Play Ball!

Mar 30, 2010 7:02 AM

It’s ‘batter up’ for the Boys of Summer

Astronomically speaking, spring sprung just over a week ago. But more practically speaking, the most pleasant season of the year will be ushered in this coming Sunday just past 5 p.m. Pacific time when some guy dressed in blue takes off his mask while standing in the hallowed grounds of Fenway Park in Boston and hollers "Play Ball!"

Yes, the start of the 2010 major league baseball season is upon us and as 30 teams scatter from Florida and Arizona to stadiums across the country, hopes begin anew that this is the season a fan’s favorite team will make the Playoffs.

Of course only 8 teams will play beyond the 162 games that run from April through early September, a schedule double that of the NBA and NHL.

Beginning with next week’s column, selections will be offered for several weekend series. Baseball is unique among sports in how it is handicapped as while most of the day-to-day lineup remains the same, a team’s starting pitcher will greatly influence that day’s line. And unlike basketball and football where pointspreads are the great equalizer, in baseball the money line is the principal language spoken at the betting windows.

Although there are run line options, first five inning options and Over/Under wagers that can be made, the standard baseball wager simply requires you to pick the straight up winner of the game on the field. When teams of pretty much equal ability meet, the line will be close to pick ’em where you might have to lay 110 on either side to win 100. But more often than not one of the teams will be considered to be much better than its opponent and thus you may be required to lay 200 to win 100 to back that favorite or may be willing to risk 100 to win 180 if you think the lesser of the two teams, the underdog, will win straight up.

But to get things underway for the 2010 season let’s take a look at which teams from each league have the best chances to be playing throughout much of next October in the Playoffs with the goal of winning the World Series.

The defending World Series champion New York Yankees are favored to win their twenty eighth championship this fall. The Yanks arguably improved their roster during the offseason most notably by adding a quality starting pitcher, Javier Vazquez, to give the Yanks one of the deepest rotations in baseball. However note that this is Vazquez’ second stint with the Yankees and he did not fare especially well in his first term in the Bronx. The pressure will not be as great this time and if Vazquez delivers anything comparable to his efforts last season in Atlanta the Yankees will be tough to beat.

One caveat to consider before rushing to the windows to make a futures play on the Yankees (at less than juicy odds of 3 to 1 or less) is that this is an aging team with many of their core players well into the downside of their careers. This makes not just a decline in performance a concern but also the threat of injury is increased.

As has been the case for much of the past decade, Boston will present the biggest challenge to New York. The Red Sox will again have plenty of offense and they also have a solid starting pitching rotation after adding John Lackey in the offseason. And, like the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon is one of the game’s premier closers.

Should either Boston or the Yankees falter Tampa Bay is well situated to make a run at the Playoffs. After falling back from their spectacular 2008 season, the Rays have a nice blend of veterans and youth and should have a record that would make them Division winners in the Central or West but perhaps that may not be good enough in the Eastern Division.

Rounding out the AL East expect Baltimore to be much improved, especially with some fine young pitching, while Toronto should continue to decline.

The AL Central should be a three team race between Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota. The Twins were hit hard this spring as premier closer Joe Nathan will miss the entire season which will make it tough for the Twins to repeat as Division champs. It will be interesting to watch how their new outdoor stadium will impact their offense, especially in the early part of the season when weather can be a concern. Detroit has one of the game’s top up and coming pitchers as Justin Verlander finally had a breakthrough season in 2009 to establish himself as an elite hurler. Chicago should have a healthy Jake Peavy for the entire season and if Peavy can pitch anything like he did in San Diego the White Sox might have enough to overtake the Twins and Tigers.

Expect Kansas City to be improved and for Cleveland to struggle.

The AL West figures to be very competitive all season as the class of the Division the past few seasons, the L.A. Angels of Anaheim, have been weakened via offseason moves while both Texas and Seattle appear to been significantly strengthened. Seattle’s acquisition of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins were major additions to the starting rotation and the lineup. Although Lee is expected to start the season on the DL, along with Felix Hernandez the Mariners have the best one-two starting pitching tandem in baseball.

Texas should continue to show improvement with their pitching while Oakland is still a season or two away from being legitimate contenders but their youth has plenty of potential.

In the National League East the Philadelphia Phillies remain the class of the Division if not the entire league. The two time NL champs effectively traded Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay and given Halladay’s success in the American League the Philly fans have to be excited about the kind of results he’ll have in the supposedly "inferior" circuit. Lefty Cole Hamels should rebound from a subpar 2009 in which he never fully recovered from injuries that bothered him early in the season. If Hamels can approach his 2008 form the Phillies could win the Division in a rout.

