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A Preview of 2006
By Paul Noonan

     The World Baseball Classic is over.  Spring training has wrapped up.  A historic record, while maybe tainted, could be broken.  Rivalries will be renewed.  But when the summer ends one team will be celebrating around the pitcher’s mound.  Plenty of teams have the potential to be there, so here’s a look at each division and who could be left standing come October.

     AL EAST:  Well it’s no longer the Red Sox/Yankees show in this powerful division, the Toronto Blue Jays want in on the action now too.  With some big off- season moves added to a solid mix to begin with, the Jays are looking to take the sting out of Toronto’s likely depression when their Maple Leafs get knocked out of the playoffs.  While they still are underdogs to the Yanks and Sox, the Jays are good enough to split the season series with these two teams, and if they do that, they will likely be in the playoff race in September.  The Sox and Yanks will be neck and neck all year continuing their ever growing rivalry.  In the bottom half, Baltimore and Tampa Bay will be trying to stay respectable.  With both teams lacking in talent, that will be difficult in this division.  Final standings:  BOSTON, NEW YORK, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.

     AL CENTRAL:  The home of the defending champions, the AL Central should be a solid division again this year.  The White Sox will be getting most of the attention this year, but the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins should give the White Sox some trouble as they try to return to the postseason.  The Indians will be hurting a little after the Crisp trade, but they still have enough young talent to compete.  If P CC Sabathia can carry the team again, they should stay in the thick of things all year.  For the Twins, there was talk of a big signing all winter, but instead they made a couple smaller ones.  Additions of a few veteran infielders will add an influx of veteran leadership as well as some decent bats to the lineup.  If a few of their young studs have a big year, the Twins could surprise.  In the bottom half, KC and Detroit will be successful if they finish .500 or better.  Final standings:  CHICAGO, Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, KC.

     AL WEST:  The weakest of the AL divisions the AL West will likely come down to the Angels and Athletics again come September.  The Athletics are sticking to their moneyball philosophy, and while they have a strong pitching staff, they still lack strong bats in the lineup.  The Angels on the other hand have a little less pitching than the A’s, despite having the reigning Cy Young winner, but a better lineup.  Whoever loses the head to head between these two teams will likely be on the outside looking in.  For Seattle and Texas overachievement will allow them to topple the aforementioned two.  Both teams lack strong pitching, but Texas has the bats to play the longball game with almost anyone.  If Texas’ pitchers overachieve they could sneak into the playoffs.  Final standings:  ANAHEIM, Texas, Oakland, Seattle.

NL EAST:  To bet against the Braves again in this division would be nuts.  They have the same team as last year so don’t count them out.  However, Philadelphia and New York both hope that they will end Atlanta’s 14 year streak.  Both teams are strong again this year, but they must avoid their normal ‘choking’ ways if they wish to do it.  On paper they’re better, but we all know how far that gets you.  The Nationals made waves signing Alfonso Soriano, but it won’t be enough to give them a better than average chance in this division.  In Florida, the team’s bigger concern is a new stadium and/or city, and their on- the- field product will show it.  Final standings:  ATLANTA, NEW YORK, Washington, Philly, Florida.

     NL CENTRAL:  This division had produced the last two National League champions and they have a chance to do it again.  The powerhouses will again be St. Louis and Houston, the two defending NL Champs, but the other Chicago team (who thought you’d ever say that?) is hoping to end their near 100 year title drought.  If Prior and Wood can stay healthy the Cubs have a chance to go a long way, if not they will be in trouble.  Cincinatti made a few moves to try and help their cause, but it won’t be enough.  However, a strong year by Griffey could give them a wild card spot.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are on the way up, and this year will be the beginning of it.  Lastly, Milwaukee will get worse yet again after losing power hitter Lyle Overbay to Toronto.  Final standings:  ST. LOUIS, Chicago, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinatti, Milwaukee.

     NL WEST:  This will probably be the worst division in the MLB again.  The main focus out west will be on Barry Bonds’ home run chase, but his Giants may not be worth talking about.  After winning the division last year, the Padres added Mike Piazza.  It helps, but it isn’t enough to compete with teams outside the division.  The likely candidate to win the division will be the LA Dodgers.  The west coast Red Sox (Nomar, Derek Lowe and infamous Grady Little will be re- united there) should have enough power to win the division.  The Arizona Diamondbacks have some young guns, but it will be a couple years before they are a threat.  And in the Rockies, things are still just that.  Poor Todd Helton will once again be left to pad his stats on a team that is stuck in neutral.  Final standings:  LA, San Diego, San Fransisco, Arizona, Colorado.

     *Teams in caps are playoff picks.



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