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Red Sox and Phillies looking right as reign; Repeating could be a tall order for defending champion Giants

Regular readers of our weekly MLB Power Rankings have learned over the years that we've stayed with a hard-and-fast opening week rule: The defending World Series champion starts the season at No. 1 until someone else shows they deserve the nod.

The team coming off its October, er, November magic is usually thinking repeat anyway (throwing out the '98 Marlins). The San Francisco Giants certainly feel like they have a good shot to win title No. 2 since they moved West -- after it took them 52 years to finally win their first last season.

But the Giants are going to be the exception to our rule and not earn the No. 1 slot in the first rankings of the season. Let's not forget they barely snuck into the postseason last year, getting in just under the wire as the Padres collapsed. And their offense is a question mark.

But the biggest reason: The Phillies and Red Sox made such major moves over the winter that they look to be prohibitive favorites in their leagues.

The Phillies -- and not the Yankees -- lured Cliff Lee from Texas. The Red Sox got instantly better by adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and instantly made the Rays and Padres second-level clubs in the process. So there's our pick for the World Series come October.

Keep in mind the favorites usually don't get there. Eleven different teams have played in the Fall Classic the last six years, compared with nine different teams in the same span in the we-are-parity NFL. In last year's opening rankings, we had the Giants a healthy No. 7 but the eventual Series runner-up Rangers were just No. 18.

So it can be quite a ride from here to there. Our first look at how the teams shape up for 2011:

>Halloween Bound

1. Boston Red Sox: Lovable losers no more, they have a $205 million payroll and simply went out and got what they needed. Crawford is a major upgrade in the outfield and Gonzalez should be able to play volleyball with the Green Monster and take plenty of pressure off David Ortiz. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis have to stay healthy. Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard are in the pen if Jonathan Papelbon flames out. Jon Lester should have a big year but they could use a return of Josh Beckett, circa 2007. There's lots of pressure and expectation that they're better than the Yankees. How do they deal with that?

2. Philadelphia Phillies: The rotation is the most ridiculous this side of the '71 Orioles and isn't that the whole point of this game now that the steroid era is essentially over? Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt. What a foursome. Now, the offense is certainly not as strong as it was, with Jayson Werth gone to Washington and Chase Utley's balky knee landing him on the disabled list. There will be a lot of pressure on hot outfield prospect Domonic Brown once he returns from a broken hand in May, and on Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard to have bigger years. Brad Lidge's shoulder is a major concern.

3. New York Yankees: As Sox manager Terry Francona quipped during spring training, "They're not gonna be too underdoggish." Not with this lineup. Look for a huge bounce-back season from Alex Rodriguez, who has been scorching the ball in Florida. Robinson Cano is now a superstar as well and Mark Teixeira is not far behind. Derek Jeter is 74 hits shy of 3,000 but will the accomplishment be marred by more drop in overall production? The rotation is holding them back. A.J. Burnett must pitch to his salary. Another back-end starter is needed. How long before they pry King Felix out of Seattle?

4. San Francisco Giants: The champs still don't have much offense, and they have even less with the losses of Juan Uribe and Series hero Edgar Renteria. Does a return of Pablo Sandoval, circa 2009, combined with the addition of Miguel Tejada do the trick? Will Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff really be that good again? Doubt it. There is no doubt, however, about the pitching. That's provided, of course, that Matt Cain's elbow is OK and Brian Wilson's oblique isn't a season-long problem. They'll win the division again but then we see how far the pitching takes them.

5. Chicago White Sox: This might be Ozzie Guillen's best team since he won it all in 2005. The acquisition of slugger Adam Dunn, who can be a DH and spell Paul Konerko at first base, is a huge addition. The rotation is strong although Jake Peavy's health is a concern, as is whether the duo of Matt Thornton and rookie Chris Sale can handle the back end of the bullpen in the wake of Jenks' departure. Let's see how well Guillen handles the inevitable crisis that will develop from his runoff at the mouth.

6. Cincinnati Reds: They're the best of what looks to be a weak division and they have deeper October goals in mind. You have to love the talent led by Joey Votto, ex-Bisons star Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and a resurgent Scott Rolen. A stellar young rotation and a full year of Cuban Aroldis Chapman in a late-inning relief role have things looking better in Cincy than at any time since the Nasty Boys won it all in 1990.

