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A new season, but not different

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2002

It still doesn't seem right.

It still doesn't seem right.

Baseball's new season begins tonight when the Angels and Indians play in Anaheim, but it does so knowing Mark McGwire will not be wearing a Cardinals uniform anymore. Nor will Tony Gwynn's distinctive voice be heard around the Padres clubhouse every night. And the left side of the Orioles infield is going to look awfully strange without Cal Ripken at third.

A new season, indeed.

But will it be better? Better yet, will it even make it through the summer?

Those questions and more will be answered as we head back to the regularity of 31/2-hour games, an empty Olympic Stadium in Montreal, labor negotiations and competitive imbalance.

The Yankees, Mets and Rangers have the best teams money can buy. By trading for Gary Sheffield, the Braves boast a legitimate power hitter in the middle of their lineup. The Twins surely will play with purpose after the commissioner's attempt to delete them during the offseason. The Red Sox hope Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra can stay healthy so they can challenge the Yankees in the American League East.

What else lies ahead this new season? Here are a few guesses:

Best candidates to surprise: Realistically the Cubs are two years from being a powerhouse in the National League Central. But they have the bats (Sammy Sosa, Fred McGriff, Moises Alou) and arms (Jon Lieber, Kerry Wood) to compete now. The same goes for the Rangers, at least offensively with Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez. Texas needs pitching to make a dent in the AL West.

Best candidates to disappoint: The Mets are pinning at least some of their Subway Series hopes on pitcher Al Leiter and first baseman Mo Vaughn, who missed last season because of injury. The White Sox get Frank Thomas back, but where did their pitching go this spring? None of the five starters had an ERA better than 7.00.

Most likely to win MVP: Jason Giambi was the biggest offseason free-agent signing and should be expected to show exactly why. He usually is good for 40 homers and 120 RBIs. In the National League? It has to be Sosa, who has hit no fewer than 50 homers and .320 the past two seasons.

Dark-horses to win Cy Youngs: Matt Morris won 22 games last season for the Cardinals and has a better supporting cast this year. Oakland boasts one of the best rotations in the game. Tim Hudson (18-9, 3.37 ERA in 2001) is a reason why. He is 73-23 lifetime.

Rookies who will make a difference: Much like leftfielder Adam Dunn did last season, the Reds' Austin Kearns should get a call-up during the season and make a splash. The same goes for Michael Cuddyer, the Twins third baseman of the future.

FLASHBACK: Five months after he allowed nine runs in 11/3 innings in Game 6 of the World Series, Jay Witasick was back on the mound against the Diamondbacks last week.

Now with the Giants instead of the Yankees, Witasick loaded the bases and then retired nine straight in three shutout innings.

"I think vindication will be sometime late in September when our (butts) are on the line and you're getting out of games in the NL West," he said. "When a win or a loss can make the difference between packing up and going home, and staying."

THRILL OF VICTORY: After five surgeries on his right elbow and six years away from the game, Jose Rijo will start the season on the Reds pitching staff.

He allowed five runs on six hits, walking one and striking out eight in nine innings this spring.

"I'm going to drink Dom Perignon tonight," Rijo said after manager Bob Boone informed him of his decision while in the dugout during a spring game last week. "But only one bottle. I have to pitch tomorrow."

AGONY OF DEFEAT: When he learned the Dodgers traded him to Montreal on March 22, relief pitcher Matt Herges wept for his misfortune.

The 32-year-old and Jorge Nunez, a Double-A shortstop, were shipped to the Expos for pitcher Guillermo Mota and outfield prospect Wilkin Ruan.

"Every time I think about it, I well up," Herges said. "My heart is absolutely broken. I'm in shock. It twists your life around, but as soon as I come to grips with it, I'll be excited to move to Montreal."

ODDS AND ENDS: The Diamondbacks averaged 9,131 fans in 15 spring home dates at Tucson Electric Park. ... Of the Astros' starting eight position players, only catcher Brad Ausmus and pitcher Dave Mlicki have played for another organization. ... The Rockies' $58-million payroll is the team's lowest since it opened the 1998 season at $48-million.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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