The Washington Times - March 31, 2009, 01:12PM

By SEAN RAPOSA

Don’t look now, but the regular season is just around the corner. Sunday night’s Phillies vs. Braves tilt can’t come soon enough, as this year’s preseason has been uneventful even by spring training standards. We did find out that A-Fraud is, well, just that, and Agent Greed finally got ManRam into a uniform. The WBC was thrilling for all of us who didn’t watch it - or so I hear. I’ve been too busy working long hours trying to pay the rent in this rough economy to spout off the past few weeks, but with games that actually count on the horizon, the Ice Man returneth with a long-overdue column. 

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In case you were wondering, the title of this post doesn’t refer to the Tony Dungy-inspired zone defense but rather to the tantalizing possibility of another annual bottom-feeder going Cinderella on us like the 2008 Rays, who shocked everyone but themselves by capturing the A.L. pennant. The clock struck midnight on everyone’s favorite underdogs in last year’s Fall Classic, but it did little to diminish their feel-good turn-around story. I have a sneaking suspicion that lightning may strike again. But before I unveil our nation’s 2009 darlings, let’s take a peak at the candidates.

Only a downtrodden franchise that hasn’t been on the radar for a long, long time could even attempt to pull onto the glory road those pesky Rays traveled last season. This rules out the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, A’s, Padres and Giants, all of whom have enjoyed some degree of success in the past five years. Still, a pennant from any of these teams would nonetheless qualify as a giant (wink-wink) surprise. This leaves the Nationals, Pirates, Reds, Orioles and Royals as the contestants for the National Pastime’s version of “The Biggest Loser.” Who will shed the 50 pounds, ditch the spectacles and get a Stuart Smalley “I’m good enough” pep talk?

Though it never manifested itself in the standings before 2008, the Tampa Bay brass had quietly been building a collection of young talent that centered around strong starting pitching. A deficiency in this key element will keep Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore from making the leap out of the depths this year - sorry guys. Luckily, two of those franchises have some talented young arms on the way, and I heard the new stadium in Pittsburgh has comfy seats. Everybody wins!

Our two remaining contestants combined to finish 26 games below .500 last year, and both finished second-to-last in their division. Bill Simmons is an inspiration and I love everything he does at ESPN, but I don’t think his sleeper pick, the Royals, have the talent to win the A.L. Central. I really like the Gil Meche/Zack Greinke 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation and Joakim Soria is a solid closer, but after that it’s middle of the road stuff all around. If they had pounced on Ryan Braun in the first round of the 2005 draft instead of Alex Gordon or perhaps selected Tim Lincecum over Luke Hochevar in 2006 they might have been last year’s Rays this year.

I hadn’t realized it when I sat down to write this column, but apparently I’m here to pile onto the Reds bandwagon. The Big Red Machine has been getting a lot of internet buzz lately, which is logical when you compare their roster to Tampa Bay’s 2008 squad. Fast-rising whirly-birds Edinson Volquez (above) and Johnny Cueto join Micah Owings - who was acquired from Arizona in the Adam Dunn trade last summer - to form a young trio that could emulate the James Shields/Scott Kazmir/Matt Garza combo that paced Tampa. Veteran starters Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are at the very least good bets to eat up plenty of innings, and could provide much more. Francisco Cordero is Cincy’s version of Troy Percival - a proven veteran to slam the door shut in the close ones.

The parallels continue on offense. The Reds boast their own middle-of-his-prime energetic leader in Brandon Phillips, who fills a role similar to that of Rays’ left fielder Carl Crawford. Big-time prospects Jay Bruce and Joey Votto each tasted big-league success in 2008 and by all accounts have upside that rivals that of Tampa’s hot-off-the-press home-grown superstars, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton. The Reds even play in a division - similar to the A.L. East - which has often, and recently, been thought of as a two-team race. I don’t know that I’d put any hard-earned money down on the Reds becoming Tampa II - not in this economy - but after eight consecutive losing seasons I’ll be pulling for them. And with all that young talent they’re carrying, I’ll be watching too.  

Sean Raposa is a frequent contributor to National Pastime. He can be reached at [email protected]

Photos by the Associated Press