." Another scout: "They basically traded Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis for Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. You add them to a team that was 29th in strikeouts, and that's a hell of an upgrade." Then there's the livest arm in the NL East, 100 mph reliever Henry Rodriguez. "He's my sleeper to catapult to the next level," said one NL scout. "Holy crap. His stuff is unreal." Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman (.378/.434/.711) looked tremendous this spring. And you might have heard that Bryce Harper is on the way, maybe as soon as May. But …

Missing ingredients: Their MVP last year, Michael Morse, got only nine plate appearances all spring (strained lat muscle). They don't have an everyday center fielder, at least until Harper pulls into town. The closer, Drew Storen, will start the season on the disabled list. Strasburg won't be allowed to throw more than 160 innings, which means he'll get shut down in September, whether they're in first place or fourth. And boy, does this team swing and miss a lot. (The Nats' 1,323 whiffs last year were the ninth-most of all time.) "But I'll say this," said one scout. "They'll be fun to watch. They've got a little swagger going now. I'm anxious to see them play."

Cincinnati Reds

Reds

What's cooking: Once Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Tony La Russa headed down the NL Central exit ramps, the Reds shifted into go-for-it mode, trading for Mat Latos and Sean Marshall, and signing Ryan Madson. (Oops!) At least they now have the next decade to watch Joey Votto work his MVP magic. Brandon Phillips has that walk-year motivation heating up in his oven. And Jay Bruce "looks like he's ready to come into his own," said one NL exec. You should get ready, though, for lots of reminders that this is the last season on Dusty Baker's contract. So this team's agenda is clear: Win or … uh-oh. Well, there's enough talent here to win. But …

Missing ingredients: Hard as I tried, I couldn't find a single scout in Arizona who liked what he saw from the Reds this spring. "A high-strikeout team with no closer," said one. Another said, "Their biggest issue isn't the loss of Madson. It will be lack of innings from their starting pitchers, and how much pressure that puts on their bullpen." But unfortunately, that isn't the only issue. Latos "isn't a No. 1 starter for me," said one scout. They'll run unknown quantities out there at short [Zack Cozart], catcher [Devin Mesoraco] and left field [Chris Heisey]. Scouts continually talked about how sloppily they played all spring. And if they get off to a raw start, Baker's lame-duck status will become a huge topic. So as talented as the Reds may be, "they've taken a step backward," said one scout.

Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers

What's cooking: Zack Greinke was sizzling on the stove top all spring (28 K's, 2 BB, 2 earned runs in 19 1/3 IP). And this is still a potentially dynamic rotation if everyone stays healthy. There don't figure to be as many ground balls hopping through the left side of this infield now that Alex Gonzalez and Aramis Ramirez have moved in at short and third. And don't underestimate the ability of Ron Roenicke, the Joe Maddon of the NL Central, to get the most out of this roster. But …

Missing ingredients: What the heck was up with Ryan Braun this spring (.220/.333/.415)? "He's trying to act like the whole [PED] thing doesn't bother him, but it clearly did," said one AL exec. "I know what people think, but what I see is a guy whose approach is all screwed up. Last year, he was drilling balls to right field all spring. This spring, it's 6-3, 6-3, 6-3." Meanwhile, as you might have heard, Prince Fielder no longer cooks here. And one NL exec wonders about the "dependability" of Ramirez, the guy who will replace Prince as the cleanup hitter. So there's still a lot to like here -- "but they lost Prince Fielder," said the same AL exec. "And that's not going to be good."

As good as advertised?

Braves, Red Sox, Rays. What we have here are three entrants that have been hyped to the max. But do they look as good on the plate as they look in the cookbook? From this judge's table, the unorthodox view is: NONE of these three clubs will make it past the elimination challenge to mix up any October soufflés.

Atlanta Braves

Braves

What's cooking: This is where we remind you the Braves had the fourth-best record in baseball in the first week of September -- and barely changed anything over the winter. So obviously, this is a team still capable of big things. Lots of live arms. Looks now like they could get 30 starts out of Tim Hudson (back surgery). Dan Uggla (.277/.368/.631) had a big spring. Martin Prado (.356/.413/.466) looked healthy. And Freddie Freeman "should win a batting title someday," said one scout. But …

Missing ingredients: When a team bragging about its pitching signs Livan Hernandez, it makes you wonder, right? And what about Jonny Venters' shoulder issues? Were they just "normal spring soreness," as GM Frank Wren described them, or residue from his 85 appearances last year? How ominous is it that Jason Heyward (.227, .272 OBP, only 4 BB in 80 PA this spring) continues to search for his first-half-of-2010 swing? And can they get 135 games out of Chipper Jones -- for only the second time in eight seasons? "Here's the problem with the Braves," said one scout. "They haven't gotten better -- and the other teams in the division have."

