Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
There are no better words to hear if you are a baseball fan than 'Opening Day'. Amazing as it seems, the 2008 Major League Baseball season is upon us. I know, I know the season actually started last week with Boston and Oakland splitting their two-game series in Japan, but I, like just about everyone else in America, count Monday's action as the real start of the season.
A lot has changed since last October when the Red Sox raised their second World Series title in four years. Joe Torre is now longer with the Yankees, Johan Santana is now pitching with the Mets, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis were rescued by the Tigers from Florida, Barry Bonds was indicted and is out of work, while the Mitchell Report exposed a number of other steroid users including Roger Clemens.
Clemens then went on a barnstorming denial tour that culminated with congressional hearings. We are in the middle of a losing war, the economy is in shambles and gas prices rise by the day, yet somehow in Washington it was important to find out whether or not Clemens was telling the truth.
And speaking of steroids, how can we go into a baseball season without talking about the man that may have started all this: Jose Canseco. The slugger is out with his second book, "Vindicated", and has some more allegations following his first foray into the publishing world, "Juiced".
Canseco alleges that he personally shot Detroit outfielder Magglio Ordonez up with steroids and also that he introduced the AL's reigning MVP Alex Rodriguez to a known steroids dealer. It has also been revealed that Canseco reached out to Ordonez at some point and wanted him to help fund his Kung-Fu movie and in return would leave him out of the book. Even if just about everything in his first book was true, Canseco is broke and will say anything at this point. His credibility is shot.
While Ordonez is a big name, the real bombshell, of course, is A-Rod. There is nothing there, though. Sure he may have introduced Rodriguez to somebody, but he has no proof of him actually doing anything wrong. This is just a way to sell books. By the way at the end of the A-Rod chapter, Canseco clearly states to A-Rod that he hates his guts. And oh by the way, Canseco also accuses Rodriguez of hitting on his wife at the time.
There are also some significant milestones on the horizon. Ken Griffey, Jr. is seven home runs away from 600, while Manny Ramirez (490 HR) and Gary Sheffield (480 HR) are both closing in on 500. Also Randy Johnson still needs 16 wins to get to 300, while Santana is seven wins short of 100. Greg Maddux is three wins away from 350, while John Smoltz needs just 25 strikeouts to get to 3,500 for his career.
Bonds is also on the verge of a number of milestones, but we will mention that if he ever gets a job.
Torre isn't the only new manager in the league. Joe Girardi gets Torre's old job in New York, while Dusty Baker is back in the league with the Reds. John Russell takes over for Jim Tracy in Pittsburgh, while Trey Hillman comes over from Japan to handle the reins in Kansas City.
This is also the final year of Yankee Stadium. The Yanks will close the doors on the "House That Ruth Built" and will play in a new state of the art building next year. Shea Stadium is also closing, but while there will be fond memories and ceremonies for the building in the Bronx, the stadium in Flushing is a dump and has nowhere near the history of its counterpart across town.
Either way, though, there is going to be close to eight million fans attending baseball in New York this season. Amazing.
It was certainly a busy offseason between the high profile trades, Mitchell Report and subsequent congressional hearings, but I for one am ready for some meaningful baseball again.
For an insight into the season here's a brief synopsis for each division and a look at some of the teams that will try to unseat the Red Sox.
Boston Red Sox - The Boston Red Sox are plain and simple the best team in baseball. They have it all: starting pitching, a great relief corps, and of course one of the best lineups in all of baseball. A lot of things are going to have to go wrong for Boston not to be back in the playoffs this season and it will be a surprise to nobody if there is another parade in Beantown sometime in late October.
New York Yankees - While I don't think the Yankees are going to make the playoffs, they are certainly in the discussion thanks to their tremendous star packed lineup. The Yankees did the right thing in not giving up their farm for Johan Santana. At some point, enough has to be enough. The Steinbrenners and some fans may disagree with that in October when the team is out of the playoffs and Santana is mowing people down across the way, but Phil Hughes is going to be phenomenal. Staying the course with the young players was the right thing to do in the long run and Joe Girardi is the perfect mentor.
