Evil empire will strike again

Jame LeBlanc

Well, here we are the beginning of the 2005 Major League Baseball season. It’s time for all the off-season additions, and all the dollars spent to be put to the test on the diamond. All the predictions and guarantees no longer mean a thing… except for mine that is. Everything that I have predicted in my articles over the past two months is guaranteed to come true (note: neither James LeBlanc nor The Villanovan are responsible for paying the gambling debts you will most definitely incur by betting on his picks).

Now I am aware that as this article goes to print, the season will have already begun. Don’t blame me. I tried convincing Father Dobbin to forego spring break. I told him that the student body would much rather have my MLB preview finished in time than have a week off, but for some strange reason he didn’t believe me. Oh well, let’s get on with it.

This week I’ll be covering the final two divisions in my preview the American League’s Central and Eastern divisions.

Now I don’t want to offend anybody, but the AL Central division might be the most boring division in all of baseball. And since the AL East may be the most interesting, I will try to be quick in my analysis of the Central division, as to spend most of my time on the East.

Let’s start with the only city that can match Philadelphia’s history of losing. I speak not of Chicago but of Cleveland. Look at the facts. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. Then look at football – the beloved Browns always found fantastic ways to lose, and then they left to become the Baltimore Ravens. Right after that they win a Super Bowl.

Will this be the year things change for Cleveland? I don’t think so. Victor Martinez is back behind the plate but he is really the only proven offensive threat that they have. They hope to get big things from new addition Aaron Boone but he is definitely not a certainty after sitting out all of last year. In the outfield Coco Crisp is a nice player but he will be counted on more than ever before. They are desperate for right-fielder Casey Blake to build on the 28 home runs he hit last season. Pitching-wise, even if Kevin Millwood is able to regain his ace form, their starting staff is shaky at best. Their bullpen is also shaky, with Bob Wickman returning to his closer role after missing much of last season. Expect a losing year for Cleveland but hey, they’re used to it.

Expect big things from the Chicago White Sox this year. They return sluggers Juan Uribe, Paul Konerko and Frank Thomas. Carl Everett is also back and he is capable of big things when healthy. They also made major additions in outfielder Scott Podsednik, who should recover from his sophomore slump, second baseman Tadahito Iguchi from Japan and catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Pitching-wise, the White Sox look strong also behind ace Mark Buehrle. They also have Freddy Garcia, who would be an ace on many staffs, Jose Contreras, who has a very live arm, and Orlando Hernandez, who proved last season he still has something left. Shingo Takatsu is back again to handle the closer duties after the brilliant rookie season that he had last year. The White Sox will have a good year but it may be hard for them to make the playoffs.

Now we’re on to the perennial champs of the Central division, the Minnesota Twins, and don’t expect things to change this year. As always the Twins are a very good team this year. They have one of the best outfields in the majors with Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones. Stewart almost won the MVP award last season and don’t be surprised if he does win it this season. Hunter is one of baseball’s more exciting players and Jones is just an all-around good ballplayer. Lew Ford, who very quietly put together a good season last year will play some outfield and DH the rest of the time. Justin Morneau will get a chance to play full-time at first base, and their catcher Joe Mauer may be the most promising prospect in all of baseball. Their pitching will be excellent, too, as they return last year’s Cy Young Award winner, the dominant Johan Santana. Their staff is very solid behind him with Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse and Joe Mays. They also return intimidating closer Joe Nathan. Expect the Twins to win the division, and this may be the year they advance in the playoffs.

As far as the two other teams in the division go, the Tigers will be much improved. They add Maglio Ordonez to an offense that already boasts Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Pena, Carlos Guillen and Rondell White. Their pitching staff has a lot of promise in Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth but it is still unproven. Their bullpen is very solid with Ugeth Urbina, and closer Troy Percival. I don’t think the Tigers are quite ready to make a serious run yet, but keep your eye out for them.

As far as the Kansas City Royals go, once you get past Mike Sweeney and Angel Berroa, they don’t have anything. Pitching- wise they are weak too as their ace is Jose Lima, and it doesn’t get any better after that. They do have a promising closer in Jeremy Affeldt but he is still unproven. I feel safe saying the Royals will come in last place.

