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April 16, 2010
Vol. 51 No. 20

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Surprise teams plan to contend during MLB season

Baseball season has resumed, and with that comes much speculation throughout the 162-game season. The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Cardinals have established themselves as the top dogs in the majors, but there are always surprises.

Here is a look at four teams who missed the playoffs in 2009, but could still be in the running when October rolls around:

Tampa Bay Rays -- The Rays have emerged as a trendy sleeper pick, but also have the daunting task of competing in the AL East. Knocking out the Yankees or the Red Sox will be difficult, but if anybody can do it, it's the Rays. Evan Longoria provides not only an All-Star bat to the lineup but also won a Gold Glove at third base in 2009. Speedster Carl Crawford leads the way for this young, electric offense.

Overachieving 2009 All-Stars Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist are showing no signs of letting up with B.J. Upton supplying above-average defense in centerfield. Former No. 1 overall pick David Price is the highlight of a young but experienced Rays pitching staff, which featured sub 4.00 ERAs in 2009 from Matt Garza and Jeff Niemann. The signing of free agent closer Rafael Soriano should provide some stability at the backend of the bullpen.

Seattle Mariners -- General Manager Jack Zduriencik has revamped this roster, focusing on pitching and defense. The acquisitions of lefty Cliff Lee and infielder Chone Figgins were huge for the team, but trading for outfielder Milton Bradley will likely put some strain on clubhouse morale. Centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez has evolved into an elite defensive outfielder and teams up with Ichiro Suzuki to track down just about everything that goes airborne.

Lee's quick recovery from hip issues is paramount for their success in the wide-open AL West, as he and "King" Felix Hernandez make one of the top 1-2 punches in the league. Their two biggest challenges will be putting runs on the board and getting solid outings from the third through fifth pitchers in the rotation.

San Francisco Giants -- The Giants have a stud with righty Tim Lincecum, who has won back-to-back Cy Young awards. No. 2 starter Matt Cain would be a No. 1 starter on most teams. The Giants, like the Mariners, will win with pitching.

The only problem is that they do not have the exceptional defensive talent that the Mariners have. Pablo Sandoval is one of the most underrated hitters in the MLB and will continue to improve again this year. Bengie Molina was brought back to help out an underwhelming offense and will team with newcomers Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa to drive in runs. If Barry Zito can perform consistently and Brian Wilson continues to perform in the closer's role, the Giants will be able to make noise in the NL West.

Milwaukee Brewers -- The Brewers have one of the youngest and most potent lineups around. Leftfielder Ryan Braun and first basemen Prince Fielder team up to provide one of the best 3-4 combos. With the emergence of shortstop Alcides Escobar, the Brewers were able to ship J.J. Hardy to the Minnesota Twins for centerfielder Carlos Gomez, who might thrive in a new environment.

Yovani Gallardo heads a revamped rotation, which brought in lefties Randy Wolf and Doug Davis in the offseason to try to stabilize one of the worst staffs in 2009. Trevor Hoffman and free agent signing LaTroy Hawkins will be the anchors at the backend of the bullpen.

The Brewers also need to have bounce-back years from second basemen Rickie Weeks and 2008 All-Star right fielder Corey Hart, whose seasons were derailed by injuries. The biggest question mark for the Brewers will be their ability to get solid outings from their pitchers, who will face big bats in the potent NL Central.


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