Cleveland Indians - The Indians lived up to the hype last year that they couldn't handle in 2006. C.C. Sabathia became the Cy Young winner everyone thought he could be. He can become a free agent at season's end. I doubt that will bother him much during the year, if anything it will motivate him. Their lineup is loaded and could be even better than last season provided of course that Travis Hafner stays healthy.
Detroit Tigers - The Tigers made the biggest splash of the offseason when they acquired not only superstar third baseman Miguel Cabrera, but lefty Dontrelle Willis as well. The acquisition of Cabrera gives the Tigers the best lineup in baseball and Willis adds to an already deep rotation. Detroit, though, has serious bullpen issues. Not to mention closer Todd Jones is about as reliable as my old Buick SkyHawk. Joel Zumaya returns after the All-Star break, but if he is not his flame-throwing self, the pen will be Jim Leyland's nightmare this season.
Seattle Mariners - The Mariners have become the trendy pick to win the AL West. I am the latest to hop on the bandwagon. It all has to do with the acquisition of left-hander Erik Bedard. He and Felix Hernandez maybe the best 1-2 combination in the AL. Hernandez, at 21 years of age, is still not ready to be an ace. Now he does not have to worry about it. Bedard, if he can stay healthy, could find himself with a Cy Young Award at the end of the year. The offense is not great, but it will do enough to win. Ichiro is the best hitter in the game and Richie Sexson is bound to finally deliver.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - I am starting to dislike the Angels' chances by the day. John Lackey is already out until at least the end of the month, now comes word that Kelvim Escobar may need season-ending shoulder surgery. They still have Vladimir Guerrero, but he needs help.
Philadelphia Phillies - The Phillies shocked everyone last year and won the NL East. Ryan Howard won the NL MVP Award two years ago, Jimmy Rollins won it last season, so logic would tell you that this should be Chase Utley's year. Utley is probably the best all-around player of the three of them and he will have a shot at it since the Phils figure to be up near the top of the East all season. I don't like their starting pitching after Brett Myers and Cole Hamels, but their trio in the lineup should get them through. If closer Brad Lidge can't stay healthy, though, the Phils could be in trouble.
NY Mets - What a difference one player can make. At the Winter Meetings in December, there were few people that thought the Mets would challenge for an NL Pennant. The lineup had holes, the pitching staff was in shambles, blah, blah, blah. Then the team acquires Johan Santana and they are the favorites to come out of the Senior Circuit. I know Santana is awesome and will probably win 20+ games, but this team has a load of question marks. They are banking an awful lot on Pedro Martinez's health. So far, so good in that regard, but can Pedro last a whole season? The lineup is full of holes. Moises Alou's health is a big problem. Jose Reyes was abysmal in the second half last season. If he does not return to form the Mets could be in some real trouble.
Atlanta Braves - This is the team that nobody is talking about and Bobby Cox wouldn't have it any other way. Their pitching staff is old with John Smoltz and Tom Glavine and not to mention the shaky Mike Hampton. But their lineup seems solid. Chipper Jones is getting up there in age, but showed no signs of slowing down last season. Mark Teixeira is in a contract year. He seemed to rediscover his power stroke after the trade from Texas. He seems poised for a big year. If their starting pitching holds up, the Braves could surprise the Phils and Mets and steal a division title.
Chicago Cubs - We are going on 100 years and counting here for the Cubbies World Series title drought. Along with the Mets, they are the favorites to come out of the NL, though. The Cubs lineup is solid from top to bottom and their staff is as good as any in the NL. Their big question comes in the bullpen, where oft-injured former phenom Kerry Wood will handle the closing duties.
Milwaukee Brewers - Last year Milwaukee surprised everyone with their ability to hang in the NL Central race right up to the very end. And remarkably, they did so with ace Ben Sheets, as well as some of their other starters, on the shelf with injuries. Sheets is a Cy Young Award waiting to happen, but he is never healthy. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are bonafide stars. The Brewers are going to contend for a long time.