Boston Red Sox

Red Sox

What's cooking: This is Bobby Valentine's fried-chicken-free kitchen now. And he'll be putting his inimitable flourish on every dish on this menu. But the fate of this season won't rest on the razzle-dazzle coming out of the manager's office. It will rest on how many quality innings the Red Sox can get from a starting rotation that could match up with anyone in October, if Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are healthy and dealing. But just when it was almost safe to get excited about that group, especially Beckett (19 IP, 7 hits this spring), Beckett's mysterious thumb injury has blood-pressure meters surging all over New England. At least there's still plenty of thump here in a lineup that led the major leagues in runs scored last year. But …

Missing ingredients: Where do we start the list of questions? With Beckett's thumb injury or Andrew Bailey's? With Kevin Youkilis' inability to relocate his stroke (.211 AVG, one extra-base hit all spring)? With concerns about Mike Aviles at short, Daniel Bard in the rotation or the corner-outfield hodgepodge? Or is it just the fact that this team still hasn't emulsified, so it didn't look, feel or smell like the Red Sox teams we've come to know over the past eight years or so? "I don't think this looks like a team that's going to win the World Series," said one scout who watched the Red Sox all spring. "To do that, they'd have to get as lucky this year as they were unlucky last year."

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays

What's cooking: Any team with a rotation this dazzling is eminently capable of winning a division, a postseason series or a Pillsbury Bake-Off. And the Rays are still the best defensive team in the sport. But we also have to recognize them for what they are -- creative, aggressive, imaginatively put together in Joe Maddon's unique managerial Cuisinart, but still offensively challenged. "They'll be the FC Barcelona of baseball," said one exec. "They'll win a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games." Now it may be true that that's how the small-ball game is played in the year 2012. But …

Missing ingredients: There's so much to like about this outfit, I almost feel guilty saying this WON'T be a playoff team. But can a team built around pitching and leatherwork get away with having no true everyday shortstop and a soon-to-be 37-year-old catcher (Jose Molina) who has never started more than 81 games in a season? And the big question, after a spring in which the Rays hit .225/.303/.339 (and scored almost 70 fewer runs than Toronto), is: Can they possibly score enough to play deep into October? "Offense is definitely going to be an issue," said one scout. "And here's another thing: They've had a good-luck charm around their neck for a couple of years now. Is that going to continue?" Hmmm. Good question.

Ready for the big cook-off

Team NL: Diamondbacks, Marlins, Giants, Phillies, Cardinals
Team AL: Blue Jays, Angels, Yankees, Rangers, Tigers

OK, here we go. On to the 10 teams The Great Prognosticator predicts will be left in the kitchen when the big Elimination Challenge arrives in October. We'll now lop them off the platter one at a time until there's only one master chef remaining.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Diamondbacks

What's cooking: The Diamondbacks keep loading up on pitching depth (Trevor Cahill, Takashi Saito, Craig Breslow). So disregard the pesky little detail that they had the worst ERA (5.57) of any NL team this spring. You can never go wrong stockpiling arms. They also added Jason Kubel to an offense that scored 161 more runs than the Giants last year. And you don't have to worry about these guys getting too comfortable after winning the NL West. There's a better chance of Emeril serving Big Macs for dinner tonight than there is of Kirk Gibson letting this group relax. But …

Missing ingredients: Are we sure this is a championship lineup, especially with the prognosis for Stephen Drew (ankle) so murky? "I don't know," said one AL exec. "You're looking at an infield with Ryan Roberts, Geoff Blum, Willie Bloomquist, Aaron Hill and a rookie [Paul Goldschmidt] at first base." And as deep as the Diamondbacks' pitching figures to be, we're now asking the ultimate question: Is this a win-the-World Series kind of staff? And that answer, said our judges, is no. As one longtime scout put it, "Other than Ian Kennedy, I just don't see their other starters being good enough to win 11 games in the playoffs."

