Yankees, Red Sox expected to rule

It will look like more of the same when Boston Red Sox ace Josh Beckett takes the mound and stares down the New York Yankees in today’s season opener at Fenway Park.

Every year, it seems, baseball talk begins with the Yankees and Red Sox as the dominant duo in the major leagues. That’s the theme this year, as well.

At the Las Vegas Hilton sports book, the Yankees are 3-1 favorites to win the World Series. The Yankees also top the regular-season win totals list at 95½, with the Red Sox right behind at 94½.

Throw in the Tampa Bay Rays, and the deck is stacked in one division.

“I think the three best teams in baseball may all be in the American League East,” said Dave Cokin, a professional handicapper and local ESPN Radio host. “I don’t see how the Yankees don’t make the playoffs, and Tampa Bay is really good.

“I’m a little more concerned about the Red Sox. I’m not sure about their offense. They could win the division, but they also could finish third.”

The Yankees, anchored again by left-hander CC Sabathia, return almost every key player from last year’s 103-win team that prevailed in the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

But the competition made significant changes, starting with the Phillies’ trade for ace right-hander Roy Halladay.

The Red Sox signed right-hander John Lackey, who won 42 games the past three years for the Los Angeles Angels. Boston’s rotation, which also includes lefty Jon Lester, might be the majors’ best.

Lackey’s departure is part of a shake-up in the AL West. Angels manager Mike Scioscia lost speedy infielder Chone Figgins to Seattle and power hitter Vladimir Guerrero to Texas.

Cokin (jimfeist.com) said he sees the Angels, 97-65 last year, slipping below their win total of 84.

“I hesitated on that because of Scioscia, but they just lost too much,” Cokin said. “Figgins is a huge loss, Lackey is a big loss, and the division is better.”

The Angels will be intriguing to watch, however, because they have plenty of potential. Jered Weaver leads a rotation with Scott Kazmir, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana. The offense, with slugging first baseman Kendry Morales, should be more than adequate.

The posted win totals for the Rangers (83½) and Mariners (83) indicate the division is up for grabs.

The same appears true in the National League West, where the Los Angeles Dodgers try to retain their title. The Dodgers’ demise has been widely predicted, and manager Joe Torre will lean on young left-hander Clayton Kershaw and hope outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier continue to produce while Manny Ramirez regains his power stroke.

“I was really tempted to play them over,” Cokin said of the Dodgers’ win total of 84½. “I don’t know why everybody is talking about the Dodgers going in the other direction. Their pitching is solid, their offense is really good, and Torre makes the playoffs every year.”

The Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants are in hot pursuit, but the San Diego Padres are expected to be cellar dwellers.

Cokin said the Chicago Cubs, 83-78 last year, should top their posted win total of 82½ and challenge Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.

“Everything went wrong for the Cubs last year,” he said. “I think the Cubs will be a winning team. I don’t think they will win the division, but they should give the Cardinals a run.”

The New York Mets were miserable last year, finishing 70-92, and Cokin expects the Mets to fall short of their posted win total of 80½. They lured Jason Bay and his 36 home runs away from Boston, and ace left-hander Johan Santana returns, but several question marks still exist.

“It looks too easy,” Cokin said. “The Mets have too many injury concerns, and there’s really nothing in the rotation behind Santana.”

Cokin said look for the Milwaukee Brewers (81) and Minnesota Twins (84½) to fall short of their win totals, while the Kansas City Royals (72) exceed meager expectations.

All eyes will be fixed on the Yankees and Red Sox on top, and it also looks like more of the same for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the bottom.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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