Catch the pros go for broke

Basketball isn’t the only hot sport this month. As baseball fans already know, the start of the 2008 MLB season is upon us.

Last season had all kind of drama. Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s hallowed home run record (supposedly with unholy, chemical help); The Red Sox being World Series champs in two out of four years; The New York Mets becoming one of the biggest chokers in baseball history.

It’s no surprise then that the off-season has followed in the wake of those headlines. Bonds has yet to sign with a team after a solid season, Boston kept their team intact and look to repeat and New York made moves to try to put last season to rest.

Aside from those subplots, this season will have its own storylines. The Detroit Tigers look like a championship team, the New York Yankees have yet to complete a barrage of deals and the Los Angeles Dodgers are suddenly a team everyone wants to see do well under Joe Torre.

It may be early days but it’s never too soon to look at how the standings might shape up come this September.

Both leagues have a lot of players and teams to watch. The question over this season’s 162 games will be how much the National League closed the competitive gap on the American League.

I start my preview in the AL where Boston looks every bit like a repeat world champion. The Cleveland Indians are still, at best, a piece away from overtaking Boston. The Los Angeles Angels seem to have another playoff spot waiting for them while the Yankees will have to fight once again to the bitter end to get in.

In the AL West, look for the Angels to win big. The Seattle Mariners have the pitching to contend but they lack the offense to strike fear in anyone.

Meanwhile the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers are both in the midst of rebuilding and are years away from competing.

The AL Central is a much tighter affair. The division will again see a fierce two team race in Cleveland and Detroit. They’re very well matched but I see the Indians keeping last season’s momentum and strong pitching going and finishing first.

Minnesota lost their ace pitcher Johan Santana and slugger Torii Hunter this off-season. Thus I can’t see them go any higher than third. Look for the Chicago White Sox and maybe even the Kansas City Royals to try and oust them out of third place.

The AL East will have plenty of intrigue. The Red Sox just look to be too dominant of a team to not finish first again. The Yankees are never to be counted out but last year’s woeful pitching staff has yet to be altered.

On the other hand, don’t sleep on the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. Toronto has a chance to play over .500 ball while Tampa or Baltimore simply need to sign a big-name (like Barry Bonds) to make a difference.

Over in the NL, the race for first will seemingly be wide open once again. Streaky clubs like the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies might make the playoffs again while the more solid teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs should be there. Nevertheless the NL has more than its fair share of talented squads able to take their places.

The NL West is a prime example of this. Virtually everyone has a legitimate case for the playoffs. The Arizona kids have all the pitching and offense they need to finish first. But the San Diego Padres are a hungry team that will challenge the D-Backs all season long.

Though the Rockies are very confident and fundamentally sound, I don’t think they have it all together yet to make the playoffs again. Keep an eye out on the Dodgers to fight the Rockies for third as Torre is an expert motivator. Meanwhile the San Francisco Giants are a non-factor and I see them calling the cellar ‘home’ for a few more seasons.

The NL Central again looks like a season-long struggle. The Cubs look very strong to me and should end up first again, barring any significant injury to star slugger Alfonso Soriano.

The Milwaukee Brewers should give the Cubs another epic fight to the finish. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are serious talents. Aside from that, the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals should hang around the top spots a bit while the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros will lay low and watch for young talent.

Finally, the NL East will be the hub of teams with a lot to prove. The Mets should be able to rebound from last year’s nightmare finish to claim first place.

On the other hand, Ryan Howard and the Phillies want to prove their NL East title was no fluke. In addition, Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves will try to stay in the hunt all season long and prove they’re still competitive.

Looking towards the bottom, the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals will try to glean positive developments in their young players.

It’s certainly a step on my part to look at the Wild Card picture so early. Nevertheless expect the Yankees and the Tigers to do battle in the AL. Meanwhile the NL will see the Brewers and Phillies try to climb the huge hill known as the NL West.

In the end, baseball may not be the purest of sports anymore. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most entertaining. So give the game a chance and catch the pros go for broke.

Mets third baseman David Wright hopes to find last season’s form

Pitcher Dontrelle Willis hopes to throw the Tigers into the playoff mix