Miami Marlins

Marlins

What's cooking: There might not be a parade here this year. But we promise you'll be able to hear the buzz around Ozzie's Stone Crab from 1,000 miles away. "The energy is unbelievable," said one scout after a visit to Marlins camp. "The clubhouse is like the Copacabana." These guys also will now be playing in a ballpark occupied by actual customers, with a roof overhead and a newfangled invention called air conditioning. And don't underestimate the team inside. No lineup has speed at the top to rival the Fish (Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio), followed by five straight thumpers (Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez, John Buck) who could combine for 120 homers. So a lot of good things are happening here. But …

Missing ingredients: If it all works, this will be the most flavorful entrée in any town. But this is where you have to ask stuff like: Is Reyes really going to make it through the entire marathon healthy? Is Carlos Zambrano going to be throwing 96 miles per hour, with a smile on his face, from start to finish? Are Morrison and Stanton good to go after a spring when they didn't play a whole lot? And above all, said one scout who covered the Marlins this spring, "it all comes down to Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez. They're the two most important players to their team in the NL East. If Josh Johnson makes 30 starts and Hanley's as good as he looked this spring, they'll win the East. And if those two guys get hurt or have bad years, they'll finish fourth."

San Francisco Giants

Giants

What's cooking: Like a familiar steakhouse that knows what it's good at, the Giants never mess with their favorite recipes. So guess what? They'll pitch. Again. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain will do what they do. And at age 22, Madison Bumgarner looks as if he knows, as one exec put it, that "this is his time" to reach that next level. Meanwhile, in a non-pitching development that means just about everything, Buster Posey is back (after hitting .306/.381/.472 in Arizona). So considering the Giants won 86 games last year with no offense and no Posey, who's to say this team can't win the World Series again if it finds a way to play in it? "You're always going to like their pitching matchup, even in October," said one scout. "I mean, whose No. 2 starter is going to be better than Matt Cain? Then, if Posey or [Pablo] Sandoval hit one out, the way they pitch, that could be enough." But …

Missing ingredients: This is still the most offensively deficient contender in baseball. The Giants just finished scoring fewer runs (570) than any defending World Series champ had ever scored over a full season. And outside of the return of Posey, the biggest offensive "upgrade" was Melky Cabrera. "For me," said one NL scout, "he'd be the guy least likely to duplicate last year." Now add Ryan Vogelsong's back issues and Barry Zito's horrendous spring (32 hits in 19 1/3 IP), and this is a tough team to trust, no matter how much you love the top of this rotation.

Philadelphia Phillies

Phillies

What's cooking: Just wanted to remind everyone hurtling themselves off this bandwagon that this team did win 102 games last year. And it HAS finished first five years in a row while winning more games each season than it won the year before -- the first team in history to do that, by the way. And last we looked, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels were still launching baseballs 60 feet, 6 inches. "I still think this will be a club to be reckoned with," said one scout who covered the Phillies this spring. "I think [Hunter] Pence will have a monster year. And if [Jimmy] Rollins and [Shane] Victorino have good offensive years, they'll be really hard to beat." But …

Missing ingredients: The last time the Phillies played in a World Series, in 2009, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were worth a combined 13 wins above replacement that year. Now, if you have any idea what they'll be giving this team this year, your crystal ball is working better than the manager's or the general manager's. So unless they both make semi-miraculous recoveries, the Phillies can't help but be endangered in what's now a killer division. "Their offense was getting old BEFORE this," said one scout. "And now it's even worse. So as good as their pitching is, to ask them to sustain it and carry it is a lot to ask. And the other thing to remember is, they don't have the resources to deal for what they need. Every year, 50 things are going to happen that you don't expect. So give me a team with the resources to adjust. And this team isn't one of those teams."

Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays

What's cooking: It's easy to look at their 23-7 spring record and think it's just another spring training aberration. But that's not what other teams see. They talk about the Blue Jays' energy and newfound swagger. They talk about all the home runs this team might hit and how aggressively it runs the bases. They talk about the much-improved bullpen and the emerging star that Brett Lawrie looks poised to become. "They run athletes out there," said one scout. "They run arms out there. They've got great depth in their system. And they've got a good look about them. They could easily go by the Red Sox. That wouldn't shock me one bit." But …

Missing ingredients: I'm already on record saying I think the Blue Jays can make the playoffs. But is this a team that's ready to win a World Series right now? Ummmm. … The Blue Jays are building something formidable here, but their ETA was never supposed to be 2012. Maybe Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will take the big leap to become legit, consistent dominators. Maybe they'll figure out a way to scrape up enough rotation depth to survive the season. Maybe Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson will be steadier up the middle than they once were in Atlanta. Maybe. But don't bet your favorite Joe Carter memorabilia on it. "They're definitely going in the right direction," said one AL exec. "But they're not there yet."

