Its that time of the year when the Grand Old Game returns to envelop the nations sports scene.
Although the rules are the same as they have been since the 19th century, changes this season will make the games more interesting. The most significant is that the major leagues have abandoned the balanced schedule and have gone to a slate that will have teams playing more games against teams in their own division. In short, division championships will be decided by head-to-head competition, which is the way it should be.
Another change is that the strike zone as defined in the Official Rules of Baseball will be enforced by the umpires. Officials have gone to great lengths during off-season and spring training to explain this to both umpires and players. Basically, it means the high strike will be called a development pleasing to pitchers, especially those who can throw a sharp-breaking curve ball, but less pleasing to batters.
In any event, one of the rites of spring is for writers and fans to offer predictions on the coming pennant races. So here goes.
1. New York Yankees: Pitching is the name of the game. The Bronx Bombers have the best pitching staff in the league: Mike Mussina, Andy Pettite, Orlando Hernandez, Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera. The acquisition of Mussina was the most important move any team made in off-season. Hell win 20 games.
2. Boston Red Sox: The injury to Nomar Garciaparra casts a pall over this teams chances. Still, they have some big bats: Manny Ramirez, Carl Everett and Dante Bichette. Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher in the universe, but behind him is mediocrity.
3. Toronto Blue Jays: Carlos Delgado is a superstar pacing a good batting order, but the team is short of starting pitching. Trading David Wells for Mike Sirotka has turned into a disaster at least for the foreseeable future.
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Theyll win more than the 69 games that they did last year, but are still a long way from being a contender.
5. Baltimore Orioles: Albert Belle retired, Cal Ripken Jr. is on his last legs, and pitching ace Mussina jumped ship. A dismal season is in store.
1. Chicago White Sox They were a surprise team a year ago but wont be this time around. Tough batting order includes Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko and Carlos Lee. Acquisition of shortstop Royce Clayton bolsters defense. Much hope is held for veteran southpaw Wells.
2. Cleveland Indians Loss of Ramirez more than offset by acquisition of Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks. Power hitting but strikeout prone Russell Branyan is an intriguing player. The Indians are definitely a championship contender.
3. Kansas City Royals Solid players in 1B Mike Sweeney, 3B Joe Randa, OF Jermaine Dye and OF Mark Quinn. But the leading pitcher on the staff, Jeff Suppan, posted only 10 wins. However, the bullpen blew 26 saves and the Royals have since acquired Roberto Hernandez, who registered 32 saves for Tampa Bay last year. He could make a big difference.
4. Detroit Tigers Bobby Higginson and Dean Palmer will supply the power and Roger Cedeno, acquired in a trade with Houston, is being counted on to supply speed and defense. Still, its somewhat odd that a player supposedly with Cedenos skills, is playing for his fourth team in as many seasons.
5. Minnesota Twins The big question here is: will the franchise survive? Theres decent starting pitching with Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Mark Redman, but the everyday line-up consists mostly of faceless individuals.
1. Oakland Athletics: Fine young team bolstered by addition of Johnny Damon. Jason Giambi was league MVP last year. RHP Tim Hudson is one of the very best. This team should dominate its division and could be serious pennant contender.
2. Anaheim Angels: Loss of Mo Vaughn was huge blow. His replacement, the shopworn Wally Joyner, falls far short. Nevertheless, this team has some quality players: Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad. Pitching is its Achilles heel.
3. Texas Rangers: With Alex Rodrigues, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Andres Galarraga, the Rangers have a formidable batting order, but the pitching is dreadful.
4. Seattle Mariners: No way to compensate for the loss of A-Rod.
1. New York Mets: This team just missed winning division championship last year by one game, then went on to the World Series by winning the playoffs. Everyday line-up returns intact. The club will have the services of SS Rey Ordonez, who played only 45 games last year because of injury. Lefty Mike Hampton went over the hill, but hes been replaced by righthanders Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel.
2. Atlanta Braves: They still have Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones and Andrew Jones, but this club looks somewhat frayed about the edges. The status of John Smoltzs comeback is unclear. Hes starting the season on the DL. After nine consecutive division championships, the Braves could be headed for their last hurrah.
3. Philadelphia Phillies: The club has enough good players Doug Glanville, Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell to escape the cellar, where they finished last year.
4. Montreal Expos: Theres punch in the line-up with superstar Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and Fernando Tatis, who was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade. But there may not be enough punch to keep this franchise afloat, at least in Montreal. The Expos could be playing elsewhere next year.
5. Florida Marlins: This club finished only three games below .500 last year and figure to be better this season. A big plus is the addition of C Charles Johnson (.304, 31 HRs, 91 RBIs last year for White Sox). Marlins need a decent showing in a tough division to spur the citizens of Miami to lay out taxpayer dollars for a new ballpark.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: Superb strength up the middle with Gold Glove catcher Mike Matheny, SS Edgar Renteria, 2B Fernando Vina and CF Jim Edmonds. Mark McGwire will hit 60 home runs and 20-game winner Darryl Kile heads solid starting pitching. It will be a major upset if this team doesnt repeat as division champion.
2. Houston Astros: Jeff Bagwell keys power-laden line-up, but this team will go only as far as its pitching takes it. Shane Reynolds begins season on DL. Much depends on closer Billy Wagner making comeback from elbow surgery. So far, the signs are good.
3. Chicago Cubs: Theyll climb out of the basement because they have a good starting rotation: Kerry Wood, Jon Lieber, Kevin Tapani, Jason Bere, Julian Taverez. A drawback is, theyre all righthanders. With Mark Grace gone, the everyday line-up consists of Sammy Sosa and the seven dwarfs.
4. Cincinnati Reds: Last year they added Ken Griffey Jr., but won 11 fewer games than in the previous season. The reason was poor pitching. Its not any better this year.
5. Milwaukee Brewers: Jeffrey Hammonds and Richie Sexson are the best hitters in a fairly good line-up, but the pitching leaves much to be desired. Moving into a new ballpark will spur fan enthusiasm, but the paying customers will have to be patient as this club builds toward the future.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates: Bucs begin season as cleft stick. Three starting pitchers Kris Benson, Francisco Cordova and Jason Schmidt are sidelined by injuries. OF Brian Giles and C Jason Kendall are the only high quality players on an otherwise nondescript line-up.
1. San Francisco Giants: Its high time the media stopped calling this team a bunch of overachievers. The Giants finished first or second every year for the past four seasons because they have good players. Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent are premier sluggers. The club has a solid starting rotation in righty Livan Hernandez and Russ Ortiz and lefties Kirk Reuter and Shawn Estes.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers: If baseball was horse racing, the notation opposite this club would read Beaten favorite race after race. The talent seemingly is there, but not the results. Maybe new manager Jim Tracey can put it all together.
3. Colorado Rockies: First baseman Todd Helton is simply the best hitter in all of baseball. Lefties Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle give a big boost to the pitching staff. The Rockies must be rated as a serious contender.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks: Lots of big-name players: Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez and newly acquired Mark Grace. But theyre all aging veterans, susceptible to injury and prone to slow down in the latter part of the campaign.
5. San Diego Padres: Not enough talent here to make an impact in what is a highly competitive division.