The last time the National League had a team this good, Bobby Cox was in the middle of a Hall of Fame managerial career — not at the end. His 1990s Atlanta Braves got to five World Series in the decade, including four in a six-year span (1991-96). But those four World Series losses will forever haunt Cox and a couple of Hall of Fame arms that got them there but couldn't seal the deal.
Roy Halladay — long dominant, but far from the pennant chase in Toronto — could get that chance this season, as the Philadelphia Phillies have a clear shot at a third consecutive World Series appearance. It's a down cycle for the National League, for certain, as more higher-priced veteran talent has gravitated to the bigger payrolls of the American League.
That trend could be reversing, as the NL has the game's three most-hyped prospects about to break in — Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman. But in the next seven months, it's going to take a combination of Phillies' injuries and an uncommon run of good fortune for another top NL contender for anything other than a Phillies' three-peat to occur.
With closer Brad Lidge, setup man J.C. Romero and No. 3 starter Joe Blanton beginning the season on the disabled list, you can make a case for the injury bug striking Charlie Manuel's club. But all three are expected back before the month ends, and as we saw last season, the Phillies will go out and get a Pedro Martinez or anybody else needed for the stretch.
No, what we have here is an enormously talented core of star players in the primes of their career, with Halladay added for a whole season instead of having just three months of Cliff Lee. Throw in an expected rebound from Cole Hamels, Jayson Werth playing for a new contract, the many positive contributions of underrated Placido Polanco, and everything is in place for the Phillies to knock off the American League's best.
And that should be the Boston Red Sox, who've loaded up on starting pitching — they're six-deep — and way-above-average defenders for a different kind of challenge to the defending World Series-champion Yankees.
AL East: 1) Boston; 2) New York (wild card); 3) Tampa Bay; 4) Baltimore; 5) Toronto
The rundown: The Red Sox have the game's deepest rotation, and that's what wins the most over the grind of 162 games. The Yankees might have a better roster than a year ago with the additions of Javier Vazquez and Curtis Granderson and the shift of Phil Hughes to the rotation. But keep in mind their core stars are another year older, and less likely to stay healthy, as they all did a year ago.
AL Central: 1) Minnesota; 2) Chicago; 3) Detroit; 4) Cleveland; 5) Kansas City
The rundown: The Twins — no longer your mid-market over-achievers — were an easy pick before the crucial Joe Nathan injury. That will tighten up the race considerably, but there is no better lineup in the division, Francisco Liriano will make the rotation better, and they have the resources to get another closer if the committee doesn't pan out.
The White Sox are very confident, and with good reason — four quality starters, a talented back of the bullpen and a remade lineup that finally has gotten rid of the station-to-station, right-handed power emphasis. Too many things have to go right with the Tigers, and you know not all of them will. The Indians had a nice spring other than the Kerry Wood injury, while the Royals remain stuck in sub-.500 land.
AL West: 1) Los Angeles ; 2) Texas; 3) Seattle; 4) Oakland
The rundown: Sorry, but we're not buying the demise of the Angels here. They won't win 97 games again, but the rotation is the division's best, they're four-deep at the back of the bullpen, and their offense hasn't lost that much from the one that finished second in the AL in runs scored last year.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
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