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  BASEBALL'S TRYING TO CHANGE, BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT'S ALL ABOUT THE YANKEES: OUR SEASON PREVIEW.  
   
   
  A debate about banning a substance that by most accounts contributed to a young player's death. An owner claiming, in March, that he has no chance to re-sign a star player. A fat pitcher practically boasts of his public intoxication and creates a firestorm in his clubhouse. The commissioner ponders bringing back one of our era's most notorious gamblers.

Ah, glorious baseball is back.

The season would have started this week in Japan before fears about traveling abroad sacked that idea. So Opening Day -- which hasn't deserved those capital letters for several years -- gets bumped back to Sunday when the defending champion Anaheim Angels host the Texas Rangers. The real meat of the schedule kicks in on Monday, but even that day isn't what it used to be.

Most years, the real Opening Day is on the same day as the NCAA championship, making one of the great sports days of the year. Baseball all day. NCAA final at night. But thanks to quirks in scheduling and baseball having to start at the tail end of March because they've tacked on so many playoff rounds in October, that day is ruined this year.

Still, it's fine to still be excited about the season starting, if only because it means the NFL draft can't be far behind. At least this year, the season probably will be played through its conclusion without a work stoppage. You should savor such rarities.

Yet something stupid will happen. Make that, many stupid things will happen, simply because baseball is the worst run multi-billion dollar business ever.

Exhibit A: Commissioner Bud Selig's plan to drive up interest in the midseason All-Star Game by giving the winning league home-field advantage in the World Series. This might make a difference to the few teams still in the World Series hunt by July, but half the players in that game aren't going to give a rat's you-know-what about whether the Yankees get three or four extra home games in October. Bud doesn't understand that declining interest in his game's stars might have something to do with declining interest in the game overall.

Oh sure, we shouldn't so cynical and pessimistic before the season even starts. But seriously. A Canadian baseball team -- owned by Bud and his cohorts -- is playing 22 home games in Puerto Rico, smack dab in the middle of hurricane season.

Still, baseball is moving closer to the parity the NFL embraces. The past two World Series champions did not make the playoffs the previous season, which is why Cubs and Phillies fans have been so annoying this spring. But with the money the Yankees have thrown around again, 2003 again will be all about them, either about them winning another World Series or questions about Joe Torre's future should they fail.

Let's get to the good stuff. Here's a quick look at each team in their predicted order of finish.

 

 
   
 

 

New York Yankees. They have everybody. And anybody they don't have, they'll just buy in midseason if they feel so inclined. Jeff Weaver had to fight for the last spot in the rotation; he would be an ace for many teams. The only hope for the rest of the league is that Mariano Rivera never gets healthy, Roger Clemens melts down when he gets to 300 wins, David Wells gets thrown in jail and Mike Mussina continues the slump that started in the second half of last year. It's a lot of ifs.

Boston Red Sox. This club could give the Yankees a run if the Yankees show their true age. The offense should be stronger with Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, David Ortiz and Jeremy Giambi. The question is Pedro Martinez's health and demeanor with a potential contract dispute looming. No. 2 starter Derek Lowe might or might not match his career season of 2002, and the back end of the rotation could be Tim Wakefield, John Burkett and Casey Fossum. That offense better be good.

Toronto Blue Jays. A lot of interesting talent here with young sluggers such as Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells, Eric Hinske, Shannon Stewart and Josh Phelps capable of scoring a ton of runs. The problem is the runs the Blue Jays will allow. Roy Halladay is one of the majors' most overlooked pitchers, but he has no support. The Blue Jays actually are excited about Tanyon Sturtze, who lost 18 games for the Devil Rays last year.

Baltimore Orioles. The meandering continues for this stumbling team. Hey, guys, how's that youth movement going? The lineup now includes Jeff Conine (36 years old), Marty Cordova (33), B.J. Surhoff (38), Rick Helling and Pet Hentgen (34) and Rick Helling (32). An unknown youngster or two inevitably will play well, but this is a team that needs to click on all cylinders --possible under manager Mike Hargrove -- to sniff .500.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The true fun here will be counting Lou Piniella's outbursts and watching the media try to bait him. Bottom line: The roster stinks, and the pitching staff could be worse than last year (when it had a league-worst 5.29 ERA). Let's move on.

 

 
   
 

 

Chicago White Sox. We're going to give the White Sox the edge because the Twins are getting a little big for their britches, because the White Sox could have two 20-game winners and because Frank Thomas' head has been spotted coming out of his rear. The Mark Buerhle-Bartolo Colon combo, paired with three other solid starters and new closer Billy Koch to clean things up, has a chance to carry this team far.

Minnesota Twins. Call us the non-believers, but there is something about this team that is too good to be true. The little team that could has been plugging away for two years and still could take the title. But aside from legitimate stars in Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, you have a bunch of overachievers. And with pitcher Eric Milton out for much of the season, you have questionable starters behind ace Brad Radke. There's too much that can go wrong -- but at least Kenny Rogers has a home.

