OAKLAND, Calif. - If the American League East could be decided like the Iowa caucus instead of on the field, there is little doubt who would win.
The chattering class has been heard from, and far and wide, on newsprint and in cyberspace, on TV and inside magazines, from veteran hacks and new-age number-crunchers, cheerleading homers and jaded New Yorkers, the Red Sox are huge favorites to repeat as division champions.
On ESPN.com, for example, 14 of 18 "experts" pick the Sox to win the division, Peter Gammons predicts Manny Ramírez will win the MVP, and Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager, selected David Ortiz as his MVP. "Baseball Tonight" regular Tim Kurkjian has the Sox beating the Mets in the World Series, while Sean McAdam, who writes for the website in addition to his duties covering the team for the Providence Journal, likes the Sox over the Diamondbacks in October.
"Life has been awfully good for Boston fans," proclaims Foxsports.com, "and it doesn't figure to change much in 2008 . . . For a baseball-mad city, life doesn't get much better than this."
The three baseball columnists at YahooSports are unanimous in choosing the Sox to win the division.
The Sox, who split two games with the Athletics in Tokyo last week, resume regular-season play tonight in Oakland, after a three-game exhibition set against the Dodgers over the weekend in Los Angeles.
But they are clearly the flavor of the month in the American League.
Six of the eight baseball staffers at the New York Daily News pick the Sox. At the Chicago Tribune, it's five of seven, with national baseball columnist Phil Rogers and longtime observer Fred Mitchell saying they'll go all the way. In Detroit, where the Tigers jumped to favorite's status with the acquisitions of Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria, Free Press columnist Mitch Albom picks the Sox over the Mets in the Series, while his esteemed colleague John Lowe goes with the Sox over the Atlanta Braves.
New York Post columnist Joel Sherman ranks the Sox as the best team in baseball. "Their starting point is that they have the best ace/closer (Josh Beckett/Jonathan Papelbon) and 3-4 hitter (David Ortiz/Manny Ramírez) combos, which is quite a way to start," Sherman writes. "Plus they have the confidence/toughness that comes from winning it all."
At the rival New York Daily News, six of eight prognosticators pick the Sox to win the division.
The respected statistical analysts, such as the folks at Baseball Prospectus, rank the Red Sox No. 1. They have the Sox finishing 96-66, showing a slight drop in runs scored from 2007 and a slight increase in runs allowed. The Sox scored 867 runs in 2007 and allowed 657, a staggering differential of plus-210; Baseball Prospectus forecasts 847 runs scored, 701 runs allowed.
"The decline in offense is predicated on bounces from J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo not offsetting slips by David Ortiz - who was amazing last year - Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell," writes Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. "Even with all that, this is the best team in baseball."
The unsentimental crowd at Hardball Times, another bellwether of statistical analysis, showed similar enthusiasm for the Sox, with 17 of 19 experts picking them to win the division.
There were a few cautionary notes out there. Bill Madden, longtime national baseball columnist for the New York Daily News, is among those who have fallen under the spell of the Toronto Blue Jays. On the other side of the ocean, former Yankees outfielder Roy White, now an analyst for Sankei Sports Daily in Japan, also picks the Blue Jays.
"The Red Sox may have a bit of a hangover," warns Jon Heyman at SI.com. "Both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett could have come to camp in better shape (Who do they think they are, Curt Schilling?). Yet it's still hard to pick against them."
Heyman, who has an acrimonious relationship with Schilling and is virtually alone in making an issue of Beckett's and Matsuzaka's conditioning, likes the Indians to win the American League pennant.
Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated's award-winning writer, picks the Sox to finish second in the division, behind the Yankees. But Verducci pegs the Sox qualifying for the October tournament as the wild-card entry.
"Boston seems more prone to a fallback," Verducci writes, "if only because recent world champions seem to be handed a tax bill the following season - and if it hits Josh Beckett, look out."
For years, of course, the Sox have been dogged by forecasts of collapsing in the end, a consequence of the "Curse of the Bambino" mentality.
But being heavy favorites has its own drawbacks. Sox CEO Larry Lucchino admits to being uncomfortable with the notion.
"The absolute hardest thing in sports is not to win," he wrote in an e-mail yesterday, "it is to repeat. But, our goals have always included multiple World Series championships. So, we march on."
Gordon Edes can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.