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Strange times: MLB enters 2009 season as a sport in transition

The lesson? Take nothing for granted. Opening Day, our national symbol of possibility, arrives in a matter of days with even less certainty than usual. Baseball's uninterrupted runs of increased ticket sales and increased salaries are over. The New York Yankees are no longer a team with a current playoff pedigree, but the Tampa Bay Rays are. Five 200-game winners and six 300-home-run hitters no longer have jobs since last season, and not all of their own choosing. Alex Rodriguez, formerly durable and admired, is broken down and disgraced. Miguel Tejada is on probation, Barry Bonds is under indictment and Roger Clemens is under investigation. Yankee Stadium (in its original footprint) and Shea Stadium (in its tacky glory) are history. Labor peace is uneasy.

Baseball at the end of the decade (when the tens column clicks to the next number is my cue) is a sport in transition. It is a sport, like most every other industry, stripped by the recession of its economic momentum. Alas, it is a sport also stripped by steroids of a succession of would-have-been legends: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Bonds, Clemens and now Rodriguez. As history and ambassadorship go, it is the Lost Generation. The veranda of the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown will be a little less crowded, a little less compelling in Julys to come.

The 2009 season is no more the start of the transition than October was the start of the recession. Changes have been brewing. But now the floor is officially open for the Next Big Star -- the clean version of Rodriguez -- and the Next Big Franchise, especially with the Boston Red Sox holding a shot at supplanting the Yankees as the team of the decade and the Rays looking to consolidate their 2008 breakout and keep Boston or New York -- or both -- home in October.

It should not be much of a surprise that Opening Day rosters do not include Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Jim Edmonds, Jeff Kent, Moises Alou, LuisGonzalez and Richie Sexson, no more than how Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Mike Piazza washed out of the game the previous year. An era of incredible star power, some of it natural, some of it not, is flickering out. Baseball (Jamie Moyer excepted) has become a younger man's game, as the athleticism of 2008 World Series teams Philadelphia and Tampa Bay exhibited.

And so the game looks to Ryan Howard and David Wright and Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria and Grady Sizemore and Hanley Ramirez and the like for something not just wonderful, but also historic. Or perhaps it is Matt Wieters or Tommy Hanson or Rick Porcello or Cameron Maybin who will emerge, not unlike Longoria, Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester last year.

Take a look to the right at how young players took over baseball last season, compared to 1998, a decade ago at the height of the Steroid Era. First consider how the top pitchers, as ranked by a relative ERA of 120 or better among qualifiers, broke down according to age increments:

The sample size is not too different, but the number of top pitchers in their 20s is more than double what it was in 1998 (23, 10), while the top pitchers in their 30s is one-third of what it used to be (5, 15).

Now apply the same breakdown for hitters, using relative OPS for qualifiers:

A similar pattern is at work: similar sample size, but more of the top hitters are in their 20s (35, 29) and fewer in their 30s (21, 29).

Yes, the old guys still will have their moments. Randy Johnson needs five wins for 300 and Gary Sheffield and Carlos Delgado need one and 31 home runs, respectively, for 500. But how can the 2008 Rays -- young, athletic, largely cost controlled and built more on run prevention than run production -- not be a model for these times? MacPhail, for one, called them the Orioles' "road map" out of a decade of darkness.

Indeed, the Rays make the American League East the primary battleground for the entire sport. The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are the three best teams in baseball, and yet at least one of them is guaranteed to miss the playoffs. "It's going to be a frickin' war in that division," said A's general manager Billy Beane. Seven of the past 12 teams to play for the AL championship (and 12 of the past 22) have come from the AL East, so odds are at least one of the Big Three will be in the ALCS.

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The Yankees, given their spending and age, run counter to the current culture, a product of their hugely successful business model that allows them to charge $425,250 for a pair of premium season tickets and to spend $795.9 million on six free agents over the past two years -- almost exactly twice as much money on six players as the Rays have paid every player ever to play for them in the 11-year history of the franchise.

No team has won a pennant in 29 years or a World Series in 54 years with a shortstop as old as Derek Jeter, who turns 35 in June. Closer Mariano Rivera is 39, catcher Jorge Posada is 37, left-hander Andy Pettitte turns 37 in June, outfielder Johnny Damon is 35, DH Hideki Matsui is 35 in June and the post-surgical Rodriguez turns 34 in July. However, by adding pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and keeping their fingers crossed on Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees at last have rebuilt their rotation with power pitchers who can make hitters swing and miss. The Yankees are so loaded that they are carrying a bench player, Nick Swisher, with $22 million owed him over three years. Only poor health should keep the Yankees from winning 95 games.

Boston has two legit aces in Josh Beckett and Lester, and John Smoltz and Clay Buchholz on hand as the best supply of pitching reinforcements in baseball. Tampa Bay, with pitchers Wade Davis, David Price and Jeff Niemann ready to contribute this season, and B.J. Upton and Longoria primed for superstardom, is better on paper this year than when it won 97 games last year.

The AL East might be the toughest division since the 2002 AL West, when Seattle went home with 93 wins because Oakland won 103 and the Angels won 99. Of the 54 AL teams to win 90 games in the wild-card era, only seven did not make the playoffs. Every team that won at least 94 games has made the postseason -- so far.

The Angels and Twins (assuming the return of irreplaceable Joe Mauer) will contend because they have prime-age talent and should be among the top half of the clubs in run prevention. Oakland and Cleveland should step up if their young pitching is ready.

In the National League the Mets and Phillies have their own Yankees-Red Sox drama going on, with the Marlins assembling the kind of starting pitching to resemble a Rays-like coup. Alas, Florida doesn't play defense anything close to Rays-like. Atlanta, with a breakout by Hanson, could be the top turnaround story in the league.

The Cubs, though they will miss Mark DeRosa, are the NL's best team on paper as long as Milton Bradley can make 130 starts in the outfield (something he has done once in his career). The West again comes down to a low-speed chase to 85 wins between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks; Colorado, with catcher Chris Ianetta ready to hit it big, is on the rebound.

Naturally, at least one team will come from nowhere -- well, at least from a losing record in the previous year -- to make the playoffs, because that, too, is a part of the modern game. Best candidates for the glass slipper? Cincinnati, Texas, Oakland and Colorado.

The Reds and Rangers have been down too long in the democracy of the modern game. They are among only seven franchises that have not reached the postseason this decade. Toronto, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore and Washington/Montreal have somehow also missed the crowded party. The Yankees are guaranteed to have the most wins of the decade (they have a 37-win lead over Boston), but the Red Sox have the most world championships (two, with seven other franchises tied with one). Keep in mind, too, that in this decade alone teams have busted championship droughts of 10, 24, 28, 41, 86 and 88 years -- awakenings that must warm the hearts of Indians fans on the chilly shores of Lake Erie.

So where does that leave us in these uncertain times for the next world champion? Find a team in a deep championship slump; say 23 years. Check for improved run prevention, especially because of an upgraded bullpen that alone might be 40 runs better. Check for athleticism and a core of star players in their youthful prime years. Throw in strong revenues (thanks to a new ballpark) to allow for midseason payroll additions (a decided edge over most clubs in these times). And you get a world championship for the Mets in the debut of CitiField, a ballpark planned as a sweet homage to Brooklyn and Ebbets Field but opening as an unintended monument to a federal bailout of a bank and the world's most notorious Ponzi scheme, a fraud by a Mets season-ticket holder that claimed the club's owner among its victims. Strange times, indeed.

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