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Despite losses, Angels could be baseball's team to beat

The Olympics are now a semi-distant memory. Ask Ryan Miller. The Sweet 16 is about to morph into the Final Four. The NFL draft is deteriorating into far too many opinions, at least until real teams actually select real players near the end of April.

But baseball is about to arrive in a week and the best of it will stick around until sometime near Election Day. It's a time to savor and attempt to figure out what lurks ahead.

The chalk players among the fans and the media like what is familiar and wealthy, such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies. It may turn out that the best team may be the one which suffered losses but handled them well and is lurking on the West Coast. That's the Los Angeles Angels.

The Angels watched Boston snatch gilt-edged pitcher John Lackey from them along with other departures of infielder/outfielder Chone Figgins and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, but this team which won 95 games on strong balance last season still has it. That includes a five-man starting rotation that may be as strong or stronger than it was with Lackey. The Angels had good judgment last year in signing aged outfield stars Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter, so their move to add ex-Yankee designated hitter Hideki Matsui should not bring forth scoffing.

Beside, this is a team which is managed by one of the best managers in baseball, Mike Scioscia.

Elsewhere there is plenty of legitimate scoffing going on. The Dodgers seem to think Manny Ramirez will keep being Manny for them since they're paying him an outrageous $20 million this season, but he'll turn 38 before the All-Star break. He hit just .218 in September after returning from a 50-game drug suspension and his defense is a travesty.

Over in the American League, Manny's old pal David Ortiz was horrible until late last season and at 34 his career is close to being over. The Red Sox could have used some sock from Jason Bay but he signed a free-agent contract with the Mets. Bay made an odd comment after joining his new team. He said his time with Boston prepared him for the pressures he'll find playing in New York. Stable nerves is the least of the Mets' worries since they hit fewer home runs than any team in baseball last year and power is what they need from Bay, not good feeling.

Another odd decision was made by a former Boston slugger this spring. Onetime star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra signed a one-day contract with the Red Sox so he could retire as one of their guys. Only the most red-hot of Boston fans still had him in their memory books.

If "No-mah!," as they used to call him when he roamed Fenway Park, hadn't gone into a snit in 2004 when the Red Sox were trying to sign Alex Rodriguez, he might have spent his entire career in Boston and retired as one of the team's all-time greats.

Instead his pouting turned off the Boston bosses and he was dealt to the Cubs, later joining three other teams. He never had the fine seasons which were his custom in Boston. The team has done OK without him.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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