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Opening Day here we come

March 30

Every April Fool's Day since 1996, we have tried to concoct some reason why the Yankees won't be in the World Series, and reasons that about eight or 10 other contenders will. This year is no different. This is a good time to put on our shades and lie little lies to one another, but it's the same song, same refrain, like listening to "Louie, Louie" every half-hour for seven years.

As the season opens and the Yankees see Bernie Williams, Rondell White and Robin Ventura edging back into the lineup, Andy Pettitte essentially ready, David Wells coming back, Orlando Hernandez throwing very well (as he did on Thursday night) and Ramiro Mendoza not far away, let us be realistic: a lot of bad things have to happen for the Yankees not to return to the playoffs. And, barring a stunning upset by Seattle or Oakland, the World Series.

If, as expected, Derek Jeter leads off and Alfonso Soriano bats in the 6-7 range, the offense should be improved, the pitching by far the deepest they've ever had. "What scares me," says one AL GM, "is that pitching depth; there are a lot of us who would die for Ted Lilly. They'll score enough. It's all about pitching, as it is all the time."

The two teams that could stop New York from a fifth straight trip to the World Series:

Seattle: This is the ultimate team, with offense spread out around the great (albeit 39-year-old) Edgar Martinez, speed, defense and a deep bullpen. Manager Lou Piniella has never seemed comfortable with Paul Abbott, James Baldwin and John Halama after Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer. Joel Pineiro threw very well this spring and could be approaching what Piniella feels is a high upside. Gil Meche is starting the season in the Double-A Texas League warm weather, and if he doesn't appear ready in June, look for GM Pat Gillick to get another pitcher as well as a bat or two.

Oakland: There have been good signs and bad signs in the post-Jason Giambi era, for both -- as the A's deal with him not being there, and Jason deals with a totally different, Madison Avenue environment. For much of the spring there have been negative signs -- with Jermaine Dye unable to play and Carlos Pena struggling (as he does on each new level he begins at, right back to his draft year at Northeastern), worries that the offense isn't enough, not to mention missing Johnny Damon's defense in center field.

But while Dye will be held out the first five days of the season, he is close to being ready, and swinging the bat very well. And the monster springs from Jeremy Giambi -- who may have grown up out of his brother's shadow, especially after a winter of strict conditioning -- and Scott Rutheberg (aka, Hatteberg) may get them by for awhile. The A's can't start 11-20 again like they did last season, but if their pitching remains healthy, that shouldn't happen.

The six National League teams with the best chance to get to the World Series:

Atlanta: Near the end of spring training, Jason Marquis was hitting 94 mph with a strikeout slider. Rafael Furcal is healthy, and Gary Sheffield changes the lineup almost as much as Furcal does. Is Marcus Giles going to hack it at second? Probably. Are they going to be satisfied with Julio Franco, Wes Helms and B.J. Surhoff at first? Maybe not. But if Kevin Millwood comes back and age doesn't catch up to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (whose curveball bears watching), then for the 12th straight season, they are one of those teams you have to beat.

Arizona: Todd Stottlemyre hit 94 mph in his minor-league start on Thursday, averaging 89-91 mph with sink and movement, while Brian Anderson seems on the road back. Whether or not Rick Helling survives -- and never underestimate his character, despite 84-86 mph high fastballs -- having two more starters with a deep bullpen aided by Mike Myers better supports the great Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.


But there are some serious questions about how the D-Backs will score enough runs. When Erubiel Durazo went down with a broken right wrist just over a week ago, he was about to be installed at first base five days a week. And you better believe the D-Backs will miss his power. How much? The starting infield of Mark Grace, Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell and Tony Womack may hit fewer homers than the Giants' Rich Aurilia all by himself.

San Francisco: Sure, sure, Jeff Kent's Marlo Brando imitation and Jason Schmidt's physical problems don't bode well. But given the addition of Reggie Sanders, more depth in center, David Bell to go with Pedro Feliz at third and the rise of rookie right-hander Kurt Ainsworth, if Barry Bonds stays healthy, they'll hang around and eventually be very dangerous. The NL West is a good division top to bottom, but it isn't a great division, and 88-90 wins may be enough to win it. Bet the house on this: GM Brian Sabean will address what they need by the July 31 trade deadline.

St. Louis: To many, the consensus pick in the NL, and a very good team. The Cards need Fernando Vina healthy at the top of the batting order, and they need J.D. Drew to be healthy in the middle with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Tino Martinez. The spring surprises, Garrett Stephenson and Andy Benes, give them enough depth so that young lefty Bud Smith starts the season at Triple-A, but there is tinkering to be done, especially to add more sock in left field.

