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Big Three add up to A's No. 1


Special to ESPN.com

March 31

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was only two years ago when the season opened and Bud Selig said two-thirds of the teams in baseball knew they had no hope of playing in the postseason. We all know there was a labor negotiation and contraction in the back of Selig's mind, but here it is 2003 and close to two-thirds of the teams have a right to trot out on Opening Day believing that if the moon and stars are aligned and the creeks don't rise, they could squeeze through the cracks to play in October.

Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder was 10-2 in 16 starts in the second half last season.

There are a myriad reasons why, starting with the fact that between the labor talk and concentration on what takes place off, not on the field, the business has taken a hit right down to dreadful World Series television ratings directly traced to 11 months of the people who run the sport telling the audience how horrible everything had become. Just as important, the economy has dramatically impacted almost every owner and the current specter of a $1 trillion debt scares a Drayton McLane into refusing to risk $4.6 million in Shane Reynolds incentives, or shy a Red Sox ownership into declining a Jose Jimenez contract without someone, somewhere swallowing Bobby Howry.

George Steinbrenner has every right to believe that he has bought his way into the playoffs, although as he has found out the last two weeks, he has the right people managing his investment in Joe Torre and Brian Cashman, who kept David Wells and Raul Mondesi moments from becoming full-blown incidents. Everyone wonders what interest rate Jerry Colangelo is paying on his credit card, but he has every right to believe that his Diamondbacks will be back there, as well.

But after a season in which the Anaheim Angels slayed the mighty Yankees and scurried to the world championship, while the Minnesota Twins made it to the ALCS and the Giants were five outs away from World Series rings on a strict budget, there is a different tint to the spring's rose-colored glasses. Let's go division-by-division:

  • The NL East is such an unpredictable forest that probably the only team that doesn't believe it has a chance to make the postseason is Montreal, because of its schedule and the Bartolo Colon fiasco, meaning what was given up to get him and what they ultimately got in return. The Braves clearly looked like one of the best teams in Florida, but if Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd struggle ...? The Phillies have made an interesting team potentially very good, but there are bullpen issues not to mention the media cloud that hangs over Larry Bowa. So if there are worst-case scenarios and the Braves and Phillies are in the 85-88 win range, then the Marlins and Mets can think of the best-case scenarios -- for New York, everyone has a comeback year and all line drives are at someone; for Florida, the A.J. Burnett-Josh Beckett-Brad Penny troika wins 50-something games in Florida -- and dream of sneaking into October.

  • The NL Central has the Cardinals as favorites, but St. Louis also opens the season with Jason Isringhausen and J.D. Drew sidelined, and there are physical questions about the starting rotation after Matt Morris. The Astros believe they can win the division. Everyone is afraid that all those explosive arms the Cubs have handed Dusty Baker will result in a turnaround from 95 losses to 90 wins. The Reds' lineup is so dangerous that if they ever got lucky with the starting pitching they could win in the high 80s, and if they can get there -- who knows?

  • The NL West potentially could have the three best teams in the league in the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants.

  • The AL East has the team most certain to make the postseason in the Yankees. The Red Sox won 93 games, theoretically improved themselves, and are coming off a year in which they were a Devil Rayesque 13-23 in one-run games.

  • The AL Central has two clear postseason possibilities in Minnesota and Chicago.

  • And in the AL West, the A's believe they can win it all as long as Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson -- 1-2-3 in the league in wins since Zito's July 22, 2000 debut -- are healthy. The Angels know they can win, and if Gil Meche is healthy, the Mariners think their pitching, speed and defense can carry them back into the playoffs.

    So that's 11 of the 16 NL teams that at least think on Opening Day that they have a chance, seven of the 14 American League teams.

    That's better than Bud Selig's "two-thirds of the teams go to spring training knowing they don't have a chance." Problem is, which statistic does the average or casual sports fan believe: the Selig 20 or the realistic 18?

