What a great time of year to be a sports fan.
College basketball decides its champion on the court. (Are you listening, NCAA football?) The NBA and NHL postseasons are about to start. (Reportedly, those leagues will crown champions sometime before September.) NFL teams are preparing for the draft. (Meanwhile, NFL players make court appearances and trade demands.)
Best of all, Opening Day approaches. (And I get to make a bunch of predictions that smart fans will summarily ignore before calling their bookies.)
1. Boston Red Sox: Now that they got rid of that cancer-causing loser, Manny Ramirez, the sky's the limit for this crew. And no matter what, the Sox know they can rely upon never-injured stalwarts such as J.D. Drew, David Ortiz and Josh Beckett. Seriously, given all that went wrong for the Red Sox last season, it's easy to forget that they won 95 games and got to the ALCS. As usual, they've assembled a powerful roster and a nice rotation, and Jonathan Papelbon has moved to the fore as the one guy I'd want on the mound in the ninth inning of a Game 7.
2. New York Yankees: It's wonderful that the team is bringing back Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio to throw out the ceremonial first pitches at the new Yankee Stadium. And you thought Ted Williams' head was the only thing that had been cryogenically frozen all this time? For the Yankees to avoid the slow starts that have plagued them in recent years, they'll need dominant pitching in April, when pitching is supposed to dominate. With CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett (or is it C.C. and AJ?), they seem to be armed well enough to overcome the early absence of A-Roid Rodriguez. But just in case they do struggle early, maybe we should start the "What day will Joe Girardi get fired?" pool right now.
3. Tampa Bay Rays: Back in 1998, the Cubs sent Kerry Wood to the minors to start the season, leading then-Angels manager Terry Collins to say that if the Cubbies had five pitchers better than Wood, they were a cinch to win it all. And now here we are, 11 years later, and the Rays have sent 2008 postseason phenom David Price to the minors. P.S.: The Cubs didn't win it all in '98, and the Rays won't do so in '09 after coming oh so close last year. It's hard to imagine them being able to duplicate their 97-win success, isn't it? Well, Evan Longoria & Co. will get the chance to prove all of us wrong again.
4. Toronto Blue Jays: Where's Joe Carter when you need him? Remember when the Yankees and Red Sox were just good enough to lose and Toronto ruled this division? Honest, kids! Ask your dads. The Blue Jays obviously remember ... how else to explain Cito Gaston's return as manager? What next? Ed Sprague at third base? The only way this team escapes fourth place is if Roy Halladay wins 35 games. If anyone can do it, he can.
5. Baltimore Orioles: With Felix Pie, Cesar Izturis, Rich Hill and Andy MacPhail, what could possibly go wrong?
1. Philadelphia Phillies: It was a rough season for Phillies fans because they didn't have nearly enough opportunities to boo their heroes in 2008 - especially in October. That trend figures to continue in '09. The Braves have better pitching depth, the Marlins might have a better lineup and the Mets have the division's top leadoff man and starting pitcher. Having said all that, it's the Phils who do everything well - as evidenced by the championship rings on their fingers. If Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels and their other studs stay healthy, Philly will contend for No. 1 in baseball again.
2. Florida Marlins: With their young, powerful lineup, no wonder tens of Marlins fans turn out at Dolphins Stadium every night! I doubt there are five better players in all of baseball right now than Hanley Ramirez, and he has plenty of support. If Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad and the team's other young pitchers continue to grow up, the Marlins could have the kind of special season their Tampa Bay neighbors had in '08. Florida won 84 games a year ago, so it's not an outrageous leap.
3. New York Mets: Their petition to have the season shortened to 150 games was denied, so I don't like the Mets' chances to avoid another heartbreaking choke-a-thon. With Jose Reyes at the top of the order and Johan Santana at the top of the rotation, with Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Carlos Delgado providing power and with newcomers Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz anchoring an overhauled bullpen, the Mets would seem to have enough to win this division. Then again, they seemed to have enough in 2007 and 2008, too. Oh well, at least they have a new ballpark named after a failed bank going for them.
4. Atlanta Braves: They are delighted with new hurler Javier Vazquez, but those of us who caught his act on the South Side would caution Bobby Cox to avoid using Javy in any game that matters. Not that the Braves figure to have many of those down the stretch. Atlanta added Vazquez and Derek Lowe to an already decent staff, but age and offensive deficiencies make a .500 record a stretch.
5. Washington Nationals. See Adam Dunn hit a home run! See Adam Dunn strike out three times! Thanks for coming and drive home safely.
(Tomorrow: AL West and NL West.)