Phils, BoSox won’t fold under pressure

For Mitchell Light, it’s not too early to make a World Series prediction. In fact, it’s already too late to change his mind.

Light is the managing editor of Athlon Sports. He is responsible for one of the glossy preseason annuals that soon will appear on the shelves of a supermarket near you, a harbinger of spring like windbreakers, thawing ice and Presidents Day furniture sales.

Against a January deadline, Athlon forecasted that the Boston Red Sox will defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2011 World Series. You will find the same prediction in The Sporting News, which has been in the business of baseball prognostication since the latter stages of the 19th century.

If you’re the wagering type, informs you that the Phillies have the best odds of winning the World Series, followed by the Red Sox.

Naturally, I think these folks are getting waaaaay ahead of themselves. I mean, pitchers and catchers don’t report for another month. I’m going to need all of that time to decide whether I’m going Red Sox over Phillies or Phillies over Red Sox.

Josh Beckett or Roy Halladay in Game 1? Who wins the Lester-Lee matchup? What role is David Ortiz going to have in the NL park?

I could say that I’m kidding. But I’m not. I won’t issue a formal decree until Opening Day — otherwise known as the one-year anniversary of my prediction that the Giants would be 2010 National League champs. But there’s no sense in denying the obvious. From where I sit, this looks like a Super Bowl XXXIX rematch: New England vs. Philly.

Boston has the best roster in the American League. Philadelphia has the best roster in the National League. Barring a blister epidemic, both teams will arrive at spring training with F-A-V-O-R-I-T-E-S scripted on their uniforms.

Does that mean they will win? Of course not. Longtime readers may recall I was on duty for the Detroit Free Press during the Tigers’ memorable summer of 2008. Detroit won the World Series that year — or we thought they did, after the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis blockbuster.

I predicted a 1,000-run season and World Series championship. Wrong and very, very wrong. The Tigers finished in last place, and I learned that winning the offseason is very different from winning the postseason.

Nearly eight months of exposure to one of the biggest flops in baseball history sharpened my senses to the trademarks of a faux contender. The complacent spring training. The aging, injury-prone sluggers. The overrated starters. The untrustworthy bullpen. The vacuum of veteran leadership, leaving the group unable to cope with pressure.

With a Ph.D. in Debacle-ology on the wall, I’m comfortable conveying this opinion: The Red Sox and Phillies aren’t going to wilt because of pressure that comes with life as The Favorites.

Consider the Phillies. They are darlings of the hardball punditry for a simple reason: They signed Cliff Lee. Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel has, on paper, one of the greatest rotations in any of our lifetimes: Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt,  followed by you or me.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., a Stanford guy, is apparently wise to the notion that pitching wins. He has built a rotation that could lose one of its four aces and still be one of the two or three best in baseball. In an unpredictable sport, that’s a measure of certainty no one else has.

Plus, Lee’s arrival will send a current of excitement through a clubhouse that seemed stale at times last year. For the first time since 2008, the Phillies won’t arrive at spring training as the defending league champion. They must earn the trophy, not merely retain it. It’s the sort of circumstance that should bring forth the best of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and the rest.

And the starting rotation will be motivated, not just excellent. Halladay, Lee and Oswalt still are looking for their first World Series rings.

“The guys on this team have great expectations of one another and great expectations of themselves,” Amaro said. “Can there be a tendency to just throw the gloves out there (during the regular season)? There could be, but I have a lot of faith in the character of this club.

“It’s hard to safeguard against (complacency), but with the personality of this group, I don’t think this is one of those clubs that will succumb to that. More than anything else, they will strive for the ultimate goal, which is to get back to the World Series and win it.

“It’s hard to win. There are no gimmies in this world. There are no gimmies this year. There will be no gimmies next year. We realized that last year, when we thought we had one of the best clubs in baseball.”

They did. But the Giants outplayed them and outpitched them in the National League Championship Series. And now the Giants have a pretty good gig: They have the rings, the World Series shares and the organizational cachet that comes with winning . . . and yet there’s not much pressure on them to repeat, because few people believe they can.

Frankly, the same is true for the Texas Rangers. Even though they upgraded with Adrian Beltre, they lost Lee. And now the Red Sox, with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, can match Josh Hamilton’s guys, gapper for gapper.

But GM Theo Epstein isn’t about to say that.

“Things that happen during the winter — and opinions about which teams improved and which teams didn’t improve — tend to be overrated to begin with and are completely out the window once the season starts,” Epstein said Monday. “The Rangers won the pennant last year, so they are the AL favorites until someone knocks them off. Two teams from our division made the playoffs last year and we weren’t one of them, so clearly we have work to do.”

Yet a large part of believing in Boston’s viability as a World Series contender is an acknowledgement the Red Sox should have reached the playoffs in 2010. The issue was that they sustained too many injuries, to too many important players, at the worst times. That is highly unlikely to happen again.

Beckett, plagued by injuries and under performance, will be better. So will John Lackey. So will Jonathan Papelbon. (I think.) Combine that with the retooled lineup, and you probably are looking at the AL East champion.

We know this: The Red Sox are a different — read: superior — team when propelled by the fiery Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. They were hurt last year. Knowing their tenacity, they will more than make up for that in 2011.

“The only pressure that matters to our players is the pressure they put on themselves, and on each other, to compete night in and night out in a very tough division,” Epstein said. “Our team tends to find its motivation from inside the clubhouse, so expectations and predictions should not be a factor for us.”

Amaro said almost exactly the same thing about his team. Good thing, too. Beginning next month, the Boston and Philly players will receive one reminder after another that 2011 is supposed to have a Red October.