    Anyway, here is what's in the sight of one mind's eye:

    Divisional races
    American League: New York, Minnesota, Oakland, with the Twins having an excellent chance of winning the most regular-season games. Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Anaheim all clearly could be postseason teams, but it seems very difficult for the AL West to produce the wild card for the fourth straight year because the division is so stacked. Both Sox teams play in top-heavy divisions, and how each treats the poor -- Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the East or Kansas City and Detroit in the Central -- may determine who gets into the postseason. Remember, both the Red Sox and White Sox have the two starters at the top of the rotation with the potential to ride deep into October.

    National League: It can go anywhere, but the Diamondbacks are the favorites because of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and because their starting pitching could be dominant. The Braves and Phillies have their issues, but there is a track record: Bobby Cox always figures out a way to take all those little cardboard cutouts and turn them into a finished puzzle.

    World Series: Oakland over Arizona.

    Individual awards
    MVP
    Five players that seem ready to fight Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds for the MVPs:
    AL NL
    Manny Ramirez, Boston Scott Rolen, St. Louis
    Jason Giambi, New York Junior Griffey, Cincinnati
    Magglio Ordonez, Chicago Gary Sheffield, Atlanta
    Eric Chavez, Oakland Sammy Sosa, Chicago
    Troy Glaus, Anaheim Pat Burrell, Philadelphia
    The blind-guess envelope: Ramirez and Rolen.


    CY YOUNG
    Three pitchers who could challenge Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson for the Cy Youngs:
    AL NL
    Roy Halladay, Toronto Curt Schilling, Arizona
    Mark Mulder, Oakland Roy Oswalt, Houston
    Joel Pineiro, Seattle Matt Morris, St. Louis
    The blind-guess envelope: Martinez and Schilling.

    ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
    Rookies of the Year other than Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras, who have 20 years of big-league experience between them:
    AL NL
    Brandon Phillips, Cleveland Xavier Nady, San Diego
    Mark Teixeira, Texas Brandon Larson, Cincinnati
    Travis Hafner, Cleveland Hee Seop Choi, Chicago

    Spring observations
    POISED FOR MAJOR COMEBACKS
    AL NL
    Frank Thomas, Chicago Junior Griffey, Cincinnati
    Cory Koskie, Minnesota Kevin Brown, Los Angeles
    Matt Lawton, Cleveland Sean Casey, Cincinnati
    Gil Meche, Seattle Pudge Rodriguez, Florida
    Jermaine Dye, Oakland Aramis Ramirez, Pittsburgh

    CLOSER INJURIES TO WATCH
    Or why more teams are thinking committee:
    1. Jason Isringhausen, St. Louis.
    2. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees.
    3. Robb Nen, San Francisco.
    4. Antonio Alfonseca, Chicago Cubs.
    5. Kazuhiro Sasaki, Seattle.

    CHANGES TO WATCH
    1. Craig Biggio to center field from second base, after going from catcher to second.
    2. Byung-Hyun Kim from closer to starter. Bet the house on this working.
    3. Aaron Boone from third base to second. Hey, his grandfather was an All-Star catcher and became an All-Star infielder.
    4. Danny Graves from closer to starter.
    5. Danys Baez from starter to closer.
    6. Roger Cedeno taking over in center field.
    7. Dmitri Young moving from left field/first base to third.
    8. Hank Blalock trying to go from third base to second.
    9. Brooks Kieschnick going from minor-league slugger to major-league reliever/hitter. Why don't they do the same with Darren Dreifort and Rick Ankiel?
    10. Greg Swindell to 80 percent knuckleballer.
    11.The seats to the screen atop The Green Monster. Pity the poor opposing left fielders. Matsui will hear every variation of "suck" ever known to man.

