Rarely have injuries played such a key role in predicting the outcome of pennant races as has been the case during the winter right through spring training. Collectors and fans should be weary that a team that looked great on paper a couple of weeks ago could slide down in worth by the loss of a key player or two.

Just look at the facts: Atlanta was again the odds on favorite to win more than 100 games and make its annual threat to get to the World Series. Then slugger Andres Gallaraga is shelved for the year battling cancer and their top reliever, Kerry Ligtenberg, goes down with an arm injury that threatens to put him away for a couple of months.

The Cubs looked like gangbusters after last year's wild card berth with one of the most exciting pitchers to come along in years, Kerry Wood. Oops. He has elbow problems, will miss at least 18 months and may never regain his previous form. Matt Morris, the Cardinals' projected ace, faces similar surgery at age 24, three years Wood's senior, and that leaves St. Louis hurting. Never mind they both have Sosa and McGwire, unless either can pitch 200 innings, both clubs will be left behind come playoff time.

There are other notable injuries: Cincinnati's Danny Neagle, Houston's Moises Alou, Baltimore's Delino DeShields and usually half of the Mets' pitchers. But one thing remains constant: the New York Yankees seem healthy and ready to waltz to the World Series again.

I picked all six division winners right last year and had the Yankees winning the world's championship. While it would be nice to gloat about such expertise it was really a no-brainer. The Yankees are so deep that even without having career years from guys like Chuck Knoblauch, Chili Davis or Andy Pettite, they still won 125 games through the playoffs and World Series.

Okay for you skeptics who believe Yankee memorabilia has already lost its luster, consider this: say the Yankees do get hit by the injury bug, Roger Clemens gets arm trouble and some of their regulars go into prolonged slumps. Even if they win 20 fewer games, a dramatic drop off of more than 20 percent, they would still win 94 regular season games. That would be good enough to get into the playoffs and possibly allow them to repeat as AL East champs.

A different story evolves around playoff time. Even if a club dominates during the regular season, a short series can turn things around (just ask the Braves through the 90s) and an upset could occur. The bet is here the Yankees won't be as good as last year, they won't need to be, but they will win it all again.

There could be some interesting pennant races, something generally lacking a year ago when most division winners had the titles and playoff reservations set by around Labor Day. The AL and NL West are up for grabs and should be very competitive; the injury riddled NL Central could end up in a six-way tie and the Braves' woes have given hope to the Mets and Phillies.

So get your cards out, folks, here is the way it will end up the first week of October.

NL East

  1. Atlanta. So Braves have injuries, is anyone's top three pitchers better than Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.
  2. Mets. Piazza could be MVP, Mets could overtake Braves if New York pitching holds up.
  3. Philadelphia. Curt Schilling will be traded if Phils fall out of race but they may have enough staying power to stick around awhile.
  4. Florida. Smart trades for young players you never heard of have Marlins on right track.
  5. Montreal. Expos waiting to pack their bags for northern Virginia or North Carolina.

NL Central

  1. Houston. Astros were still winning before they got Alou or landed Randy Johnson
  2. Cincinnati. Reds will be surprise team of NL this year
  3. Cubs. Wood is toast, Sosa won't hit 66 again but they do have good starting pitching.
  4. Pittsburgh. Two years ago young club was in contention, could surprise again.
  5. St. Louis. McGwire. After that, annual run of injuries and no starting pitching.
  6. Milwaukee. Waiting till new stadium opens, best brats in majors.

NL West

  1. Los Angeles. Rupert Murdoch used money from Homer Simpson to land Kevin Brown.
  2. Colorado. Jim Leyland is worth 10 more games in the standings.
  3. Arizona. Great pitching, no hitting. If they can land a hitter via trade, they can reach playoffs.
  4. San Francisco. One game away from playoffs last year, now in most competitive division in baseball.
  5. San Diego. Team should run highlights from 1998 season, will be okay but not strong enough to win in this division.

AL East

  1. Yankees. Win it for Joe Torre, they will miss David Wells but not enough to miss playoffs.
  2. Toronto. If Wells is mentally ready, Jays could be most improved team in division.
  3. Baltimore. Albert Belle will lead league in homers and no comments to media.
  4. Boston. No Mo, possibly no Nomar, no chance for title.
  5. Tampa Bay. Improving Devil Rays still bringing up rear.

AL Central

  1. Cleveland. Alomars together, if starting pitching holds up could challenge Yankees in fall.
  2. Detroit. Monster hitting lineup, lots of high scoring games.
  3. White Sox. Big stars are gone but good nucleus of young talent.
  4. Kansas City. Royals hit of spring, too bad games don't count in regular season.
  5. Minnesota. Hard to believe Twins actually won the World Series in the 90s.

AL West

  1. California. Disney ride for Angels will be playoff berth, Mo will lead the way.
  2. Texas. Rangers have league's best player in Juan Gonzalez but lack starting depth.
  3. Seattle. Griffey and Rodriguez and still no bullpen. Replay of 98.
  4. Oakland. Team loaded with good young players, may be a year away from reaching playoffs.

Playoffs

  1. NL Braves over Astros, Dodgers over Mets (wild card) .
  2. AL Yankees over Rangers (wild card), Indians over Angels.
  3. LCS

    1. NL Dodgers over Braves.
    2. AL Yankees over Indians.
    3. World Series
      Yankees over Dodgers