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Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I cannot remember heading into a season where in my mind there were such overwhelming favorites to get to the World Series.
I know it is a long year and anything can happen, but as I sit here waiting for Sunday night, I am telling you that I cannot make an argument against the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies facing off once again next October.
The Yankees won 103 games last year and are better this season. When Javier Vazquez is your fourth starter, you know you are in good shape. Plus if Joba Chamberlain reverts back to being that electric pitcher who burst on the scene in 2007, the Yankees bullpen is going to be as good and deep as it has ever been.
Alex Rodriguez had a down year a season ago by his standards, belting just 30 home runs with 100 RBI in only 124 games. Everything points to him having a monster year. He enters this season with that 800-pound weight of not being able to hit in the clutch off his shoulders. Also, for the first time in a while, he enters a season drama free. Most Yankees fans are now knocking on wood, but I just have a hunch that he is aware his position as the best player in the game is gone. I think he wants it back and will take it.
If you want to look for something to nitpick about with this team, you can point to the losses of Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and even Melky Cabrera, maybe the three most clutch hitters in that lineup from a year ago.
But, it is not as if they are replacing that trio with nobodies. Curtis Granderson was an All-Star last season and Nick Johnson may fit that lineup as well as anyone playing today. I mean with the way he gets on base and with Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez hitting behind him, Johnson should score 130 runs this season if he stays healthy.
How deep is the Yankee lineup this year? Well Nick Swisher hit 29 home runs a year ago and is hitting eighth.
The Yankees' biggest obstacle is playing in the AL East, which most people think plays host to three of the best four teams in the whole league. I disagree. I am not as sold on the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays as everyone else. In fact I think Baltimore is going to finish in the top three of that division.
That's right, the Baltimore Orioles, the team who has not had a winning season since 1997.
Chicago seems to be the team to beat in the AL Central. Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle are about as good a 1-2 punch there is in the league. Minnesota should make some noise - they always do - but the loss of Joe Nathan to Tommy John surgery will be too much to overcome. I will tell you what, though. I never count Rod Gardenhire out of anything. For my money he is the best manager in the game.
The AL West should be interesting. A lot of people think this is the year the Los Angeles Angels fall off their perch. Like Gardenhire, Mike Scioscia is money in the bank and I will believe it when I see it that the Angels aren't the team to beat.
There is a lot of buzz surrounding the Seattle Mariners, but thanks to Cliff Lee's abdomen injury things are already off to a shaky start in the Pacific Northwest. You know the story with the Texas Rangers. All hitting and no pitching. Could that change this year with Rich Harden heading the rotation? It could, but as always he is an inning away from that right arm just blowing up. If he is the guy you have to count on, you might be in rough shape.
Bottom line is, nobody is beating the Yankees.
As lopsided as I think it is in the American League, though, it is even worse in the National League, where Philadelphia is so much better than everyone else it is ridiculous.
Philadelphia was easily the best team in the league a year ago and all they did this offseason was add the best pitcher in baseball. Not to mention if Brad Lidge is just a little better than he was last season, they are way ahead of the game. You can also say the same think about Jimmy Rollins, who hit at a .250 clip.
Then there's Roy Halladay, who is going to be so good in the National League, it's almost unfair. Show me the pitcher who comes over from the American League and doesn't succeed. Remember how good CC Sabathia was with Milwaukee, Halladay is going to be even better.
Now If you are trying to be a negative Ned, the overall depth of the Phillies' pitching staff is a cause for concern. Cole Hamels' inconsistent 2009 campaign probably forced the Phils to go out and get Lee and later Halladay. But I think he will be fine. After that, though it does get a little rough, especially if Joe Blanton's oblique injury lingers.
Luckily, Philadelphia's lineup is so good it does not matter. From top-to- bottom there is not an easy out. I don't think it will be as productive as the Yankees, but it is real close.
Now of course the Phillies have to deal with the dreaded Sports Illustrated jinx. The magazine this week picked Charlie Manuel's crew to beat the Tampa Bay Rays to win the World Series. Now, I don't believe in jinxes, but this is the same magazine who picked the Mets to win it all a year ago.
You can pretty much pencil the AL playoff teams in, but outside of the Phillies and probably the Cardinals, I have no idea who is going to be playing in October in the NL. And don't get this twisted, it's not because there are so many good teams to choose from. In fact it's the opposite. Nobody stands out to me.
Take the NL East for example. Atlanta seems to be a trendy wild card pick. The Braves probably have the best rotation in the league, but does anyone actually think they have the firepower to beat the Phillies? Nobody in that division does. Philadelphia should have the East wrapped up sometime around June 1.
St. Louis is good. Albert Pujols with Matt Holliday, plus the big two atop the rotation - Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright - will be enough to win the NL Central. The Cincinnati Reds are coming, though. It may not be this season, but they are coming.
The NL West is wide open. I like the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their lineup is loaded with young talent and I think Clayton Kershaw will take that next step this season. They will be tested by the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks, who are poised for a big bounce-back year.
However, in the end this is all going to be a big 162-game exhibition for the Yankees and Phillies.
So with that said let's take a look at some predictions, awards and few other off the wall nuggets. By the way full season previews of all 30 teams can be found here.