    TEAM PLAYERS
    Players whose pure, positive energy makes their teams better:
    AL NL
    Torii Hunter, Minnesota Sean Casey, Cincinnati
    Kevin Millar, Boston Paul Lo Duca, Los Angeles
    Jose Valentin, Chicago Brad Ausmus, Houston
    Orlando Hudson, Toronto Jim Thome, Philadelphia
    Eric Byrnes, Oakland Dave Roberts, Los Angeles
    Brandon Phillips, Cleveland

    POISED FOR MONSTER SEASONS
    AL NL
    Manny Ramirez, Boston Junior Griffey, Cincinnati
    Derek Jeter, New York Gary Sheffield, Atlanta
    Troy Glaus, Anaheim Kerry Wood, Chicago
    Carlos Delgado, Toronto Rich Aurilia, San Francisco
    Edgar Martinez, Seattle Greg Maddux, Atlanta
    Rafael Palmeiro, Texas A.J. Burnett, Florida
    Nomar Garciaparra, Boston Luis Gonzalez, Arizona

    POISED FOR BREAKOUT SEASONS
    AL NL
    Vernon Wells, Toronto Derrek Lee, Florida
    Kyle Lohse, Minnesota Carlos Zambrano, Chicago
    Kevin Millar, Boston Marcus Giles, Atlanta
    Orlando Hudson, Toronto Josh Beckett, Florida
    Ted Lilly, Oakland Ryan Dempster, Cincinnati
    Jeremy Affeld, Kansas City Adrian Beltre, Los Angeles
    Jeff Weaver, New York Tony Armas Jr., Montreal

    SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENTS
    1. A's starter Ted Lilly in the lower body and delivery.
    2. Red Sox third baseman Shea Hillenbrand in his lower-half flexibility and shortening his approach.
    3. Phillies starter Brandon Duckworth throwing strikes.
    4. Rockies starter Shawn Chacon in his mound presence and demeanor.
    5. Indians outfielder Milton Bradley in his on-base approach and body language.
    6. Reds starter Ryan Dempster because of his changeup.

    SIGNIFICANT ROOKIES
    1. Jose Contreras, RHP, New York Yankees. May be the most important part to that staff by the time the season closes.
    2. Hideki Matsui, OF, New York Yankees.
    3. Brandon Phillips, 2B, Cleveland. Star.
    4. Mark Teixeira, 3B, Texas. Ditto.
    5. Xavier Nady, OF, San Diego.
    6. Hee Seop Choi, 1B, Chicago Cubs.
    7. Rocco Baldelli, OF, Tampa Bay. The question is simply whether or not it's too much too soon, but the skills are astounding.
    8. Travis Hafner, 1B, Cleveland. As long as the wrist is OK.
    9. Brandon Larson, Cincinnati. Power galore, if healthy.
    10. Lyle Overbay, Arizona.
    11. Miguel Olivo, White Sox. Tony Pena II.
    12. Franklyn German, closer, Detroit. Armando Benitez II.
    13. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, Detroit. The talk of central Florida. Question is whether he has enough of a third pitch to be rushed.
    14. Ricardo Rodriguez and Jason Davis, RHPs, Cleveland. High ceilings, athleticism.
    15. John Patterson, RHP, Arizona.
    16. Mike MacDougal, closer, Kansas City. Throws 100 mph.
    17. Josh Stewart, LHP, Chicago White Sox.
    18. Kurt Ainsworth, RHP, San Francisco.
    19. Horacio Ramirez, LHP Atlanta. And don't forget that Trey Hodges is 32-17 the last two years.
    20. Josh Bard, C, Cleveland. He is to this young staff what Brad Ausmus and Jason Varitek are to theirs.
    21. Ken Harvey, 1B-DH, Kansas City.

    10 WHO CAUGHT SCOUTS' EYES
    1. Guillermo Mota, Los Angeles. "Best bullpen arm I've seen."
    2. Oliver Perez, San Diego. "Second coming of John Candelaria."
    3. Chris Woodward, Toronto. The 3.5 percent body fat is a problem sometimes.
    4. Felipe Lopez, Cincinnati. Great tools, enthusiasm.
    5. Michael Cuddyer, Minnesota. Problem is, the worst thing to be is a right fielder in the Twins organization.
    6. Brad Lidge, Houston. To Dotel to Wagner?
    7. Bobby Seay, Tampa Bay. He and Seth McClung had good springs.
    8. Carlos Silva, Philadelphia.
    9. Zach Day, Montreal. A very promising rotation.
    10. Eric Munson, Detroit.

