ESPN Looks at New Race, New Face for MLB Season

By Carolyn Braff

For its 20th season of Sunday Night Baseball, ESPN has brought on a new face, and the newly minted analyst team is predicting that some new teams will make a showing in divisional races across the country. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, returning for their 20th season, are joined this season by analyst Steve Phillips.

The Miller-Morgan-Phillips booth got a test run during the World Baseball Classic, calling three games of the final weekend. Despite the integration of high-speed cameras into this year’s coverage, ESPN SVP/executive producer Jed Drake points to the addition of Phillips as the production highlight for the upcoming season of Sunday Night Baseball.

“Adding Steve Phillips to the booth in and of itself is a major enhancement,” Drake says. “The focus this year for us is absolutely on the talent.”

That talent will be enhanced with now-standard elements like the K Zone strike tracker. The high-speed cameras ESPN integrated for last year’s Monday Night Football broadcasts may also make an appearance during the baseball season.

“Inevitably with baseball and the speed of the game, there are opportunities to see things we haven’t seen before,” Drake says. “We’ll be looking at that when we have the opportunity to do so.”

The visual presentation of ESPN’s 2009 baseball coverage will remain consistent with that of prior years. After 20 years as the voice of Major League Baseball, Drake sees no reason to fix what is not broken.

“The test of time has shown that, in my view, we do it far better than any of our colleagues,” he says. “We’re very much looking forward to this 20th season, when, as good as we have been, we’ll be even better.”

Helping that improvement along is a series of compelling storylines that will put new teams into the national spotlight.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting baseball season, with some new teams catching fire,” Miller explains. “We saw the Tampa Bay Rays jump into the fray last year, and now it’s more of a three- or four-team race in the AL East, and I think the National League will be just as exciting. The Cincinnati Reds are my dark horse, and St. Louis is making some waves.”

Says Phillips, “I’m really looking forward to some great races all over. You look at the National League East. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of four teams — Marlins, Braves, Mets, Phillies — win that division. The AL Central is a toss-up for me, so I think that’s a great race. In the NL Central, I think the Reds are a sleeper, but the Cardinals are certainly going to be in the mix there as well. And Manny being Manny out in Los Angeles, a full year of that certainly will be interesting.”

Baseball is not immune from the nation’s economic climate, and Miller expects the economy to become a storyline of its own a month or two into the season.

“Teams will be able to make their moves then, when a lot of teams that look at themselves as buyers will become sellers,” Miller explains. “I think there could be a lot of scrambling going on in the first two or three months of the season.”

ESPN opens the 2009 season of baseball coverage on April 5 at 8 p.m. ET, when the Philadelphia Phillies host the Atlanta Braves on ESPN2.