Monday February 14th, 2011

Forget pitching and defense. The road to the World Series is I-95.

As spring training camps open this week, the axis of power in baseball for a fifth straight year is the Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor. The latest round of winter spending reminded us that there are two tiers of teams in baseball: the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox -- teams for which success is nothing less than a World Series title -- and everybody else. The three best available players this winter -- Cliff Lee, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford -- further fortified the I-95 corridor.

Ask yourself this: When it comes to identifying the 2011 World Series winner, and if you had those two tiers from which to choose, would you rather have The Big Three or The Field?

For the other 27 teams, welcome to Year Five in which you can't win the World Series without going through Philadelphia, New York or Boston. The 2010 Giants showed how it can be done, outpitching the Phillies to win the NLCS before rolling the Rangers. The hope they engendered will be found in the camps this spring of potential upstarts such as Oakland, Milwaukee, Colorado and Florida -- teams that know a championship can be less the culmination of years of careful architecture as much as a narrow window of serendipity, especially if they hit on starting pitchers.

The 2010 Giants were a comet of a team. As late as Aug. 28 they trailed the Padres -- the Padres, a team with a $38 million payroll -- by half a dozen games. But San Francisco got hot when it mattered, playing .700 baseball after that (35-15), including a fortuitous 6-1 record in postseason games decided by one run.

San Francisco looked a lot like the 2005 White Sox, who made a 30-15 sprint to the finish with a foundation of young starting pitching and good fortune in one-run games (11-4). For Chicago it was the start of . . . absolutely nothing. The Sox haven't won a postseason series since.

Indeed, championship incumbency has been nearly worthless for a decade. Ten straight defending champions have failed to repeat -- only the 0-for-14 run from 1979-1992 has been longer. The past 10 defending champions are 2-6 in postseason series, while playing .355 baseball (11-20).

Ah, but the Giants somehow are different, right? This time of year hope rises like the sun above Florida and Arizona, the warmth it brings felt even more in the soul than upon the skin. On a clear February morning, whether you're the Giants or the Athletics, you can see all the way to October.

The reality is, once you stop dreaming, there are only two perspectives to be found among the 30 camps.

Twenty-seven teams: "We can win."

Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox: "We must win."

For years the fuel to baseball's growth was the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Then, in 2004, just as the New York-Boston war peaked, the underserved Phillies moved into a new stadium, Citizens Bank Ballpark, and over the next two seasons, with shortstop Jimmy Rollins already in place, added second baseman Chase Utley, first baseman Ryan Howard, centerfielder Shane Victorino and pitcher Cole Hamels to key roles. So began the growth of a superpower, and a new engine to drive the game.

Philadelphia's attendance has risen every year for five consecutive seasons, adding more than a million paid customers overall. The Phillies' win total has climbed every year since 2006: 85, 89, 92, 93 and 97. Their payroll has swelled by about 70 percent in five years, from $89 million to more than $150 million.

It's true that baseball enjoys a parity that fosters World Series dreams this time of year. Eleven franchises have accounted for the past 12 pennants. But that's because most teams bubble to the surface for one year and sink back, while the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox are virtually unsinkable. It's time to take stock of the task that confronts the other 27 teams.

The Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox have:

• averaged 94 wins from 2007-10 while winning no fewer than 89 games.

• claimed 10 of their possible 12 combined playoff spots in the past four years.

• been represented in each of the past six League Championship Series and seven of the past eight.

• come within five wins of claiming every spot in the past three World Series.

• accounted for 32 percent of all dollars spent on free agents this winter -- and that's not counting the $154 million the Red Sox have stashed in a desk drawer to extend the contract of Gonzalez, a trade acquisition who had to leave his hometown team after a 90-win season to step up into The Corridor.

The Phillies forked over $120 million to bring back pitcher Cliff Lee, completing a furious 12-month acquisition period of adding Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Lee to a rotation with Hamels. The Phab Phour rightly is inspiring talk about the greatest rotations in history.

Since the Yankees coughed up $243.5 million for CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett after missing the playoffs in 2008, Halladay, Oswalt, Lee (four times), Dan Haren, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Brandon Webb and Greinke all have changed teams (representing six Cy Young Awards) and the Yankees have wound up with none of them -- as well as losing Andy Pettitte to retirement.

Well, they do have 2005 Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon in camp, but the story of New York's spring, if not the first half of the season, will be whether they can pry a major lefthanded starter from another team by overpaying in a trade. Targets will include Francisco Liriano of the Twins, Joe Saunders of the Diamondbacks, John Danks of the White Sox, Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants, Clayton Richard of the Padres and Randy Wolf of the Brewers.

While it was thought of as a "quiet" offseason for the Yankees, they did drop $130 million on free agents, including $81 million to keep 41-year-old closer Mariano Rivera and 36-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter.

The Red Sox, even without the pending Gonzalez investment, shelled out $162 million for free agents. (There's nothing more dangerous than the Yankees or Red Sox after they don't make the postseason.)