Atlanta and Florida figure to be the main challengers to the Phillies although the Mets can’t possibly suffer the same huge number of injuries they endured last season can they? If they can get a full season from ace starter Johan Santana and if David Wright can rebound from his power outage of last season the Mets might contend. Having a healthy Jose Reyes would add to that likelihood but even with a healthy roster the Mets have too many holes and weaknesses as their season total Over/Under wins projection has them as just a .500 team.

Washington has some young players that could have the Nationals a surprise team early in the season with the highly anticipated debut of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg likely to be the highlight of their season.

St. Louis is considered the team to beat in the NL Central but don’t be surprised if the Cubs offer a season long challenge to the Cardinals. The Cubs have a deep starting rotation and a nicely balanced offense. Most importantly they don’t seem to have much in the way of expectations after disappointing fans and backers the past few years. That makes them dangerous.

Milwaukee may also be poised to make a run at St. Louis with a strong offense and a pitching staff that was strengthened this winter with the signing of Randy Wolf who had another solid year last season with the Dodgers.

Milwaukee may also be poised to make a run at St. Louis with a strong offense and a pitching staff that was strengthened this winter with the signing of Randy Wolf who had another solid year last season with the Dodgers.

There is likely to be a sizeable gap to the bottom half of the Division with Houston the best of the remaining three teams. Starters Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez give the Astros their best chances to win on a regular basis. Cincinnati still has to prove that they are poised to improve as the Reds have been stuck between 72 and 80 wins over the past five seasons. Pittsburgh continues to be a developer and provider of talent to the rest of major league baseball as they had their seventeenth straight losing season in 2009. At 69.5 wins the Pirates have the lowest expectations in all of baseball and if they were to manage to win 70 games it would represent an 8 game improvement over last season.

Will this be the season in which L.A. Dodger manager finally misses making the post season for the first time since 1994? After skippering the Yankees to the Playoffs for a dozen straight seasons Torre switched coasts and managed the Dodgers to the NL West title in 2008 and 2009. But the Dodgers will be challenged to repeat this season quite probably due to off the field distractions created by a messy divorce involving Dodgers ownership that likely diverts attention and resources from making mid season roster moves. Colorado is held in high regard by many baseball experts as the Rockies seek to repeat or improve upon their Wild Card status of last season. But don’t be surprised if the San Francisco Giants emerge as contenders with a solid starting pitching trio of two time Cy Young Award winner Tim Linceum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. Their chances are even more improved if Barry Zito can continue to regain his Oakland form as he started to do last season. Arizona and San Diego will vie for fourth place although if some of the young arms on Arizona develop the Diamondbacks could flirt with a .500 season after winning just 70 games in 2009.

As to the forecast it’s hard not to like the New York Yankees with their talented roster and seemingly unlimited resources to make moves during the season to address needs that arise through performance or injury. The Yankees are the choice to win the AL East with Boston on their heels most of the season and doing enough to earn the Wild Card. In the three team AL Central race look for Minnesota to repeat last season’s Division title. They have the deepest starting rotation and lineup and should be able to adequately find a replacement for the loss of Nathan to close games. The Twins have been the most consistent team in the Division over the past five seasons. And in the AL West until proven otherwise the Angels are the call to repeat although Seattle will contend for much of the season. Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia remains at the top of his profession at managing both players and personalities and at making the right moves at the right time. He’ll find a way to address the team’s off-season losses.

In the National League the Divisional winners are forecast to be Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Francisco with the Chicago Cubs earning the Wild Card.

In the Playoffs look for the Yankees and St Louis Cardinals to emerge with League pennants and to square off in the World Series. And although there are many reasons to prefer the Yankees to repeat as World Champions, St. Louis is more than qualified and capable of defeating the Yankees in a best of seven series. And at odds in the neighborhood of 10 to 1 or so, St. Louis makes for an attractive futures play.

Of course the inevitable injury factor can turn contenders into pretenders over the course of a couple of months but all things being relatively equal the forecast of Cardinals over Yankees stands as the prediction for the 2010 season.

And now, let’s play ball!

neighborhood of 10 to 1 or so St Louis makes for an attractive futures play.

Of course the inevitable injury factor can turn contenders into pretenders over the course of a couple of months but all things being relatively equal the forecast of Cardinals over Yankees stands as the prediction for the 2010 season.

And now, let’s play ball!