Baseball returns to center stage

For many, spring is the greatest time of the year for professional and collegiate athletics.
March Madness has just run its course, the NHL and NBA playoffs are right around the corner and major league baseball has begun another season of play.

The obvious question coming into the season is who, if anyone, is going to knock off the defending champion New York Yankees? After re-establishing the “Evil Empire” in 2009, the Yankees look to repeat a dominant regular and post-season run en route to a repeat World Series title.

The Yankees lost several significant bats, including World Series MVP Hideki Matsui and fan favorite Johnny Damon.

Matsui bolted for the Angels and Damon was forced to sign with Detroit after the Yankees failed to make a legitimate offer.

However, the Yankees picked up versatile center fielder Curtis Granderson from the Tigers, on-base machine Nick Johnson via free agency and reliable starter Javier Vasquez also from the free-agent pool. 

There definitely will be teams that challenge the Yankees this season in the American League. The second best team in baseball is the Boston Red Sox and they will be the toughest test all year.

Boston, like New York, added significant talent this offseason with the signings of ace John Lackey, center fielder Mike Cameron, third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Marco Scutaro.

The Red Sox edge the Yankees in their five-man starting rotation highlighted by Josh Beckett, the aforementioned Lackey and young left-hander John Lester.

In the end, it will most likely come down to the Yankees and Red Sox in the ALCS in October, but teams like the Rays, Twins and Angels will continue to challenge in the American League.

In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies look to win the National League Pennant and reach the World Series for a third straight year.

While the Phillies lineup may be as potent as ever, there are serious questions in the bullpen and the starting rotation. Brad Lidge is coming off a down year and entered the season on the disabled list forcing Ryan Madson to assume closing responsibilities.

Madson is more than capable but he vacates his role as a reliable set-up man, which will hurt the Phillies down the road if Lidge’s injuries continue throughout the season.

The Phillies will be tested all year by a difficult National League East divison, including a tough young Marlins team who debut the season with a great young pitching staff and a lineup that is led by defending batting champ Hanley Ramirez.     Along with the Marlins, the Atlanta Braves could not only make a run at the Wild Card but also a deep post-season run.

Albert Pujols and the Cardinals are probably the second best team in this league and have the depth in their lineup and pitching staff to make a run at the National League crown.

The only other viable contender in my opinion is the Dodgers, who have the youngest and most exciting lineup in the national league, led by up-and-coming star Matt Kemp.

Besides watching the best teams in the league, there are many other stories that you will be wanting to look out for this season. There are two pitching phenoms that will make their major league debut early this year.

The Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg is one of the highest-rated pitching prospects in recent memory. In his last season of college at San Diego State University Strasburg had remarkable stats: 13–1 with a 1.32 ERA, 59 hits allowed, 16 earned runs, 19 walks and 195 strikeouts in 109 innings pitched.

If you have watched this guy pitch, you know he is the real deal. He has a fastball that reaches triple digits and his hook is almost unfair.

Arguably as impressive is the Cincinnati Reds’ phenom Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is another young arm who throws in triple digits but he is a left-hander, which makes him even more valuable. Chapman and Strasburg will most likely be on your televisions from late May to early June, and you will want to sit and watch.

The Major League Baseball season is a marathon of 162 games from now until the end of October.

So much happens over the course of a season and it is impossible to foresee what will transpire over the next year. But one thing is certain, the national pastime, the game of lazy summer afternoons, the game of simple yet undiluted splendor, will provide us with excitement and entertainment all season.