Same old ball game

Long spring days, the smell of hot dogs and freshly roasted peanuts, and the insufferable sound of congressional hearings on steroids – yes, baseball season has come around for another go.

It will be hard to top the unforgettable drama of the Red Sox miracle title-run last October but, as their curse-breaking championship proved, anything is possible.

Much has changed since the Sox danced on St. Louis’ home field last year. Talk of juiced baseballs has shifted to talk of juiced players. The Oakland A’s broke up one of baseball’s most recognizable trios and the New York Mets acquired one of the most high-priced duos in sports. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays spent next to nothing and George Steinbrenner spent more than the gross domestic product of some Third World countries to retool his Yankees.

Well, some things never change.

The post-steroid era kicks off Sunday night in New York with the curse-breaking Sox trying to put a hex on the very team that cursed them. From there, it’s six months, 2,430 games and 21,870 innings until the playoffs. In that span, new stars will emerge, old stars will fade and, most likely, a few stars will have their legacies further tainted by steroids.

To help you sort through the stats and the hype, here’s a look at the top 16 teams heading into the season. Instead of going through division by division, we’ve broken it down into three categories – sure things, contenders and pretenders. We’ve also listed the teams’ records and finishing places from last year.

National League

Sure things

1. St. Louis Cardinals (105-57, 1st in NL Central)

After getting swept in the World Series, the Cards added a legitimate ace in Mark Mulder and will compensate for the loss of All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria with a full-season from Larry Walker, last year’s trade deadline acquisition. The only NL team with no glaring holes, St. Louis will use the regular season to tune up for some October revenge.

Potential downfall: Cardinals pitchers shocked the world with their best in the NL performance last year. Can they dominate again?

2. Atlanta Braves (96-66, 1st in NL East)

On paper the NL East looks to be the most competitive NL division, but betting against Bobby Cox’s Braves is not a winning proposition. Tim Hudson should benefit from pitching coach Leo Mazzone’s magic and team with John Smoltz to give the Braves a potentially dominant rotation to go with one of the NL’s best offensive infields and a 14th straight division title.

Potential downfall: Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan would have been a good pair of starting outfielders in 1998, but 2005?


1. San Francisco Giants (91-71, 2nd in NL West)

With Barry Bonds the Giants are a clear favorite to win the West. Without him they’ll have to rely on MLB’s oldest lineup and their deep, young pitching staff to edge out baseball’s most unpredictable division. Look for Bonds to come back by mid-May and the Giants to win the division with a late-season surge.

Potential downfall: No Bonds, no Geritol – the Giants’ aging crew spends more time on the DL than in the lineup.

2. Florida Marlins (83-79, 3rd in NL East)

Last year’s third-place finish showed that the Marlins’ 2003 World Series run was the product of a precocious lineup and the team gelling at the right time. This should be the year those youngsters fully mature. Carlos Delgado’s addition gives the Fish the lefty slugger they’ve been missing, and a year and a half after Tommy John’s surgery A.J. Burnett could be a Cy Young contender.

Potential downfall: Heavy pitch counts and injuries have hindered the young staff’s development and there’s no reason to think they’ll be healthy this year.

3. San Diego Padres (87-75, 3rd in NL West)

A new, spacious ballpark couldn’t put the Padres over the top last year but they were the NL’s most improved team with 23 more wins than in 2003. Losing 12 game winner David Wells will hurt, but Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin are bound to improve on disappointing seasons and should benefit from a year of familiarity with Petco Park.

Potential downfall: A bullpen so shallow it makes Paris Hilton look deep could lead to long nights if Jake Peavy or Woody Williams go down with injuries.

4. Chicago Cubs (89-73, 3rd in NL Central)

Watching the Red Sox end their curse had to stir mixed feelings for the Cubs. Anointed preseason favorites to end their 96-year title drought, injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and a petulant Sammy Sosa kept the Cubbies on the sidelines. Sosa’s gone, Prior and Wood are still injured. If they’re healthy, watch out. Otherwise, make it 97.

Potential downfall: Wood and Prior have to start 55 games, but even if they do, someone needs to fill the 74-home run void created by the departures of Sosa and Moises Alou.


1. Philadelphia Phillies (86-76, 2nd in NL East)

The Phillies had their chance last year and blew it. New manager Charlie Manuel will look to instill some heart in what is basically the same team that faltered last year.

