American League spring storylines

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

It's not all about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League, even if it sometimes seems so.

The top spring stories in the AL:

• Mauer power

Looks like the American League should have killed the Minnesota Twins when it had the chance.

Only eight years removed from the pointy end of Bud Selig's contraction ideas, Jim Pohlad's plucky franchise has a state-of-the-art open-air ballpark, a payroll approaching $100 million (more than the Dodgers, for one, will spend in '10) and, on the horizon, a $200 million(-ish) commitment to their catcher. The first two-thirds of the Twins' order will go Denard Span(notes), Orlando Hudson(notes), Joe Mauer(notes), Justin Morneau(notes), Jason Kubel(notes) and Michael Cuddyer(notes), or something close to that, and Francisco Liriano(notes) just rediscovered his fastball velocity and slider bite in the Dominican winter league, and the rotation looks a lot different with Liriano firmly on the front end rather than pitching for a place on the back end.

While the folks of the Twin(s) Cities warm themselves over the promise of these Twins, Mauer's contract negotiations won't ever leave their heads, not until a tall guy with sideburns is standing behind a podium thanking Pohlad and GM Bill Smith and the people of Minnesota for making him a Twin for life, or for at least long enough to win a pennant or two.

• The Joba Tools: starter or reliever?

Yeah, same conversation.

At least it's not about A-Rod's October, the manager's job security, Derek Jeter's(notes) contract extension, the hunt/search/prayer for No. 27 or the half-billion dollars they threw at the free-agent bazaar.

These, folks, are the new Yankees. Now that they have acquired No. 27, now that Alex Rodriguez(notes) is a genuine postseason hero, and since we all know Jeter will be playing shortstop for the Yankees from the saddle of his motorized scooter, they've discovered fiscal responsibility. What other franchises would view as utter insanity and the short course to economic ruin, the Yankees proudly call a budget. It's why Matt Holliday's(notes) not here. It's even why Johnny Damon's(notes) not here. It's why we love the Yankees, because they say fun things like, "What? It's a budget."

When it comes down to the baseball, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi will sort through left field (Gardner, Winn, Thames, even Granderson, etc.), but the real decision will be at the bottom of the rotation and in the eighth inning, because that's where Joba Chamberlain(notes) comes in.

He's been in the big leagues for all or parts of three seasons. The Yankees know where he's been most dominant: setup relief. They know where he's been pretty good and what would make him more valuable over his career: starting. Meantime, Phil Hughes(notes) was brilliant in the eighth inning in '09. Yet, he, too, has a starting pedigree and the assortment of pitches for it. The Yankees say Chamberlain and Hughes will pitch for a place in the rotation, the loser going to the bullpen.

A pack of Lackey Strikes

As the Red Sox considered reinforcing a ballclub that then would challenge – and maybe exceed – the Yankees in both fire power and depth, they passed on their most productive hitter, Jason Bay(notes), because, reportedly, he was an injury risk and they signed John Lackey(notes), who hasn't left spring training healthy since 2007.

The choice/risk speaks to the value of pitching, of course, particularly in a division in which Beckett-Lester-Lackey-Matsuzaka-Buchholz will be challenged by Sabathia-Burnett-Vazquez-Pettitte-Chamberlain and Shields-Garza-Price-Niemann-Davis.

The likelihood Lackey's injury potential extends beyond the usual buyer-beware reservations when shopping for high-end pitching lies in the contract's conditional club option for 2015. After they pay him $82.8 million the next five seasons, the Red Sox get a sixth year of Lackey at the league minimum salary if he undergoes Tommy John surgery during the course of the contract.

If that seems extreme, consider Lackey's first start in '09 was on May 16, after he'd recovered from elbow inflammation supposedly related to a forearm strain. In '08, he began the season on May 14 after nursing a strained triceps for two months.

Lackey is crucial to the Red Sox in a lot of ways, beginning with the way he pitches with an ace's assertiveness, just as Josh Beckett(notes) and Jon Lester(notes) do. The AL East won't scare him and neither will the Yankees and neither will October.

But spring training might.

• Miggy's wagon

What a nice thing it would be if Miguel Cabrera(notes) were to keep putting days between himself and his drinking addiction. In a small way, it also would allow the Detroit Tigers to put a little more hope between themselves and the final week of '09.

This was a particularly hard-to-watch unraveling; the ballclub tanked and the star player turned up drunk and the stench followed them both into a gloomy offseason. The Tigers led the AL Central by three games with four games to play, gave it up and then gave it away in a fifth game, No. 163 overall. Cabrera, who partied well into the final weekend, happened to be the face of that failure. The scratched, swollen and shamed face of that failure.

So arrives spring in Lakeland. Cabrera says he feels like a new man. The old one was one of the five best hitters in the game. Sodden by booze, he put together six consecutive seasons of 100-plus RBIs, five of them with 33-plus home runs. He played every day. And, as it turned out, many nights, at least one well into morning.

His regimen now is to make believers of the organization, his teammates and their fans again, but first to make a believer of himself. In a camp that could use comebacks by Dontrelle Willis(notes) and Joel Zumaya(notes), among others, none is more mission critical than Cabrera's.

• Hey, to Z

Nine years ago, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games and a division title and while 2001 didn't end exactly as they'd hoped (out in five to the Yankees in the ALCS), there certainly was promise for the coming decade.

Didn't happen.

The Mariners finished second (in the four-team West) a couple times, but otherwise they've spent more time compiling lists of general manager and field manager candidates than pushing a consistent, smart agenda that might actually overtake the Angels on the field.

Jack Zduriencik has set about changing all that, the operative word being "change." The first-time GM cleaned up after Billy Bavasi, hired Don Wakamatsu as manager, reworked a flabby and overpaid roster, dumped some, took a risk or two and even pillaged the Angels themselves. He stands today with a fighting chance in a division that has seen recent improvement in Seattle, Oakland and Texas, along with possible decline in Anaheim, meaning this could be a four-horse race into September.

In a dramatic winter, the man they call "Z" jumped trades and took on productive free agents, maneuvering where he could to continue the club's trend toward defense and pitching and putting athletes where plodders once lay. That means Cliff Lee(notes) near – or at – the top of the rotation, Chone Figgins(notes) at third, Milton Bradley(notes) at left and DH, Casey Kotchman(notes) at first and a lot of believers in the stands.

A decade later, it gets interesting in Seattle again.

• Honorable mention

Chicago White Sox: From Alex Rios(notes) to Juan Pierre(notes), Carlos Quentin(notes) to Andruw Jones(notes), Jake Peavy(notes) to Bobby Jenks(notes), everybody's got something to prove.

Los Angeles Angels: They strip off organizational personalities Vladimir Guerrero(notes), Chone Figgins and John Lackey, throw on a coat of Hideki Matsui(notes), Brandon Wood(notes) and Joel Pineiro(notes).

Oakland Athletics: Ben Sheets(notes), Justin Duchscherer(notes) start over.

Tampa Bay Rays: Suddenly, they have 19 games to make up in the East. Hello, David Price(notes), Wade Davis(notes) and a healthy B.J. Upton(notes).

Kansas City Royals: This was supposed to go a lot better. When do Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman start turning things again? Is Alex Gordon(notes) going to help?

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