>Could play in October

7. Los Angeles Dodgers: Yankee fans everywhere will be watching to see how Don Mattingly's first stint as manager goes. He has no experience at all and a big-market team that's expected to win. That's often a recipe for trouble. You have to like the strong rotation led by Clayton Kershaw and an equally strong bullpen. You have to like solid bats like Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier and Casey Blake, as well as the addition of Juan Uribe. We're going to find out quickly how much Mattingly learned from Joe Torre.

8. Oakland Athletics: You have to worry a lot about the offense, especially when your big addition is Hideki Matsui. But this looks like one of the best young rotations in the game with the likes of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. Closer Andrew Bailey's elbow trouble is not as serious as first feared and that's good news as well.

9. Texas Rangers: The defending AL champs lost Lee for real and they may have mentally lost icon Michael Young in the wake of his sniping with GM Jon Daniels. Sure, they've made up but how well Young overcomes the brush off he got from his longtime team will be a major story line to watch. Let's see how the Rangers react now to being a big game on everybody's schedule. No surprises anymore. They probably take a step or two back, as the '09 Rays did.

10. Colorado Rockies: Normally the team to finish fast and sneak into the postseason, the Rox fell apart down the stretch last year (dropping 13 of their final 14 games). But they were close then and they're still close now. Troy Tulowitzki got a seven-year contract extension and should be in the MVP talk again and Carlos Gonzalez should be too, while Ubaldo Jimenez should be in the Cy Young chatter. They can hit and they can pitch.

11. Atlanta Braves: Fredi Gonzalez replaces Bobby Cox. Good luck with that. Gonzalez, however, is a longtime Cox confidante and knows how this organization runs. He's got plenty of tools in young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, old reliables Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, newcomer Dan Uggla and a quality pitching staff. If the Phillies run into too many injuries, the Braves could catch up to them quickly.

12. Minnesota Twins: Which Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan do the Twinkies get? There's the question. Jim Thome is 11 homers shy of 600 and that will be a big story in the first half. Then in the second half, it will be all about how manager Ron Gardenhire again tries to will his team into the playoffs. If they get there, maybe they can finally avoid a first-rounder with the Yankees.

13. Milwaukee Brewers: The Crew was everybody's chic pick this year until Zack Greinke decided to play a little basketball in the offseason (he might be out until May) and Shawn Marcum developed shoulder stiffness in Arizona. Fingers are crossed on Marcum. Prince Fielder is heading into free agency and Milwaukee is probably hoping to ride a big season from him before he leaves. Former Canisius College pitcher John Axford, a revelation last year with eight wins and 24 saves, is now entrenched as the closer.

14. St. Louis Cardinals: The Albert Pujols Farewell Tour figures to be a daily distraction. Still hard to imagine him in another uniform but there doesn't appear to be any way the Clydesdales are forking over A-Rod money. Adam Wainwright's season-ending injury put a huge crimp in the Redbirds' hopes as well. They are clearly chasing in the NL Central.

>Could surprise you

15. Toronto Blue Jays: I love the fact they got out from under Vernon Wells' contract. I like their young players (Ricky Romero, J.P. Arencibia, Adam Lind, Yunel Escobar). I think Jose Bautista will hit a lot of home runs again and Aaron Hill has to be better. I like their choice of ex-Bison John Farrell as manager. I don't like them in the AL East. No playoffs since Joe Carter's home run cleared the wall in 1993.

16. Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera's well-documented alcohol issues dwarf their run at the White Sox. He's their money player and he needs to get his life in order. The Tigers need him too. They spent a lot of money in the offseason, although $50 million is a bit much for Victor Martinez. After Justin Verlander, the pitching is a question.

17. Chicago Cubs: Poor souls of Wrigley. Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez got into a dugout brawl in Arizona. This is a combustible group with new manager Mike Quade in charge of his first full-time big-league gig. Would be nice if Alfonso Soriano or Kosuke Fukudome can live up to their big-money deals, and if Carlos Zambrano wouldn't implode so often. Mediocrity continues and so does that 103-year championship drought. Blame Bartman.