Houston: The Astros won as many games as the Cardinals last year, and essentially only change Daryle Ward for Moises Alou in left field, Morgan Ensberg for Vinny Castilla at third base and Adam Everett's glove for Julio Lugo's versatility at shortstop. They could easily get 100 homers out of the outfield, another 60 out of the infield corners, but most of all, what scares other teams is the young pitching, led by Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and Carlos Hernandez, plus the power arms of Tim Redding and Octavio Dotel in front of Billy Wagner in the bullpen. It's often hard to predict the ascension curve on young pitchers, and there may be stretches where the 6-through-9 spots in the order struggle to produce runs, but this is a very dangerous team.

With all that said, the Cards and Astros are going to have a tough time keeping the Cubs out of their rearview mirrors, and if the Dodgers could get close in September, that Kevin Brown/Odalis Perez, et al staff could cause a lot of problems, no matter who's playing center, second or short.

Chicago: The Cubs may belong on this list if Antonio Alfonseca allows Kyle Farnsworth, Jeff Fassero and Carlos Zambrano to be in their places in the seventh and eighth innings, Juan Cruz is the real deal, Corey Patterson comes along, Bobby Hll arrives, Todd Hundley comes back strong and Moises Alou and Fred McGriff stay healthy. There is a lot of skill and pitching here as the Cubs blend the present with a farm system promising a bright future.

Speaking of the Dodgers, here are five teams that seem very difficult to judge:

Los Angeles: The Dodgers and Red Sox have $75 million payroll teams that cost them $110 million, which previous administrations should blame on Arthur Andersen and leave it at that. If Eric Karros can come back from back problems and Adrian Beltre is healthy, there is some firepower with Paul Lo Duca, Shawn Green and Brian Jordan. The starting pitching is deep, and with Odalis Perez and Kazuhisa Ishii, more balanced, and while they have no closer to start the season, there is bullpen depth and the promise that Eric Gagne (who will begin the year as the closer) was throwing 94-97 mph all spring. But then you realize the career on-base percentages of Cesar Izturis -- an energetic and marvelous defender who can run -- Dave Roberts and Mark Grudzielanek are .279, .292 and .328 respectively.

New York Mets: Any team with Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn. Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza in the infield is good, especially if Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz play to their norms in the outfield. There seems to be skepticism surrounding this team, which seems a little strange. Granted, the pitching is uncertain: Pedro Astacio's long-term health (although he threw very well this spring), Shawn Estes, Jeff D'Amico and the bullpen depth after Armando Benitez. They're looking at trading for Tampa Bay's Esteban Yan, Montreal's Scott Strickland and a few other relievers, and will add depth. If they're healthy, they can be very good, and the fact that people are looking for the '92 Mets may be a good way to temper expectations.

Boston: There is so much that is better about this team, from ownership's respect for the fans to an attempt to bring the business and baseball operations past the Eisenhower Era.

Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon and Manny Ramirez is a dynamite outfield. Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek and Tony Clark were healthy this spring. They're going to score runs, but everything comes down to the health of the pitching, starting with Pedro Martinez. In his last start Wednesday, he dropped down and found his slingshot, low three-quarter arm slot and regained the movement on his fastball. But there is a tear in that shoulder. Thus, can he stay healthy? No one knows.


Derek Lowe has grown up and can be the No. 2 starter, but John Burkett's admission that the stiffness in his right shoulder is the worst he's had in the spring isn't encouraging. And while Dustin Hermanson has the heart, there are doubts in Fenway, and there are concerns about Ugueth Urbina's shoulder holding up, with no closer behind him. With no minor-league system to speak of and a brutal roster for the $110 million price, they are going to have a tough time going out and making deals, although youngster Juan Pena may be their fourth starter eventually.

Texas: Four Hall of Famers. One of the game's best rookies in Hank Blalock. One of the league's best leadoff men in Frank Catalanotto. But pitching? Every starter but Doug Davis had some physical problem during the last week. Now, Chan Ho Park is a solid pitcher, Kenny Rogers is back to where he was in Oakland and Davis can be pretty good, but every player acknowledges they need a No. 1 and 2 starter, or at least a Scott Erickson or Chris Carpenter if they can't get Brad Penny from Florida.

But closer Jeff Zimmerman, who never threw a slider all spring, could be out for the year, and John Rocker did not throw particularly well this spring, although he was working on his changeup. GM John Hart is forcing manager Jerry Narron to use Catalanotto at second in lieu of the more athletic and defensive Mike Young, so they could have Catalanotto and Carl Everett at skill defensive positions for the sake of offense. Other than finding pitching, a key to this season may be Pudge Rodriguez's knee, as well as his impending free agency.

Philadelphia: There have been moments this spring when many good baseball folks have believed the Phils are better than the Mets, and while the Larry Bowa/Scott Rolen/Dave Montgomery Peace Talks seem to occupy much of the public attention, many players think all the extraneous stuff has built an immune system.

