Q: The Red Sox look very strong, the Rays are young and the defending AL champs, and the Yankees spent almost half a billion dollars on superstar free agents. Who do you see winning the division, and who will miss the playoffs?
— Stephen Shoemaker, Tulsa, Okla.
A: It's a tough call in the AL East, for sure. But I have to pick the Red Sox. I believe their starting pitching is the strongest and deepest among the three contenders, and over a 162-game schedule, I think that's what wins nine times out of 10.
The Sox rotation goes eight-deep including John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden likely taking turns at the back end. Nobody else in the game has that much starting pitching talent.
That said, the Sox do have legit injury concerns with Julio Lugo (out), as well as J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. If too many of them are out over the course of the season, run production could become a problem, as position-player depth isn't great.
The Rays really have a tough act to follow. Teams that come out of nowhere to achieve unexpected success usually take a step back the following season.
But the Rays are a bit different in that most of their position players didn't have anywhere near their best seasons in 2008, and therefore have room for improvement. The biggest example may be Carl Crawford, and don't forget that budding superstar Evan Longoria played in only 122 games last season.
Their rotation also is very deep — as in most any other case, a talent like David Price would be starting the season in the big leagues, and not at Triple-A. I do have concerns about their bullpen matching last year's outstanding performance, however. So I see the Rays dropping down a notch from a year ago, and battling the Yankees and perhaps the Twins or Indians for the wildcard.
As for the Yankees, for all the money they spent, they still are a team with holes and issues. I still think Joba Chamberlain is more valuable to them as the setup man to Mariano Rivera, but I understand why they want him in the rotation, especially with the injury possibilities for Chein-Ming Wang, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte.
I don't like their bullpen in front of Rivera, and when you look at their lineup without Alex Rodriguez, it's hard to envision it scoring as many runs as a year ago, when it fell far short of expectations. You have a mix of aging, injury-prone veterans and unproven young hitters, so there is going to be great pressure on the pitching staff.
Q: I will never understand why the Chicago Cubs didn't re-sign Kerry Wood. Do you think they have a chance with Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol?
— Michael Kozon, Maumelle, Ark.
A: I didn't totally agree with the Cubs' decision, either, Michael. And as it turns out, they have backed away from the reasoning behind that decision.
I think Wood is going to stay healthy as a closer, and I would have been willing to give him the deal the Indians did — two years, $20.5 million guaranteed with a 2011 option.
The Cubs quickly decided last winter that they wanted to avoid giving him that kind of deal, believing they had a cheaper and just-as-effective option in Carlos Marmol.
It may turn out that way, but at least to start the season, Lou Piniella has decided to go with Kevin Gregg, who wisely was picked up from Florida (for prospect Jose Ceda) as a fallback option.
So you certainly can ask the question: If they didn't really believe in Marmol, why not just re-sign Wood? Bottom line, though, I think the Cubs will be solid in the late innings, with a combination of Gregg, Marmol (who was so good as a multiple-inning setup man), Aaron Heilman, lefty Neal Cotts and possibly Jeff Samardzija.
Q: Has Kevin Millar retired from baseball, now that he's left the Baltimore Orioles? He was popular with Red Sox fans, but didn't produce much offense while an Oriole.
— Pete, Providence, R.I.
A: Millar has stayed in the AL East, Pete, finding a spot with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he figures to fit in as a backup at first base to Lyle Overbay and at designated hitter to Adam Lind.
With both Overbay and Lind being left-handed hitters, Millar should get at-bats mostly against left-handed pitching. I don't think he'll be able to match his 20 homers and 72 RBI from 2008 with Baltimore, but he should have another decent season in him at age 37.
HBT: Controversial umpire Angel Hernandez blew another call that nearly cost the White Sox a win on Friday, earning the ire of manager Robin Ventura.
Add another near miss in this 2013 baseball season - this time it was Detroit's Anibal Sanchez falling just short of a no-hitter.
Baseball fans hit the road
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Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.