The battle for the division's top spot will be neck and neck between the Yankees and Red Sox. The Orioles could challenge with their potent offense, but not much punch will come from the Blue Jays and Devil Rays. They round up the bottom of the division.
I'm picking the Yankees to win the division and the Red Sox to contend for the AL wild card. But I think the White Sox will beat out Boston for the wild card.
1. New York Yankees
Strengths: The Yankees' payroll is the highest in baseball. That spending power has bought some very good players and a very good team. Any lineup that has Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi at the heart of it is impressive, and it's hard to find a better starting rotation in baseball with one that features Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina at the top. Those two, along with Kevin Brown, will make new additions Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright even better. The Yankees also have the best closer in the game in Mariano Rivera.
Weaknesses: Second baseman Tony Womack has to stay healthy; if he does, he'll provide some speed. I guess you have to wonder if Johnson can hold up at the age of 41. Other than that, this team has few question marks.
Outlook: After last year's collapse against the Red Sox in the ALCS, there's more incentive to win it all, especially from the front office. This team is stacked and ready to challenge for the World Series, if not be the favorite to win it all. It would take three or four big blows in the injury department to knock them down. On paper, they look like the world champions to me.
2. Boston Red Sox
Strengths: First and foremost, the Red Sox learned how to win last year, and they did it with great chemistry and team play. Edgar Renteria, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are the strength of the lineup, which is solid overall. Johnny Damon is a plus with his team-oriented attitude, too. Replacing Pedro Martinez with David Wells and Matt Clement, in many ways, is as good as New Englanders could've expected. Adding a lefty like Wells will be a big help, and Clement is very capable. It's a good pitching staff with depth and a good closer in Keith Foulke.
Weaknesses: Curt Schilling was great in the playoffs, but I wonder if he can come back and repeat that kind of performance. After Ortiz and Ramirez, there's some lack of power in the lineup. Mark Bellhorn at second base, for me, is a question mark defensively. Also, will they miss the steady gloves of shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz?
Outlook: I think this team could be good enough to reach the postseason. I just wonder if it will have the same magic as last year. Still, the fans will enjoy this season and continue to celebrate the team's first championship since 1918.
3. Baltimore Orioles
Strengths: The Orioles' strength is all in the offense with Sammy Sosa joining Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez. After that, this team is pretty suspect, although Camden Yards is still a pretty nice place to play.
Weaknesses: The starting rotation – who are these guys? Despite being somewhat unknown, though, Rodrigo Lopez and Daniel Cabrera pitched well last year. The off-field problems of Sidney Ponson, who's been demoted to the No. 4 starter, makes you wonder how much he can contribute. The bullpen is fairly weak and could create problems.
Outlook: It'll be interesting to see how Sosa fits in and performs away from Wrigley Field. He and Tejada should create most of the excitement. The chances of contending for the division title will depend entirely on the starting rotation.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
Strengths: Roy Halladay won't win a Cy Young with this team, but he should improve from last year's disappointing 8-8 record. Vernon Wells is the Blue Jays' only true power threat. Overall, team speed could be a positive as evidenced by an ability to steal bases this spring. The fact that Toronto is the only team in Canada could create a larger fan base.
Weaknesses: The team chose not to replace slugger Carlos Delgado. Instead, Eric Hinske was moved from third base to Delgado's spot at first and Corey Koskie was brought in to play third. There's not much power in the lineup, and there's really nobody in the order to carry the load. After Halladay, the rest of the rotation is below average with Ted Lilly, David Bush and Josh Towers. The Blue Jays are searching for somebody to be the closer, too. Right now, it's Miguel Batista.
Outlook: This team will struggle to score runs and in the starting rotation. This will be a rebuilding year under new manager John Gibbons, as Toronto battles Tampa Bay to stay out of the division cellar.
5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Strengths: If Lou Piniella lasts through the season, that would be a plus because a manager is only as good as his team. Outfielders Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff are good, young players.
Weaknesses: The starting rotation is relatively unknown with Dewon Brazelton, Scott Kazmir, Mark Hendrickson and Rob Bell. Hideo Nomo and Casey Fossum – the candidates to be the fifth starter – are better known. Rocco Baldelli, who's still recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, won't be back until midsummer at the earliest. Piniella's short fuse could be detrimental in another developing year for the Rays.
Outlook: The Devil Rays have some young talent but not enough to compete in this division. This team will be about as exciting as playing in Tropicana Field.