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Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After what seemed like the longest Spring Training in history, we are finally ready to lift the lid on the 2009 Major League Baseball season.
A lot has changed since Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske to clinch the Philadelphia Phillies' second-ever World Series title, while delivering the City of Brotherly Love its first major sports championship of any kind in 25 years.
Philadelphia is again an odds-on favorite to win the NL East, as it returns basically the same team from a year ago with the exception of left fielder Pat Burrell, who moved on, coincidentally, to the Rays. The Phillies may actually be better this season with the more consistent Raul Ibanez in left.
The Philly faithful, though, got a bit of a scare early on this spring when ace left-hander Cole Hamels, fresh off his World Series MVP and a brand new three-year contract, was sent back to Philadelphia for tests on his elbow. Luckily, everything was fine and he is on pace to pitch during the season's first week.
Of course, as is the annual case with baseball during this era, there was a ton of player movement this offseason. However, most of those players ended up in the Bronx, as the New York Yankees, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 last year, spent $423.5 million on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira.
We will also enter the year with two new managers, as former Oakland skipper Ken Macha takes over in Milwaukee, with Don Wakamatsu handling the reins in Seattle. Interim skippers like Jerry Manuel of the Mets and Cito Gaston of the Blue Jays were also hired full-time.
And then we have Alex Rodriguez.
It was revealed shortly before the start of Spring Training that Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids as part of an "anonymous" test in 2003. Rodriguez later revealed that he naively took performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03 while with the Texas Rangers.
The three-time MVP never really fessed up to anything, as he put the blame on others, in turn drawing criticism from just about everyone.
Then, just as the steroid smoke started to clear, the highest-paid player in the history of the game found out that the discomfort he had in his hip towards the end of last season and early this spring was actually a torn labrum which would need surgery to repair. Initially it was believed that he would be out for four months, but he and the Yankees chose a less invasive approach and he will miss just the first month of the year. He will still need the full surgery following the season.
Rodriguez's Yankees will play in a new home this season, as their new state of the art facility is ready to be unveiled. However, it likely won't feature the booming voice of Bob Sheppard, who has been the team's public address announcer since 1951. Sheppard, 98, has been ill and missed most of last season. It had been reported that he would retire, but the Yankees refuted that report, hoping he still could make an appearance at some point.
The Yankees aren't the only Big Apple team playing in new digs this season. The New York Mets will open Citi Field, replacing what many people felt was the worst ballpark in America, Shea Stadium.
PREDICTIONS I WOULDN'T BET MY LIFE ON:
AL EAST: NEW YORK YANKEES
AL CENTRAL: MINNESOTA TWINS
AL WEST: OAKLAND ATHLETICS
AL WILD CARD: TAMPA BAY RAYS
NL EAST: PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
NL CENTRAL: CHICAGO CUBS
NL WEST: ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
NL WILD CARD: FLORIDA MARLINS
WORLD SERIES: YANKEES OVER DIAMONDBACKS
AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera
AL CY YOUNG: CC Sabathia
AL ROOKIE: Matt Wieters
AL MANAGER: Bob Geren
NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez
NL CY YOUNG: Tim Lincecum NL
ROOKIE: Colby Rasmus
NL MANAGER: Fredi Gonzalez
AL TEAM THAT WILL BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK: KANSAS CITY ROYALS
If you are searching for this year's version of the Rays, look no further than the Royals. Whether manager Trey Hillman's message finally started to get through, or general manager Dayton Moore's tough talk about turning over the roster scared some people, something clicked late last season, as the Royals reeled off their most wins in a month since 1994 by going 18-8 in September. I like the additions of Mike Jacobs and Jose Guillen, plus I think Zack Greinke finally has his head on straight and is again one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Plus, their bullpen is as good as any team's in baseball. They might not have enough to win the AL Central, but they will be in the hunt come September.
AL TEAM THAT WON'T BE AS GOOD AS YOU THINK: LA ANGELS OF ANAHEIM
It seems as if the Angels always enter a season with their pitching staff banged up, yet at the end of the year, they have 100 wins and a division title under their belt. Well, they are banged up again going into this season, but this is the year I think it catches up to them. Plus they still haven't addressed the one need they have had since Vladimir Guerrero signed - there is not another big time bat in that lineup to protect him. Teixeira helped last year, but the Halos couldn't keep him in the fold. Instead they went out and got Bobby Abreu on a one-year bargain. The starting pitching scares me too, especially if Ervin Santana's elbow problem lingers.
