Player to watch: Curt Schilling
This is an obvious one. All of the offseason celebrations and high hopes for Red Sox fans were because of Schilling's signing. The Red Sox already have an ace – they need a championship. Anything less and this will be just another deal gone awry. That may sound like asking a lot from one player, but Boston is a tough crowd.
Burning question: Can paper translate to the field?
All the pieces are in place for a dominant team. A rotation that features three No. 1s, a solid bullpen anchored by a new, proven closer (Keith Foulke) and last year's most potent offense with a few new twists. But that's why we play the game, folks. Championships happen when teams click.
The Red Sox made the first huge splash this winter, signing Schilling and trying to get A-Rod. It's probably better for them they didn't. I'll take Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra, thank you very much! Anyway, they were a few outs away from the pennant last year and have gotten better. Their success came without Derek Lowe having a stellar year. Now they add Schilling and Foulke. They will be tough to beat.
They got better without much headroom for improvement, but they still have to watch the Yankees. And how will Schilling do in this league?
New York Yankees (Last season: 101-61, 1st)
Player to watch: Kevin Brown
The Yankees of the past 10 years have banked a lot of their success on starting pitching. Kevin Brown comes back to the American League with the pressure of leading a rebuilt New York pitching staff. The A-Rod trade made a big splash, but if Brown doesn't shine, neither do the Yanks.
Burning question: Are all these newcomers really Yankees?
The Yanks of the past decade were a tight-knit group who kind of grew up together in pinstripes. Sure there were the additions to the unit every year but not as many as this season brought. This is a put-together team that has to achieve and jell in a hurry to keep pace with the Red Sox.
The Yankees, as they often do, got the last word this winter. And a big hyphenated word it was – A-ROD. Oh yeah, they also lost Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and they added Brown and Javier Vazquez and, for good measure, Gary Sheffield. George Steinbrenner keeps pushing his financial limits to win. You gotta love it.
It's a great team – on paper. A-Rod is great, but the key will be how Brown does back in the AL and how well Vazquez fits into Yankee pinstripes.
Toronto Blue Jays (Last season: 86-76, 3rd)
Player to watch: Pat Hentgen
The Jays have reigning Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay at the top of the rotation, but they need someone else to step up to be a solid No. 2. Both the Red Sox and Yanks have proven studs in their rotation. To stay with them, Hentgen will have to step up to his past form. Last year's strong finish is a positive building block for this former Cy Young winner. His arm and gamer approach can push and/or carry a team. For him, it never was about stuff, it was about attitude.
Burning question: Will Eric Hinske be a superstar?
The Jays will need a lot of offense this season to keep up with the Joneses in the East. They have a good start with Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells. If Hinske can be the third offensive terror, the others could turn the Jays into a very productive scoring machine.
The Blue Jays will score enough runs, and with the additions of Hentgen, Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly in the starting rotation, they could be fine. If Kevin Brown or Curt Schilling fizzle, Toronto could be knocking at the door.
Baltimore Orioles (Last season: 71-91, 4th)
Player to watch: Javy Lopez
Lopez will laugh when he gets to hit in the game's smallest bandbox for half the season. Both he and Miguel Tejada could have 50 home run seasons even without steroids. All in all, the O's won't have enough to hang with the big dogs this year, but Lopez could have an offensive season to remember.
Burning question: Will Tejada and Lopez be around long enough to see the birds contend?
It is a gutsy move adding two high-priced free agents to a team that won't contend, but are these two guys in future plans? Or will they be pawns laid out to the highest bidder to rebuild an organization?
The Orioles made a great effort to build their squad around some young guns this winter. By teaming newcomers Rafael Palmeiro, Lopez and Tejada with Jay Gibbons and crew, they will score some runs. Those four could hit 120-140 homers between them in that bandbox. But a pitching staff anchored by Sidney Ponson will not win this division or even make a splash.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Last season: 63-99, 5th)
Player to watch: Aubrey Huff
With very little protection surrounding him, Huff managed a stellar offensive year in 2003. With Rocco Baldelli a year wiser and the addition of Tino Martinez, Aubrey could improve his numbers in 2004.
Burning question: Will they ever get there?
The Rays aren't an overly young club. Baldelli is 22, but we're talking mostly upper twenty-somethings around here. There is a lot of building to do.
What's to say about the Devil Rays? I feel sorry for Lou Piniella. This guy wants to win, and there has been no hope of that in any of their years in the league. They added Martinez, journeymen John Halama and Paul Abbott and two once-rising stars, Fernando Tatis and Danys Baez. They will come in last place again. Hopefully the draft this June will give them a stud to begin building around.
- Kevin Brown