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Dissecting the field

JUPITER, Fla. -- My fellow Americans, the time for action is at hand.

Finally.

So as we head into the most intriguing campaign since, well, the last one, it is our solemn duty to inform you that reports of the incumbent's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

"To be honest," said Marlins spokesman Mike Lowell, during a recent stop on the Florida campaign trail, "we're disappointed we're not getting the respect we think we've earned. All everybody's talking about is Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Phillies, Cubs. ... But hey, that's fine. Put all the pressure on them. We know how good we are."

The incumbents, we have come to learn, have always known how good they are. For a long time last year, in fact, they might have been the only ones.

But the next thing all those "favorites" knew, the Florida Marlins were the folks jumping up and down last October, then jetting off to visit the White House. And everybody else was just going to have to spend the offseason trying to trade for A-Rod. Or something like that.

So now, here we all are again. And here they are. This isn't an election campaign that's about to unfold over the next seven months. It's a baseball season.

But by the time election day rolls around next fall, someone will occupy the throne that now belongs to the Marlins. It is our job, in this column, to round up all the candidates with a legitimate chance to do that.

We learned something fascinating, though, as we went through the process of assembling that list of candidates:

The incumbents, the Marlins, are being favored by absolutely no one -- OK, no one within 400 yards of the Florida Turnpike -- to do it all again.

We asked one American League GM to list eight teams he thought could win the World Series. Guess which very recent World Series champ never made the list?

The Twins did. The A's did. All those teams with big campaign budgets -- Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Cubs, Angels -- were on there. The Astros made the cut. Even the Dodgers (who didn't) got tossed around, on the theory they're about to trade for a big bat -- or bats.

But it's funny how, just a few months after the Francois Montand Brut stopped flowing all over their clubhouse, that team from Florida is already an afterthought.

"I don't think they have anywhere near the horses they had last year," said one NL executive.

"They've still got a good club," said an AL GM. "But I don't like their club as much as I like the Phillies."

On paper, it's true: The Marlins aren't as good as the Phillies. Or the Cubs. Or the Yankees. But how soon we all forget. They weren't last spring, either. Were they?

"If you'd asked me this question last year," laughed manager Jack McKeon, "I was still sitting home in North Carolina. So I wouldn't have said I'd be sitting here right now. And if you'd have asked me who I like in the East last year, I'd have said I like the Phillies. So who knows what's going to happen? No one knows what's going to happen."

And that's the beauty of sports. No one knows. We'd like to thank the 2003 Marlins for reminding us of that.

We may think we know. We may think that yeah, the Yankees got A-Rod, and the Red Sox got Curt Schilling, and the Astros reeled in the Pettitte-Clemens tag team, and the Phillies traded for Billy Wagner, and the Angels outspent the Defense Department over the winter.

But how often has the team that "won" the offseason gone right out and won the World Series? Not as often as we all tend to think. Matter of fact, the last team to do it, by our estimation, was the '97 Marlins.

So as we handicap the candidates, keep that in mind. What seems obvious in March can look mighty irrelevant by September. Nevertheless, as this campaign begins, the field looks like this:

John Kerry Division (surefire contenders)
Yankees: Biggest assets -- 17 All-Stars, $82-gazillion payroll, ability to fill any midseason need by taking on dollars. Biggest questions -- age, chemistry, un-Yankee-like lack of starting-pitching depth.

Red Sox: Biggest assets -- they-keep-on-coming lineup, Pedro-Schilling-Lowe trifecta atop the rotation, Keith Foulke stabilizing the bullpen. Biggest questions -- health, new manager (Terry Francona), pressure (uh, make that desperation) to topple the Yankees.

Cubs: Biggest assets -- deepest rotation on earth, addition of Derrek Lee to protect Sammy Sosa, addition of LaTroy Hawkins as closer insurance for Joe Borowski. Biggest questions: Mark Prior's Achilles crisis, lack of left-handed bats, unproven catcher (Michael Barrett) to handle spectacular pitching staff.

John Edwards Division (feel the buzz)
Angels: Biggest assets -- owner Arte Moreno's checkbook, Vladimir Guerrero's on-field charisma, best bullpen in the league (health permitting). Biggest questions -- Guerrero's back, Troy Percival's hip, lots of injury-prone key figures.

Phillies: Biggest assets -- Billy Wagner obliterating memories of Jose Mesa, five No. 2 starters, new-ballpark electricity. Biggest questions -- manager-player harmony, health of Jim Thome and David Bell, too much swinging and missing.

Astros: Biggest assets -- Roger Clemens-Andy Pettitte homecoming hysteria, rotation featuring four No. 1 starters, last-chance-for-this-cast-to-win urgency. Biggest questions -- Octavio Dotel's ability to close, five important players age 34 or older, no left-handed thump beyond Lance Berkman.

Richard Gephart Division (looks good on paper, anyway)
Twins: Biggest assets -- All-Web-Gem defense, evolution of Johan Santana-Kyle Lohse into top-of-rotation monsters, fabulous farm system for depth and trade flexibility. Biggest questions -- reworked bullpen (Joe Nathan as closer?), back-of-rotation uncertainty, chemistry in wake of changes in closest-knit group in baseball.

A's: Biggest assets -- the usual (Hudson-Mulder-Zito, duh), Eric Chavez committing to stick around, improved outfield defense (Mark Kotsay, Bobby Kielty). Biggest questions -- ability to score much (not that they have to), new pitching coach (Curt Young), can Arthur Rhodes close?

Mariners: Biggest assets -- pitching depth, great young arms (Rafael Soriano, Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Clint Nageotte, J.J. Putz), deeper lineup. Biggest questions -- age, downgraded defense, age, power shortage, age.

