After another long Rochester winter, spring has finally arrived. But for baseball fans across the country, spring doesn’t officially start until the first pitch of the regular season is thrown. With the opener on Sunday night, it’s time to take a look at the realities of the upcoming season in a game called “Reality or Fantasy.”

1. Reality or Fantasy, the NL Central is the best division in baseball.

Swid: Fantasy – That title goes to the AL West. The Oakland Athletics are still a solid team despite losing two great pitchers. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have tons of talent and, if they make the playoffs, could come away with the World Series. The Seattle Mariners added power hitting All-Stars Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, but will still have a tough road ahead if they want to contend for the division. The Texas Rangers improved immensely last season and will do so once again this year. This division has no weak links, which can’t be said for any other division in baseball.

Fini: Fantasy – During the offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals focused on improving their rotation. Despite the departure of Woody Williams, the Cards upgraded their staff when they went out and got Mark Mulder. Kudos to the owners for keeping last year’s lineup relatively intact. Overall, this team is even better than the one that made the World Series last fall, which pretty much seals the Central Division title. If you’re looking for a late season divisional race, look to the NL East. The Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets all have rosters with outstanding talent. Although the Braves and Marlins probably have the most well-rounded rosters in their division, and probably even in the NL, the offseason acquisitions by the Phillies and Mets will delay the naming of a division winner until late September.

2. Reality or Fantasy, the Minnesota Twins will wrap up the AL Central by the All-Star Break.

Fini: Fantasy – While the Twins were figuring out ways to save money this winter, their division rivals decided to open their wallets. Last season, the Cleveland Indians proved that a young ball club could compete. The Indians aren’t the only team knocking at the Twins’ door. The Detroit Tigers have also spent big bucks to add more skill. With Troy Percival anchoring the bullpen and Magglio Ordonez added to the lineup, Detroit is showing its hunger for a playoff spot come October. If Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth of Detroit can turn into reliable starters at the top of the rotation, the Twins might want to delay yet another AL Central Champion celebration.

Swid: Reality – You would think at some point that the low-budget Twins would have their payroll catch up with them, but this division is so bad year after year that they keep running away with it by default. The Indians will continue to improve this season, but they’re still not ready to contend. The Tigers added Magglio Ordoez in the offseason – in such a weak division they might actually finish above .500. The one team that might make things interesting in the Central is the Chicago White Sox. Even though they finished last season nine games behind Minnesota, they’re the only other team with a remote chance to win the division.

3. Reality or Fantasy, Texas will win the AL West.

Swid: Believe it or not, I’m going to say reality – Perennial contender Oakland will be worse this year. Even if Rich Harden steps up and Barry Zito returns to All-Star form, the departure of Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson will hurt them. Even with great hitting, any pitching staff led by Jamie Moyer won’t reach the playoffs, so Seattle is out. The Angels have the most talent of any team in the division, but they have problems as well, mainly with their weak pitching staff. After years of finishing last in the West, the Rangers finally showed signs of life last year. They have a young team, but are extremely talented. Their stellar infield consists of heavy hitters Mark Teixeira, Hank Blaylock and Alfonso Soriano. They will be the biggest surprise in the Majors this season.

Fini: Fantasy – The only two teams in the AL West who really have the depth and skill to win are the Angels and the Rangers. Texas shows promise with its star-studded lineup. If the Rangers can cultivate the talent in young starters Chris Young and Ricardo Rodriguez, and Chan Ho Park can locate the strike zone, the Rangers will be the team to beat in the West. The Angels pose a serious threat in the race for the division title, but their rotation has holes that desperately need to be filled. Their bullpen won them the 2002 World Series, but it lost some of its strength when Detroit signed Troy Percival. This year, the Angels are going to have to realize that their bullpen can’t always save them.

4. Reality or Fantasy, the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry will not have the same edge after Boston’s World Series victory.

Fini: Fantasy – The Red Sox’s dramatic win in last year’s American League Championship Series will only help fuel one of the greatest rivalries in sports. Granted, Yankee fans can no longer chant “1918,” but bitter discontentment still exists between the clubs. If anyone is concerned that last season’s outcome will take the edge off this intense battle, just look at the offseason moves. The Yankees loaded their pitching staff with more aces and the Red Sox followed in hot pursuit, signing big names as well. The rivalry will continue to get hotter as long as George Steinbrenner desires to cover all 10 fingers with rings and Red Sox fans continue to pay $80 for bleacher seat tickets.

