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MLB '09 Preview

An ex-big leaguer looks at what's next for America's most unpredictable pastime

Last season, the Philadelphia Phillies were 20-to-1 longshots to win it all, and the team they beat in the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays, was 150 to 1. Will 2009 be just as unpredictable? Former big-league reliever — and analyst for the newly launched MLB network — Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams offers some brushback clarity.

Teams to Watch

1.) New York Yankees
Bad economy? Not if your last name is Steinbrenner. The Yanks signed the two best starting pitchers available (CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett), and the best hitter (Mark Teixeira), too. "Any time you spend half a billion dollars on players, you've got to be in the running," Williams says.
2.) Philadelphia Phillies
Williams likes the Phillies over the Yankees in the World Series. "The Phillies have a closer in Brad Lidge, who is as good as anyone. And [Charlie Manuel] is the best players' manager I've ever seen."
3.) New York Mets
MLB's choking dogs made some changes this winter and hope to avoid a third straight September collapse. Their bull pen stank in '08, so they added premiere closer Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez from L.A. and setup man J.J. Putz. "They fixed the problem," Williams says.

Headlines to Watch

1.) "After Further Review . . . "
Baseball finally joins the 21st century with its first full season using instant replay. Traditionalists hate it, while progressives wonder what took so long. "They can tell in seconds whether they're right. That makes umpires accountable. That's a good thing."
2.) "Back to Normal"
Even though the Rays surprised the world with their '08 run, Williams thinks 2009 will be shock-free. "I don't think there's a surprise team out there. I just don't see one. I think it's going to be the favorites winning out this year."
3.) "Just Say No"
Performance-enhancing drug stories continue to linger in baseball, though the taint is dissipating. "at this point, if you get busted, you're just stupid. Everyone knows what's going on. Just accept what kind of talent you have and go play. Guys who take stuff now are being idiots."

Players to Watch

1.) Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
He nearly lost his career (and life) to drug addiction but came back last year and blasted 32 home runs. "This kid can flat-out hit. It'll be interesting to see if he can get off to another good start and sustain it."
2.) Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds
If you're looking for a surprise team in '09, it could be the Reds, if only because they've got studs like Volquez. The 25-year-old Dominican went 17-6 last year and had 206 strikeouts in 196 innings. "He's the kind of pitcher you build a team around."
3.) Cole Hamels, Phillies
The World Series MVP has skills on the mound (4-0 record in the post-season) and isn't afraid to talk a little trash off it. In a radio interview this winter, he called the Mets "choke artists" — which is true but still wasn't well-received in Queens.
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