Familiar teams favored in MLB despite shifting stars

Jim SLATER
AFP

Washington (AFP) - Superstar sluggers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will try to turn their new clubs into title contenders but mostly familiar teams figure to dominate this year's Major League Baseball championship chase.

After a two-game debut in Tokyo that was basically a farewell celebration for Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki, the major league campaign opens in earnest on Thursday in North American venues.

Harper, a six-time All-Star outfielder, never went deeper than four first-round playoff exits in seven seasons with Washington before signing with the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 years at $330 million earlier this month.

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"I can't wait to get on the field to do Phillies Nation proud," Harper said. "I can't wait to get started. Here's to a new chapter."

Machado, a top shortstop-third baseman, joined the Los Angeles Dodgers last year from Baltimore at mid-season and helped them to a second consecutive World Series.

But after the Dodgers were defeated by Boston, he elected to sign a 10-year deal for $300 million with the San Diego Padres, who haven't reached the playoffs since 2006 and haven't won a post-season series since 1998.

"Manny Machado is a generational talent and we're ecstatic that he has chosen to spend his prime years in a San Diego Padres uniform," executive chairman Ron Fowler said.

While the biggest names were moving for free agent riches, others teams were paying to lock down top talent with lucrative contract extensions that should help perennial powers secure their places atop the tables in 2019.

Reigning World Series champion Boston signed left-handed pitcher Chris Sale to a five-year deal for $145 million.

The Red Sox will need all their pitching power to combat a New York Yankees squad powered by Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton for the American League East crown.

Mike Trout signed a 12-year deal for $426.5 million, the richest contract in US sports history, to stay with the Los Angeles Angels, who could test 2017 World Series champion Houston for the AL West crown.

But the Astros locked down ace righty pitcher Justin Verlander for two more years at $66 million after he went 16-9 with a 2.52 earned-run average and AL-best 290 strikeouts last year.

And the Seattle Mariners, who won twice over Oakland in Tokyo in Ichiro's sendoff, could challenge with 27-year-old Japanese rookie pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who spent nine seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions before signing with Seattle this year.

Cleveland, behind top hitters Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, look to win the AL Central for a fourth consecutive season.

- LA third time charmed? -

The Dodgers will try for a third consecutive World Series berth, something no National League club has managed since the St. Louis Cardinals from 1942-1944.

The Dodgers have a powerful pitching rotation, led by Clayton Kershaw. But three standouts enter the season injured, Kershaw nursing a sore left shoulder, and they will be challenged to reach the final again.

"We're a better ballclub than we were last year," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

The only team to win the title after back-to-back World Series defeats was the 1923 New York Yankees.

Only the 1907-09 Detroit Tigers and 1911-13 New York Giants have lost the World Series three consecutive years.

The Chicago Cubs will be favorites again in the NL Central division with slugger Kris Bryant and Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish hopeful of playing major roles.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who inked a five-year extension worth $130 million with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and Milwaukee, which finished one win shy of last year's World Series, lurk if the Cubs falter.

The Philles-Nationals rivalry will spice the NL East, with Philadelphia and Harper's former squad Washington meeting 19 times.

Harper has a career .279 batting average with 521 runs batted in and 184 home runs but now he will face Nationals star pitchers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

The Phillies, 80-82 last season, seek their first playoff appearance since 2011.

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