18. Arizona Diamondbacks: You get the feeling a team with Kirk Gibson as manager will have a certain will imposed on them that will push them to improve. There's a load of young players here and they'll have to find the numbers lost by the trade of strikeout-prone Mark Reynolds to Baltimore. Justin Upton and Stephen Drew are solid young players. They need pitching.

19. Tampa Bay Rays: I still chuckle at the memory of cerebral manager Joe Maddon woofing at Philly fans for their beer choices during the '08 World Series. The guy is a gem and gets a lot out of his teams. This will be his toughest test after a Marlins-like payroll shedding. The offense is quite a bit leaner without Crawford and Carlos Pena but there's still great pitching and rookie Jeremy Hellickson looks like a future star. But the days of competing with the Yankees and Red Sox are over for now.

20. Los Angeles Angels: I'd like to know what the plan is here in taking a big-money, under-producing player like Wells. A panic move to compete with the Rangers and A's, perhaps? GM Tony Reagins was easily the chump of the winter for that one. Getting Kendry Morales back helps. Maybe this year he'll just walk across home plate when he hits a home run.

21. New York Mets. Is there a big-market team in sports in rougher shape than the Amazins? Terry Collins hasn't been in charge of a big-league dugout in 12 years and his last chance is with a team of overpaid underperformers who have to be thankful the Nationals are in their division. The team reported a loss of $50 million last year in the wake of the Wilpon family's involvement in the Madoff scandal. They might do the same this year so how are they supposed to get into free agency this winter? Still, Collins is a major upgrade over Jerry Manuel. Wonder if he'll leave the Bisons alone.

22. Seattle Mariners. Old friends Eric Wedge, Carl Willis and Jeff Datz take over a club with nowhere to go but up. Ichiro and King Felix are good places to start. The game's worst offense has to be better, doesn't it? But how does the combustible Wedge-Milton Bradley relationship work? And will Felix Hernandez end up in the Bronx by August? Look for infielder Dustin Ackley, who batted .424 in the Arizona Fall League, to get an early call-up and be a potential Rookie of the Year sleeper.

23 Houston Astros: They started last season 0-8, which means they were just two games under .500 the rest of the way. You have to like speedy Michael Bourn in center field but the offense is still a huge question mark. From future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell to Lance Berkman and now to big prospect Brett Wallace, first base has always been a key.

24 Florida Marlins: Can't see how they got better sending Uggla off to Atlanta. Three years and $18 million for John Buck at catcher? Really? Does Javier Vazquez pitch like he did in Atlanta or in the Bronx? The Fish seem like they're going to simply tread water this year until their move to their new pond in 2012. Maybe that will bring in revenue -- and some fans.

>More tough times ahead

25 Baltimore Orioles: I like Buck Showalter's jaw-flapping as the Orioles won't sit back and simply be a punching bag for the AL East anymore. Mark Reynolds should be good for 200 strikeouts again, just as he was in Arizona, but he will also hit plenty of home runs in Camden Yards. Showalter needs his young rotation to improve fast. Still can't sell me on ex-Bison Jeremy Guthrie as a No. 1 starter in the big leagues.

26 San Diego Padres: Bud Black had the NL West in his grasp last year until the Pads choked it away in the final month but he still wound up as NL Manager of the Year. Hmmm. And now they've traded Gonzalez to the Red Sox and might finish last in the division. At least the weather and the ballpark are nice.

27 Washington Nationals: They spent far too much on Werth. They won't have Stephen Strasburg. They have another year at least to wait for Bryce Harper. Is Jim Riggleman the right manager? He might be the first to go this year.

28 Pittsburgh Pirates: PNC Park is a great ballpark, and it's just four hours away. But it does not house great players. There are some promising youngsters like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata but will new manager Clint Hurdle find any pitching? Ross Ohlendorf went 1-11 and still won a $2.025 million award in arbitration. Yikes. Chalk up a 19th straight losing season. But they won't lose 105 again either.

29 Cleveland Indians: I will miss Bob Feller's press box takes. I will hope for a healthy return from Grady Sizemore. I will hope a few fans return to the stands at stunningly empty Progressive Field. But this isn't 1995 anymore.

30 Kansas City Royals: Greinke is gone but you continue to hear they've got the best farm system. When will we see dividends? This isn't 1985 anymore.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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