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Sunday, April 4, 2004
Updated: April 5, 4:39 PM ET
What's in store for 2004? Plenty

By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com

April 4

One of the tenets of the Baseball Creed is that the game always overrides those who soil it. Babe Ruth followed The Black Sox Scandal. After the darkness of the canceled '94 World Series, Cal Ripken Jr., the Joe Torre-Derek Jeter Yankees and, of course, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa show brought people back in record numbers.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds continues to make a run up the home run chart.

Now, in the post McGwire era as Barry Bonds shoots for Henry Aaron, the game faces endless questions about its validity, and no matter how much reality leads us to raise issues of the juiced balls of the '30s, the red juice of the '70s and '80s and the many pitchers in Cooperstown who in one form or another refined the art of cheating, it is there, with more concern over home runs than election fraud.

Which is why those who have followed baseball's ups and downs believe this is the year the Cubs will play the Red Sox in the World Series. Mark Prior and Nomar Garciaparra and their Achilles' heels? They're just part of the valley low, mountain high part of the six (seven-) -month season. For those who think about exterior forces and things that go bump in the night -- which, in reality, have historically been Cubs outfielders and Red Sox pitchers -- if you closely study the DaVinci Code you will find an encryption that the good of the game cleanses all else, even curses.

Cubs. Red Sox. Seventh game.

Look, we all know that any preseason prediction is subject to 24-hour recall, and history reminds us that the last three world champions are the Diamondbacks, Angels and Marlins. Coming out of spring training, it's realistic to believe -- as many do -- the Phillies may well be the best team in the National League with a deep starting staff and great closer needed for October. It's also realistic to believe the Astros' rotation -- not to mention experience and hunger -- could win them not only their first postseason series, but a world championship. The Cubs strongly maintain that holding back Prior is precautionary, a realistic caution considering he is coming off 234 regular and postseason innings, far and away the most of his very young life.

As this season opens, it seems as if the Yankees are better than the Red Sox, and the Angels, A's and Mariners all believe they can beat out Boston for the wild card. The Yankee lineup has realistic hope of breaking their own (1931, juiced ball) record of 1,067 runs and will win a ton of 10-7 games because of Paul Quantrill and Flash Gordon in front of Mariano Rivera. Their front three of Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown are all potential 20-game winners, and if Jose Contreras' last two starts were any indication, he might win 12-15 games. Meanwhile, the Red Sox admit to many concerns: Garciaparra's Achilles, Trot Nixon's back, the five potential free agents, the hole at second base with Pokey Reese at short, Keith Foulke's dreadful spring, Byung-Hyun Kim's shoulder and makeup and, perhaps first and foremost, the question of whether Pedro Martinez's lower arm slot is going to flatten his fastball and make his curveball a secondary slurve. Ring the opening bell, and the real Pedro may pop out.

That will be the fun of turning down the volume on those who only shout doctrine without watching or listening. That, and watching the season unfold wondering if there is another Florida or Anaheim on the horizon. Maybe Toronto or Baltimore can pull a miracle, sneak into the wild card and make a Georgia Tech run through October. Maybe. Realistically, the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, Royals, A's, Angels and Mariners all have a chance of making the playoffs in the American League, with the Orioles, Indians and Blue Jays distant long shots based on the evolution of their young pitchers. The Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers. Padres and Giants (never underestimate Barry Bonds and Brian Sabean) can hold the same dreams in the National League. The NL West has NFL parity: The Dodgers are paring down to $80 million, which means all the payrolls in the division will be between $60 million and $80 million. The spring training records as of Sunday morning were Colorado 13-14, Arizona 14-17, San Diego 12-19, San Francisco 11-19 and Los Angeles 12-20 for a total of 62-89. I may be from the woods, but those numbers don't sound too good, to quote Little Feat.

So while the Yankee payroll may be larger than the Gross National Product of Finland, 18 of the 30 teams open 2004 thinking about the playoffs, which seems more fair than the American political system. And one of these years Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder will all be healthy in time for the postseason.

So, with a lot of help from GMs, scouts, managers and coaches, here is a collage of season-opening thoughts:

Five reasons this is a great time in baseball
1. One has to scroll back deep into history to see a time when two phenoms like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera walk in the door (and Joe Mauer, one day older than Cabrera, may be in that category). The game is dotted with extraordinary young players, none better than Pujols, whose first three years are comparable to only two players: Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera has the ability to become a Hall of Famer.

