OPENING DAY!

Apr 3, 2007 6:47 AM

Play Ball!

Those two words mark the de facto arrival of spring as another baseball season begins. Thirty teams start a grueling six month trek towards the World Series with renewed hope, revamped rosters and a myriad of reasons why will be the next year that their fans have waited for since last fall.

Before exploring some wagering possibilities for this coming weekend, here’s a broad look at how the 2007 season may unfold. We’ll go division by division, with a forecast of which teams are most likely to make the playoffs and ultimately win the World Series.

NL EAST

The New York Mets are again the team to beat, even with ace Pedro Martinez sidelined until perhaps mid season. The Mets won 97 games in 2006, winning the division by a dozen games and ending Atlanta’s 14-season grip on division titles. The Mets have perhaps the most potent offense in the league. Although their starting rotation is weaker than a season ago, there is a nice blend of youth and experience. There is also top closer Billy Wagner, which suggests the Mets will repeat as division champs. It’s unlikely, however, that their margin will be by double digits.

Expect both Philadelphia and Atlanta to contend for the Wild Card, but trail the Mets by a half dozen or so games at season’s end. Florida is unlikely to repeat its phenomenal turnaround that followed last season’s 11-31 start and resulted in Wild Card contention deep into September. The Marlins should still outdistance Washington, perhaps the worst team in all of baseball and the most likely candidate to loss over 100 games.

NL CENTRAL

St. Louis won the division on the final day of the season, but still managed just 83 wins. The Cards then got hot and won the World Series. Their starting rotation has been reworked due to off-season losses (Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan) and an injury to Mark Mulder that will shelve him for much of the season’s first half. Houston may have lost Andy Pettitte and is uncertain about Roger Clemens’ return, but the addition of Jason Jennings from Colorado and Woody Williams from San Diego give the ’Stros the deepest rotation in the Division with ace Roy Oswalt.

Chicago, Milwaukee and Cincinnati all appear better than a season ago and capable of contending in what should be baseball’s most competitive division. Pittsburgh has some young talent with potential but appears to be the weak link. It might not take much more than 85 wins to take the division and the preference here is Houston. It would not surprise at all though if the gap between the top five teams is barely more than a half dozen games.

NL WEST

This is yet another division with no clear front runner. The Los Angeles Dodgers are the favorites of most observers, but don’t overlook San Diego and San Francisco. All three teams have solid starting rotations, with the Giants having the most upside if Matt Morris stays injury free, regains his past form and Barry Zito adapts to

the NL. The Dodgers may have the best balanced lineup with a great combination of speed and power. San Diego has the best closer, Trevor Hoffman, which might be the biggest factor for a team that plays in a very strong pitcher’s park.

The three teams should battle all season with San Francisco ultimately winning the division title. Both the Dodgers and Padres are in contention for the Wild Card. Arizona and Colorado are improved, but seemingly have too many flaws to challenge the top three. Although with emerging ace Brandon Webb, a comfortable Randy Johnson anchoring the rotation, and a plethora of highly prized young talent, Arizona could be this season’s version of the Detroit. The D’backs could make a season long run into contention.

AL EAST

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox remain the teams to beat, but both have several flaws that could provide a chance for either Toronto or Baltimore to make a challenge that lasts deep into summer. The Yankees have the most feared 1-to-9 lineup in baseball, but their starting rotation makes them vulnerable. Boston has similar concerns with aging Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield and injury prone Josh Beckett. The arrival of "Dice-K" (Daisuke Matsuzaka) has many expecting the Sox to finally overtake the Yankees and end New York’s string of nine straight division titles. We’ll see.

Baltimore has an improving starting pitching trio of Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen that should only improve again under the tutelage of second year pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Toronto has a very balanced roster and finished ahead of Boston last season. Tampa Bay has an outstanding starting pitcher, Scott Kazmir, and a host of young talent. However, the Devil Rays have yet to show they can convert potential into wins. The Yankees should again win the division, especially given their willingness to spend to fill roster needs in late summer. Consider Toronto as a team to challenge for both the division and Wild Card.

AL CENTRAL

Much like the NL, the AL Central may be the best division in the league except for the bottom team Kansas City. The Royals are improved, but a huge gap still exists between them and the top four. Detroit appears as strong as last season and perhaps even better having added Gary Sheffield’s bat. Minnesota will be weaker if only because star lefty starter Francisco Liriano will miss the season and veteran starter Brad Radke has retired.

Cleveland should rebound from last season’s decline, but the bullpen remains a concern. Chicago, which won it all two seasons ago, may be the surprise team that is being overlooked by almost everyone. The White Sox have four solid starting pitchers and a balanced lineup. Keep in mind that although both Minnesota and Detroit made the playoffs last season, the Sox followed up their 2005 title with 90 wins. They should contend with Detroit for the division and Wild Card.

AL WEST

The Los Angeles Angels are the clear favorites to win the division following the departure from Oakland of ace Barry Zito. That loss leaves the Athletics with just two quality starters, Dan Haren and the oft injured Rich Harden, although the currently injured Esteban Loaiza is also capable of a solid season. The Angels do not have an overpowering offense although Vladimir Guererro is still a top five player capable of winning an MVP.

Seattle has the potential to pass Oakland as the second place team in the division with Texas also capable of showing improvement. But the Angels figure to be the only team from the West to challenge for the postseason.

FORECAST

NL: New York Mets, Houston Astros and San Francisco with the Dodgers edging the Padres and Atlanta to earn the Wild Card.

AL: The Yankees rate the nod in the East with Chicago and the Angels also capturing Division titles. The Wild Card should come down to Boston, Toronto and Detroit all within a couple of games of one another. Detroit ultimately makes the playoffs.

NLCS: Assuming Pedro Martinez returns for the Mets during the season (and he seems to be making great progress look for them to get past Houston.

ALCS: The Yankees to get past Detroit and set up a rematch of the 2000 World Series, won by the Yankees in 5.

WS: In 2007 it will be different. The Mets win in 6.

Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend.

Mets at Braves: The Mets ended Atlanta’s longtime domination of the NL East last season and are favored to repeat. This early season series could have added meaning for the Braves if they want to send a message that they are back. Both teams have solid lineups and questions about their rotations. Preferred plays: Underdog +125 or higher, Over 9 or less.

Dodgers at Giants: These long time rivals should both contend in the NL West on the strength of strong starting pitching. Ex Giant Jason Schmidt now hurls for the Dodgers. Schmidt’s spot in the Frisco rotation has been filled by Barry Zito, who comes across the bay from Oakland. The Dodgers have the more powerful offense from top to bottom but the Giants have Barry Bonds, just 22 homers shy of the all time mark. And Bonds had a very successful spring which augers well for the entire Giants offense. Preferred plays: Under 8 or higher. Giants -130 tops when Matt Cain or Noah Lowry start. Dodgers as dogs again all but Cain, Lowry or Zito.

Twins at White Sox: The Twins have major concerns with their rotation once Johan Santana has his start every fifth day. The rotation is one of Chicago’s strengths. Minnesota has a solid offense as does Chicago so this could be a high scoring series notwithstanding Chicago’s fine staff. Preferred plays: Over 9 in all starts except Santana. White Sox -125 tops, including Santana.

A’s at Angels: The Angels and A’s have relied mostly on strong starting pitching and offenses that stress the fundamentals more than just pure power. Both teams have solid bullpens and excellent closers, suggestive of closely contested, low scoring games. Last season 11 of the 19 went below the total. Two were pushes. Preferred plays: Under 8. Oakland +130 tops in starts by Danny Haren or Rich Harden. Angels -140 tops in all other situations.