It doesn’t seem that long ago that fans of the Boston Red Sox were bemoaning the “Curse of the Bambino.”
The Red Sox were in a world championship drought of Sahara Desert-like proportions, having not won since 1918. But starting in 2004, when they made the amazing comeback in their playoff series against the New York Yankees by wiping out a 3-0 deficit, the Bosox have been baseball’s team of the last decade with three titles —two more than their arch-rival Yankees.
The mighty Yankees, in fact, have won only one Series title since 2001, though they did win three straight from 1998-2000.
New York is going back to its tried-and-true formula — trying to buy a championship. It’s not in the class right now of the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Steinbrenner family is trying to muscle back into the title picture by offering some serious green.
The Yankees and Dodgers, baseball’s most historic franchises along with the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, could very well be on a collision course in 2014 to meet for World Series supremacy. But there will be the usual cast of contenders, as well as maybe a surprise or two.
Here’s how the baseball races are going to play out:
• AMERICAN LEAGUE •
• East •
1. New York — The biggest hurdle is overcoming the loss of the greatest reliever in the game's history in Mariano Rivera. If the Yankees find a dependable closer, they’re set. The additions of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran put punch back into the offense. You know the Yankees won't let Derek Jeter go out without another shot at a Series ring.
2. Boston — You can almost expect a World Series hangover. Boston will hang around because of its starting pitching.
3. Tampa Bay — Every year I look for the Rays to fall back and every year they pitch and field better than just about everybody, which keeps them in every game. They also have the best manager in the game in Joe Maddon.
4. Baltimore — The Orioles don’t have the starting pitching to stay with the Big 3, but they can be an irritant to the leaders because of their slugging offense.
5. Toronto — The Blue Jays seem to be taking up permanent residence in the cellar that formerly was occupied by Tampa Bay a few years back.
• Central •
1. Detroit — The Tigers are not nearly the formidable force they have been the past few years now that Prince Fielder is gone. Lots of warts for this team, but when you look around, who’s going to beat them in this division?
2. Kansas City — I’ll be honest. Detroit may be the only team in the division with a winning record. There’s no way the Royals can pitch as well as they did last year, and the bullpen has been an arson squad in the spring. At some point you’d think their young hitters would explode, but that hasn’t been the case. I see 79 wins.
3. Cleveland — The Indians, like the Royals, will fall back after being baseball's surprise team. They were decimated with offseason departures and didn’t do much to make up for it.
4. Minnesota — A sleeper team. The Twins have taken their lumps the last few years, but they’ve been stockpiling young talent. They could be this year's Cleveland.
5. Chicago — Paul Konerko is still around, but not much else. A total rebuilding job is under way.
• West •
1. Texas — With Oakland losing two of its starting pitchers due to injuries, the new-look Rangers should slide back into the catbird seat.
2. Oakland — As mentioned, injuries are killing this team. The A’s pitching was thought to be among the best in baseball, but you can’t lose 40 percent of your starting rotation and maintain the recent pace.
3. Seattle — The Mariners way overpaid for Robinson Cano. The Mariners, though, are getting closer because of their young starting pitching.
4. Los Angeles — This is like a rotisserie team. Lots of players who look good on paper, but they don't mesh on the field.
5. Houston — Still the “disAstros.” Should be another 100-loss season.
• Wild-Card Play-in Teams — Boston and Tampa Bay
• AL Champion — New York
• NATIONAL LEAGUE •
• East •
1. Washington — Everybody thought the Nationals would win 100 games last year and make the World Series. It didn’t happen, but it could this year.
2. Atlanta — A lot like the Oakland A’s, injuries to the starting pitching have dealt this team a serious blow.
3. New York — The best of the worst. The three remaining teams in this division will be lucky to win 75 games.
4. Philadelphia — The Phillies are wheezing. They got too old all at the same time and there’s not enough in the farm system to keep it going.
5. Miami — Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez could pull a Steve Carlton — win the Cy Young Award for a terrible team. This kid was lights-out last year and has been super this spring.
• Central •
1. St. Louis — As long as they keep doing it “The Cardinal Way,” I don’t see anything slowing this team down, though it’s offense tends to be sporadic.
2. Cincinnati — The loss of reliever Aroldis Chapman for at least a month is a killer. Still a potential 90-win team though.
3. Pittsburgh — The Pirates, after 20 years of wallowing, finally broke through last year. But I think it will be short-lived.
4. Milwaukee — Potential sleeper. I’ve seen a lot of experts say it could be in the cellar, but I don’t think so.
5. Chicago — The Cubs are still the Cubs. Enough said.
• West •
1. Los Angeles — Simply too deep. The Dodgers have great starting pitching and an outfield that should produce big runs. All that can stop them is crumbling under the heavy weight of expectations or the growing misadventures of distracting problem child Yasiel Puig.
2. San Francisco — The Giants’ normally airtight pitching was merely mortal last year. Look for them to rebound in that area. Still lacking in offense.
3. Colorado — Great team at home, can’t win on the road. The Rockies toil in virtual anonymity.
4. Arizona — It wasn’t that long ago the D-backs were the kings of the division. Pitching is the problem.
5. San Diego — The Padres may be baseball’s most boring team. They can’t score and play a lot of low-scoring games.
• Wild-card Play-in Teams — Atlanta and Cincinnati
• NL Champion — Los Angeles
• World Series Champion — Los Angeles