The wait is over. Twenty-nine teams are ready for 162 games of baseball because that’s their reason for living. Our baseball analysts, Steve and John, were asked the tough questions about the 2006 season.

Teams with great starting rotationsSG: Any talk about a great rotation needs to start with the Chicago White Sox. The crew that won the World Series last season is back intact, with the addition of Javier Vazquez.

Questions may arise about whether Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Vazquez can repeat last year’s success, but this team is filled with talented and quality starters who throw 200 innings and get the job done.

JS: The Cleveland Indians finished the regular season two games behind the Boston Red Sox in the Wild Card standings thanks largely to their starting rotation, which put up big numbers in August and September.

The big three – C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee – proved they could contend in their division against the World Series Champions, the White Sox, closing what was once an 18-game division lead into a close three-game lead prior to the team’s final regular season showdown in September.

Free Agent SigningsThe Good: Johnny Damon, New York Yankees – If it were any team besides the Yankees, you would have to scratch your head at giving Damon four years and $52 million. But junk the money and look at the signing. Damon will be the table setter to an already stacked lineup.

The Bad: AJ Burnett, Toronto Blue Jays – The Blue Jays went on a spending spree, giving Burnett five years and $55 million. No one questions the potential Burnett has, but he has yet to live up to it. Bringing in Burnett at that hefty price tag – and into the American League East, which is filled with power lineups – simply doesn’t add up.

The Ugly: Kevin Millwood, Texas Rangers – It is hard to call the reigning Earned Run Average leader an ugly signing, but Millwood is an exception. Five years and $60 million later, Millwood will move from Cleveland to Texas. The Ballpark at Arlington, where the Rangers play, is a dream hitter’s park through and through. Last season was the only time Millwood enjoyed great success, and he was playing in a contract year. Now, with guaranteed money and a smaller ballpark, Millwood will fall off a great deal.

Key Trades

SG: There were many key trades this winter that showed which teams were rebuilding, which were competing and which didn’t have a clue.

The Marlins hit the panic button early this offseason, selling their top guys in a blockbuster trade that sent Josh Beckett, along with Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota to the Boston Red Sox for Hanley Ramirez and three minor league pitchers.

The already potent White Sox added another big bat to their lineup in Jim Thome while unloading Aaron Rowand to the Philadelphia Phillies. This trade gives the Sox two hitters who have the opportunity to go yard back to back a lot.

JS: Carlos Delgado’s transfer to the Mets was another desperate attempt by the Mets to let New Yorkers know that the Yankees aren’t the only game that’s in town. Delgado certainly patches a leak in a lineup that once consisted of an arthritic Piazza and an overpaid center fielder.

Dark HorsesSG: To say someone who hit for a .301 average, had 43 home runs and had 144 RBIs last season is a dark horse is somewhat unfair. However, that is what Mark Teixeira from the Texas Rangers is.

This will be the season that Teixeira becomes a household baseball name. No longer will he be overshadowed by Lee, and he will duplicate, if not increase, his production this season. He plays in a great hitter’s park and in a great lineup.

Another name ready for stardom is Chase Utley from the Philadelphia Phillies. After starting the season as a backup, Utley made the most of his opportunity to play everyday, batting .291 with 28 home runs and 105 RBIs in 147 games last year. Utley will begin the season with the starter’s job and stands to be a breakout star this year.

JS: Sean Casey of the Pittsburgh Pirates has all the qualities of Adam Dunn and more. While every other hit of Dunn’s usually lands up in Kentucky, Casey is a much more consistent hitter. His average has always been a laudable .320, and in 2004 he was on his way to hit 35/120, yet an injury derailed him and he wasn’t able to get back on track last season either.

Another horse that’s ready to come charging out of the gates this season is Carlos Lee or “el caballo.” This guy will be the key factor in helping the Brewers make the postseason when he posts 40-plus homers.

Comeback PlayersSG: Eric Gagne was the most feared pitcher to see in the ninth inning just two seasons ago. Just a season removed from recording 84 straight saves, Gagne had an injury-plagued 2005. However, when able to pitch last season, he did very well. It looks like baseball’s best closer will be back in peak form.

Curt Schilling is another player integral to his team’s success. During the 2004 postseason, it appeared Schilling sacrificed his own health and future to pitch for the team. After starting last season off on the disabled list, Schilling rejoined the team as a closer, resulting in little success.

JS: All I have to say is Nomaaaah! The man hasn’t been the same since 2002 when he underwent surgery to repair his wrist. He’s been plagued by injuries ever since. The Dodgers are looking for him to have an injury-free year. If that can happen, he will be crowned batting champion.

Frank Thomas hasn’t played a full season of baseball since 2003. He made an appearance last year where 18 of his first plate appearances were quite impressive as he pounded out eight home runs. Unfortunately, back pain shuttled him onto the disabled list and cut his season short. When given the chance, Thomas could return to the 43/143 man we are used to seeing.

Teams to surprise, fall off

League parity is what makes professional sports great. The rarities of dynasties in today’s sports market is why we watch. Every year, there are teams that surprise you, and there are teams that disappoint you. This season, there are several teams that fall into either of those categories.

Teams to Surprise:

SG: New York Mets – Surprise? After two off-seasons of spending and trades, it appears the Mets have finally found something that will work. With Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and David Wright in the lineup and Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner leading the pitching, the Mets might end the Braves’ run in the National League East.

JS: The Milwaukee Brewers have guys who can win games not just on pitching but with hitting as well. The rotation starts with their work horse, Ben Sheets, and passes on to the guy who stepped it up last season, Chris Capuano. After that, though, the rest of the rotation fades in regards to defined talent.

Teams to fall off:

SG: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – After winning the division, the Angels did nothing but lose this off season. They lost Jarrod Washburn to free agency Bartolo Colon most likely to the nearest fast food restaurant. Without Washburn and with an overweight, injury-prone Colon, it seems the Angels may need one looking over them to repeat their success.

JS: The St. Louis Cardinals are set for a crash-and-burn finish. Yet, the problem isn’t with their lineup – their rotation is their achilles’ heel. It’s hard to argue that last seasons Cy Young winner and former nominee aren’t enough glue to keep the rotation from unraveling, but these things have happened before.

World Series PredictionsSG: With a 162-game season, so many things could happen to sway a preseason World Series prediction. However, right now it seems that the White Sox are set to repeat last season’s spurt. They have upgraded their already stellar pitching, added another 40 home run guy to their speedy lineup and play great baseball.

In the National League, the best is clearly the St. Louis Cardinals. Howev

er, they haven’t done enough to overcome a great White Sox team. White Sox over Cardinals in six games.

JS: The 2006 season like previous seasons must be treated as a marathon. An 18 game winning streak is certainly impressive, but is minute when compared to the other 144 games played. The Cleveland Indians have the rotation and lineup that can meet the challenges of a six month season and then some.

The Washington Nationals surprised D.C. fans last year holding onto the division lead just a few days prior to the All-Star break. Expect them to hold onto it even longer.

The series will carry out to the game decider, No. 7, and the trophy will ultimately wind up in the City of Rock and Roll.

Goff can be reached at

Serafini can be reached at

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