A few days ago, the calendar officially turned from the dog days of March to April, which, for sports fans around the country, means yet another year of hope, unrealistic optimism and lofty expectations.
Baseball fans are unlike that of any other major American sport, as they pay no mind to the objections and disputes of the average viewer. While acknowledging that baseball is a six-month marathon with 162 games of gut-busting tension, any fan who has followed the sport for a number of years knows that one error, one hanging curveball or one whiff of the bat can mean the difference between success and failure
With this in mind, there is reason to believe that the 2009 Major League Baseball season will be one to remember. In previous years, the list of legitimate contenders in the Majors could be whittled down to four. However, as we look forward to 2009, there are as many as 10 teams (approximately one third of the league) with viable hope for playing in the Fall Classic.
The New York Yankees were this off-season’s biggest spenders, pouring a surplus of $440 million into what they hope will turn into a pair of star pitchers (CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett) and a first baseman (Mark Texiera) capable of launching the ball into the seats of any ballpark. However, missing the playoffs for the first time this decade has put first-year manager Joe Girardi and his team under fire, and the steroid scandal and subsequent injury of Alex Rodriguez has suddenly brought this offensive juggernaut into question. Will the Yankees be able to climb the mountain to the American League (AL) East crown in what is sure to be a difficult division?
The Boston Red Sox continue to look like the cream of the crop in the AL on paper, but an aging offense might derail their hopes of building a Boston dynasty. David Ortiz is an aging slugger, and Mike Lowell’s production remains a wild card. How much production these two manage in the season may have a direct impact on Red Sox Nation’s hopes of another championship.
Let’s not forget the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays, who have a payroll that is approximately equal to the team’s portion of baseball’s revenue sharing plan ($30 million). The Rays figure to be even better as their young rotation gained invaluable experience through last season’s playoff run. Carl Crawford also turned in his worst season since his rookie year, and star third baseman Evan Longoria missed nearly 60 games due to injury. Despite the big wallets of the other teams in the division, it’s hard to look at the Rays as anything but the favorite.
The National League (NL) East is just as deep with the reigning World Series Champion Phillies primed to repeat. Chase Utley turned in a monster 2008, while 2007 MVP Jimmy Rollins will look to avoid injury to return to form in 2009. The Phillies boast a young rotation with high upside, but Cole Hamels, the most important piece, has had injury troubles this spring that has thus far hindered his plans to begin 2009 in top form. Regardless, the Phillies have the experience and talent to expect an October bid.
However, a bolstered bullpen by NL East division foe New York Mets should make the race for the crown even tighter than in seasons past. The Mets appear wiser for having gone through two consecutive late-season collapses, adding J.J. Putz and Franscisco Rodriguez as anchors in the bullpen. Couple that with a host of elite offensive players in the prime of their career and there is potential for a fun season in New York.
While the Chicago Cubs look like the class of the NL Central for the third year in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals appear dangerous thanks to the resurgence of Chris Carpenter, who is looking to get back the swagger that won him the 2005 Cy Young award after several injury-riddled seasons.
The Cubs have more than a 101-year curse to contend with. Their quest for a championship begins in their own division, as the Milwaukee Brewers will hope to use a host of young sluggers to capture a second consecutive postseason berth. To do it, though, they’ll have to navigate through the tough NL lineups without the aforementioned Sabathia, who all but willed the team to the playoffs a year ago.
The Los Angeles Dodgers might be on the other side of the country from the rest of these teams, but they are right in the heart of the discussion. Manny Ramirez, who engineered his departure from Boston and into the hearts of Dodger fans, has been on a tear that has carried over into spring training. How he goes, so the Dodgers go as they find themselves once again in the World Series discussion.
Of course, I would be remised if I did not include the highly contested AL Central, who could possibly boast the deepest assortment of teams in any division. The Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers can all make a case for playing in October, and the Kansas City Royals have begun what could be a climb to the top of the division. While no team in the division may turn in a regular season record totaling 90 wins, it is safe to say that every team will be in contention late into the season.
These division races bring a parity not found in any other sport, giving fans of any club reason for optimism as the heartbreak of a season lost transforms into the eternal hope of what is to come.
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