Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - America's national pastime is underway again and the eyes of fans will be focused on baseball diamonds for the next seven months, leading to the 2004 push for the pennant.
Several on-the-field subplots will be building during the 162-game haul. Will the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez lead the Yankees to their 27th World Series title or can the Red Sox get into position to claim their first championship since 1918? Who will have the better pitching staff this year, the Cubs with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, or the Astros with Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens? Can the World Series champion Florida Marlins overcome the loss of Pudge to get back into the playoffs or will the Braves be strong enough to win their 13th straight division title? How close will Barry Bonds get to the Babe in the home run chase?
These are issues we'll be tuned into until October. For an insight into the season here are my predictions for each division in the order of predicted finish.
WC = WILD CARD; AL = AL CHAMPS; NL = NL CHAMPS; WS = WORLD SERIES CHAMPS
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
BOSTON RED SOX (AL) - The early season losses of Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon will hurt, but not to an extent to put the Sox out of the division race. With Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling on the mound, Terry Francona still has an incredible 1-2 punch, and by June Boston will be healthy again and could slowly creep back into position near the top of the division. With closer Keith Foulke in the fold the Red Sox have their missing ingredient to possibly go to the World Series this year, but they'll still be chasing the Curse of the Bambino all season.
NEW YORK YANKEES (WC) - With Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have taken over the Red Sox as the best lineup in the majors. However, offense doesn't necessarily win championships as the Florida Marlins pitched their way to the title last year. I still have to question the starting rotation of the Yankees. There are health concerns surrounding Jon Lieber and the question if Jose Contreras is ready for the long haul to be in the rotation. The bullpen bridge was supported in the offseason for Mariano Rivera. However, I still believe the additions of Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez don't outweigh the losses of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Believe it or not, but the Yankees may actually win close to 100 games and only be in a wild card spot.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES - The offseason additions of Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro could prove huge for the O's as they'll likely finish with more than 71 wins last year. The pitching still has a lot to be desired, but with Sidney Ponson as their ace Baltimore may give new manager Lee Mazzilli a .500 finish.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS - The signing of Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay to a four-year, $42 million deal sent a signal that the Blue Jays are not rebuilding. They also added Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen to their rotation, giving the Blue Jays a solid staff. Ted Lilly could be another decent starter and the focus this season will again be on Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells. The two combined for 75 homers and 262 RBI last season. However, even on a good team, playing in the AL East will be considered mediocre at best for the Jays in 2004.
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS - The offseason provided the Devil Rays with good fortune at a bargain basement cost, both at the plate and in the field. Danys Baez was signed as a closer and Jose Cruz Jr. was inked for the outfield, but even manager Lou Piniella must know his team will have a difficult time finishing out of the basement for the first time in team history.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
CHICAGO WHITE SOX - The loss of Bartolo Colon will no doubt put a strain on the rotation and it will be hard for Esteban Loaiza to repeat his 21-win season and Mark Buehrle will be pressured to perform as the No. 1 starter. However, new manager Ozzie Guillen has a wealth of offensive talent in Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee. The team also has the luxury of two closers in Damaso Marte and Billy Koch so a run to first place in a rather weak division.
MINNESOTA TWINS - It will be tough for the Twins to put together their third straight division title, especially with the offseason losses of relievers Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins. However, the Twins still have a solid nucleus on offense, led by Shannon Stewart, but pitching may be the downfall of this year's squad.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS - As far as regular seasons go, the Royals were extremely successful in 2003, but they'll be expected to exceed their 83-win total. That will be difficult considering Raul Ibanez, Michael Tucker and Rondell White were all free agency casualties. Huge things are expected of 34-year-old Juan Gonzalez.
CLEVELAND INDIANS - The Cleveland Indians had just 68 wins last year, but may be more advanced in their rebuilding process than first thought. Nevertheless, the Tribe is thin on starting pitching and the focus of the team will continue to be its young players in Jody Gerut and Casey Blake.
DETROIT TIGERS - After losing an American League record 119 games last year, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch had some input in the Tigers signing All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, second baseman Fernando Vina and outfielder White. Detroit also worked a trade to get infielder Carlos Guillen. Yet, their starting pitching remains young and will need another year to develop before escaping last place.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
ANAHEIM ANGELS - The Angels were the surprise team in 2002, but this year it won't come as a shock if they win their division. New owner Arte Moreno took it upon himself to improve the team in the offseason and the club made the biggest splash in the free agent market with the signings of Colon, Kelvim Escobar, Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen. Those additions, plus the reshuffling of Anaheim's lineup, have made the Angels not only a contender, but the favorite to win the AL West.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS - The A's also lost 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada and also may hurt from the departure of closer Keith Foulke. However, the A's still have the best top of a rotation in the division with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.
SEATTLE MARINERS - As unfortunate as the Mariners were to lose Kazuhiro Sasaki, they were able to move lefthander Eddie Guardado into a closer's role for this year. The Mariners have one of the oldest lineups in the majors and will have a rough time repeating the 93 wins from each of the last two years.
TEXAS RANGERS - With A-Rod leaving the Rangers, that gives the club more financial flexibility and gives the team a good young player in Alfonso Soriano. However, with a weak pitching staff this year could get ugly again for the lone Rangers.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES - Jim Thome + Billy Wagner = division title. It's simple math, but with the additions the Phillies made in the offseason they have a powerful lineup and now possess a fireball closer in the lefthanded Wagner. Adding top setup man Tim Worrell to the bullpen and Eric Milton to the rotation will further strengthen the team's chances for its first division title since 1993.
