- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 3, 2010

Six months ago, the New York Yankees claimed the franchise’s 27th World Series title, and on Sunday, they’ll head to Fenway Park to open the regular season as 29 teams begin their quest to dethrone them.

“You have to work twice as hard to get back to where we were last year,” Yankees’ ace CC Sabathia, who is slated to take the hill Sunday night for the defending champs, told AP.

“[The goal] has to be the same whether you won or didn’t win, and that’s to win a championship,” Derek Jeter told reporters.

One of the teams with the best shot of doing so will be seated in the home dugout that night, as the Red Sox and one of the top best rotations in baseball will look to outlast the Bronx Bombers in what should be another season-long battle for the AL East title that has mostly been dominated by the two bitter rivals since 1995.

“Our chances are just as great as anyone in the East,” Mike Cameron said. “There’s so many more intangibles that come into play when you have a lot of talented ballclubs in the same divisions. It’s no cake walk. There’s nothing easy about it.”

The top pick to take the National League pennant sits just south of the Bronx: The Phillies will look to earn their third consecutive World Series trip after acquiring Roy Halladay. The Phils, whom the Yankees bested in a six-game series last October, made a bold move in sending trade-deadline acquisition Cliff Lee to Seattle and picking up the former Blue Jays ace to their rotation.

“For me it was never about changing teammates or environments or changing cities,” Halladay told AP this spring. “It was about wanting to pitch in October. That’s what I look forward to here the most. There’s no guarantees, but based on what they’ve done in the past and the guys that are in that clubhouse, I look forward to having that chance.”

Philadelphia’s biggest obstacle could be the St. Louis Cardinals, led by defending league MVP Albert Pujols, and boosted by the return of Matt Holliday with a seven-year, $120 million deal, who was a mid-season pick up from Oakland.

Closer to home, the Nationals and Orioles look to climb out of being in the cellars of their respective leagues.

Washington acquired some veterans to fill out a mostly green roster after back-to-back 100-loss seasons and will get more help in midseason with top pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg, who was impressive in three spring starts for the Nationals, will start the season in Double-A Harrisburg and should be in Washington’s starting rotation by the All-Star break.

Up the Parkway, the Orioles hope to end a dubious run of 12 straight seasons without a winning record, dating back to Baltimore’s last playoff appearance in 1997. The O’s feature a young rotation, with Brian Matusz as the potential ace who must stand up to the brutal punishment the AL East lineups can deliver on a pitcher.

There will be some changes around the major leagues as well.

In Minneapolis, the Metrodome — where the Twins won a pair of World Series titles — will be replaced by a brand-new outdoor park, Target Field, which brings the team back outside for the first time since their final days at Metropolitan Stadium in 1981.

Veteran Braves manager Bobby Cox, who won a 1995 World Series ring in Atlanta, is ready for his final go-around as skipper before retiring after the season with a team he hopes can return to the playoffs after a four-year absence.

“I like our pitching and I like our chances,” Cox said this spring. “We should be right there in the race.”

Out in Chavez Ravine, an ugly divorce could impact the NL West race, as Frank and Jamie McCourt battle over the Dodgers and their assets. L.A. fans hope the ugly personal matter involving the team’s ownership doesn’t sink their team like an ugly split between the Moores in San Diego led to the Padres’ fire sale.

“You learn a long time ago, at least I did, your job is to manage the team that has been given to you,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. “My job, besides managing, is to try to insulate any players from the distractions. I learned that from New York.”

The steroid controversy still looms, as Mark McGwire takes his position as St. Louis’ hitting coach as the slugger returns to the spotlight after his Congressional testimony clouded his Hall of Fame chances.

“I’m ready to turn the page and move on in my life,” McGwire told reporters when he arrived in Cardinals’ camp. “It’s something I regret, and I can’t say I’m sorry enough to everybody in baseball and across America, and whoever watches this great game.”

Another fallen star who testified, Miguel Tejada, returns to Baltimore after a stint with Houston — and being hit with a fine and probation for misleading Congress during his performance-enhancing testimony.

But with spring temperatures across much of the country forecast, the focus returns to the field this week to see if anyone can dethrone the Bronx Bombers.

2010 Major League Baseball Predictions
(In predicted order, Wild Card qualifiers carry an asterisk)

AL East
New York: Some big changes in the Bronx, but Yankees will be tough to unseat.
Boston*: With a tough pitching staff and an improved defense, Boston will give the Yanks a race.
Tampa Bay: Should one of the big two falter, Tampa Bay could be there to sneak into the playoffs.
Baltimore: The Orioles look to the young starters to grow in a hostile environment in the AL East.
Toronto: With Halladay gone to Philadelphia, the Jays now will have to rebuild with a weak lineup.

AL Central
Minnesota: Moving outdoors, the Twins hope to have a season to celebrate at Target Field.
Chicago: With a good rotation, the White Sox could make a run at the Twins or the Wild Card this season.
Detroit: Although Johnny Damon’s arrival in Motown gives the lineup a boost, the Tigers’ pitching depth will be tested.
Cleveland: Ex-Nationals manager Manny Acta lands with the Tribe, and hopes to put the rebuilding Indians on the right path.
Kansas City: Aaron Crow, the draft pick who spurned the Nats in 2008, should be in the Royals’ rotation by the end of the season.

AL West
Los Angeles: The arrival of Hideki Matsui from the Yankees makes the Angels the team to beat out west.
Seattle: With Cliff Lee in Seattle, the M’s are poised for a big jump in the standings — although probably not back to the top yet.
Texas: Injuries and a risky lineup make the Rangers a long shot to make a run for the western crown.
Oakland: The A’s are in rebuilding mode, and will look to some young talent to blossom and build for the future.

NL East
Philadelphia: Two-time defending league champs add Halladay to their arsenal, and are the clear-cut favorite in the division.
Atlanta*: Pitching is back in style at Turner Field, with Billy Wagner and Derek Lowe putting the Braves in playoff contention.
Florida: The Marlins aren’t a bad team, but sandwiched between the contenders and pretenders in the division.
Washington: The Nationals won’t lose 100 games this year, but a lot of things have to fall their way to approach .500 again.
New York: Injuries and question marks surround the Mets, who could be in store for a very ugly season with another slow start.

NL Central
St. Louis: Led by MVP Albert Pujols, the Cardinals could be Philadelphia’s biggest threat to a third straight pennant.
Chicago: If the Cubs’ pitching holds up, the North Siders might be able to sneak into the postseason for the first time since 2003.
Milwaukee: Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder will deliver some punch as the Brewers hope to stick around the playoff race.
Cincinnati: Aroldis Chapman will be the other big pitching prospect in the bigs, and will get more starts than Strasburg.
Houston: The rebuilding Astros will have a tough time keeping up with the rest of the pack in the NL Central.
Pittsburgh: Despite some improvement on the field, an 18th straight losing season appears to be on tap in the Steel City.

NL West
Los Angeles: The Dodgers could net their third straight NL West title - if the ugly McCourt divorce doesn’t sink the team.
Colorado: The Rockies hope to avoid the swoon that followed the team’s last playoff berth this time around.
San Francisco: Tim Lincecum leads the Giants’ good staff, but the weaker offense might keep them out of the chase.
Arizona: The Diamondbacks aren’t going to be in the chase, but won’t be in the cellar either.
San Diego: The Padres will be sellers at the trade deadline as the former contender continues to shed talent — and salary.

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