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Money for nothing

Sorry, St. Louis.

There's no way the Cardinals repeat as World Series champions this year, not without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. And thus there's no way we can give them the No. 1 spot in our preseason rankings, even if they are the defending champions.

That was a great run last October, with stunners over the Phillies and Brewers followed by the Houdini act in the World Series over the Rangers – once the bullpen phone got figured out. But that was a planets-got-aligned trick where everything came together for three weeks.

Our Power Rankings require our annual parity lecture.

In the last 15 years, 10 different teams have won the World Series (only the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals have won more than once). Furthermore, 18 of the 30 teams have played in the Fall Classic at least once since 1997 – and seven others have gotten as far as their League Championship Series.

Only Kansas City, Toronto,Washington/Montreal and Pittsburgh have failed to make the playoffs a tall in that stretch. All four of those clubs are clearly improving behind a cadre of young talent and, in the case of the Nationals and Blue Jays, some deeper pockets of ownership.

But don't let our Yankee-centric area make you think money buys a title. Last year, no team among the top 10 spenders won a single series for the first time since 1991.

And there's this nugget from ESPN.com in the wake of the Cardinals, 11th on the payroll chart, beating the No. 13 Rangers: Teams out of the top 10 in payrolls have met three times in the last four years in the World Series.

So don't just look at the big-money teams on the top of our rankings. The middle group is just as dangerous.

Going for the ring

1. Detroit Tigers.

Yes, this is a chic pick making the rounds. And we've already seen in spring training that Miguel Cabrera might catch grounders to third better with his face than his glove. But this team is going to have a walk through the AL Central and will then be
to roar through October to turn back the clock to 1984. An already good lineup adds Prince Fielder to a roster that includes the best pitcher in the world in Justin Verlander. Now, the infield defense might be a question; can ex-Bison Jhonny Peralta really be that good at shortstop again? The rotation might be thin but the bullpen led by Jose Valverde is terrific. And they've got motivation from last year's ALCS loss. Everyone is chasing them.

2. Los Angeles Angels.

How do you unseat the Rangers in the West? Pretty easy. Add Albert Pujols, the guy who helped beat them last October, and C.J. Wilson, the ace who helped pitch them there. Jered Weaver, Wilson, Ervin Santana and Dan Haren? Pretty nice.

3. New York Yankees.

Here's another graying group with a closing window. You say Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira are studs and they are. I say Derek Jeter's funky calf is now 38 and A-Rod has been on the decline for a couple of years. Not sold on 40-year-oldDHRaul Ibanez or on Curtis Granderson repeating 41 home runs and 119 RBIs. And what in the world was Joba Chamberlain doing on a trampoline? But look at all the pitching: CC and Nova; the additions of Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda; the bizarre return of Andy Pettitte; and Mariano Rivera perhaps heading into the sunset. How about one final save to wrap up a World Series?

4. San Francisco Giants.

Buster Posey is back with instructions to not block the plate and that will really help. They need closer Brian Wilson to feel good too, but he keeps having arm soreness in Arizona. The rotation, led by Tim Lincecum, is solid and could create a 2010 repeat. But they ranked last in the NL in runs last year and hope table-setters like Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera can help. All the pitching makes them tough to beat if they get to the postseason.

5. Philadelphia Phillies.

They're getting old and the window is closing. Ryan Howard is in a walking boot after blowing out his Achilles on the final swing of the division series and Chase Utley (knee) won't start the season either. Still, how do you look past a rotation featuring Roy Halladay, Lee and a contract-year Cole Hamels? They need fast starts from Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence. Never been a big Jonathan Papelbon fan but he should thrive in the NL. Look for a 2010 NLCS rematch with the Giants.

6. Tampa Bay Rays.

The roster is underwhelming at times, the ballpark stinks and not enough fans care. And Joe Maddon just keeps winning. He's the best manager in MLB. And he'll win again this year, especially because he's adding rookie Matt Moore to a rotation that already includes David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. They won't have to wait until extra innings of Game No. 162 to get in this year.

