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Spring Has Sprung, So Let There Be Baseball

B-le-ve It!

By Bryan S.lee

It's springtime. You can feel it in the air as it warms up to 82 degrees in the afternoon, the mosquitoes start flying around your head, and your dog looks longingly into the air-conditioned house from the patio.

At least that's the case down here in Houston, where I'm writing this column from. By the time you read this, I'll be back in Boston where it's probably a balmy 50, and I'll be missing my dog.

But spring brings more than just warm weather and a young man's fancy turning to love and all that crap. What it really means is the beginning of baseball season.

Because you spent the winter with your nose buried in a book, you don't know what the big free agent movements and trades were, do you?

You don't have a clue about the strengths and weaknesses of different teams vying for the World Series either, I'll bet. Well, it's time to get you in baseball shape.

Looking at the overall state of the game first, a labor agreement between the players and the owners was signed which ensures that we'll have ballgames until the new millemium.

Also, baseball is starting interleague play this summer. This is nice, but isn't really earth-shattering.

What would rock my world is if the greedy owners decide to suck it up and do something good for the game by picking a commissioner. I'm available, and unemployed by the way.

But I've got to stop dreaming. It's time to get down to the details of the pennant race, division by division and team by team.

American League East

1. New York--Its starting rotation seems healthy, and David Cone, Kenny Rogers and Dwight Gooden are all throwing great. The team will be fine unless closer Mariano Rivera falters. It doesn't have the luxury of John Wetteland any more.

2. Toronto--Signed the Katy Rocket, Roger Clemens. He won a national championship in 1983 for the University of Texas (I had to slip in a Longhorns reference sometime; it's in my job description). He is an addition to an already great starting rotation. Offense, other than Joe Carter could be a problem.

3. Baltimore--Cal moves to third base and is replaced by Bordick. Not as good as last year. Pete Incaviglia at DH? Are you kidding me?

4. Detroit--No defense, bullpen or starters.

5. Boston--See Detroit. Even worse becaue of the Wil Cordero and John Valentin controversies.

American League Central

1. Cleveland--For Kenny Lofton--a great leadoff hitter but who has not been as good of a center fielder as advertised for the past two years--get another great leadoff hitter in Marquis Grisson and a great left fielder in Dave Justice. Justice is an idiot for losing Halle Berry, but he joins a lineup which also features Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Matt Williams. Albert Belle who?

2. Chicago--Robin Ventura's ill-fated slide still haunts me a night. Albert Belle and Frank Thomas will be great, but the defense needs work.

Also, they are relying on Danny Darwin and Doug Drabek. Did they watch any Astros games last year?

3. Kansas City--Good starting staff. Acquired Jay Bell, Jeff King, Jermaine Dye and Chili Davis. Questions still linger about Jeff Montgomery's shoulder.

4. Minnesota--Problem with Rick Aguilera's health and not much experienced pitching. In general, the team has some talent though.

5. Milwaukee-Alice Cooper may know the etymology, but he doesn't know how the Brewers will fare without veterans Greg Vaughn and Kevin Seitzer.

American League West

1. Seattle--If Randy Johnson's okay, then the Mariners will be very good.

Jeff Fassero is a good addition as an opening day starter.

2. Texas--The good news is, all five starters in the rotation are back and set. But is that good news?

Also, Juan Gonzales and Rusty Greer are hurt. Will there be enough runs for new closer Wetteland to get saves?

3. Anaheim--New coach in former Houston skoipper Terry Collins. He's hyper and may pump up this young team. The team also acquired solid players in Jim Leyritz, Dave Hollins and Eddie Murray. Watch for pitcher Shigetoshi Hasagawa (okay, I just like saying his name).

4. Oakland--The Bash Brothers are back in business. But both be injury-prone. There's also no pen for another former Astro manager, Art Howe.

National League East

1. Atlanta--If the starters stay healthy, Kenny Lofton and Andruw Jones perform as expected and Alan Embree helps in middle relief, who knows how many games this team will win.

2. Florida--The most openly upwardly mobile team. Spent 90 million over the winter. Alex Fernandez, Jim Leyland, Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, John Cangelosi, to go with Kevin Brown, Al Leither, Rob Nen and Gary Sheffield and Jeff Conine--Wow!

3. Montreal--Another good prospect comes down the chute, Vladimir Guerrero. Problems with the rotation and Carlos Perez's health are still in the air.

4. New York Mets--Baerga isn't hitting. Prospects Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isring-housen are hurt. Right now, it stinks to be Bobby Valentine.

5. Philadelphia--Bad in general. Third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Wendell Megee are the future. If the Phillies don't commit hara-kiri first.

National League Central

1. St. Louis--Ray Lankford is hurt. When he gets back, the team's outfield of Lankford plus Brian Jordon and Ron Gant will be awesome. The starters are good, but how long can the ancient bullpen including Dennis Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt hold up?

2. Cincinnati--Assumes Barry Larkin is healthy. Third baseman Willie Greene has finally stepped up this spring. Need Reggie Sanders to recover.

3. Houston--Better defense, but still need a starter other than Shane Reynolds. The team does have Killer B's in Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell and a healthy Shawn Berry. If Sid Fernandez gets healthy, could challenge.

4. Chicago--Mel Rojas is a big acquisition and third baseman Kevin Orie is a nice surprise. But the Cubs? They can't win. It's in the rules.

5. Pittsburgh--Who are these pitchers? John Ericks is a closer?

National League West

1. Los Angeles--Awesome pitching and finally get Chan Ho Park in the starting rotation. If Bret Butler is effective, third baseman Todd Zeile and rookie second baseman wilton Guerrero could help a good offense as well.

2. San Diego--Get second baseman Quilvio Veras to lead off. Ken Caminiti is a superman, but have questions with a couple starters and someone to bridge the gap between the starter and set-up man Doug Bochtler.

3. Colorado--Bill Swift is healthy. He's not enough for this sorry pitching staff, though. Dante Bichette and Kirk Lescanic aren't healthy for the start.

4. San Francisco--What are they doing trading Matt Williams? Who's going to protect Barry "There's no I in team, but there is a me spelled backwards' Bonds? The pitching staff is horrific.

The wildcards will be Florida in the NL and Chicago in the AL. I detest the selfish, hypocritical Jerry Reinsdorf, who opposed the labor deal because he said it would drive up salaries too much, but then signed Albert Belle the same week for 11 million a year. So I eagerly anticipate the White Sox's early exit.

The team which will emerge from the American League is Cleveland. Remember how Seattle almost beat them in 1995? A similar thing will happen in their epic seven-game series. Ken Griffey, Jr., will drop a routine fly ball in the ninth inning of the decisive game. Phil Knight weeps bitter tears.

Florida is awesome, but Alanta's starting pitching will get them by because Brown, Leiter, and Fernandez can't all be amazing at once. John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine can. Braves in five.

In a rematch of the 1995 Series, Atlanta wins once again.

Cleveland's starters are ancient and tire by late October. Kenny Lofton wins World Series MVP then goes back to Houston, who traded him for Ed Taubensee many moons ago, in the offseason as a free agent. The Astros then found a dynasty, winning the Series from 1998 until 2005.

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