NL TEAM THAT WILL BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK: FLORIDA MARLINS
The Florida Marlins have the best young player in all of baseball in Hanley Ramirez. Not to mention that their young starting rotation is as good as that of any team in the National League. Last year the team was banking on outfielder Cameron Maybin to have a breakout rookie season, but he wasn't ready. This year he is. Nobody talks about the Marlins in the NL East. Everyone seems to think that it is a forgone conclusion that either the Phillies or Mets will be left standing in the end. I am not so sure. Don't be shocked if the Fish are in the playoffs when it is all said and done.
Speaking of which...
NL TEAM THAT WON'T BE AS GOOD AS YOU THINK: NEW YORK METS
Fresh off Sports Illustrated picking them to win the World Series, I am here to tell you that the New York Mets will not even make the playoffs. They addressed a glaring need in their bullpen with the additions of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz, but did nothing to upgrade this team offensively. I might be more inclined to buy David Murphy in left if there wasn't a Ryan Church/Fernando Tatis platoon in right. Tatis? Are you kidding me? He hasn't done anything in seven years and wasn't even in the majors in '07, but I am supposed to believe that he is a viable option for a playoff team? Also, let's not forget about Carlos Delgado, who every Met fan on the planet wanted to get rid of last season. He has a few good months and all of a sudden he is no longer a question mark. Johan Santana is the best pitcher alive, but there is not another sure thing in that rotation. At least there won't be a choke down the stretch this time, because I don't think they will even be in the mix come September.
FIRST MANAGER TO GET FIRED: JIM LEYLAND, DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers were a huge disappointment last season, as they became the most expensive last place team in MLB history. I have a feeling things are not going to get any better this year. Leyland is a Hall of Fame manager, but he does not have a contract beyond this season. I don't think they will finish last in the division, but I also don't have them in the top-3 of the AL Central. If this team gets off to a slow start, which is a distinct possibility given the current state of their rotation, I am not sure Leyland will survive.
SUPERSTAR WHO WILL BE DEALT BY THE TRADE DEADLINE: ROY HALLADAY, TORONTO
This Blue Jays team is going nowhere. The window has closed for them to threaten the Red Sox and Yankees in the East. It never happened and now they have been passed over by the Rays. What better way to break it all up and go in a different direction than to deal Roy Halladay. Toronto would get a ton in return for him, and since he still has a year left on his contract after 2009, two or three top-notch prospects would not be too much to ask.
MILESTONE TO WATCH FOR
There are also a handful of significant milestones to watch for this coming season. San Francisco Giants lefty Randy Johnson is five wins shy of 300 for his remarkable career, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera needs 18 saves to join Trevor Hoffman as the only relievers with 500, and slugger Gary Sheffield is just one home run short of 500 for his career.
However, Sheffield may have a tough time getting that homer since he is without a team at the moment, following his surprising release from Detroit earlier this week. Reportedly, there are a couple of teams in the National League that are interested.
Also, Delgado is 31 shy of 500 home runs, while Jason Giambi (396), who is back in Oakland and Guerrero (392) are closing in on 400.
After the fiasco that was Game 5 of last year's World Series it was determined that from now on all "postseason games and games added to the regular season to determine qualifiers for the postseason" will become suspended games if they are called before nine innings are played, regardless of whether the game would otherwise qualify as an official game, or the score at the time the game is called.
The game will be resumed when conditions permit at the same location from the point of suspension.
Also new this year, coin tosses will no longer be used to determine home-field advantage for one-game tiebreakers held to determine division champions or wild card teams. Instead, "performance-based criteria" - including head-to- head record between the tied clubs - will be used to determine home-field advantage.
FOUR NAMES YOU WILL TO KNOW BY THE END OF THE SEASON:
1) MATT WIETERS, BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Matt Wieters is a can't-miss prospect with the Orioles. A favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year, Wieters was sent down to Triple-A for more seasoning, but he won't be there long. Expect the catcher to be with the big league club by June, and to be one of the few reasons to go to Camden Yards this season.
2) DAVID PRICE, TAMPA BAY RAYS
If you don't know who David Price is by now, you probably shouldn't be reading this anyway. The lefty won't be starting the season with the Rays, but don't worry, he will be there soon enough.
3) RICK PORCELLO, DETROIT TIGERS
Porcello was as highly-touted as David Price entering the 2007 draft. However, signability issues dropped him all the way to the end of the first round. The 20-year-old right-hander has been awesome this spring, and earned a spot in the Tigers rotation.
4) STEVEN STRASBURG, SAN DIEGO STATE
Strasburg is expected to go first overall in this June's draft and is being touted as one of the best pitching prospects in history. Strasburg wowed scouts recently, touching 103 mph with his fastball. Since radar guns began measuring speed, only one pitch has been timed faster - a 104.8 mph fastball by Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya in 2006.
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