The team on the field can be really good, especially if catcher Mike Lieberthal is fully healthy, Pat Burrell emerges and Rolen can ignore all the talk. They have to get a lot out of young pitchers like Brandon Duckworth, Dave Coggin, Randy Wolf (if his current tendinitis isn't serious) and Vicente Padilla, and could get help from young right-hander Brett Myers in time. But there are a lot of undercurrents that raise questions, from the constant public concerns about Larry Bowa -- which he constantly addresses -- as well as Jose Mesa closing.

Three teams that may be better than they appear:

Colorado: Several executives in Arizona believe the Rockies could stay in the race if they get past their brutal April schedule. Mike Hampton has thrown well in his last two starts, Denny Neagle's offseason conditioning appears to have paid dividends and in Shawn Chacon and Jason Jennings, they have two good young starters. Clearly, they need Juan Pierre, Juan Uribe and Jose Ortiz to progress, which means more plate discipline. Uribe absolutely killed the ball this spring, hitting balls through the gaps, but it was Arizona and he did have an 8/55 BB/K ratio last season.


Anaheim: If Scott Schoeneweis indeed has his changeup mastered and Jarrod Washburn stays healthy, the addition of Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele makes the starting staff deep and solid. Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon comebacks are musts, and they both had encouraging springs. How good are they? The depth of the bullpen and the production out of first base, second base and shortstop will be watched, but they are a dangerous, potentially competitive team in the best division in baseball, which is why it will be so hard for the wild card to come out of the AL West.

San Diego: "The Padres are clearly a team on the rise," says Oakland GM Billy Beane. The lineup adds Sean Burroughs and Ramon Vazquez, and should score a lot of runs. How well their current starting pitching holds up is a major key, but with Jake Peavy, Ben Howard, Dennis Tankersley, Mark Phillips, et al on the come, everything should be ascending towards the 2004 ballpark opening, if someone doesn't get in GM Kevin Towers' way.

The spring's most disappointing teams:

Chicago White Sox: OK, their young pitchers like Jon Garland are having problems getting over the major-league hump, and some of their relievers haven't regained their health, and their defense is above average only in right field. Yes, they gave up tons of runs this spring. But before they are written off, that lineup is as good as any but the Rangers. Mark Buehrle and Todd Ritchie should give them 400 solid innings and Keith Foulke is one of the most underappreciated relievers in the game. Sometimes funny things happen to teams when the curtain goes up.

Florida: The Marlins have four good-to-great young starting pitchers. Cliff Floyd should leave with a bang, and Kevin Millar is as tough a winner as you'll find. But there are some offensive holes. Charles Johnson is nearing a dangerous time in his career and while Antonio Alfonseca may not have been the world's best closer, throwing it on Braden Looper -- who former Marlins people who do know the game say is a huge mistake -- could bleed those young starters. How David Samson runs this team as GM and president is being closely watched. In Montreal, feelings are so strong that MLB security suggested Samson not make the opening trip back to Olympic Stadium.

So here are the predictions, which will be worthless by Tuesday night:

AL East AL Central AL West
New York Minnesota Seattle
Boston Cleveland Oakland
Toronto Chicago Anaheim
Baltimore Detroit Texas
Tampa Bay Kansas City  
NL East NL Central NL West
Atlanta St. Louis San Francisco
New York Houston Arizona
Philadelphia Chicago Colorado
Florida Cincinnati Los Angeles
Montreal Pittsburgh San Diego

Best Divisions: AL West and NL Central

The Award winners
Most Valuable Player
AL: In surveying GMs, club officials, scouts and journalists, the two names that were most mentioned were Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, with Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Juan Gonzalez, Darin Erstad, Eric Chavez, Ichiro and Bernie Williams thrown in.


With hardly any mention of Jason Giambi, which may be natural considering what he's jumped into in New York. A-Rod starts every season as a favorite, but the choice here is Ordonez.

NL: This league gets the more glamorous names, and it's amazing how many names came up: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roberto Alomar, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Todd Helton for the obvious, J.D. Drew, Shawn Green, Albert Pujols, Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman for the not-so-obvious. And to many of us, any list without Junior Griffey or Adam Dunn is incomplete. All make sense, and I love the Drew and Berkman nominations, but the only way to go against Barry is to go with Sammy, hence the choice is Senor Sosa.

Cy Young Award
AL: What's intriguing is that I didn't get one Pedro Martinez or a Yankee nomination in more than 30 ballots. Mark Mulder and Mark Buehrle got the most nominations, followed by Freddy Garcia, Barry Zito and Bartolo Colon. Jarrod Washburn got a mention, as did Joe Mays. Now, it's hard to believe that either Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens won't be in this race, but the choice here is Tim Hudson, whom A's GM Billy Beane compares to James West of the Wild, Wild West. Go watch a couple of episodes. It's worth it.


