Posted: Thursday March 31, 2005 2:36PM; Updated: Thursday March 31, 2005 2:36PM
With the Big Unit heading up a revamped rotation, the Yankees show they aren't fooling around anymore.
With the start of the 2005 MLB season less than a week away, baseball had a chance to let pro football move to the prime spot at the Juice Bar, thanks to 60 Minutes' revelations that three Carolina Panthers had been making copious use of the rapid-refill service offered at the testosterone counter. Then came the revelations that Bud Selig's medical adviser, Dr. Nick Riviera (who you may recognize from The Simpsons), who had praised baseball's steroid policy in testimony before Congress, had received his M.D. from the Cancun School of Spring Break Medicine. Oops. Now it's more ugly headlines for the sport, and no amount of ESPN priming for its perpetual Yankees-Red Sox coverage can protect the game from its own ineptitude.
While we wait to find out what's next on baseball's steroid parade, the games do go on. And beginning Sunday, with The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Man, balls will start flying around the parks for real. Even if none of them are propelled by Barry Bonds -- maybe forever (yeah, right) -- there is still a pennant chase to forecast and a World Series favorite to anoint. Short of a 162-game series between the Yanks and the Sawx, the best baseball can hope for is a sharp focus on the sport -- oh, and an ALCS between New York and Boston.
Here's how the divisional races shape up:
NL EAST: You can't have Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi as your corner outfielders and expect to win, can you? El Hombre doesn't care if Timmy Lupus and Miguel Agilar are out there. With a starting rotation that includes John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton, the Braves are the favorites. Florida should run a close second and grab the wild card. The Phillies are Team If, as in IFPat Burrell returns to form, IF the starting rotation stays healthy and focused. And IF new manager Charlie Manuel is a better fit for the team than Generalissimo Bowa, the Phils will contend. And ifyou believe all that will happen, try the Cheesesteak Diet and lose weight fast. Meanwhile, the Mets will find out that Carlos Beltran can't win a pennant by himself and Pedro Martinez won't win 20 games. As for the Nationals, get ready for a new slogan: "First in war. First in peace. Last in the NL East."
NL CENTRAL:The Rocket is back! The Rocket is back! So is Andy Pettitte. And each of them had better have ERAs below 2.00, because Houston's lineup needs help. With five 15-game winners in the rotation (including new acquisition Mark Mulder) and the NL's most fearsome lineup, the Cards are the best here. Can you really count on the Cubs? Nope. The Reds say they can contend. Yeah, and baseball didn't have a steroids problem in the '90s. And if MLB were run like the English Premier League, both Milwaukee and Pittsburgh would have been relegated to Class-AAA.
NL WEST: No Barry? No problem, because this division stinks. Even if the Diamondbacks ran up their credit-card debt to acquire Shawn Green and Troy Glaus, their pitching is shaky. The Padres have Dave Roberts and Jake Peavy but more question marks than the Riddler's costume. The Dodgers could be good, or they could be bad. The Giants are the pick, even if Barry never plays again.