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Defending league champs enter season as teams to beat again

Three of the top four teams on my preseason Top 30 are in the American League East, making it quite the lopsided list. Such great divisional strength isn't totally fair to the upstart Rays, of course, whose payroll is less than half of the Red Sox' and about a third of the Yankees'. But Tampa Bay isn't backing away from the challenge of competing with those two monsters. "I love it,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon says of the crazy-strong competition. "If you can't get up in this division, find another profession.''

That advice might actually be better suited for a couple of the teams at the bottom of the Top 30. The Pirates, for instance, are staring at their 18th straight losing season, which looks like all but a certainty.

But while the Pirates' performance appears fairly predictable, things appear far less certain for the vast majority of teams. Below the seven "Powers'' are 12 that are "Contenders'' and two more that are "Hopefuls'' (just below Contenders), meaning more than two-thirds of teams should have hope for October. A decent playoff case could be made for any of the clubs among the contenders and hopefuls, which comprise teams No. 8 through 21 on the list, and a case could even be made for putting the middle two groups in a hat to re-order them. That kind of parity should make for an interesting season.

1. Yankees. Most of the stars are still aligned. Although, the loss of clutch offensive performers Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui doesn't help.

2. Phillies. The terrific lineup got a bit better with Placido Polanco, but the bullpen is just as questionable as last year, particularly with Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero out.

3. Rays. Wonderful young team also has pen questions.

4. Red Sox. Rotation trio of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey plus improved defense makes them a threat for third title in seven seasons.

5. Rockies. Incomparable combo of youth and depth. Is ace Ubaldo Jimenez on verge of superstardom?

6. Cardinals. They can really hit, their one-two rotation combination of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter is dynamic, catcher Yadier Molina is an under-rated star and center fielder Colby Rasmus is coming on.

7. Angels. A small step back but rotation depth and manager Mike Scioscia makes them division favorite.

8. Diamondbacks. Young nucleus, led by Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds, is exceptional. Brandon Webb's continuing arm trouble is a big blow though.

9. White Sox. Vaunted front four of Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Gavin Floyd makes them slight AL Central favorite.

10. Rangers. Not sure if they'll make club president Nolan Ryan's 92-win target, but very good young talent makes them interesting.

11. Braves. Strong pitching, better balance and phenom Jason Heyward could make Bobby Cox's swan song special.

12. Dodgers. Bitter divorce and plummeting payroll put them back a notch.

13. Twins. Improved team, but bullpen's a major worry with Joe Nathan out. Getting Padres closer Heath Bell would help.

14. Mariners.Cliff Lee's spring injury is a downer for a team built around him and Felix Hernandez but great defense always helps.

15. Tigers.Miguel Cabrera seems to be back on track

16. Giants. Great pitching, so if they hit at all, they could steal a playoff spot.

17. Brewers. Nice young nucleus remains, but starting pitching remains a question after Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf.

18. Cubs. Bounce-back season could produce a third playoff team in four years.

19. Marlins. No one outperforms their payroll like them. The bullpen a mystery this time though.

20. Mets. Injuries and ailments have already begun, casting a continuing pall.

21. Reds. If their young players play to potential, this placing could be way too low.

22. Orioles. Clearly on the rise, they were consistently cited as among the most improved by competitors this spring.

23. Indians.Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore all are comeback candidates. Better suited for 2011 though.

24. A's. Decent pitching staff but way short of offense. Ben Sheets looks like July trade bait.

25. Padres. Biggest question will be what happens with Adrian Gonzalez.

26. Astros. Injuries to big names don't help.

27. Blue Jays. Clear rebuilding team will be pesky.

28. Nationals.Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang could makes things interesting -- in the second half.

29. Pirates.Andrew McCutchen is their one very good player, and when Pedro Alvarez arrives, that'll make two. An 18th straight losing season awaits.

30. Royals. The mere fact they thought of using Kyle Farnsworth as a starter is worrisome.

Red Sox people are concerned about David Ortiz after declining numbers the past couple years and a so-so spring (.228, 3 HRs, 8 RBIs). Ortiz, however, seems unconcerned.

He said his goal is "to go back to normal and rake,'' and he doesn't see why it shouldn't be do-able. "I feel good,'' he said. "Hopefully, I'll have a good year.''

Unlike some others, he doesn't think he's losing it, and sees himself playing another three or four years. "I don't think age is a big deal,'' he said. "Besides, I just turned 34.''

Others see the declining numbers and wonder whether he's on his way out. Ortiz, meanwhile, is keeping his positive outlook.

"When you go to the plate with a bat in your hand, anything can happen,'' he said.

On the cusp of the regular season, here are the best of the remaining free agents:

1. Jarrod Washburn. Washburn thrived for the Mariners last year, going 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA for them before struggling with his knee with the Tigers, and going 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA there. The Mariners know what he can do but are lowballing him to this point. The Royals also are in the bidding.

2. Jermaine Dye. Dye is the AL home run leader among outfielders over the past five years with 164, but a bad second half killed his free agency aspirations. He followed a .302, 20 home run, 55 RBI first half with an atrocious .179, 7, 27 ending. He's also hurt by bad defensive metrics. But he'd be a major upgrade for the Nationals, who are about to begin the season without a real right fielder. The Brewers are another possibility, according to foxsports.com.

3. Pedro Martinez. He should be with some team, and a return to the Phillies could make some sense, depending on how the combination of Kyle Kenrick and Jamie Moyer (at 47, he's nine years older than Pedro) performs in the No. 5 spot. Until Joe Blanton returns, both are in the rotation.

4. Joe Crede. Chronic back questions continue to haunt the player who looked like he was headed for stardom while contributing to the White Sox's 2005 World Series title. Hit a quiet 15 home runs for the Twins last year before back pain caused him to miss the playoffs.

Victor Martinez won't say Joe Mauer's $184-million affects him at all, and realistically, Mauer's probably in a class by himself. "Joe Mauer is Joe Mauer. Victor Martinez is Victor Martinez. I really just worry about myself. I'm happy for him,'' Martinez said. Martinez is a guy who can be happy where he is. He loved Cleveland, and he very much likes Boston. "I don't know the other places. I like it here,'' Martinez said. But he stops short of begging to be back. "We'll see,'' he said.

Nate McLouth will hit leadoff Opening Day for the Braves, as Cox likes to reward veterans. But expect a short leash after a brutal spring (6-for-51, .118). He has become a player that shoots for home runs as he continues to struggle. "It's definitely in his head,'' one scout said.

Reid Brignac won the Rays' final roster spot, and Hank Blalock has made it clear that he doesn't intend to accept a minor-league assignment, so it'll be interesting to see whether they can figure something out for a player they clearly would like to keep around.

• The Rangers' waiver-wire pickup of Ryan Garko from the rival Mariners seems to eliminate their need for Mike Lowell. So for the time being, Lowell and the Red Sox may be stuck with each other.

Eric Byrnes has made the Mariners. He's the type of player who brings energy. But not everyone's an admirer of his act first, think later style. "He plays the same way he did when he was in Oakland, like his hair's on fire,'' one competing manager said.

• Congratulations to Rich Levin, who is retiring after 25 years in the MLB commissioner's office, the vest majority of those as Bud Selig's right-hand man and p.r. expert. Levin, whose retirement takes effect at the end of the year, was a longtime newspaperman known for chronicling the Lakers' Showtime for the now-defunct Los Angels Herald Examiner who got into baseball through his connection to former commissioner Peter Ueberroth but will forever be recalled as the man by Selig's side for most of the last quarter century.

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