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Writing a baseball preview on March 7 is admittedly risky. There is still almost a month remaining before the commencement of the season, leaving plenty of time for injuries and other surprises that can affect a team's prognosis.
It is difficult, however, not to begin speculating about the 2001 Major League Baseball season--especially in Boston where an 82-year curse could come to an end with the new millennium. I've lived here all my life, and once baseball season begins, Beantown transforms into Red Sox Nation.
Nomar Garciaparra just appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, fresh off back-to-back batting titles and an intensive workout regime. Enter Manny Ramirez, perhaps the best slugger in all of baseball. See Carl Everett, who managed to hit 34 homeruns last year for the Sox while simultaneously head-butting umpires and denouncing the existence of dinosaurs.
Show me Hideo Nomo, Frank Castillo, and David Cone, three players who all have past pitching success in the Big Leagues. Say hello to Bret Saberhagen, who may finally be healthy enough to pitch again. Reintroduce me to Derek Lowe, who quietly led the American League in saves last season and earned himself an All-Star bid.
Oh yeah, and tell that Pedro guy he's good too.
How can this team lose? John Valentine's back from a knee injury and hit a homerun in his first game back in spring training. Dante Bichette is in Boston for an entire season. Trot Nixon should benefit from another year of experience--if the club can find a position for him. Troy O'Leary, a solid player in his own right, might be traded because the Sox just have too many outfielders who can play.
In the bullpen, Boston can set up Lowe with Tim Wakefield, Hipolito Pichardo and "El Guapo" Rich Garces, three guys who rose to the occasion last season. Starting pitching and offensive production were the team's two big weaknesses in 2000. Manny and a slew of new pitchers have potentially solved those problems. Watch out for Chris Stynes, too--when this guy is swinging a hot bat, he is one of the most dangerous hitters in the major leagues. Sounds ridiculous, but his hitting streaks are legendary in Cincinnati.
So, is this the year? Is the Curse of the Bambino finally over? Will 1918 become merely a meaningless number from the past? Can the Sox finally emerge from the hated New York Yankees' shadow?
Of course not.
The addition of Ramirez will certainly make Boston a contender this season. The Sox might even win the AL East, which would add even more hype to a possible playoff showdown with the Yanks. But, the postseason has and will always depend on pitching. A seven-game (or, heaven forbid, a five-game) series is usually determined by which pitching staff--starters, middle relievers, and closers--has more talent.
Again, it's still early, but based on opening spring training starts, Barney is a scarier foe than Nomo or Cone. Martinez, the most dominating pitcher in all of baseball, is the closest thing to a guaranteed win. But, unless Castillo proves incredible, it's still "Pedro and pray for rain" until further notice.
The Yankees boast Andy Pettite, Roger Clemens, Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez, and now Mike Mussina. And you think the Red Sox are the team to beat? Add Mariano Rivera, the undisputed best closer in the American League, and you've got yourself a pitching staff that might be invincible. The Yankees are again the favorite.
Sure, Jeff Nelson's loss will hurt. Without Nelson, the Yanks may not have defeated Oakland in the playoffs this year. Nelson was incredible in the pivotal Game Five against the Athletics, pitching an inning and a third, allowing no hits or runs and striking out two. He did not allow a run throughout the five-game series against Oakland.
Additionally, Mike Stanton (who pitched two scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out three A's in that same Game Five), Ramiro Mendoza, and whoever else dons a Yankees uniform should be able to perform similarly to past Yankees come playoff time.
Remember this, Sox fans: it's not the big name players who always win the big games. It's the Luis Sojos, the Jose Vizcainos, the Scott Brosiuses, the Jim Leyritzes, and the Shane Spencers who ultimately do the little things that define championship teams.
Maybe this year's Red Sox edition contains role players who can provide the small intangibles. Perhaps Lou Merloni has a game-winning home run in him. Maybe Trot Nixon will cause "Nixon's the One" bumper stickers to be distributed throughout Boston. I think if you rearrange the letters in Izzy Alcantara, you might be able to spell "sweet revenge" (or, "suck it, Boston media").
The bottom line is that the Yankees are the favorites this season, no different than the past five years. They now have Mussina, who most sports fans believed to be the prize of this year's free agent class--even more valuable than Manny. The Yanks probably could have signed Ramirez if they so desired, but chose to go after 'The Moose' because Brian Cashman and Joe Torre understand that pitching wins championships. After all, they've been in the winners' circle four times in the past five years.
You can't argue with success. Unfortunately for Bostonians, you can argue with the Red Sox.
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