PREDICITIONS I WOULD NOT BET MY LIFE ON
AL EAST: NEW YORK YANKEES
AL CENTRAL: CHICAGO WHITE SOX
AL WEST: LA ANGELS
AL WILD CARD: BOSTON RED SOX
NL EAST: PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
NL CENTRAL: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
NL WEST: LOS ANGELES DODGERS
NL WILD CARD: ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
WORLD SERIES: YANKEES OVER PHILLIES
AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
AL CY YOUNG: Felix Hernandez
AL ROOKIE: Brian Matusz
AL MANAGER: Dave Trembley
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NL CY YOUNG: Dan Haren
ROOKIE: Jayson Heyward
NL MANAGER: A.J. Hinch
AL TEAM THAT WILL BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK: BALTIMORE ORIOLES
I have told everyone and anyone who will listen this winter that the Baltimore Orioles are going to be the surprise team in the American League this season. Now what does that mean? Do I think they are going to unseat the Yankees atop the AL East? No, of course not, but I do think they will be above .500 and if certain things break their way they could contend for the wild card.
AL TEAM THAT WON'T BE AS GOOD AS YOU THINK: DETROIT TIGERS
You know your team might be in some trouble when everyone is excited that Dontrelle Willis is going to be taking the ball for your club every fifth day. I know the AL Central is very winnable, but the Tigers are just too young in areas and too old in others to compete with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. Rookies Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore are going to be good, but they are going to take their lumps this season. Johnny Damon is going to prove to be a disaster at Comerica Park and Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen were done last season. If they didn't have Justin Verlander I would have them fighting for the Cleveland Indians for the cellar, but instead they will be fighting the Kansas City Royals to finish third.
NL TEAM THAT WILL BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK: ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Truth be told I picked the D-Backs to win the NL West last season. Well Brandon Webb went down one start in and Bob Melvin was fired in early May, as the Arizona finished 22 games under .500 (70-92). Despite that I am sticking with them, even knowing the fact that Webb will miss at least the first month of the year. Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy give them great depth in the rotation, which is headed by NL Cy Young candidate Dan Haren. Justin Upton became a bone fide star last year and he will continue to progress. I have them as my NL wild card, but don't be surprised if they walk away with a division crown.
NL TEAM THAT WON'T BE AS GOOD AS YOU THINK: COLORADO ROCKIES
It was hard to pick a team in the NL that I think is going to underachieve, because outside of the Phillies, I think the whole league stinks. If I had to pick one, though, it would be the Colorado Rockies. A lot of people are picking them to win the NL West. I don't see it, especially now that closer Huston Street might be out for a while. Don't underestimate how important he was to that team last year. Plus I think that whole division is going to be better. The Dodgers are going to be good, you know how I feel about the D- Backs, and the Giants could be real dangerous if they can get some power from Aubrey Huff. I hate to say it, but the Rockies may find themselves battling the awful San Diego Padres for the cellar in the NL West.
FIRST MANAGER TO GET FIRED: JERRY MANUEL, NEW YORK METS
This one is just too easy. Manuel got a pass last year because of all the injuries, but this year he won't be that lucky. Not to mention this team just is not that good. Other than Johan Santana there is nothing to that pitching staff. Jose Reyes' season is already off to a bad start, not to mention the injury to Carlos Beltran. General manager Omar Minaya should be the one to pay for this mess, but I have a feeling Manuel will be long gone before Mets' ownership gets a chance to make a decision on him.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: C.J. WILSON, TEXAS RANGERS
Wait, who? I am going out on a limb here, but I think C.J. Wilson is going to be a star this year. The flame-throwing left-hander is making the jump to the Rangers rotation after serving as one of the best setup men in all of baseball the last few years. He pitched to a 0.67 ERA at home as a reliever a year ago, but is 0-5 lifetime as a starter with a 12.05 ERA. If Texas is going to make some noise in the AL West, Wilson will be a big reason why.
BREAKDOWN PLAYER: RAUL IBANEZ, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Raul Ibanez was one of the best players in baseball through the first two months of last season. Then some off the wall steroid accusations surfaced, but more importantly he suffered an oblique injury which landed him on the disabled list. However, he hit just .232 in the second half of last season and was not impressive in the playoffs. Ibanez has been terrible this spring. He turns 38 in June. It is not crazy to think he may have hit the wall.
A FEW NAMES YOU WILL BE FAMILIAR WITH AT END OF SEASON:
1) JASON HEYWARD, ATLANTA
The hype machine has been churning on this monster all spring. Just about every publication labeled him as the top prospect in baseball and he responded with some mammoth home runs early on, some of which even broke windows of cars and dented trucks. Bobby Cox has compared him to Mickey Mantle. I am not exactly sure if the Braves wanted to bring Heyward north with them, but about a week or so into camp it all became a moot point, as it became evident that the future was now for the five-tool superstar.
2) BRIAN MATUSZ, BALTIMORE
A lot of my love for the Orioles this season centers around this 23-year-old left-hander. Matusz has been the pitching gem of the Orioles' system ever since the team took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. After a brief stint with the O's towards the end of last year, he is slated to be the team's No. 3 starter. If he wins 12-14 games this year the Orioles will be a top-3 team in the AL East.
3) WALLY BACKMAN
Now I know everyone probably already knows who Wally Backman is. Second baseman for the '86 Mets, hot managing prospect until his checkered past was revealed. Well Backman was hired this offseason as the manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league affiliate of the Mets. And wouldn't you know it, the Mets are probably going to be looking for a new skipper somewhere around the All-Star break. They won't have to look very far. I thought the Mets should have gone the Backman route after Willie Randolph was fired. It would be a bold move, as Backman certainly comes with some baggage. But this move would be welcomed with open arms by a fanbase that has just about had it with this team.
4) BRYCE HARPER
Harper was dubbed "the LeBron James of baseball" by Sports Illustrated as a sophomore in high school, which he left two years early to pursue a professional career. He is only 17, but received his GED in December and will be eligible for this year's draft following a spring season playing for the College of Southern Nevada. He can play the infield, but his best position is catcher. Most people think the Washington Nationals will select Harper first and pair him with last year's phenom, Stephen Strasburg, as the future cornerstones of that organization.
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