NL: As long as Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown and Greg Maddux are alive, they will be in line for this award. Matt Morris is now at the perennial Cy Young stage, if Javier Vazquez pitched for a better team he would, too. Kerry Wood is on the cusp, and if A.J. Burnett throws the season as he threw this spring, he may be, too.

But I got more nominations for Roy Oswalt than anyone else in the league -- by far -- so what the heck, the pick is Oswalt.

Rookie of the Year
1. Nick Johnson, 1B-DH, N.Y.
2. Hank Blalock, 3B, Tex.
3. Eric Hinske, 3B, Tor.
4. Ryan Drese, RHP, Cle.
5. Mike Rivera, C, Det.
6. Carlos Pena, 1B, Oak

1. Sean Burroughs, 3B, S.D.
2. Carlos Hernandez, LHP, Hou.
3. Josh Beckett, RHP, Fla.
4. Ramon Vazquez, SS, S.D.
5. Juan Cruz, RHP, Cubs
6. Morgan Ensberg, 3B, Hou.

Rookies who will return from the minors and have an impact
Mike Cuddyer, RF, Minn.
Josh Phelps, C, Tor.
Colby Lewis, RHP, Tex.
Joe Crede, 3B, White Sox
Juan Pena, RHP, Bos.
Erik Bedard, LHP, Balt.
Angel Berroa, SS, K.C.

Bobby Hill, 2B, Cubs
Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs
Brett Myers, RHP, Phi.
Jake Peavy, RHP, S.D.
Marlon Byrd, OF, Phi.
Jack Cust, OF, Col.
Felix Diaz, RHP, S.F.
Jason Lane, OF, Hou.

Significant comebacks
Mo Vaughn, Edgardo Alfonzo
David Wells. Strike one.
Rafael Furcal
Kenny Lofton
Jose Rijo. Unbelievable.
Todd Stottlemyre. Ibid.
Scott Williamson and Garrett Stephenson. Medical miracles.
Kris Benson, come May.
Carlos Baerga. Was he on the '48 Tribe?
Darin Erstad
Kent Mercker. Reborn as Mike Myers.
Alex Ochoa. Lookin' like Barry Bonds.
Wilson Alvarez

Physical conditions which impact pennant races
1. Pedro Martinez's shoulder
2. Kevin Brown's arm
3. Jeff Kent's wrist
4. Jermaine Dye's leg
5. Cristian Guzman's shoulder
6. Pudge Rodriguez's knee
7. Jeff Zimmerman's elbow
8. J.D. Drew's legs
9. Erubiel Durazo's wrist
10. Ellis Burks' knees

Improvements seen in the spring
1. Sean Casey's physical condition and speed. As if he weren't special already.
2. A.J. Burnett's delivery and command, to go with electric stuff.
3. Vernon Wells. Potential 30-HR Gold Glover.
4. Kelvim Escobar's presence.
5. Casey Fossum hitting 95 mph.
6. Odalis Perez's changeup, or he sure has 15 wins written all over him.
7. Pat Burrell.
8. Scott Schoeneweis' changeup, which makes him a 15-18 game winner.
9. Daryle Ward.
10. Jeremy Giambi and Scott Hatteberg. New lives, right team, right approaches.
11. Craig Wilson. The Pirates give his bat a chance in RF, 1B, C.
12. Joel Pineiro.
13. J.C. Romero. Twins closer of the second half?
14. Jeff Weaver.
15. Danys Baez.
16. Richie Sexson's approach.
17. Jason Marquis.
18. Jorge Julio. Baltimore's closer, in time.
19. Omar Vizuel -- condition and passion.
20. Corey Patterson. He is not Oddibe McDowell, he's a .270-.280, 25-home run kid on the rise.

Things we loved in spring training
1. Rafael Furcal's arm, and joy.
2. Nick Johnson's plate presence.
3. Hank Blalock's swing.
4. Mariano Rivera's dignity.
5. Aaron Boone, for being Aaron Boone.
6. The ever-present smiles of Indians John McDonald and Einar Diaz, radiating that there's no place they'd rather be than playing baseball. One very astute baseball person insists that McDonald is the best defensive shortstop in the AL right now.
7. David Segui's fingernails.
8. Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo and Roberto Alomar taking infield.
9. David Eckstein's energy.
10. Andruw Jones playing shortstop.
11. Sandy Koufax.
12. Pete Incaviglia's first double.

Eight potential November free agents who could end up on the trade market come July
Pudge Rodriguez, C, Tex.
Darin Erstad, OF, Ana.
Scott Rolen, 3B, Phi.
Cliff Floyd, OF, Fla.
Chuck Finley, LHP, Cle.
Roberto Hernandez, RHP, K.C.
Wilson Alvarez, LHP, T.B.
Ray Durham, 2B, White Sox

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