The two teams who played for the pennant last season dominated the offseason news. Can anybody threaten them for the AL East title, or even the wild card? Not likely.
And I'm expecting a pair of new division champions elsewhere.
AL EAST: Most everyone is better, which could make it hard to tell
The Red Sox made the first huge splash this winter, signing Curt 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 Keith Foulke to close. 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?
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 Kevin 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.
Sorry, Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa Bay...you've been outspent, but stranger things have happened.
The Blue Jays bring back Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay and yearly MVP candidate Carlos Delgado. They will score enough runs, and with the additions of Pat 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.
The Orioles made a great effort to build back its squad around some young guns this winter. By teaming newcomers Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez and Miguel 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.
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 Tino 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.
AL CENTRAL: Anybody – and I mean ANYBODY – could win
Sure, the Sox took the most significant losses this offseason, losing Bartolo Colon and Tom Gordon, but they should have walked away with the division last season. If you would have penciled in Esteban Loaiza for 21 victories prior to last season, they would have been runaway favorites. Colon's gone, but Loaiza remains along with Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland to front the rotation. Billy Koch still closes. Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas and Carlos Lee add the pop, and Joe Borchard remains a superstar in the rough who could make a huge impact soon.
All in all, Chicago should have enough to win this division. But it should have been enough last year.
The Minnesota Twins normally would be favorites considering their winning ways over the past few years, but they had to make a valiant comeback – and have two teams crumble – to end on top last year. Losing closer Eddie Guardado and setup man LaTroy Hawkins will stifle a once powerful pen. They'll miss what Eric Milton could have brought to the starting five. Joe Mauer is taking over the catching duties for A.J. Pierzynski.
Having Shannon Stewart all year will help, but the Twins' losses will hurt more. I have usually given the Twins the benefit of the doubt but the doubt will fall to the talent this time around.
What about the Kansas City Royals? I dare anyone to name their starting rotation. But these guys were there all year ... out of nowhere! Add Juan Gonzalez to an offense that kept Carlos Beltran (instead of trading him before he leaves for free agency), and they can hang with the division. Young pitchers should continue to develop around the re-signed Kevin Appier and Brian Anderson.
Tony Pena and Ozzie Guillen managing against each other ... crazy days are ahead.
The Cleveland Indians are at that interesting stage – a young group with decent talent and decent talent behind them coming soon. What remains is who turns into a superstar and who fizzles.
The Detroit Tigers had nowhere to go but up. I may not have gone about it with the same player additions as they did, but they will be better this year. The worry for the rest of the league is that these guys have seen rock bottom and will ride any glimpse of positivity for all it's worth. A record near .500 will win the division, and that's not a crazy number for any team.
AL WEST: Expect the Angels to return to a fierce fight
But after a 77-85 season in 2003, there are questions. Will Colon be a .500 pitcher or will he rise to his stuff and win 20? Can Escobar be a quality starter all year? Can Darrin Erstad stay healthy all year? Will John Lackey be the stud of the 2002 playoffs or the middle-of-the-road starter of last year?
A lot of potential, a lot of questions.
The Seattle Mariners had the most quietly productive winter of anyone in baseball. They didn't add any glossy names. They didn't defer any salary issues. Heck, they even lost their closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki, back to Japan. But they did add a group of gamers to an already classy group of winners.
If you lose your closer and want to get the game's gutsiest to replace him, there is no better fit than Eddie Guardado. Now Shigetoshi Hasegawa can move back to setting up even though he filled in nicely last season as interim closer. Losing Arthur Rhodes is a blow to the pen, but Ron Villone will fill in nicely. He may not be as dominant, but outs are outs. Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio, Randy Winn are good scrappers.
In my opinion, the biggest move by the M's was not trading Freddy Garcia. There has been a lot of back and forth on this guy, and he may not be the exact fit for this team. But his stuff is No. 1-starter quality and then some. He is the type of pitcher that can carry a team for stretches during the season and in the playoffs. He's the type of guy you need to stick with through good or bad and hope the good turns to great.
Not much is different in Seattle, and that's good.
Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane had a tough winter. Being fiscally strapped allows a team a short window of opportunity to win. The A's offensive spark, Miguel Tejada, is off to bigger and richer places. Keith Foulke will try to close games in Boston. And a few others have gone on their way. What remains is the only rotation that can match the Chicago Cubs for youth and stuff. That being said, this is the American League, and a team had better score – and score often – to end up on top.
Arthur Rhodes comes down from Seattle to close out games, and Eric Karros and Mark Kotsay are the new names the A's hope can produce on offense. It just doesn't seem like enough in this division this year.
The A's had the best team in AL last couple of years and let it slip away. Because of their pitching, they never are far away from winning.
What is to be said for the Texas Rangers? They finally moved Alex Rodriguez, and they can begin to rebuild. There still is a lot of house to clean and expect them to do that this spring, this season and through the offseason. Until then they will figure out who stays and hope some talent from below can up the ante. At least the chains are off and GM John Hart has a chance to do something.
- Curt Schilling