Now let’s look at the American League East. Last year the Devil Rays put a much better team on the field than they have been able to in years past. They even went on a winning streak that hit double digits. Expect that improving trend to continue this year. Left fielder Carl Crawford will more than likely lead the league in steals again this year as well as hit around or over .300 and play sparkling defense. Right fielder Aubrey Huff is one of the more underappreciated sluggers in baseball. They have brought in first baseman Travis Lee and DH Jason Phelps both of whom should help the offense. Pitching wise keep your eye on Scott Kazmir. This lefty has a very live arm and is my pick to win the AL rookie of the year. However, the rest of their staff is shaky, along with their bullpen. The improvement in Tampa Bay will continue but they are not ready to compete yet.

The Toronto Blue Jays will also be fighting a losing cause in the upcoming season. With the departure of Carlos Delgado they have lost their one real offensive threat. They need center fielder Vernon Wells to have a bounce back year.

Coming into last season many people expected him to blossom into one of the best players in baseball but that didn’t happen. They did add offensive threats in third baseman Corey Koskie and DH Shea Hillenbrand, but neither one can shoulder the load all by themselves. However, if Vernon Wells can have a big year, their offense will be okay. Pitching is where the Jays are in real trouble. Roy Halladay followed up a Cy Young Award winning season with an injury-plagued 2004. They need him to bounce back, and they also need big things from the talented Ted Lilly who is currently on the DL. Besides those two, however, the Jays don’t have anything. Their bullpen is very shaky too anchored by suspect first time closer Miguel Batista. The Jays aren’t a bad team but in this division don’t expect much from them.

The Baltimore Orioles are a very interesting team. They will definitely score a lot of runs. Melvin Mora is back at third base and he is one of the best all-around players in all of baseball. He is truly a five-tool player. Miguel Tejada is back at shortstop coming off yet another big year. Javy Lopez is also back coming off back-to-back big years and Raphael Palmeiro is also back. The addition of Sammy Sosa should help this already potent offense, although he is a big risk coming off the steroid scandal of the off-season. The problem the Orioles have is that they own one of the worst pitching staffs in all of baseball. They need Sidney Ponson to have a much better year than he did last year, but to be honest, I don’t see it happening. Rodrigo Lopez is a decent pitcher but he can’t anchor a staff. Their bullpen is shaky at best to with closer Jorge Julio. This guy has such a great arm, but has blown as many saves as anybody in the past two years. They need him to improve. The Orioles will score a lot of runs, and if they get any pitching they might make a run, but don’t expect it.

Now we move onto the champions of the baseball world, the Boston Red Sox. This is very similar to the team that won the World Series a year ago. Manny Ramirez, Kevin Millar, Mark Bellhorn, Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Jason Varitek and David Ortiz are all back. Expect MVP quality years from Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz again this year. They also picked up one of the best shortstops in all of baseball in Edgar Renteria. So their offense will be as good as ever. Pitching-wise they still have ace Curt Schilling, but lost Pedro Martinez and Derrick Lowe. Don’t think for a minute that David Wells will be able to fill the hole left by Pedro. They did sign a very talented pitcher in Matt Clement but they still aren’t as good as last year in the rotation. Their bullpen is very good, anchored by closer Keith Foulke. Expect the Red Sox to win the AL wild card but not the divisione.

My odds-on favorite to win the AL East, and as a Mets fan it pains me to say this, is the Yankees. Hideki Matsui is getting better every year and may be an MVP candidate by season’s end… that is, if one of his other teammates doesn’t run off with it. Jeter is a great player and is back at shortstop along with third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who may be the best player of our generation. Gary Sheffield is back after a huge season last year, and so are Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams, even though he appears to be slowing down a bit after last season. Jason Giambi needs to have a big season this year if he wants to shake the moniker that his big years in the past were only because of steroids. However, I don’t think he will be able to.

Tino Martinez makes his return to Yankee Stadium, he has always been one of the most popular players in Yankee history. Their pitching staff is great anchored, by newcomer Randy Johnson. They also have returnees Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown. Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright are also newcomers to the team coming off big years but each of the might have been one year wonders. As always the Yankee pen will be great with one of the best closers in the history of baseball, Mariano Rivera.

In conclusion the Yanks win the East and the Twins win the Central. Now let’s sit back and watch