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Baseball Preview: Red Sox Look to Win East

By Phil Janowicz

Spring break (not winter) is over; the NCAA tourney is ended, and NHL playoffs are underway -- these are all signs of the greatest joy of the year: baseball. After the surprising World Series win of the wild-card Anaheim Angels last year over the wild-card San Francisco Giants, parity in baseball is slowly becoming apparent.

It’s hard to say which teams will be good this year because the biggest determining factor is luck. We no longer have a supreme powerhouse (thank God) in the Yankees. That said, grab your thunder sticks and loosen your belt because here we go for a preview of what’s to come in the major leagues this year.

American League East

I have to start here so all the rabid Red Sox fans can get their fixes. This is the weakest division in the AL this year for three reasons: Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Toronto. Tampa Bay’s goal this year is not to lose 100 games. Baltimore’s leading home run hitter and offensive producer last year was Tony Batista. At least he’s facing the opposition head on.

Toronto has no lack of talent at all with Halladay, Delgado, and Hinske leading the way. The problem with Toronto is that they don’t have much depth beyond that in order to get into the playoffs this year (e.g., Tanyon Sturtze?!). Expect them to have spurts of big wins against the Yankees and Red Sox but lose miserably to Detroit and Tampa Bay.

Ah, the Yankees. No true fan of baseball can admit that even a little bit of joy didn’t spread through his veins when he saw Derek Jeter hurt near third base. Now, I’m not saying that I wanted him to get hurt. I would have preferred that he had had a religious change that made him quit baseball and life in the public sector, but I’ll take what I can get.

As always, though, the Yankees with Matsui and Soriano leading the way will do well this year and win their customary minimum of 90 games, but I see the Red Sox taking the division this year, and here’s why. Already this year, Shea Hillenbrand has amassed double-digit RBIs to surprise everyone, including himself, and this onslaught will slow but not cease. The Red Sox are proving that they can get men on base and play small ball with the best of them while having Kevin Millar and Nomar Garciaparra there to knock it over the Green Monster when need be.

Despite Lowe’s blister, he’ll come back strong along with Pedro and an improving Casey Fossum to provide a strong rotation that also will receive run support. This is the year of the Red Sox in the AL East, and I see the Yankees probably taking the Wild Card.

American League Central

This division has some great talent that no one’s heard of. Well, besides Detroit. The White Sox have added high-velocity Bartolo Colon (listed at 240 lbs-he must have dropped 60 lbs in the off-season.) to their rotation to add to their ace Mark Buehrle. The “good guys” will have a solid season but won't make the playoffs.

The Twins just don’t seem as magical as they did last year. They aren’t in danger of contraction anymore, so they don’t seem to play as hard as they used to. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll still finish over .500, but the spark is gone and the torch could be passed on to another AL Central no-name team.

The Royals are the big story in baseball right now having won their first week of games, and many wonder whether this year’s Royals will be like last year's Indians, who started the season 11-1 only to follow it by going 11-28. These Royals are for real. The most explosive offense in the league this year is on the Royals, and their pitching will back them up with Hernandez, Affeldt, and MacDougal to rack up the saves. These Royals have almost as much talent as the Indians.

With the best minor-leaguers in baseball, the Indians have a strong farm system. The only problem is that last year’s Buffalo Bisons is this year’s Cleveland Indians. With the only big name players being Omar Vizquel, Ellis Burks, and C.C. Sabathia, these youngsters have much to prove to the league.

Milton Bradley is utterly amazing with his glove in center field and can slap for a base hit or bunt single when asked to. Brandon Phillips at second base is struggling as of late, but is gaining valuable experience at the major league level so that he’ll become one of the greats someday. Other strong position men are Texas powerhouse Travis Hafner at first base, Casey Blake at third base, home-run hitting Karim Garcia in right field, and “J-Bard” Josh Bard behind the plate.

On the mound for the Tribe are strong newcomers Ricardo Rodriguez, who spent most of his career on the Dodgers AAA team, Brian Anderson, and Jason Davis, who will surprise many this year in becoming a big name pitcher in a few years. All these guys need is some experience, and they’ll be next year’s surprise team. I still think the Royals or Twins will take the division this year, but watch out for the guys from the Cuyahoga.

