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Diamond dominators

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

From the Mitchell Report to the Fehr retort, from the Clemens denial to the Bonds pre-trial, it's been an ugly December for baseball. In an admittedly contrived effort to distract attention from the 86 losers named in Mitchell's tome, a list of the game's Top Five teams:

The Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres

No, wait. Wrong list.

Those names belong with the losers. Overly harsh? OK, maybe they aren't losers in the same wrong-place, wrong-era way as the luckless saps revealed as performance-enhancing drug users. But losers as in second-tier. Also-rans. Pretenders.

Sure, four were playoff teams, but they hail from the National League, where the competition was no better than scout teams and B teams, junior varsity and taxi squads, the modern-day equivalents of the St. Louis Browns and Washington Generals.

To buy into baseball, circa 2008, one must buy American.

The American League produced the best four teams last season. And any argument that the Rockies or another NL outfit would be regarded as baseball's fifth-best team heading into spring training was torpedoed when the Detroit Tigers acquired slugger Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins.

A recurring theme next season will be outrage that only three of the game's top four teams can make the playoffs because they reside in two divisions of the same league. But nobody should call the left-out team a loser.

That label is reserved for the NL scrubs. Let's leave them behind and get right to that Top Five:

1) Boston Red Sox: They haven't been able to land left-handed pitcher Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins, but neither have the Yankees, so from an equilibrium standpoint, the Red Sox remain a leg up on their archenemy. The latest on the Santana front is that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz spoke with him and came away believing a deal was unlikely. How Ortiz, or even Santana, would know whether a trade was imminent is unclear, although the mere mention of Ortiz's name could be enough to put the Twins in a funk. Ortiz, remember, was released by Minnesota after the 2002 season and signed by the Red Sox, for whom he has hit 208 home runs in five seasons.

The Red Sox re-signed third baseman and World Series MVP Mike Lowell to a contract that was too long (three years) and too lucrative ($37.5 million), but meant that manager Terry Francona can pencil in the same World Series championship lineup he did a year ago. Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew are underachievers, the middle relief is iffy and one day Manny Ramirez's bat will slow, but Jacoby Ellsbury should blossom, Dustin Pedroia is only going to improve and Josh Beckett is the best big-game pitcher in baseball.

2) Cleveland Indians: As if anyone needed more evidence that Mark Shapiro is one of the shrewdest general managers in baseball, consider this: He surprised nearly everyone by trying to trade for Cabrera the first day of the winter meetings, even though the Indians don't consider a power hitter their most pressing need. The reason? Shapiro had a hunch the division rival Tigers would make a play for the young Marlins slugger.

Of course, Shapiro was right. And the Indians are ahead of the Tigers on this list only because the teams were separated by eight games in the standings in 2007. It's presumptuous to assume that Cabrera and Willis are worth enough W's to change the pecking order. Especially when the Indians should be improved as well, if only because they ought to play with the swagger of a defending division champion. Expect starters C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona to discover the ability to exhale in their next whirl through the postseason.

The Indians seem poised to become baseball's next feel-good story, a mid-market grinder of a club that in 2008 could eclipse the behemoths in Boston and New York and slip past the re-tooled Tigers while they are still in the giddy stage. Has baseball ever needed a feel-good story more than it does now?

3) Detroit Tigers: With Willis signed through 2010 and Cabrera a bargain through 2009, the Tigers have added potent pieces to a talented team one year removed from a World Series appearance. And don't forget that shortstop Edgar Renteria and outfielder Jacque Jones also were acquired from NL teams via trade.

Put it this way: If the Tigers were in the NL, they would be the prohibitive favorite to waltz to the Fall Classic. In the AL, though, they are merely one of five, in the mix, running with the big dogs, but perhaps not even the favorite in their own division.

The batting order of Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Guillen, Renteria, Jones and Ivan Rodriguez is the most explosive in baseball. Willis joins ace right-hander Justin Verlander, ageless left-hander Kenny Rogers and the inconsistent but talented duo of Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson in the rotation. Holding leads in the late innings could get dicey, but otherwise, manager Jim Leyland has been handed a dream team.

4) New York Yankees: The hand-wringing and shrill headlines are but a November memory; the Yankees are the Yankees again, albeit without the manager who led them to four World Series titles. Joe Torre would be the first to admit that players, not managers, win titles, so the return of Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera will do wonders for the prospects of new manager Joe Girardi.

And speaking of prospects, general manager Brian Cashman so far has resisted pressures from within and outside the organization to trade Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy or Phil Hughes, the young pitchers who in a cluster could bring Santana, or individually could fetch another bat. The dead weight is down to Jason Giambi, but other veterans are close to diminishing – Mike Mussina, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu, Posada and Rivera.

Another major acquisition might be necessary to overtake the Red Sox in the regular season, the Indians, Tigers or Angels in the postseason. Revenues will climb even beyond current mind-numbing levels. Attendance will soar in the last year of old Yankee Stadium, and in 2009 for the opening of New Yankee Stadium.

5) Los Angeles Angels: Signing Torii Hunter, at first glance an odd fit, was, upon further review, a bold move by new GM Tony Reagins. The rangy Hunter slides into center field, nudging Gary Matthews Jr. to left and pushing Garret Anderson into the DH slot much of the time and Vladimir Guerrero from right field to DH whenever he needs a blow. Voila, the Angels' defense is vastly improved, as is manager Mike Scioscia's ability to keep his middle-of-the-order bats fresh throughout the season.

Scioscia, the former catcher, is steadfast in his appreciation for a deep, dependable starting rotation, and the Angels improved theirs by acquiring Jon Garland from the Chicago White Sox, even though it cost them shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Again, Reagins seemed to win the day – dealing a player whose value will never be higher for a starter whose luck was poor but whose stuff is solid.

The Angels were unwilling to trade the prospects necessary to land Miguel Cabrera, and appear unwilling to enter the Santana sweepstakes. They are banking heavily on Howie Kendrick developing into a Wade Boggs-type hitter, and on somebody emerging as an everyday shortstop. The infield lacks pop, especially when comparisons begin in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and New York. Yet as presently constructed, the Angels should be the clear favorite to win their division, which is more than the other teams on this list can say.

It's jarring to think that only three of the four top teams in baseball will make the playoffs. Who will be the odd team out? The Red Sox, Indians, Tigers or Yankees will sit at home during the playoffs, watching the pretenders, the also-rans, the second tier, the scrubs from the NL lurch through October.

Leyland, the Tigers manager, gave that unappetizing prospect thought during a luncheon at the winter meetings. He took a sip of red wine and reflected on the razor's edge between getting to the World Series in 2006 and missing the playoffs in 2007.

"It's a subtle difference, and it can be hard to pinpoint," he said. "But you know it when you feel it. And we didn't like the way it felt."

The Tigers responded by aggressively improving. That's the way the big boys do it. That's the way it's done in the AL.

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