7. Texas Rangers.

A real Buffalo Bills-like bounce back test here. In the first 106 years of the World Series, only one team (the '86 Red Sox) was a strike away from a title and went on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a series. Then it happened twice to the Rangers in about 15 minutes in Game Six in St. Louis last October. How will they deal with the daily questions about it? The lineup is still stacked and Josh Hamilton will have to prove again he's sober as he heads into his free-agent year. They have power bats up and down the lineup. Japanese ace Yu Darvish should fill in nicely for C.J. Wilson. They are a playoff team again but the Angels are better.

8. Arizona Diamondbacks.

Nobody thinks of them because they're never on TV but Kirk Gibson's club won 94 games and a division title and should be good again. Still, you wonder. Does Ian Kennedy win 21 games again? Does J.J. Putz save 45 again? Wish we'd see more of Justin Upton, Chris Young and Miguel Montero. October is the goal

9. Boston Red Sox.

They subtracted clubhouse beers, fried chicken and Terry Francona and got Bobby Valentine. He'll make for good copy but how will he do bulling through a clubhouse of veteran guys? Should make for an interesting summer. On paper, that September swoon remains hard to believe. Seems hard to believe Josh Beckett and Jon
Lester can be that bad again. Carl Crawford has to be better too, doesn't he? With Papelbon gone to Philly, Andrew Bailey assumes the closer's role. They're a step behind the Yankees and Rays.

10. MiamiMarlins.

New name. New ballpark (cursed to Buffalo fans because it's on the site of the old Orange Bowl). New logo and unis (love the orange caps). New foul-mouthed manager in Ozzie Guillen. New big budget for the likes of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. New name in Giancarlo Don't Call Me Mike Stanton. New feeling of winning coming.

11. Toronto Blue Jays.

They've been on fire in spring training with the American League's best record. That doesn't always translate, of course, but they seem ready to finally play real October baseball for the first time since Joe Carter touched 'emall in 1993. Megaprospect Brett Lawrie is in for a full year at third base to give some protection to Jose Bautista. If the pitching holds up, they can be your extra AL wild card.

12. Cincinnati Reds.

The season-ending elbow injury to closer Ryan Madson is a huge blow but it's a good thing they play in the wafer-thin NL Central. Somebody has to win it. And they've still got plenty of talent like Joey Votto, old friend Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen.

13. Milwaukee Brewers.

They might have been in the bottom 10 if Ryan Braun had lost his appeal and been forced to sit out the 50 games. But without Fielder, don't you just spend all your energy stopping Braun and letting Aramis Ramirez beat you? The rotation has to carry them and so does closer and former Canisius College pitcher John Axford, the Twitter hound who had 46 saves last year.

14. Los Angeles Dodgers.

Had to like Don Mattingly's cool dugout demeanor last year in the face of all their ownership Divorce Court drama. They'll go as far as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier's bats and Clayton Kershaw's arm can take them. Let's see if there's any Pegula Effect from the stunning $2 billion purchase of the club by Magic Johnson's group. Extra wild card?

15. St. Louis Cardinals.

The defending champs were actually a middle-of-theroad team last season and won't be any better this time without Pujols, La Russa and revered pitching coach Dave Duncan. They're plugging Carlos Beltran into a lineup that includes Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and October hero David Freese and that should work. They're holding their breath on the health of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and are breaking in afirst-time manager (Mike Matheny). Good luck.

16. Cleveland Indians.

They were the talk of the town and the AL last year when they started 30-15 but the pitching broke down and injuries eventually got them. And things haven't gone well at spring training either. Grady Sizemore is out again, closer Chris Perez might not make Opening Day and this is the last year for $12 million DH Travis Hafner. Asdrubal Cabrera emerged as a star last year at short. Can Ubaldo Jimenez find his first-half of 2010 form from Colorado? Is Roberto Hernandez Heredia (nee Fausto Carmona) in the plans at all? They'll hover around .500.