Cincinnati Reds - Another team that is starting to pick up steam here. New manager Dusty Baker's pitching staff drew rave reviews in the spring. Youngsters Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez were lights out and both will head north with the team at the expense of the once-heralded Homer Bailey. Aaron Harang may be as unsung an ace as there is in the league. He wins year in and year out, though. The addition of Francisco Cordero in the bullpen will also do wonders. There is nothing I would love to see more than an MVP campaign from Ken Griffey, Jr., as he tries to get the Reds back to the postseason.
Arizona Diamondbacks - A lot is made of the Mets 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, but there may not be a better tandem than Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, who was picked up this winter from Oakland. If the D'Backs get anything significant from Randy Johnson the NL West may not be a race at all.
Los Angeles - Joe Torre brings his Hall of Fame resume to the Dodgers. After 12 straight playoff appearances and four World Series titles with the Yankees, it was time for Torre to move on. He looks as if he was born to wear Dodger Blue. He also has a pretty talented team on his hands. Andruw Jones was signed as a free agent and you have to think he is going to be better than he was last year in Atlanta. Jason Schmidt could be a wild card here. Picked up last year as a free agent, Schmidt missed most of the season with an arm issue. He needs to have a solid year if the Dodgers are going to compete in the West.
Colorado - Last year's postseason darlings. I am still not sure how they did it, but the Rockies used an amazing run at the end of the season to get into the playoffs. Their success carried into October, but ran out of steam in the World Series. Their pitching is bad, but it was bad last year too. Their offense will keep them in games.
SAN DIEGO - Their starting rotation is as good as anyone's in the league. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez could be this year's breakout star. I don't think the Padres will compete for a division title, but like the Rockies will be right in the wild card mix.
BEST OF THE REST
BALTIMORE - Ugh. They may be the worst team in the league.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX - Ozzie Guillen is my choice as first manager to be fired this season. His mouth seems to run more when the team is losing, meaning he might not shut up all season. Sooner or later he will get himself in trouble.
FLORIDA - One of the two 4-A teams located in Florida. If not for Hanley Ramirez there would be absolutely no reason to watch or follow this team.
HOUSTON - Probably better than what they are lumped with down here, but still not a playoff contender.
KANSAS CITY - By all accounts Trey Hillman is going to be a great manager. I am guessing that it won't be here, though.
MINNESOTA - Now they get to find out what life without Johan Santana is like.
OAKLAND - Fremont or bust for Billy Beane. He compiled a ton of prospects this offseason, but the team is going to take their lumps over the next couple of years.
PITTSBURGH - 15 straight losing seasons? They haven't finished above .500 since Barry Bonds was there. They return basically the same team from a year ago, so another losing season seems to be in the books.
SAN FRANCISCO - (See Baltimore)
ST. LOUIS - At what point does Albert Pujols' elbow finally give way. They have no shot with him, imagine how bad they will be with him out of the lineup.
TAMPA BAY - Finally this team has shown some signs of life. There is talk that the Rays may not only finish over .500, but could finish third in the division. I will believe it when I see it, though.
TEXAS - The Rangers are on the right track. There will still be some rough patches over the next couple of years, though.
TORONTO - Injuries are again going to be the Achilles' heel of this team. Of course, that and the fact that they are in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.
WASHINGTON - At least they have a new ball park to bring the fans in.
AL EAST - Boston Red Sox AL CENTRAL - Detroit Tigers AL WEST - Seattle Mariners AL WILD CARD - Cleveland ALDS - Detroit over Boston Cleveland over Seattle ALCS - Detroit over Cleveland NL EAST - Philadelphia NL CENTRAL - Milwaukee Brewers NL WEST - Arizona Diamondbacks NL WILD CARD - Chicago Cubs NLDS - Cubs over Phils Diamondbacks over Brewers NLCS - D'Backs over Cubs WORLD SERIES - Detroit over Arizona
AL MVP - Miguel Cabrera NL MVP - Alfonso Soriano AL CY YOUNG AWARD - Justin Verlander NL CY YOUNG AWARD - Brad Penny AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Evan Longoria NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Cameron Maybin AL MANAGER OF YEAR - Joe Maddon NL MANAGER OF YEAR - Lou Piniella