Swid: Fantasy – In a rivalry, there has to be success on both sides, and for the first time, that’s finally the case. Whenever Boston fans attempted to taunt Yankee fans for “sucking” as a result of a single regular season defeat, or their lead in the standings in mid-May, for decades the Yankees had numerous responses in their arsenals – Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, Bill Buckner, The Curse or just “1918.” Now their main argument will hinge on the 26-6 lead in World Series victories. There’s also a new mix of players that are sure to stir things up this season. The Opening Day matchup pits future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson against former Yankee David Wells. Need I say more?

5. Reality or Fantasy, the Braves will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

Fini: Reality – This division is going to be one of the most intense races of the 2005 season and could be up for grabs right until the final day. The Braves are entering this season with even higher hopes than last year, when their ace was Russ Ortiz. Now they’ve got Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, who returns to the starting rotation after a few years in the bullpen. Despite those improvements, they will fall short to the Marlins. Florida has a talented rotation led by young stars Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis. They also have a very dangerous lineup reinforced by the presence of Carlos Delgado. He will be supported by other great hitters Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell and catcher Paul Lo Duca. Although the two teams are evenly matched, the Marlins are a stronger and younger club.

Swid: Every year I say reality and every year they prove me wrong. I’m going to go a different route this year and say fantasy. The Marlins will be solid, but they won’t win the division. The Mets are the biggest threat to Atlanta within the NL East now that they have added Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. Pedro should easily adjust to his new home, but Beltran has played almost his entire career with the Kansas City Royals, where he never faced the pressure of New York fans who booed him in spring training for dropping two fly balls. That said, he was the backbone of the Houston Astros’ playoff run last year, proving he can come through in the clutch. The Braves will probably have to battle a team or two from the NL Central for the wild card if they can’t hold off the Mets, but in the end should once again reach the postseason.

6. Reality or Fantasy, Randy Johnson will have
a better year than Pedro Martinez.

Fini: Reality – While Johnson is 41 and has problems with his knee, he is still a dominating force on the mound.Last season, Red Sox fans saw a different Pedro than in previous years, one who adopted a new philosophy to pitching. Instead of blowing batters away, he dropped his velocity to the low 90s and used finesse to keep the ball off the fat part of the bat. However, he has become more vulnerable when his pitch count creeps past 100 pitches. Teams will learn to exploit this flaw and eventually dominate Martinez. For now, Johnson is the better of the two. Although that could change after he meets the Red Sox.

Swid: Reality – Pedro’s lack of durability and his tendency to pitch inside may diminish when he is up to bat in the following inning. The Mets don’t exactly have a great fielding team and his opponents have been more likely to put the ball in play during the past several seasons. There are two main concerns regarding Randy Johnson – his age and his adjustment to New York. If he can overcome those factors, he can still be the best pitcher in baseball. On top of that, he finally has a lineup behind him that will provide adequate run support. If he stays healthy all season, Johnson will win the AL Cy Young Award.

7. Reality or Fantasy, the Chicago Cubs will follow Boston in breaking curses and win the World Series.

Fini: Fantasy – The 2005 Cubs have more problems to deal with than they did last season. Sammy Sosa’s departure and their rotation’s woes leave them with no chance at a ring. The team to focus on is the St. Louis Cardinals. They were the best team in baseball until the Red Sox exploited their starting pitching. They fixed this flaw by acquiring Mark Mulder, who will anchor their rotation. Their lineup remains scary. Losing Edgar Renteria put a hole in the lineup, but they filled it with David Eckstein.

Swid: Fantasy – The Cubs have a chance even without Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, but only if Mark Prior and Kerry Wood get healthy very quickly. More likely, the World Series will go to one of the usual suspects. The Braves will contend, the Angels and Mets have a shot, the Cardinals will be good again and the Red Sox have a chance to repeat. But the Yankees came within just one victory of reaching the Series and all they did this offseason was add the best left-handed pitcher of the generation. Although they won’t completely annihilate their competition this year, the Yankees will still be standing at the end of October. After all, four years without a World Series is equivalent to 86 years in George Steinbrenner’s world. Swidler can be reached at Serafini can be reached at

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