17. Atlanta Braves.

A bad finish has morphed into a bad spring, just when the Phillies seem a little vulnerable. Hard to tell which team they'll be in Chipper Jones' swan song season. Can the young bullpen of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters really pitch like that again? What happened to Jason Heyward? Jair Jurrjens is battling injuries.

18. Washington Nationals.

If you want a sleeper, this might it. It says here the Nats are still another year away, when 19-year-old outfield prospect Bryce Harper becames their latest No. 1 pick to graduate from Syracuse to the big leagues. But a full year of Stephen Strasburg is a huge boost, as are the acquisitions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson for the rotation. Ryan Zimmerman leads a decent lineup and Jayson Werth has to be better than .232 this time. A big problem is closer Drew Storen's elbow inflammation.

19. Colorado Rockies.

Ex-Bison Jeremy Guthrie will have a lot of pressure on him to be a top of the rotation guy, not an easy thing to do in Denver when you're coming off a 9-17 season in Baltimore. A lineup of Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton should have them in the hunt and the Indians will really regret trading stud lefty Drew Pomeranz for Jimenez. We'll see about them

20. Pittsburgh Pirates.

You'd like to say they could make a breakthrough and contend for that extra wild card but that won't happen until they first finish .500 – and their streak of 19 losing seasons in a row continues as thelongest in history. Drafting and development has been good and now some homegrown talent, such as AndrewMcCutchen, has earned long-term contracts.They need more from Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, two other big prospects yet to break out. A.J. Burnett's fluke eye injury set a rough tone for spring.

21. ChicagoCubs.

Theo Epstein isn't in Boston anymore. The Cubs don't have the talent or the farm system and Wrigley Field isn't anywhere near the revenue generator of Fenway Park. But the new GM will be trying to play miracle worker for the second time in his career. They've got to build around shortstop Starlin Castro and a strong bullpen.

22. Minnesota Twins.

Injuries turned a perennial winner into a 99-loss outfit last season and you have to wonder if Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer will ever really be the same again. We've seen some terrible Triple-A teams in Rochester the last couple of years, clearly a sign their system is bereft of talent.

23. Oakland Athletics.

Now that "Moneyball" got plenty of play on the big screen, Billy Beane has gotten back to the task of rebuilding his team by trading Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey. Too bad they can't trade the antiquated Coliseum for a badly-needed new park. The bigger stories are the addition of Manny Ramirez and Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes.

>Tough times ahead

24. Baltimore Orioles.

It's the 20th anniversary season of Camden Yards, the wonderful downtown playpen that came on the heels of our own Coca-Cola Field. Too bad the O's are just falling further behind in the AL East. Forget a new roster. They need a new division.

25. Kansas City Royals.

Closer Joakim Soria needs Tommy John surgery. That's bad news out of spring training in a season that will be most remembered for the first All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium since 1973. First baseman Eric Hosmer at least provides some hope.

26. Seattle Mariners.

Poor Eric Wedge and Carl Willis. The ex-Bisons and Indians skipper/pitching coach tandem is looking at another 90-loss season. Former Yankees prospect Jesus Montero will be worked in at catcher, where questions abound over his defensive skills. The offense is so anemic that Felix Hernandez has gone just 27-26 the last two years.

27. Chicago White Sox.

Poor Jeff Manto. The Bisons' legend has taken over as the new hitting coach under new skipper Robin Ventura and his first task is to do something with veteran Adam Dunn (.159, 177Ks). So far, so good. Dunn entered the last week of spring training batting .308 with just two Ks. But there are holes throughout the lineup and a weak pitching staff.

28. New York Mets.

Poor Terry Collins. They moved the fences in at Citi Field so David Wright and Jason Bay shouldn't be as spooked at the plate. But the folks in Queens might get pretty spooked if the UnAmazins lose 100 for the first time since 1993. At least ownership got a settlement on the Madoff case. Will the Bisons keep them in 2013?

29. San Diego Padres.

Poor Bud Black. You wonder if he's going to make it through this season. Great town, great ballpark, lousy team.

30.Houston Astros.

Poor fans. They lost 106 last year and might lose 100 again. Then they get to go to the American League West in 2013. Ugly.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com