American League West

This division is a tight one with the A’s and Angels battling for the top spot. With all their talent, Seattle is going to tank. Texas is in dire need of pitching. The A’s have lots of talent in Zito, Hudson, and Mulder to lead their rotation, but have a relatively scrappy offense that can perform well when the team works together on base hits. Tejada’s always hot, but the rest of the team needs to step up in critical times.

The Rally Monkey jumps for the Angels this year. The Angels have speed, power, and pitching, and have great chemistry among their team. Washburn and K-Rod lead the pitching staff with powerful closer Troy Percival there to clean up the 9th. Look for the Angels to take the AL West this year with the A’s not far behind.

National League East

Isn’t it beautiful to see the Braves lose games? Same goes for the Mets, but I’m used to it now. The Marlins aren't doing anything this year, as usual. The Expos and Phillies’ strong starts are signs of a fight to the finish later on in the season. Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez, and of course Vladimir Guerrero lead a powerful Expos team that looks to finish their stay in Montreal strong.

The Phillies picked up nearly everyone in baseball the Yankees didn’t get in an attempt to repeat what the Marlins did in 1997. (Damn you, Tony Fernandez! He’s the Bill Buckner of Indians lore.) Picking up Millwood and Thome, the Phillies will contend this year, but I see Jose Mesa blowing the save (as he did so well in 1997 against the Marlins) in the playoff game against the Expos to give the Expos the NL East crown.

National League Central

Get out the pooper scooper because here comes the NL Central. The Brewers are drunk, and you can tell when Richie Sexson swings at anything remotely near him. Griffey’s hurt, and Graves will tank, so the Reds are in debt to the .500 mark. The Pirates boat will sink carrying the booty of Brian Giles and Kenny Lofton. The Cubs have a potent offense as of late and a powerful pitching phenom in Mark Prior. But keep in mind that these are the Cubs. The Astros have a solid team and are pushing Biggio to yet another position. Oswalt, Dotel, and Wagner are a killer combo on the mound, but they're just stargazing.

The Cardinals will easily win the division behind all that they have. The 15 runs they scored in Colorado should convince you (well, and the 12 they gave up) that they have a great offense behind Rolen, Pujols, Matheny, Edmonds, and Renteria. Matt Morris and Jason Simontacchi (he’ll bounce back) lead the rotation, and when Izzy returns from the DL, these Cards will be “Rolen” in wins.

National League West

This is by far the best division in baseball. Let’s get the trash out of the way first by saying that the Rockies have an awesome offense but no pitching thanks to conditions in Denver. The D-backs have been faulty of late with “Ra-Jo” and Schilling not at top form, but they’ll still contend for the playoffs.

The Giants have been the big team so far this year, winning their first 7 games. Everything seems to be going well in San Francisco under Felipe Alou. Their first loss of the year was to Jake Peavy and the Padres. Peavy is simply phenomenal. In his first outing of the season against the Dodgers, he struck out 11 in 5.0 innings pitched and gave up one hit, a solo homer to Brian Jordan. He is so powerful and can strike out the best of them with his fastball and painting of the corners. He’s this year’s C.C. Sabathia minus 100 lbs and is my pick for Rookie of the Year.

The Dodgers are my pick this year for NL West winner mostly because of their offense. Dave Roberts, although not 100 percent, is arguably the best leadoff man in the game followed by Cesar Izturis, Shawn Green, Brian Jordan, and Paul Lo Duca.

Their pitching rotation other than Kevin Brown has yet to prove itself, but Ishii and Dreifort are proving to be workhorses. Their bullpen is just remarkable and has bailed them out of several games already. Paul Shuey and Quantrill, Guillermo Mota, Tom Martin, and of course Eric Gagne lead the best bullpen in the majors. Look for the Dodgers to take the NL West this year with either the Giants or D-backs in the wild card spot.

The season is already shaping up to be a great one with loads of extra-inning games and early season surprises. Things are so crazy that maybe we’ll have a Cubs-Sox World Series. Nah, their planes will crash mid-air if that were to happen. Maybe a Twins-Expos Series in that the loser gets contracted, and the winner moves to Washington. No matter what happens, craziness and luck will be at the root of it.