2. After two ill-conceived expansions, the craze for HR-scaled ballparks and an incredible boom in the science of hitting killed that part of the game that once was known as pitching, the cycle has turned to a new boom in pitching. The A's, Cubs, Astros, Mariners, Phillies, Marlins and Indians all have blossoming staffs of potential stars. The Orioles will have three interesting young arms in their rotation. The Blue Jays are two years away from a big-time power staff and the Pirates and Cardinals are on the brink of young rotations. Then look to this year's draft: nine of the first 10 picks could be pitchers, and the college arms from Jared Weaver to The Rice Troika (Jeff Nieman, Wade Townsend and Philip Humber) to Old Dominion's Justin Verlander to Boston College's Chris Lambert are the best in a generation.

3. Cubs and Red Sox fans have always been devoted from the rooftops of The North Side to the literate, fascinating Web sites (Sons of Sam Horn, Red Sox Nation). But it's never been this loony. I mean 180,000 fans at March games at Ho Ho Kam? But there is unprecedented excitement in Houston, Anaheim and Philadelphia. The buzz is back in Baltimore and the Pudge Rodriguez signing at worst awakened the sleeping giant that is the Detroit Tigers. We in the media tend to an East Coast bias, but the six West Coast teams drew nearly 17 million last season. The rivalries between the Yankees and Red Sox, Cubs and Astros, Angels and Dodgers are great for the game.

4. The sport is on the brink of an international boom, with the World Cup a potential gold mine. Hideki Matsui's return to Japan was dramatic and a boon to baseball everywhere, and Artie Moreno's marketing throughout southern California has not only thrown a challenge at the Dodger brand, but could begin to restore the sport to its middle and lower-class roots; except in Boston, where one virtually has to be a Forbes to get into Fenway. According to the Population Resource Center, Hispanic Americans are the fastest growing demographic group in the United States, making up 13 percent of the population. By 2008, baseball may be more than 40 percent foreign born, as well as Hispanic in root.

5. With people like Indians outfielder Jody Gerut, Javy Vazquez and Pujols, the future leadership among the players is extremely promising.

Most Valuable Player
National League: Bonds could win every year. Pujols is the only player ever to finish in the top four his first three years(one fourth, two seconds). Hunch: Pujols wins because of his surrounding cast. Todd Helton, Richie Sexson, Jim Thome also receiving votes.

American League: There was no consensus last year, and right now one can look at Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Beltran, Eric Chavez, Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro Suzuki ... so Garret Anderson sneaks in and wins it, finally receiving his due.

Cy Young Awards
NL: 1. Kerry Wood, 2. Roy Oswalt, 3. Randy Johnson.

AL: 1. Bartolo Colon, with seven-plus runs of support per start. Then anyone from the Oakland Three, The Yankee Three, Martinez, Curt Schilling or Roy Halladay.

Rookies of the Year
NL: 1. Khalil Greene, 2. Kaz Matsui, 3, Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche, although playing year-round may slow him down in the second half.

AL: 1. A's shortstop Bobby Crosby. 2. Mauer. 3. Orioles left-hander Erik Bedard.

Injuries to monitor
Mark Prior's Achilles.
Nomar Garciaparra's Achilles.
Trot Nixon's back.
Nick Johnson's back.
The shoulders of Jason Schmidt and Robb Nen.
Brendan Donnelly's broken nose.

Concerns
Hideo Nomo's post-operative velocity.
Pedro Martinez's arm slot.
Octavio Dotel.
Larry Walker's health.
Jay Payton's hamstring and Ryan Klesko's shoulder, as it relates to his power.
Jose Reyes' recurring hamstring problems.

Teams that appear to be improved
1. San Diego. But the Padres must catch the ball.
2. Baltimore. Early spoilers.
3. Cleveland. Maybe the 2005 favorites.
4. Milwaukee. One scout says of the Brewers, "they will be better than they look on paper, they have good young players coming and they play as hard as anyone." 5. Detroit. Hey, if the Tigers go from 119 to 95 losses, that's improvement.

Significant comebacks
1. Junior Griffey
2. Jermaine Dye
3. Tom Glavine. Hello Mike Cameron.
4. Trevor Hoffman
5. Randy Johnson
6. Shawn Green
7. Chris Carpenter
8. Mark Kotsay
9. Edgardo Alfonzo
10. Robby Alomar
11. Corey Patterson
12. Brad Fullmer
13. Scott Elarton
14. Ryan Vogelsong
15. Armando Benitez

15 players who could have breakout years
1. Sean Burroughs
2. Orlando Hudson
3. Larry Bigbie
4. Jake Peavy
5. C.C. Sabathia
6. Victor Martinez
7. Jon Garland
8. Johnny Estrada
9. Jeremy Affeldt
10. Brad Penny
11. Josh Beckett
12. Carl Crawford
13. Brett Myers
14. Jeremy Bonderman
15. Mark Teixeira