Los Angeles Angels

Angels

What's cooking: Albert Pujols works here now. C.J. Wilson works here now. So this just in: The Angels are one of the five best teams in baseball. They can outpitch you. They can outrun you. They can outwork you. And if Kendrys Morales stays as healthy as he appeared this spring, they can now outhit you, too. "If he's right, that's a pretty mean lineup," said one scout who covered them in spring training. "Remember, the one year when Morales played a whole year [2009], he had a Pujols-type year. So if he's right, that's two premier hitters in the middle of that lineup, surrounded by a bunch of pretty dangerous hitters." But …

Missing ingredients: This is the point where we have to remind ourselves that the Angels still owe $63 million to Vernon Wells over the next three years, so it would be helpful if he'd hit better than .218/.248/.412. And that they never did find a closer more reliable than the guy who led the league in blown saves last year (Jordan Walden). And that they haven't been able to dig up a taker for the disgruntled Bobby Abreu yet. And that the third baseman, Mark Trumbo, had never played a professional game at third base before this year. But this still has a chance to be one of the great Angels teams ever. "I'll tell you this," said one scout. "The best race this year in any division will be Texas and the Angels."

New York Yankees

Yankees

What's cooking: Only the Yankees can have their most important acquisition of the winter (Michael Pineda) go down and barely miss him. This is a deep, deep team, with stars everywhere you look and holes practically nowhere you look. If a slow spring by the new part-time DH/left fielder (Raul Ibanez) and a trampoline accident by a guy who was already hurt (Joba Chamberlain) are the biggest crises the New York Post can dredge up, you know this juggernaut is loaded. "This team should be great," said one scout, "unless everybody goes down."

Missing ingredients: Is there anything really "missing" on this team? Whew, you'd have to work hard to find it. Maybe a classic situational left-hander or a backup something-or-other. But there really are only two scenarios where this team's season goes wrong. One is a bullpen mess, triggered by, say, a Mariano Rivera health issue that would push David Robertson to the ninth inning and/or force this team to depend on the enigmatic Rafael Soriano. The other is -- what else? -- too many old guys. Of the 10 position players who figure to play a lot, half will play at 32 or older. And the closer is now 42. "Where age shows up, I think, is finding the ability to gut it out when the dog days hit," said one scout. "So have they got enough depth in the bank if the stars hit the wall? I can't say for sure that they do."

Texas Rangers

Rangers

What's cooking: They've played in two straight World Series. And would it shock anyone if the Rangers became the first team not known as "The Yankees" to play in three straight since Tony La Russa's 1988-90 A's? Just listen to a rival AL GM talk about this team: "Most talented team in the league. It's tough to see many weak spots. They get production at just about every position. They have good pitching options and depth. They have some elite talent, and after that they have pretty good players at every spot on the roster. They're a tough team to pick against." So far be it for me to pick against these guys. But …

Missing ingredients: There's a reason teams don't go back to the World Series over and over and over in this crazy era. Stuff always happens. In the Rangers' case, maybe Josh Hamilton will have yet another year when he can't keep himself on the field. Or Joe Nathan won't be able to will his way through the ninth. But the big issue is this: Which starter on this team would you bet on to outpitch a Justin Verlander, a CC Sabathia or a Roy Halladay in October? "The Angels can throw whoever at you, and they've got a chance," said one scout. "The Yankees have CC. The definition of a No. 1 is, if a guy like CC pitches like he can, he's GOING to win. But with the Rangers, who's that guy? Maybe it'll be [Yu] Darvish. But he's not an ace in the big leagues yet. If he becomes that guy, then great. But that's a lot of weight to put on him."

St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals

What's cooking: Somebody from the National League has to play in the World Series. Those are the rules. So even though I think it's possible the seven best teams in baseball all play in the American League, I'd like to welcome the Cardinals to our grand-finale cook-a-thon, even though this year they won't get to bring along Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa or Dave Duncan. They've amazed everyone this spring with how they've passed three batons that important and still played with the same style, the same aura, the same assurance they've always had with Pujols and La Russa. "They just keep chugging right along," said one scout. "They've had a great spring. Guys like [Matt] Holliday, [Lance] Berkman and [Yadier] Molina have thrown themselves into that leadership gap Albert had. And David Freese looks like he's ready to take the next step. You wouldn't think they could win again under the circumstances. But nothing the Cardinals do would surprise me after what they did last year." Yeah. Me, too. But …

Missing ingredients: What's missing here? Well, the former manager, for one. And how Mike Matheny reacts to the losing streaks and the down times is a great unknown -- especially when you stack him up against his predecessor, a guy who'd been there, done that and dealt with everything that could possibly come along. And just as importantly, Chris Carpenter (nerve condition) is missing, too. And that's trouble. Maybe they have enough depth to survive. Maybe Carpenter won't be out more than a few weeks. But when you ask yourself whether the Cardinals would have won the World Series, or even gotten out of the division series, without Carpenter last October, you know the answer. "Not many teams could survive losing a Chris Carpenter," said the same scout. "But we said the same thing about [Adam] Wainwright last year. So now they lose Carpenter. And the guy replacing him -- Mr. Wainwright -- is pretty damned good." But is he good enough -- and are they good enough -- to be our 2012 Top Chef? 'Fraid not.