Potential upside: Most all of the players who made the Phils the fashionable pick to win the division last year are back and rookies Chase Utley and Gavin Floyd have star potential.

2. New York Mets (71-91, 4th in NL East)

$172 million in long-term contracts for Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez won’t turn these also-rans into a title contender. If healthy, the Mets could mirror the Padres’ rejuvenation of last year and still finish out of the pennant race.

Potential upside: Beltran and Martinez should be fine, but the team’s improvement hinges on the stellar youngsters’ shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman David Wright.

American League

Sure things

1. New York Yankees (101-61, 1st in AL East)

Same old story – Yankees choke, an angry George Steinbrenner gets one of baseball’s best (Randy Johnson), throws money at him ($32 million over two years), then, caught in the throes of spending, overpays a bunch of overvalued players (Jaret Wright, $21 million; Carl Pavano, $40 million). Regardless, the Yankees are loaded offensively and virtually guaranteed 90 wins and a playoff spot.

Potential downfall: Injury-susceptible pitching staff? Weak right-side of the infield? Hubris?

2. Boston Red Sox (98-68, 2nd in AL East)

With world title in hand, the self-proclaimed "idiots" are now the hunted and no longer the fan-friendly underdog. Can they adjust? If not, MLB’s best lineup can just mash the naysayers like they did to AL pitchers last year (.832 OPS). Losing Pedro Martinez will hurt but fat-boy David Wells should fit in perfectly.

Potential downfall: Wells and Matt Clement need to step up with Curt Schilling on the mend. Mediocre seasons from them could mean a lot of 10-9 wins (and losses).

3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (92-70, 1st in AL West)

Any doubt the Angels are the new royalty of the West should be erased after they cruise to another division title. After an off-season of addition by subtraction that saw the Angels say goodbye to the overpriced Troys (Percival and Glaus), the Angels will turn to MLB’s best farm system for upgrades with third baseman Dallas McPherson and setup man-turned-closer Francisco Rodriguez. Oh, and they signed Steve Finley.

Potential downfall: Kidnapping the Rally Monkey may be the only way to stop Anaheim (or is it Los Angeles?) from repeating.


1. Minnesota Twins (92-70, 1st in AL Central)

"Making the most out of less" has almost surpassed "close, but not quite" as the motto of the three-time defending Central champs and playoff losers. On paper the Twins look pedestrian, but every year a homegrown player steps up and they win the tight Central race. Last year it was Johan Santana, the eventual Cy Young winner; this year it could be catcher Joe Mauer or first baseman Justin Morneau.

Potential downfall: Rookie shortstop, rookie catcher, untested third baseman, out of position second baseman and injury-plagued first baseman could mean problems.

2. Cleveland Indians (80-82, 3rd in AL Central)

The Tribe showed their potential last year by catching fire in August and nearly surpassing the Twins. It was no fluke. Rebuilding is over and the Indians are ready to compete. Good homegrown pitching and hitting, led by all-word catcher Victor Martinez and future all-star Travis Hafner mean you can’t count them out. If the bullpen gets healthy they could challenge the Twins and stay atop the Central for a while.

Potential downfall: Lack of experience and a questionable bullpen could push the Tribe’s succession ’til next year.

3. Chicago White Sox (83-79, 2nd in AL Central)

Can they get it to the bullpen? That will be the question echoing across the South Side of Chicago. New relievers Dustin Hermanson and Luis Vizcaino will try to extinguish the fires lit by worn out starters Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras. Paul Konerko and Aaron Rowand will need to slug to keep the Sox in games but they have a chance to finally unseat the Twins.

Potential downfall: Sox never seem to be able to put it together and a retooled lineup could be the excuse for another year of disappointment.


1. Texas Rangers (89-73, 3rd in AL West)

Who needs pitching when you can hit 227 home runs? The correct answer would be the Texas Rangers. If Texas had any pitching last year they could have unseated the A’s and Angels. No new pitchers this year means no title.

Potential upside: If MLB ever decides the Wild Card is determined by a home run contest, don’t count these guys out.

2. Seattle Mariners (63-99, 4th in AL West)

OK, so the M’s aren’t one of the top 16 teams and don’t belong here. That said, the millions of dollars they threw at Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson should get Ichiro across the plate a few more times and bail out the ship so they’re back around .500. Doesn’t sound exciting but it would be quite an accomplishment.

Potential upside: Anything is better than 63-99.