10 pitchers facing inordinate pressure
1. Pedro Martinez, Boston
2. Randy Johnson, Arizona
3. Octavio Dotel, Houston
4. Jeremy Affeldt, Kansas City
5. J.C. Romero, Minnesota
6. Arthur Rhodes, Oakland
7. Armando Benitez, Florida
8. LaTroy Hawkins, Cubs
9. Keith Foulke, Boston
10. Mark Buehrle, White Sox

16 young players who looked so good this spring they will be back in the big leagues this season
1. Grady Sizemore, OF, Cleveland
2. Justin Morneau, 1B-DH, Minnesota
3. J.D. Durbin, RHP, Minnesota
4. David Aardsma, RHP, San Francisco
5. Edwin Jackson, RHP, Los Angeles
6. Chin-Hui Tsao, RHP, Colorado
7. Zach Greinke, RHP, Kansas City
8. Angel Guzman, RHP, Cubs
9. Ryan Madson, RHP, Philadelphia
10. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia
11. Alexis Rios, OF, Toronto
12. Joe Blanton, RHP, Oakland
13. Greg Aquino, RHP, Arizona
14. Dewon Brazelton, RHP, Tampa Bay
15. Taylor Buchholz, RHP, Houston
16. Adam Wainright, RHP, St. Louis

15 young players who this spring established themselves as must-sees
1. Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee
2. B.J. Upton, SS, Tampa Bay
3. Delmon Young, OF, Tampa Bay
4. James Loney, 1B, Los Angeles
5. Jeff Mathis, C, Anaheim
6. Dallas McPherson, 3B, Anaheim
7. Ryan Sweeney, OF, White Sox
8. Adriano Rosario, RHP, Arizona
9. Cole Hamels, LHP, Philadelphia
10. Gavin Floyd, RHP, Philadelphia
11. David DeJesus, OF, Kansas City
12. Abe Alvarez, LHP, Boston
13. Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee
14. Jeff Francoeur, OF, Atlanta
15. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Boston

10 spring training surprises
1. Ray Lankford looked 10 years younger with the Cardinals after sitting out a year.
2. Johnny Damon looking like "The Temptation of Christ."
3. Damion Easley's comeback with Florida.
4. C.J. Nitkowski throwing 94 mph with the Braves.
5. Todd Helton's bulk.
6. Phil Nevin's shrinkage.
7. Peter Bergeron's reincarnation as the Peter Bergeron they once thought was the Expos' CF/leadoff hitter.
8. Ozzie Guillen's energy is so infectious.
9. Adam Dunn's approach thanks to his connection with Chris Chambliss.
10. Alex Escobar's return to the prospect the Mets once knew.

10 players likely to be traded by July 31
1. Junior Griffey, Cincinnati
2. Jason Kendall, Pittsburgh
3. Kris Benson, Pittsburgh
4. Ben Sheets, Milwaukee
5. Jose Cruz Jr., Tampa Bay
6. Ugueth Urbina, Detroit
7. Carlos Delgado, Toronto. If he'll go.
8. Jerry Hairston Jr., Baltimore
9. Jose Vidro, Montreal
10. Steve Trachsel, Mets

7 teams looking for a second-base upgrade
1. Yankees
2. Red Sox
3. A's
4. Dodgers
5. Pirates
6. Reds
7. White Sox

4 Diamondbacks left from their 2002 Opening Day roster
1. Luis Gonzalez
2. Randy Johnson
3. Steve Finley
4. Danny Bautista

Significant potential free agents (without those on whom clubs hold options)
1B: Richie Sexson, David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado
2B: Jose Vidro, Bret Boone
3B: Corey Koskie, Adrian Beltre, Troy Glaus (Mike Lowell, Aaron Boone depending on their unique situations)
SS: Nomar Garciaparra, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Orlando Cabrera
OF: Carlos Beltran, J.D. Drew, Magglio Ordonez, Richard Hidalgo, Garret Anderson. Moises Alou, Jermaine Dye
C: Jason Varitek
Starting pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Matt Clement, Matt Morris, Russ Ortiz, Brad Radke, Kris Benson, Carl Pavano, Eric Milton, Freddy Garcia
Relievers: Troy Percival, Rob Nen, Scott Williamson

A hazardous guess at the playoffs
  • Yankees over Minnesota, Boston over Anaheim, Houston over Philadelphia, Cubs over Arizona.

  • Cubs over Houston in seven, Boston over Yankees in seven.

  • Cubs over Boston in seven.

    Now watch. The Indians will beat the Dodgers in six.