Cleveland Indians. The Indians could be fun to watch. They are a collection of young prospects, and, as such, nobody knows what to expect. You don't know names like Travis Hafner, Ben Broussard, Brandon Phillips, Josh Bard, Ricardo Rodriguez, Coco Crisp and Alex Escobar. By August, you'll be familiar with a couple of them, but good luck figuring out which few it will be. Closer Danys Baez is the best reliever you've never heard of.

Kansas City Royals. Now we are getting into the nether regions of baseball, small-market teams with virtually no hope of competing year after year. The Royals could trade their two best players, Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney, and that would leave the cupboard even more bare. They already have no established major-league pitchers and almost no chance to win.

Detroit Tigers. Look, a team worse than the Royals! Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish form a nice nucleus. Unfortunately, they are all on the bench. Bobby Higginson, Dmitri Young and Dean Palmer are nice players. And that is all.

 

 
   
 

 

Oakland A's. Thanks to the incredible starting trio of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, the A's are the pick in what should be baseball's most competitive division. Those three have won 113 games the past two seasons. Throw in any ol' spare parts, and you have a contender. The offense is not as solid as in the past, but shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez are as good as they come. The questions are whether outfielder Jermaine Dye and designated hitter Erubiel Durazo pick up some slack, if young second Mark Ellis lives up to billing and whether closer Keith Foulke can fill the shoes of Billy Koch.

Anaheim Angels. It is close to blasphemous not to pick the defending world champions to win their division, but the Angels are not a sure thing to even make the playoffs. You know the management doctrine about either always moving forward or risk falling behind? Well, the Angels said they were perfectly happy with the group of players that did so well last year. They didn't even try to improve anywhere. And the odds of the same set of events producing the same set of results two years in a row are very long.

Texas Rangers. With Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez leading the charge, there is no doubt about the offense. The questions are if Chan Ho Park can bounce back, if Ismael Valdes and John Thomson are somewhat reliable and who, exactly, Doug Davis and Joaquin Benoit are. But the bullpen has about four potential closers and will give the Rangers a host of wins they blew last year. That will give them enough confidence to finally make a mark in the standings.

Seattle Mariners. It is only a hunch, but this is the year everything falls apart for the Mariners. They have defied time for too long, and the loss of reliable manager Lou Piniella might tip them over the edge. Too much can go wrong with the aging Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Mark Mclemore and John Olerud. Closer Kaz Sasaki could be a health risk all season. The team will need time to get used to Bob Melvin, and there is little youth help on the way.

 

 
   
 

 

Atlanta Braves. The Braves are the Braves. And that means that even though Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood have left, new arrivals Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd will be better than expected … and this team will be just fine. First baseman Robert Fick is a nice addition to go with the slugging outfield of Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield. They, of course, will be in trouble if the pitching falls apart, but that doesn't happen to the Braves.

New York Mets. All those changes last season that didn't work out will make a perfect foundation for new manager Art Howe. Players such as Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar will be much more comfortable and much more productive. New ace Tom Glavine probably will not win 20 games, but he will be a solid addition. Outfielder Cliff Floyd's big question remains his health. Barring catastrophes, there is too much talent not to make a playoff run.

Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies problem will be the same as the Mets' last year. Too many changes, too many fat, new contracts, too much pressure and not enough wins. Hitters have struggled initially when changing leagues since the dawn of time, and the same likely will happen to Jim Thome. Unfortunately, he will have to deal with Philadelphia's fans when that happens. Any struggles will mean plenty of boos and put manager Larry Bowa on the firing line. The Phillies traded all-world third baseman Scott Rolen last year essentially because he didn't get along with Bowa; don't be surprised if Bowa doesn't last the year.

Florida Marlins. The plucky Marlins always seem to cause problems and will do so again with pitching leading the way. As long as A.J. Burnett is healthy, rising phenom Josh Beckett spearheads a impressive rotation that includes Brad Penny and Mark Redman. The Marlins might not hit the ball out of the park, but Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo will run around the bases better than anyone, and Mike Lowell is a proven RBI man. But little depth and no closer won't mean any surprising playoff records.

Montreal Expos. Look, it's the Puerto Rican team! The Expos will win a good chunk of games because they have four good starters behind ace Javier Vazquez, and because they have Vladimir Guerrero. But they have nothing else, including anything to play for or a home. And that will take a toll over the six-month season.

 

 
   
 

 

St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have perhaps the league's best lineup and one of the its best pitchers in Matt Morris. And they have Rick Ankiel, who, in a perfect world, would find a way to either win or blow a playoff game. Injuries have been a problem recently for St. Louis, and already are a concern this year. The offense should be able to absorb a blow, but the staff might not. Also, closer Jason Isringhausen might not be 100 percent for a long time, thanks to offseason shoulder surgery. But as long as the pitching is not horrible, the Cardinals will be OK.