ATLANTA BRAVES - The Braves have won 12 straight division titles, but this year may signal a changing of the guard in the National League East. They'll have to deal with the free agency losses of several impact players, including four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, third baseman Vinny Castilla, and of course the two biggest bats in their lineup from 2003 - Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield.
FLORIDA MARLINS - The Marlins remain strong with a solid returning rotation and re-signed a number of important players. Florida still has its ace in World Series MVP Josh Beckett and the team re-signed second baseman Luis Castillo and worked out a deal for third baseman Mike Lowell. However, the Marlins lost their clubhouse leader and postseason power in future Hall of Fame Ivan Rodriguez. The team also traded Gold Glove winning first baseman Derrek Lee to the Cubs.
NEW YORK METS - The Mets have nowhere to look but up following a 95-loss season and an offseason spent beefing up their infield with a promising young shortstop from Japan. Kaz Matsui, a switch-hitting shortstop who has power, inked a three-year, $20.1 million contract with the team. Mike Cameron brings his top speed and his Gold Glove to center field, while Braden Looper adds experience in the bullpen.
MONTREAL EXPOS - This is a team that could take the biggest fall in 2004. After winning 83 games for each of the last two seasons, it may be difficult for the financially lean Expos to make it out of the basement. The gusto is gone from the team as Vazquez was traded to the Yankees and Guerrero signed a $70 million contract with Anaheim.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
HOUSTON ASTROS (NL) - With Pettitte and Clemens on the team and assuming Roy Oswalt can rebound from a nagging groin injury and Wade Miller improves from a down year, Houston will have the arms to go toe-to-toe with the Cubs. Pressure will also be on Octavio Dotel, who steps in as the closer for Wagner. The outfield of Richard Hidalgo, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman along with first baseman Jeff Bagwell and second baseman Jeff Kent, give the Astros a deadly combination of offense and defense to last the entire season.
CHICAGO CUBS (WC) - Will the billy goat curse finally come to an end? Dusty Baker's team will get close to ending their championship drought in 2004 by making the playoffs, but it won't be good enough in the postseason. The power of Lee at first base and Aramis Ramirez at third will supplement the strength of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou in the outfield. The Cubs already have Wood and Prior at the top of their rotation, two young powerful righthanders who combined for 32 wins and a staggering 511 strikeouts last season.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS - The Cardinals will be third-fiddle again in 2004. With his new $100 million contract, Albert Pujols leads a team that may match the offenses of the Cubs and Astros. However, the pitching will again fall short.
CINCINNATI REDS - If healthy, the tandem of Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns could be one of the best outfield hitting tandems in the National League. However, Griffey is already slowed by a calf injury and the Reds have to hope 2004 will not be a case of deja' vu.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES - The Pirates, who went 75-87 last year, haven't had a winning campaign since 1992. Pittsburgh has seen its payroll bottom out in recent years and the club has finished fourth or worse in the NL Central the last four seasons. It may get worse before it gets better in the Steel City.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS - The outfield combination of Geoff Jenkins and Scott Podsednik along with closer Dan Kolb are the few bright spots on the Brewers this year...and I do stress few.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS - Despite losing a considerable amount of players due to free agency and a trade involving the Twins in the offseason, the Giants are still primed for a run at another division title. However, the team may be slow out of the gate with injuries to Jason Schmidt and Robb Nen. With the game's best hitter in Bonds, the main concern for the team will be how the rest of the lineup performs, especially if Edgardo Alfonzo can hit well behind the best slugger in the majors.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS - Minus one half of its devastating 1-2 punch on the mound, the pressure will be immense on lanky lefthander Randy Johnson and second-year hurler Brandon Webb. With a new right side to the infield with slugging first baseman Richie Sexson and veteran second baseman Roberto Alomar, and a healthy Luis Gonzalez, Arizona may actually be in contention for the division title come September.
SAN DIEGO PADRES - This may be the most improved team in the division and could pull a surprise this year with a slight possibility of playing .500 baseball, something the Padres haven't done since 1998 when they won the NL West and were swept by the Yankees.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS - Adding Milton Bradley to the lineup was a plus, but not enough for a team that again heads into 2004 with an anemic offense. The starting pitching took a hit with the loss of Brown and new GM Paul DePodesta may have to pull off another deal to bolster the bats at Chavez Ravine.
COLORADO ROCKIES - Despite having 2002 NL Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings, the pitching will likely be in the tank this season and the Rockies (74-88 in 2003) could see the biggest fall for any major league club.
2004 DIVISION SERIES: Houston def. San Francisco, 3-2; Chicago Cubs def. Philadelphia, 3-1; Boston def. Chicago White Sox, 3-0; NY Yankees def. Anaheim, 3-1.
ALCS: Boston def. NY Yankees, 4-3
NLCS: Houston def. Chicago Cubs, 4-2
WORLD SERIES: Houston def. Boston, 4-3
2004 AWARDS: AL MVP - Magglio Ordonez; NL MVP - Jim Thome; AL CY YOUNG - Pedro Martinez; NL CY YOUNG - Kerry Wood; AL ROOKIE - Joe Mauer; NL ROOKIE -Terrmel Sledge