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Batter up

Apr 6, 2004 7:42 AM

Long America’s national pastime, major league baseball begins in earnest this week.

The six-month trek to the playoffs and World Series is the most grueling of the professional sports with each team scheduled to play 162 games. That’s an average of better than five games per week.

Here’s a preview of the six divisions followed by a look at several series that will be played on the opening weekend of the season.

NL EAST: Philadelphia is projected to be the class. The Phils made some major offseason moves including the acquisition of closer Billy Wagner from Houston and starting lefty Eric Milton from Minnesota. But the antics of volatile manager Larry Bowa almost insures a stretch of inconsistent play. Don’t be surprised if last year’s champion, Florida, or perennial division king Atlanta, make a run. Montreal continues to develop talent for other teams to use. Somehow, though, Frank Robinson has been able to extract the maximum from his team. The Expos will again flirt with success much of the season. The Mets have an aging pitching staff and too many holes on offense to seriously content.

NL CENTRAL: Baseball’s most stratified division with three clear contenders and three teams projected to finish well below .500. Chicago has the deepest starting rotation even with Mark Prior scheduled to miss all of April. Houston has probably the best balance of offense and pitching. St Louis has the best overall offense but questions abound about their pitching once you get past starters Matt Morris and Woody Williams. Of the three weaklings, Pittsburgh has the best overall pitching and a shot at playing .500 ball deep into the season. Milwaukee has one of baseball’s top emerging pitchers, Ben Sheets. Cincinnati has some bright spots on offense but the pitching is woeful.

NL WEST: Perhaps, the best balanced division in baseball. San Francisco appears weaker than last season, which should enable Los Angeles, San Diego and Arizona to narrow the gap and contend. The Padres may have the most potential with solid offensive balance and a solid young pitching staff. The signing of veteran lefty David Wells should help that staff. Colorado should finish well back with one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. That’s too bad for quality hitters like Todd Helton and the oft-injured Larry Walker (who begins the season on the DL).

AL EAST: Another two-team race between Boston and the New York Yankees. Six straight seasons all five teams have finished in the same order. The Yankees added Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Alex Rodriguez while losing Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Alfonso Soriano. Boston picked up Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke. On balance the Yanks are still the team to beat. Toronto should again finish third although Baltimore and Tampa Bay will each be improved. Baltimore will be an interesting team this season with the additions they made on offense. But their weak pitching suggests more "overs" than "under."

AL CENTRAL: The weakest division, top to bottom. Minnesota has lost some key pitching from both their rotation and the bullpen. Kansas City has the most potent offense in the division but also the weakest pitching. The Chicago White Sox may have the best balance of the five teams although there are questions whether starter Esteban Loaiza can duplicate his sensational 2003 season. Cleveland and Detroit are young and building and should trail the other three teams in the standings.

AL WEST: Anyone but Texas can win the division. Oakland and Anaheim rate an edge over Seattle. The A’s have three of the top five starting pitchers in the league but will be hurt by a lack of offense. The Angels made the most significant offseason pick ups but they really don’t have a solid starting pitcher to anchor the rotation. Bartolo Colon and their other starters are a nice blend of 2/3 starters but none can be considered an ”˜ace.’ Seattle has been very steady over the past few seasons and will again be fundamentally sound. Texas is considerably weaker with no visible improvement in the pitching staff and major losses from their offense.

PREDICTIONS: Florida, with its outstanding starting pitching, wins the NL East. The Cubs edge Houston in the Central with the Astros grabbing the Wild Card. Arizona is poised to reclaim the NL West. The Yankees will win the AL East with Boston claiming the Wild Card. The White Sox take the Central. Oakland claims the West. Houston will face the Yankees in the World Series against the Yankees with Clemens and Pettitte against their old teammates. In the end things return to normal as 4- year olds the world over celebrate the Yankees’ first World Series Championship in their lifetimes.

Here’s a look at four key early season series.

Cubs at Braves: Greg Maddux leads the Cubs back to Atlanta. Outstanding starting pitching is expected to lead the Cubs to the postseason and that strength has been supplemented with solid additions to the bullpen. Atlanta’s main weakness this season is expected to be their starting pitching with none of the starters remotely resembling Maddux or ex-Brave Tom Glavine in their peak. The Cubs are worth a play in any game of the series in which they are made the dog. If the linesmaker is generous and gives us an 8 total or less, the "over" is a worthy play.

Phils at Marlins: Florida edged the Phillies for the NL Wild Card last season. The strong Marlins starting pitching returns. Pitching is also expected to carry the Phils to the division title this season. Philadelphia has the offensive edge over the Marlins but this series should be decided by which team gets the most out of their starters. The teams overall are pretty even. If either is an underdog of at least +120, that would be the preferred play. Additionally, the "under" is more likely to prevail with all starters capable of giving at least six solid innings.

White Sox at Yanks: Chicago has been basically a .500 team since winning its last division title in 2000. The Yankees have won at least 95 games in six of the last seven seasons and are expected to exceed that number again in 2004. This is a four game series beginning Thursday and the Yanks will be huge favorites throughout. Chicago does have decent pop in their lineup with Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas keying the offense. The "over" is the preferred play and the White Sox would be playable as dogs in starts by either Esteban Loaiza or Mark Buehrle. In the other games the Yankees may be considered for play on the run line, giving up 1½ runs.

M’s at A’s: Both teams rely much more on solid starting pitching than offense. The "under" will be the first way to look throughout this series provided the total is no higher than 8. Oakland should be favored in all three games. There’s not a huge difference in the quality of Seattle’s 1-to-5 starters and the Mariners have the overall better offense. Play Seattle as an underdog and look to just make a slight profit, which would occur if the Mariners win either of the first two games.