Dennis Kucinich Division (anything is possible, we guess)
Braves: Biggest assets -- best manager in the biz (Bobby Cox), core of winners, up-the-middle defense. Biggest questions -- replacing Gary Sheffield's and Javy Lopez's middle-of-the-order offense, no starting pitchers you fear, bullpen crew in front of John Smoltz.

Royals: Biggest assets -- potentially best lineup in the division, two big-time arms on the rise (Jeremy Affeldt, Zack Greinke), Carlos Beltran in free-agent year. Biggest questions -- No. 1-2 starters (Brian Anderson-Darrell May) not quite Pedro-Schilling, bullpen issues, which Juan Gonzalez shows up?

Cardinals: Biggest assets -- four good-as-it-gets position players (Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds), Matt Morris in free-agent year, return to health of Jason Isringhausen. Biggest questions -- who-the-heck-knows rotation beyond Morris, no leadoff man, Ray Lankford in left field?

OK, so it's possible we could also make cases for the Blue Jays, Giants, Diamondbacks and Padres. Maybe even the Dodgers and White Sox if we worked at it. But if we're down to an Al Sharpton Division, we're trying too hard.

And we still haven't discussed The Champs.

We'll warn you right now: They may have lost Derrek Lee, Pudge Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina -- but you'd better not forget them.

"We haven't," said the Phillies' Jim Thome. "And I don't think anybody should."

"Florida still has enough pieces to win," said the Braves' John Smoltz.

"The question," said Phillies reliever Tim Worrell, the closer for that Giants team Florida bounced out of the playoffs last year, "is not so much, 'Is the league overlooking them?' as it is, 'Are they going to believe in themselves the way they did last year?' "

Are they going to believe in themselves? Fascinating question.

On one level, that seems kind of like asking if Adam Sandler believes he's funny, or if Heidi Klum believes she's good-looking, or if Bill Gates believes he can pay the electric bill. Because if there's one thing we learned about those Florida Marlins last year, it's that they sure as heck believed in themselves.

In case we need to refresh your memory, just in the postseason alone, they won one game in which they trailed in extra innings. And another in which they threw out the winning run at the plate with two outs in the ninth. And another in which they trailed Mark Prior by three runs with five outs to go. And two in which they blew a lead with two outs in the ninth.

So this, clearly, was a team that always seemed to believe its next miracle was, oh, about 30 seconds away. And these guys wouldn't -- heck, couldn't -- have won the way they did if they hadn't believed in all those miracles.

"But two things got lost in all that," Lowell said. "One was, we were a good team. And two, we weren't intimidated. Sure, we got breaks. But any team that wins a championship gets breaks. You have to be good enough to take advantage of your breaks. And it seemed like any time we did get a break, we took advantage."

So are they still good enough to take the same kind of advantage? There are legitimate questions about that.

Derrek Lee is gone. His replacement, Hee Seop Choi, is viewed by many scouts as no more than a platoon player with seductive tools.

Pudge Rodriguez is gone, too. And while his primary replacement, Ramon Castro, hit twice as many homers this spring (six) as Rodriguez did after the All-Star break last year (three), there are doubts about his staying power.

"If you'd never seen him play," said one scout of Castro, "you'd say they won't miss Pudge. He'll have some huge games. But day-in, day-out, you wonder if he can put three games in a row together."

Ugueth Urbina has also slipped down the exit ramp, along with the closer for most of last season, Braden Looper. The new closer in town, Armando Benitez, can be as exasperating as closers get. And one scout described the rest of the bullpen, except for Chad Fox, as "a shambles."

But don't overlook the other half of the pitching equation. Josh Beckett hasn't gone anywhere. Brad Penny has added a changeup and had that breakout look this spring. Carl Pavano keeps getting better. Dontrelle Willis is still magnetic. And A.J. Burnett will be back from Tommy John surgery sometime. So this is still a rotation full of dominators.

Meanwhile, said McKeon, "everyone talks about who we lost. But we've got (Jeff) Conine for the entire year. And (Miguel) Cabrera for the entire year. And Willis for the entire year. And A.J. is waiting in the wings."

They're still disruptive on the bases. And plenty resourceful offensively. And as good as anyone defensively. So just as the world made a biggggg mistake not noticing all that talent the Marlins rolled out there last October, you would be making just as big a mistake to underestimate the talent that remains this year.

Which brings us back to Tim Worrell's question. The fate of this team may very well be decided by whether this group can indeed recapture the belief and the magic of last September and October.

"We lost some pieces," said Fox. "And they were some key pieces. ... But I'm still blown away by the chemistry of this team."

The laughter still bounces off every wall in their clubhouse. It's hard to find any invisible barriers in this room -- between young and old, pitchers and hitters, black and white, Americans and Latinos. So it's safe to predict they will get along.

But there's one other thing it's safe to predict: It can't be the same.

The manager won't get fired in May again. No new manager will show up to, as Lowell quips, have a magic touch that's "right next to God's." They can't expect to perform all those miracles again. They can't expect that the feeling of trying to repeat can ever equal the elation of winning for the first time. They concede that.

"You can't ever duplicate that feeling," Lowell admitted. "I don't know if anybody will ever duplicate it. ... But that doesn't mean that winning a second time is not a great feeling. I don't think Derek Jeter gets tired of jumping on that pile every October."

And seven months from now, somebody will be jumping on that pile. Could be Derek Jeter. Again. Could be Mike Lowell. Again. Could be a wide array of usual, or unusual, suspects.

But that's why they have the campaign. So may the really great debate of 2004 begin. Finally.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.