Together, Philadelphia, New York and Boston accounted for $419 million of the $1.3 billion spent on free agents -- or about one out of every three free-agent dollars. The Corridor accounted for half of the 10 most expensive free agent contracts. The spending in Philadelphia and Boston in particular raised expectations to levels not seen in a generation in those cities. The Phillies haven't fielded a 100-win team since 1977 and Boston hasn't done so since 1946.

And yet . . . the Yankees have that unstable rotation, the Phillies' offense went dark for extended periods last year and the Red Sox are counting on three 30-plus starters who pitched to a 4.84 ERA and averaged just 165 innings last year (John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matzusaka).

The door is open for the next version of the Giants. So what clues can you look for this spring to find that team? These are the spring training stories to watch to see what team presents the best challenge to The Corridor:

1. Lather, rinse . . . repeat?

The Giants will be hard-pressed to put together a second straight year in which nobody in the rotation misses a start, particularly after the extra month of work last season. Keep an eye on how they treat their arms this spring. San Francisco's World Series opponent, Texas, is wildly spending its future television money while trying to maintain momentum, but needs to make Michael Young a happy camper again.

2. Culture Clubs

Remember when erstwhile manager Don Wakamatsu was hailed for "changing the culture" of the Mariners? Prepare for an overdose of such exaggerated pop psychology this spring. Twelve managers will be running their first camp with their current team, an enormous turnover.

Gone are such managerial legends as Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston. In are never-managed-a-day guys Don Mattingly (Dodgers), John Farrell (Blue Jays) and Ron Roenicke (Brewers).

The biggest spotlight falls on turnaround specialist Buck Showalter, who went 34-23 after he took over the Orioles last year and now gets spring training to really put his imprint on the organization.

3. Comeback Players

Health always is an important quotient of success, but several contenders start out with key players coming back from injuries: the Twins, with Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau; the Braves, with Chipper Jones; the Angels, with Kendry Morales; and the White Sox, with Peavy.

4. Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Centerfield, glamour position for Willie, Mickey, the Duke and John Fogerty, is in transition. Even good teams are unsettled in center. The Rangers need Julio Borbon to hit enough to keep 245-pound Josh Hamilton in lighter duty in leftfield, the Dodgers need Tony Gwynn Jr. to hit enough to get Matt Kemp and his wandering concentration to a corner spot, the Angels need Peter Bourjos to hit enough to keep elders Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter on the corners and Bobby Abreu off the field, the Mets need to find out if Carlos Beltran and his creaky knees can handle the job any more, the Red Sox need to find out if Jacoby Ellsbury can stay healthy and the Marlins need to find out if Chris Coghlan can play the position.

5. Coming Attractions

Domonic Brown of the Phillies, Aroldis Chapman of the Reds, Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings of the Rays, Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Kyle Drabek of the Blue Jays are rookies worth watching this spring. All saw some time in the big leagues last year. But the biggest buzz might come from a pair of teenagers who have no shot of making the big club but can give a sneak preview of star power: outfielders Mike Trout, 19, of the Angels and Bryce Harper, 18, of the Nationals.

6. Idiocy

The Rays, a team previously built on athleticism as one of the last two turf teams, found it too tempting to pass up spending $7.5 million on Johnny Damon, 37, and Manny Ramirez, 38. In spring training, at least, it will look like a great idea.

7. The Pujols Problem

Barring a last-minute deal or a waiving of his self-imposed deadline -- still possibilities -- Albert Pujols will begin the walk year of his contract this week. Be prepared for tons of stories about the "distraction" for the Cardinals. Bunk. That walk year for Crawford really held back the Rays last year, huh? Okay, Pujols is on a different level and St. Louis is way more ga-ga over baseball than St. Pete. But Pujols is the surest thing in baseball, and he won't be whining about his contract. Play on.

8. Which Comes First?

Barry Bonds actually goes to trial (scheduled for March after three years of delays), Bud Selig's special committee actually hands in its report on whether the Athletics can explore a move to San Jose (Dean Smith never ran a four corners this well) or Oliver Perez goes seven innings (not seen in three years and $24 million ago)?

9. Baseball Heaven

That would be the Phoenix area. With the Diamondbacks and Rockies moving to Scottsdale, there are no teams in Tucson for the first time since 1945. That means the greatest concentration of major league talent ever assembled in a 40-mile radius: 15 teams will train in the metro Phoenix area.

10. Baseball Hell

Kansas City, Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh aren't just bad. They are bad beyond logic. It's remarkable how these teams can stay so far down for so long with revenue sharing, draft advantages, the faster flow of information, front office turnover, etc. -- essentially remaining outside this period of parity.

Over the past seven years, the Royals, Orioles, Nationals and Pirates are 0-for-28 when it comes to winning seasons. Moreover, they have lost 91 games or more 22 times in those 28 seasons, including 93-plus losses for all four in each of the past two years.

But hey, today all of them are a most beautiful 0-0, and baseball in February is not important for how well it is played but simply for having returned. So go ahead, whether your team is in The Corridor or not: dream on.

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