In much of the country, snow covers the ground in record amounts, but the sun is bright and the diamond green in Florida. And as grapefruit and cactus league games begin there, baseball fans know that another season is just around the corner. Hope springs eternal, as every fan believes that for his team this is the year! (Okay, every fan outside of Kansas City or Pittsburgh.) In this spring training preview, we’ll look at some of the hot stove stories cooking for this season, as well as some teams and players to watch this year. We’ll also tell you who will be on top come October and playoffs.
STORIES FOR ’07
The big story that most of the baseball community will be following this year, regrettably, will be the Barry Bonds saga. If healthy, it will be when and not if he passes Hank Aaron for the all time Home Run record, and with only 22 taters to go, Major League Baseball will have to decide how to act. How do they appropriately celebrate the most hallowed record in all of sports, without condoning the behavior of the player? Commissioner Bud Selig has said he has not decided if he will attempt to be there when Bonds breaks the record, but it is safe to say that he and fans everywhere might be secretly hoping Bonds will discover he can no longer play, and retire without breaking the recordnot likely. Bonds will break the record, and baseball will have to atone for decades of turning a blind eye to rampant drug use in the sport.
Roger Clemens is the other 40+ player causing a stir this off-season. He has become the Brett Favre of baseball as every year we all ask “is he going to hang it up?” We will be asking this question again this year, and I don’t think weve seen the last of the Rocket just yet. But where will he play? Houston is willing to pay big bucks to let him stay home on road trips and be with his family. But, for Clemens, a player very aware of his legacy, both the NY Yankees (where he won his rings) and the Boston Red Sox (where he first made his name) will be enticing options. One sure thing about the Rocket, wherever he goes, he is going to get paid handsomely.
Baseball is as popular now as it has ever been, and profitable too. So, another story we will watch this year will be the multiple clubs that threw around ridiculous money for, at times, mediocre talent. Will the spending pay off? Who will be the next to be suspended for performance enhancing drugs? Will Tom Glavine reach 300 wins? And the burning question: who will win it all?
AL EAST (Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Orioles)
While all teams in this division are improved, the Jays and D-Rays in particular have some great young talent that could blossom. That said, this will again be a two horse race between NY and Boston. The Red Sox could have the best rotation in baseball with Schilling, Becket, Pappelbon, and Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka whose team they paid $50 mil just in order to speak to him. They also still have one of the best offences in the game, but their bullpen is suspect. The Yankees became younger in their rotation and welcomed back Andy Pettitte to re-ignite their World Series mystique. They will surely score a ton of runs and will pitch well enough to win, making for an exciting race. Prediction: Yankees take the division, Red Sox take the wild card, and we’ll have a 2004 ALCS rematch.
AL CENTRAL (Twins, Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Royals)
Possibly the most exciting division this year, with some very young and talented teams. The Tigers, White Sox, and Twins all could win the division and have the pitching to challenge their eastern counterparts for league dominance. After losing in the series to an inferior Cardinals team, the Tigers should come out swinging this year, and if their young hotshot pitchers stay healthy, could easily make it back again this year. The Twins have Cy-Young winner Johan Santana, as well as two of the best young hitters in the game (Morneau, and Mauer). The White Sox have a dynamic offense and the deepest rotation in baseball. The dark horse in this division is the Cleveland Indians. They collectively have the best young team in the game, and if they can pitch well it will make it difficult for the teams above to get out to a big lead. Prediction: This one will go down to the wire, but only one of these teams will make the playoffs, and I think it will be the Twins.
AL WEST (Angels, A’s, Mariners, Rangers)
The A’s and Angels are the class of this division, and should have no problem with Texas or Seattle. The A’s still have good young pitchers in Harden and Haren, but will struggle to produce enough offense to stay in the race all the way. Prediction: the Angels will be the representative for the AL west in the playoffs this year, but will not get out of the first round. Powered by Vladimir Guerrero, and young pitchers Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver, they can make things interesting, but not enough to overcome some of the better teams in the league.
NL EAST (Mets, Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Nationals)
The Mets ran away with the division last year and tied the Yankees for best record in baseball. Don’t expect them to run with it this year, as the Phillies have made some good acquisitions to close the gap, and the Mets have done nothing to address their injury riddled and aging rotation. The Braves are in the picture, but won’t be there down the stretch as this should be a good battle between the Mets and Phils, where a new rivalry is quickly brewing. The Mets can brag the most explosive offense in the game with young stars Joes Reyes and David Wright surrounded by established stars Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, and Moises Alou, as well as the best bullpen in the game. The Phillies will also score a ton of runs with reigning MVP Ryan Howard in the middle of the lineup, and they should pitch better than they did last year with the acquisition of Freddy Garcia. Prediction: This will be a fun contest to watch, but expect the Mets to once again come out on top, and the Phils to win the wild card.
NL CENTRAL (Cardinals, Cubs, Astros, Pirates, Brewers, Reds)
This was the weakest division in baseball last year, and it supplied the defending champs. This one will come down to the Cubs and Cardinals. The Cards have the most feared slugger in the game, Albert Pujols, a balanced lineup and good rotation. The Cubs made some big off-season acquisitions, bringing in outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Cliff Floyd, and pitcher Ted Lilly. They spend a lot of money on these players, but will need the often-hurt pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior to stay healthy if they plan on playing in October. Their offense should be dynamic, so expect them to be in the race all year. The Astros who last year had the worst offense, should be better with the acquisition of Carlos Lee. If Clemens come back to play for them, they could win the division. If not, they will be on the outside looking in. Prediction: Cards.
NL WEST (Giants, D-backs, Dodgers, Rockies, Padres)
A division on the rise. The Rockies and D’backs have some great young talent that will continue to develop, but they won’t make it this year. The Padres won the division a year ago, but don’t have the offensive firepower to do it again. Prediction: The Dodgers have the best shot at this division, with a good all around team and some good acquisitions made in Jason Schmidt and Juan Pierre. The Giants could make some noise, and severely overpaid to get Barry Zito, but don’t have enough talent in the right places to really challenge the Dodgers.
Image: Courtesy of Curt Mills