Prediction time: Philly over Boston in Series
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If the Red Sox and Phillies don't play in this year's World Series, there should be an investigation. Or if they don't make it to baseball's promised land, my fearless prediction should be investigated.
How can a Philadelphia team with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in its rotation not be favored to reach the World Series?
That's the best rotation since the Braves had Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery in 1995. With their rotation, the Phillies should have no trouble winning their fifth straight National League East title. You can bet the house on it.
And the Red Sox? They're loaded. Maybe this is the best team Terry Francona has had since he took over as manager in 2004. Maybe even better than his World Series championship teams of 2004 and '07.
With the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, plus the return of last year's walking wounded, Boston should breeze in the tough American League East.
Francona, whose Red Sox failed to go to the playoffs in 2010, says having a team with so much potential doesn't put more pressure on the players and him.
"I don't think so," he told me. "I think we're very excited about our season. Regardless of who's on your team, you prepare correctly. Hopefully, if we do that, we'll play to our level. I don't think we'd ever prepare differently depending on what our so-called talent is."
The Phillies have once again been struck by the injury bug. All-Star second baseman Chase Utley and closer Brad Lidge will open the season on the disabled list.
Charlie Manuel, whose 544-428 record in his six seasons as Phils skipper is the best in the NL, says the key to the season will be if the players remain focused. He expects them to win their division.
"Other teams in the league are going to be playing harder against us," says Manuel, whose 25 postseason wins are the most of any big league manager since 2005. "Yes, expectations are high, but because there are so many outside distractions, it's sometimes difficult to stay focus. Teams that repeat play the way they always do."
Ever since Lee spurned the Rangers and Yankees to go back to the Phillies, the rotation has received much of the attention.
Manuel says his hurlers are "different type pitchers, different styles. When we go to play somebody a three- or four-game series, they're going to get a different look every day. You're not going to see the same style of pitching."
Continuing with the NL:
The Braves, with Fredi Gonzalez taking over for legendary manager Bobby Cox, are much improved this year. With the addition of Dan Uggla at second base, plus a good starting rotation, they should win the NL Wild Card. In fact, I think with third baseman Chipper Jones apparently healthy from last year's surgery, their batting order is better than the Phillies'.
The Cincinnati Reds are one of the best young teams in the Majors. Joey Votto, last year's NL MVP Award winner, should be even better. It will be interesting to see how Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, with his 100 mph fastball, does during a full season. The Reds will easily win the Central and I think could end up in the NL Championship Series against the Phillies.
Landing in the postseason last year, even though they were swept by Philadelphia in the NL Divisiion Series, was a huge learning experience. Look for their maturity to show.
The Giants, buoyed by their superb pitching, won the NL West last year with a late surge as San Diego faltered. The Giants didn't stop until they gave San Francisco its first World Series championship since the team moved there from New York in 1958.
There's temptation to pick the Colorado Rockies as division champ, but even though the Giants have been bogged down by injuries this spring, their pitching staff, led by Tim Lincecum, should carry them to another title. But keep in mind that since 2000 only two teams, the Phillies and Yankees, have returned to the World Series in consecutive seasons.
If the Red Sox are a cinch to win the AL East, the smart money says the Yankees will be the Wild Card.
But here's my long shot: Everybody's writing off the Tampa Bay Rays. They've lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza, et al., because of the franchise's low revenues.
Don't hoist the white flag just yet.
With the Rays' outstanding strong starting pitching, led by David Price, and the additions of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, I'm picking them to win the Wild Card.
"I think they'll be better than last year," says Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "They made some really good additions. I don't think anybody who knows what's going on feels they dropped off in any way from last year. They've stepped forward more than they have gone back."
I like the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. General manager Kenny Williams was busy during the offseason. The pickup of free-agent slugger Adam Dunn plus the re-signing of Paul Konerko to go with a good, young nucleus makes the White Sox my choice. I believe the Twins have lost too many of their key players, including virtually their entire bullpen, to repeat.
The Texas Rangers would be a shoo-in to repeat in the AL West had they been able to re-sign Lee. They still have one of the most potent offenses in the league, led by AL MVP Josh Hamilton and newly acquired third baseman Adrian Beltre. It's the best lineup in the division. If their pitching holds up, they'll run away with the West.
And, oh yes. The World Series?
In one of the best ever, the Phillies will beat the Red Sox in seven games.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.