Right around this time last spring, some of us could see that the Rays and Braves were going to be way better than most people thought. Sometimes, smart people can see around corners. This kind of gift, you either have it or you don't.
So here we are again. You know the drill. While you're picking the Red Sox and Yankees and Dodgers -- boy, that's some gutsy prognostication -- I've got my carefully trained eye on others.
Here we go, once more with feeling: Five teams that are going to be better than you think:
1. White Sox
You look at the White Sox this spring and see the Cubs, Astros, Royals and Braves from recent seasons. Like those teams, Chicago has so many elite prospects that winning feels inevitable, and in the American League Central, that can happen fast. So even if the White Sox don't sign Bryce Harper after missing out on Manny Machado, they're on the verge of a turnaround. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez is the best of the young prospects on the cusp of the Major Leagues, but outfielder Luis Robert, right-hander Dylan Cease, infielder Nick Madrigal and others have a chance to help the club win in 2019. Also, Yoan Moncada could be in line for a breakout season. If Harper does sign, so much the better. He would draw off enough attention that the youngsters would be able to develop in a somewhat normal environment. Speaking of environment, White Sox manager Rick Renteria might be the most underrated manager in the game.
One more postseason run. One more dip into October baseball. Isn't that the only way for Bruce Bochy to end a Hall of Fame managing career? (He announced last week that 2019 will be his 25th and final season as a Major League manager.) Bochy's team would be easier to believe in if it added Harper, and that's the biggest problem with assessing this team. In focusing on what the Giants don't have, it's easy to miss what they do: an infield and rotation that could both be excellent, especially if third baseman Evan Longoria and right-hander Jeff Samardzija are healthy and productive, which could happen. Now about that outfield. At the moment, Bochy's final Opening Day lineup card could have two 25-year-olds (Chris Shaw and Steven Duggar) and 26-year-old Austin Slater. Slater and Shaw put up solid numbers at Triple-A last season and have earned their chances. Duggar has shown flashes. In short, who knows? After years of playing older outfielders, San Francisco is going in a different direction, and that may determine how competitive it will be.
Don't discount the impact rookie manager Chris Woodward is going to have helping general manager Jon Daniels usher the Rangers into baseball's information age. He's enthusiastic, innovative and could end up being baseball's next outstanding skipper. Now about that starting rotation. No one is going to pick Texas until it is able to replenish pitching depth in the organization. For 2019, Daniels (for the second straight season) is hoping for some comebacks. If Edinson Volquez, Drew Smyly and Shelby Miller still have productive innings in them, they could line up nicely behind Mike Minor and Lance Lynn while buying development time for 23-year-old right-hander Ariel Jurado and others.
Let's say up front that we really don't know how good the D-backs are going to be in the wake of an offseason in which star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was traded and lefty Patrick Corbin and center fielder A.J. Pollock left via free agency. But there's still lots of talent here and a smart front office with a sensible plan to contend. OK, stay with me on this one. Let's say Ketel Marte has a smooth transition to center field, right fielder Steven Souza Jr. and first baseman Jake Lamb stay healthy, catcher Carson Kelly is as good as the Cardinals projected him to be and righty Merrill Kelly, fresh off a three-year stint in Korea, grabs the rotation's fifth spot. If even some of those things happen, Arizona can compete in the National League West given the quality of a rotation front three of Zack Greinke, Zack Godley and Robbie Ray.
The Pirates are in a hellishly tough division with the Cubs and Brewers having won 95 and 96 games in 2018, respectively, and the Cardinals and Reds getting significantly better this offseason. Here's why it's OK to believe in Pittsburgh: Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Jordan Lyles. That rotation could be excellent, the kind that can keep a team in games as it finds its offensive identity. If outfielders Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Lonnie Chisenhall stay healthy, that would allow the corner infielders -- Josh Bell at first and Colin Moran at third -- to develop without the pressure of carrying the load. The Bucs hope their top two prospects -- right-hander Mitch Keller and third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes -- impact the Major League team in 2019.