Investigations and accusations aside, it’s time for baseball…

Kyle Scudilla

Baseball has had an interesting few months since October when the Chicago White Sox swept the Houston Astros and captured an improbable world title, their first since 1917. The offseason started as it normally does, with a flurry of free-agent signings that made many familiar faces change uniforms and locales for the upcoming season. After the hot stove died down, the steroid talk heated up, with the news of a book, “Game of Shadows,” implicating slugger Barry Bonds among others in baseball’s performance-enhancing drug controversy. Now, with a league-wide drug investigation being led by Senate majority leader George Mitchell underway, Major League Baseball is hoping that the allure of Opening Day and the renewal that comes with each new season will be enough to downplay all of the controversy.

No debate will stop the games from being played, and after all the talk, it’s finally time to play ball. Here’s a look around the league at the teams and players to watch, as well as a look into The Villanovan’s crystal ball to see who will prevail come October.

American League East

In what has become the most predictable division in baseball since even before the new millennium, fans should expect a similar draw for 2006, although the competition for the top spot may be as hot as ever, as a third team could be joining the annual Yankees-Red Sox race for the division crown. The much-improved Blue Jays are one of the hottest topics around baseball, and for good reason. After shelling out the big bucks to add players such as Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay and Bengie Molina along with starting pitcher A.J. Burnett and closer B.J. Ryan, it would be easy to argue that this is the most talented Toronto squad since the World Series days of 1992-1993. Still, this talented bunch could be left in the dust by the perennial contenders. The Yankees certainly didn’t sit still this offseason, putting a dagger in the heart of the Red Sox by swooping up All-Star CF Johnny Damon. Damon should be the catalyst to one of baseball’s most talented lineups, but an eye must be kept on the pitching staff, with top starters Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, as well as new set-up man Kyle Farnsworth, all needing solid seasons for the Yankees to reach the postseason. Despite some personnel changes of their own, the Red Sox should still be a contender, especially after adding Josh Beckett to the starting rotation. It will be interesting to see if new faces such as Coco Crisp, Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez can all step into the starting lineup and make Boston’s lineup as potent as it usually is.

American League Central

A division that was once one of the weakest in baseball now features the World Champions and a young upstart that could challenge the champs for their throne. The favorite at the outset looks to be the White Sox, who seem to have improved upon a roster that was good enough to win it all in 2005. Adding Javier Vazquez to a rotation already featuring Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras and Jon Garland could give the White Sox the best starting five in all of baseball. Another key addition is that of power-hitter Jim Thome, who could add some serious pop to a fundamentally sound lineup already featuring Paul Konkero and Jermaine Dye. Hot on the heels of Chicago should once again be the Cleveland Indians, who are led by a solid core of young stars, including Travis Hafner, Johnny Peralta, Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore. It will be intriguing to see if this year’s team can rebound from a late-season collapse that kept them from catching Chicago last year. While Minnesota has arguably the best starter in the game (Johan Santana) and a great bullpen, their everyday lineup has too many question marks to pencil them in ahead of the White Sox or Indians.

American League West

While Texas and Seattle have both improved their pitching heading into 2006, the West seems to be a two-team race. Pitching is the name of the game for Oakland, who features an enviable stock of young arms, including starters Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, not to mention closer and 2005 Rookie of the Year Huston Street. With a deep supply of pitching ability, the A’s should be tough to beat, but the lineup needs to provide some runs to make them a big contender. Oakland is hoping that veteran DH Frank Thomas can stay healthy and add a big bat to the middle of the team’s solid – but far from spectacular- lineup. Oakland should face fierce competition from the reigning division champs, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. While this team still features many of the big names from past years, including Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, Bartolo Colon and Francisco Rodriguez, the losses of mainstays Bengie Molina and Jarrod Washburn could hurt the Angels down the stretch. The development of rookie catcher Jeff Mathis will be important in determining how far the Angels fly this season.

National League East

Excuse me if I yawn, but the Atlanta Braves look like the favorites once again in the NL East. Atlanta showed how strong their hold on the division title is when, despite losing many key veterans to injuries last year, youngsters Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans and Brian McCann stepped up and helped lead the Braves back in October. Although they have some questions in the bullpen, the core group of veterans Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson should team with last year’s rookie sensations to make the Braves a winner once again. Standing in the way of a 15th consecutive division crown for Atlanta will be the revamped New York Mets, who did some major spending to acquire a group of former All-Stars including 1B Carlos Delgado, C Paul Lo Duca and RP Billy Wagner. The big question mark for the Mets will be the health of the starting pitching, with a rotation anchored by injury-prone Pedro Martinez, aging Tom Glavine and rebounding Steve Trachsel. The Phillies appear to be the dark horse in this division, thanks to their power-packed heart of the order consisting of sluggers Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. They may need plenty of home runs to stay in the chase because everyone in the starting rotation after Jon Lieber is a question mark.

National League Central

Heading into 2006, St. Louis appears to be not only the class of the Central Division, but also the best team in the entire National League. While there have been some changes to the everyday lineup, including the retirement of Larry Walker, the heart of the order still features NL MVP Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and a now healthy Scott Rolen, which should make the Cards a nightmare for opposing pitching staffs. Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter is the ace of a staff that exceeded expectations and is certainly good enough to help St. Louis reach the playoffs again. The wildcard of the division are the Houston Astros, who are still unsure of the Roger Clemens situation. The Astros reached the World Series thanks in large part to the threesome of Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte shutting down opposing hitters. Without Clemens, the Astros will rely on younger pitchers to help support the back end of the rotation. LF Preston Wilson was brought in to help bolster a weak offensive club, and he could have an enormous impact in the tiny Minute Maid Park. While the rest of the division may be an afterthought, don’t sleep on the Milwaukee Brewers, who sport an impressive group of young pitchers, including Ben Sheets, Doug Davis, Chris Capuano and closer Derrick Turnbow, who could help the Brew Crew along to its first winning season in 14 years.

National League West

Coming off their worst season in quite a long time, the new-look Dodgers seem primed to take over a weak NL West in 2006. Adding Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton and Bill Mueller to a historically anemic lineup should make the Dodgers a solid offense. The key for Los Angeles to become a big contender is the healthy return of Eric Gagne, but Danys Baez was picked up as bullpen insurance in an excellent offseason move. The San Francisco Giants are also looking to recapture the postseason form they’ve had in recent years, but they’ll need rebounds from their best hitter and pitcher to do so. Barry Bonds sat out most of 2005, and his health will be a big factor in how successful the Giants can be. Starting pitcher Jason Schmidt, after being a Cy Young contender two years ago, had an off-year last season and needs to step up and be an ace once again. If both of these players produce their usual numbers, the Giants could be involved in a heated chase with the Dodgers in the stretch run. Reigning champ San Diego seems to have lost too much in the starting rotation to be a playoff-caliber squad this season.