Houston Astros. With the arrival of second baseman Jeff Kent, the Astros will have a potent offense and, thanks to playing in a bandbox of a stadium, will put heat on the Cardinals. But Houston's pitching could be worse than St. Louis', and the Astros are older and have more injury risks. Jeff Bagwell appears to be on the downside of a great career, and Craig Biggio is no longer a sure thing. The rotation behind Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller is full of questions.

Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are a team to watch, even after last year's disastrous 67-95 season. New manager Dusty Baker could be worth a bunch of wins but, ultimately, how he gets along with Sammy Sosa could determine the Cubs' season. The rotation is solid, led by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Matt Clement came on late last season, and some in the team think Carlos Zambrano could have a big year. The offense is just a bit undeveloped, and the teams ahead of the Cubs are too good, for them to make the postseason.

Cincinnati Reds. A new stadium and a fun outfield. That's what the Reds have going for them. People have been betting all spring on how Ken Griffey will do, and most think he will be more like the former Griffey than the recent Griffey. That still is something of a long shot, but if it happens, the Reds will be a pain this year. Like so many teams, the Reds have basically no starting pitchers.

Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers. We'll lump these two together because they have the same chance of playing in October. They each have a couple of guys you know (Brian Giles, Jason Kendall and Kenny Lofton in Pittsburgh and Richie Sexson and Geoff Jenkins in Milwaukee) and a bunch of young question marks. Neither has much pitching depth after a couple solid aces. In the best possible world, the Pirates might get close to .500, while the Brewers might be the league's worst team.

 

 
   
 

 

San Francisco Giants. Give GM Brian Sabean credit for constantly reshaping and pushing this team forward. As long as Barry Bonds is around, this team will be potent. And the changes the club made have potential. The big question will be third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo. If he hits .308 again, he will be an RBI machine hitting behind Bonds. Young pitchers Damian Moss and Ryan Jensen need to step up, and new manager Felipe Alou certainly will give them that chance.

Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers have spent several seasons building and molding their pitching staff, and it appears to finally have fallen into place. Kevin Brown seems healthy after two injury-plagued seasons, and he will be a great No. 3 starter behind Odalis Perez and Hideo Nomo, both coming off stellar years. Outfielder Shawn Green has turned into one of the game's top sluggers, but the real pressure will be on the infield. First baseman Fred McGriff is aging, rookie second baseman Joey Thurston is an unknown and third baseman Adrian Beltre still is underachieving. If each of those three has big years, Los Angeles would have enough offense to make a run at the division title.

Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks collapsed in the playoffs last year after using mirrors to get through the season, and this year could be a long one. Pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling obviously are two of the game's best, but they have little help. Key hitters Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley and Matt Williams are way too old and injury-prone. With ex-closer Byung-Hyun Kim moved into the rotation, Matt Mantei is supposed to anchor the bullpen coming off a serious elbow injury. He will blow too many games for Arizona to make the playoffs, despite Johnson's and Schilling's efforts.

Colorado Rockies. The Rockies should be an interesting team because they abandoned their one-year experiment with singles hitters and piled up on thumpers, and they now have two solid front-line starters in Jason Jennings and Dennis Stark. Preston Wilson, Jose Hernandez and Charles Johnson all could have career numbers hitting in a lineup anchored by Larry Walker and Todd Helton. But Denny Neagle still is the third starter, Jose Jimenez still is the closer and Coors Field still is a mile high. Maybe .500 but no playoffs.

San Diego Padres. The Padres season basically ended this spring when Phil Nevin went down for the season with a shoulder injury. They have a ton of great young pitchers who could lead a very good team in a couple of years, but they just don't have any offense right now outside of Ryan Klesko. They also have no budget for improvements, and they might not have a closer because nobody knows when, or if, Trevor Hoffman will pitch again.

 

POSTSEASON

American League Divisional Series: Yankees d. White Sox, A's d. Red Sox (wild card).
American League Championship Series: A's d. Yankees

National League Divisional Series: Cardinals d. Braves, Dodgers (wild card) d. Giants
National League Championship Series: Dodgers d. Cardinals

World Series: A's d. Dodgers in 6

 

AWARDS

AL MVP: Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox
AL Cy Young: Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox
AL Rookie of the Year: Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees
First AL manager fired: Mike Hargrove, Baltimore Orioles
Potential AL surprise team: Texas Rangers

NL MVP: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
NL Cy Young: Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks
NL Rookie of the year: Joey Thurston, Los Angeles Dodgers
First NL manager fired: Larry Bowa, Philadelphia Phillies
Potential NL surprise team: Colorado Rockies

*BT*

 

Matt Pitzer is a writer for USA Today Sports Weekly. In his last story for the Black Table, he correctly predicted the Buccaneers would win the Super Bowl.