So the winner is … the Tigers

The Top Chef doesn't serve footlongs and fries, you know. The Top Chef doesn't do nachos or chicken wings. No, to be the Top Chef on this show, you need to shoot high. And that's the first thing that has struck everyone about the Detroit Tigers this spring, once Prince Fielder stomped into their lives. They have big plans for themselves.

Detroit Tigers

So what dishes would they be preparing if this season were an episode of "Top Chef"? Let's just say they'll know how to make your mouths water.

"I'd say we'd probably start out with some caviar," said The Ace, Justin Verlander, "because it's the best. Then we'd go with a perfectly cooked filet and lobster, which would be Miggy [Cabrera] and Prince. They have to be the filet and lobster, because they go together and they're both really good.

"And then I'd be the dessert -- something chocolate because I eat unhealthy. I don't usually eat dark chocolate, but I'm sure I could whip up something. So let's go with a molten lava cake … [pause] … [laugh] … because it's hot."

Hot, huh? That would also be an excellent word to describe the Tigers this spring. They went 20-8. They scored more runs than any team in Florida. They had a nine-homer game. They held their opposition to three runs or fewer in 17 of their 20 wins. And above all, they just had The Look -- the look of a team that knows what it's here for.

"Why else would you put on a uniform, if not to win a World Series?" Verlander pronounced. "That's kind of my thought process. There's only one first place. And it seems like this whole team has bought into that."

You would think you could trace back that transformation to the shocking signing of Fielder two months ago. But not really. In fact, Verlander said, this was a dish the Tigers tossed in their oven long before that.

It started, he said, on the plane ride back from Texas, after what should have been a disappointing loss in the ALCS. Instead, Verlander said, the ride home "wasn't really like anything I've ever experienced."

It was actually a "lighthearted" journey, by men who knew they were dealing with so many key injuries in October, they weren't meant to win. So they stood in the aisles talking for an entire flight. They already had The Next Mission on their minds.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJustin Verlander says the Tigers have "a pretty good chance to do something special" in 2012.

"We were already looking forward to this year," said the MVP. "I can remember vividly everybody talking about this year, the next year."

Well, now THAT year is here. And the Tigers look like a team ready to devour everything in their path.

One reason to pick them to win it all is the pedestrian division they play in. There may be a lot that's still unknown about this season. But "the one thing I know right now," said one GM this spring, "is that the Tigers are GOING to win the AL Central."

OK, so nothing in sports is guaranteed. But no club in baseball is a safer bet to still be wearing its chef hats in October than this team. So that increases the odds of this prediction being correct right there. Don't you think?

But beyond that, this is a team with three potential MVPs -- Verlander, Fielder and Cabrera. And one of the best bullpens in baseball. And a four-deep top of the rotation that includes two young rising stars (Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello) who looked this spring as though they'd taken the next step toward pitching maturity. And one of the best managers alive, Jim Leyland. ("He'd be the chef from Hell's Kitchen," Verlander quipped.)

Yeah, I know the question everyone is asking, the same question one AL exec posed just the other day: "How many balls are going to get through that infield?"

But I also know Cabrera has worked his buttocks off to be respectable at third base, and one scout said he's been "mildly shocked" by some of the instinctive plays Cabrera has made and by the fact that "he's a lot better than I thought he'd be."

The shortstop next to him, Jhonny Peralta, is no Ozzie Smith, either. But "one thing I'll say about the guy," said one AL exec, "is that everything he gets to is an out."

So maybe they can cover up those glove issues with all the stuff they do better than just about anybody. Or maybe they can send Verlander to the mound enough in October that he can do what Carpenter did for the 2011 Cardinals -- start five of the 11 postseason games they won.

Or maybe this prediction will turn out like most of my other brilliant prognostications through the years -- and go up in flames in the next 15 minutes.

But one thing I learned from hanging around the Tigers' kitchen this spring was this: There isn't another master chef on the planet they're afraid to cook against.

"If everybody just goes the way they go and does their part," said Verlander, "I think this team has got a pretty good chance to do something special."

And you don't need to be Bobby Flay -- or even Bobby Higginson -- to know he just might be right.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com