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Heat up stoves: Baseball in one month

Jan 28, 2003 6:46 AM

The Super Bowl is done, so our focus swings to baseball’s hot stove league. The first scheduled Cactus League spring training games take place Feb. 27.

Naturally, there’s some catching up to do. Moves have slipped past us while we were concentrating on the NFL. Bet you didn’t know the regular season starts March 25 in a special two-game series at the Tokyo Dome between Seattle and Oakland. Wiseguys may want to note the "Ichiro Factor" when wagering on those games.

As for the rest of the season, a large part of our winning strategy rests with studying both the starting pitching and relievers. It’s no bull that the strength of the pen has become mightier than the Rocket, so to speak. Complete games are rarer than a Randy Johnson smile.

It’s no surprise that last year’s World Series reps ”” Anaheim and San Francisco ”” each had excellent bullpens. The rally monkey had an emotional hand in the Angels’ astonishing run to the world championship, but it was long relief that kept Anaheim in the games long enough to produce many comeback victories.

Cleveland’s demise last year was due in large part to the bullpen, which amassed a major league worst 5.99 ERA away from Jacobs Field. Contrast that to Atlanta’s No. 1 rated bullpen (2.53 ERA away, 2.69 home) and you can see why the Braves won an 11th straight division title.

So what’s different this year? Well, Philadelphia will be playing in a new stadium now that The Vet is thankfully in our past. The Phils celebrated the occasion by spending money in the offseason to field a team worthy of their new digs. The major acquisition was Jim Thome from Cleveland, who could bring much brotherly love if he produces the expected 35-40 homers and 100-120 RBI.

Montreal will take its traveling road show to San Juan, the site for more than 20 "home games" in the franchise’s lame-duck season. Puerto Rico has taken to the Expos, so it will be interesting to see whether the venue becomes a factor in betting on N-Oh Canada.

With the Yankees failing to make the World Series last year, you knew George Steinbrenner would be busy. Enter Hideki Matsui, Japan’s leading homerun hitter, who takes Raul Mondesi’s place in the Yankees outfield. Las Vegas Sports Consultants lists Matsui at 30-1 to win the major league HR title. Interestingly, Barry Bonds is third choice at 7-2.

Thome was among some elite players to change uniforms. Other major changes include San Francisco second baseman Jeff Kent (Houston), former Cleveland and Montreal pitcher Bartolo Colon (Chicago White Sox) and Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez (Florida).

In fact, the Giants will basically have a brand new infield this season with Edgardo Alfonzo (NY Mets) at third base, Neifi Perez (Kansas City) at short and Ray Durham (Oakland) at second. J.T. Snow is still at first, but Dusty Baker’s little kid is gone.

We were lucky last year predicting Anaheim as the surprise team of the American League during preseason. Cincinnati let us down in the NL, but we feel good about Houston as a solid early choice to win the pennant. Watch for the Astros to get out of the gate strong early.

A team to keep an eye on the first two weeks is Boston, which opens with 10 straight on the road. Knowing Red Sox fans, they may think the season is over by the time Boston returns to Fenway for the home opener.