    UP AND COMING
    Young players you'll probably see before Aug. 15:
    1. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets. 53 extra base hits in the minors last year at 19?
    2. Clifford Lee, LHP, Cleveland.
    3. Jesse Foppert, RHP, San Francisco. As Dave Righetti says, Foppert's ceiling is what ever he chooses.
    4. Rich Harden, RHP, Oakland. First full pro season: 187 strikeouts in 153 innings.
    5. Jason Lane, OF, Houston.
    6. Jason Young, RHP, Colorado.
    7. Victor Martinez, C, Cleveland.
    8. Alex Escobar, OF, Cleveland.
    9. Reynaldo Garcia, RHP., Texas.
    10. Adam LaRoche, 1B, Atlanta. Apple of Bobby Cox's eye, OPS over .900 last year.
    11. David Kelton, 3B, Cubs. The yips are gone, the bat back.
    12. Greg Dobbs, 3B, Seattle.
    13. Garrett Atkins, 3B, Colorado. The .388 OBP and gap power plays Coor's Lite'
    14. Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis. Tony LaRussa would have liked to have him open the season with the Cards. 20-year old and third in the family.
    15. Jody Gerut, RF, Cleveland. All of a sudden, power to go with everything else.
    16. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia. Larry Bowa thinks 20-25 homers every year.
    17. Francis Beltran, RHP, Cubs.

    FUTURE STARS
    Young players whose spring training stamped them as future stars:
    1. Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota. Great hands, Pudge arm, .300 hitter, power to come, makeup off the charts.
    2. Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee. It won't take long. "That may be the best bat I've seen all spring," one scout said.
    3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Atlanta.
    4. Angel Guzman, RHP, Chicago Cubs. Minors: 21-6, 2.77 ERA. When does it end with these guys?
    5. Laynce Nix, OF, Texas.
    6. Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota.
    7. Jeremy Guthrie, RHP, Cleveland.
    8. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Boston.
    9. Dontrelle Willis, LHP, Florida 23-5, 227-57 K-BB.
    10. Jeff Francoeur, OF, Atlanta.
    11. Justin Huber, C, New York Mets. Pure hitter, .395 OB percentage discipline.
    12. Zack Greinke, RHP, Kansas City.
    13. Wendell Young, 1B, Pittsburgh. 25 HR, 103 RBI, .953 OPS in A ball.
    14. Jeremy Brown, C, Oakland.
    15. James Loney, 1B-OF, Los Angeles. Played spring training at 18 and acted as if he were 28.
    16. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Florida.
    17. Luis Terrero, OF, Arizona. The classic five-tool player, but has to assemble them.
    18. Bobby Crosby, SS, Oakland.
    19. Choo Freeman, OF, Colorado.
    20. Aaron Heilman, RHP, New York Mets.

    ONE GOOD ARGUMENT
    In this era of multi-dimensional star middle infielders, I listened to a debate on who has the highest upside: Brandon Phillips (who eventually moves to shortstop when Omar Vizquel retires), Jose Reyes or Boston's Hanley Ramirez. It came out in a dead heat. The numbers:
    Player Age Career AB OBP SLP AVG.
    Reyes 19 A-AA 1,102 .343 .439 .290
    Phillips 21 A-Maj. 1,646 .344 .430 .279
    Ramirez 19 A 458 .400 .541 .349

    Special mention
    The Royals. OK, by midseason they have to make critical decisions on whether or not to trade Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran, but general manager Allard Baird has put toether a galaxy of power arms. They have three outstanding young starters in Jeremy Affeldt, Runelvys Hernandez and Miguel Asencio.

    Zach Greinke, 19, might be the next Maddux; LHP Jimmy Gobble is a potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues; RHP Kyle Snyder is a high-ceiling starter on his way back from surgery; Ian Ferguson is 36-14 in the minors; 26-year-old D.J. Carrasco, once released by the Orioles and Indians, is a Rule 5 from Pittsburgh and has looked like the second coming of Octavio Dotel; and relievers Jeremy Hill and Ryan Bukvich have 352 strikeouts in 284 minor-league innings.

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