American League East
1) Yankees: It’s hard to pick the Yankees anywhere except first. They won 101 games last year, and their biggest question mark was starting pitching. What does Brian Cashman (with Steiny’s checkbook) go out and do? Claim he’s not in it for Randy Johnson, then sign Big Unit. Along the way, he nabbed Carl Pavano — a pedestrian 58-57 for his career, but an 18-game-winner last year — and Jaret Wright, who has necessary postseason experience.
Their lineup barely changed, however, and features some of the most complete hitters in the game. There’s always the argument of whether A-Rod and Jeter will completely blow up at each other this season, but Joe Torre – whose own tenure in the Bronx is winding down — is a master at managing situations such as that. The Yankees will make the playoffs, almost without a doubt. The question for this team isn’t the AL East. They were built to win the World Series – but can they? If you’re scoring at home, the last one was in 2000.
2) Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox and Yankees will grab almost every baseball headline this season, especially within their own division, beginning with their season-opening series in Beantown. After eight decades of saying “Wait ‘Til Next Year,” you have to wonder what the Red Sox are going to do this year. Will there be an inevitable letdown? A sophomore slump?
The team defines chemistry, similar to another New England sports franchise, and adding the “C” to Jason Varitek’s uniform only helped. The lineup is solid up and down, anchored by Manny and David Ortiz, but now buffered by Edgar Renteria, who played against the Sox in the Fall Classic last year.
The biggest question mark here is their rotation. Pedro’s gone, Schilling’s older (but still a workhorse), and the other guys are even bigger question marks — Matt Clement, an aging and perennially unhealthy David Wells, and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield round it out with emerging star Broson Arroyo. The acquisition of underachieving Wade Miller from the Astros could either be the sleeper move of this off-season, or something that no one ever discusses again.
If everyone in Boston’s rotation pitches to their potential for the entire season, the front five could win 12 games or more each. In reality, though, the Sox might miss Derek Lowe more than they expected, but I’ll be honest — on sheer teamwork and passion alone, they might be able to take the Yankees in another seven-game ALCS.
3) Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles were on the list of teams that every free agent visited this off-season. With about seven days until pitchers and catchers, co-GMs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan were catching heat all over the sports world for their abrasiveness and unwillingness to work on deals. Then, they landed Sammy Sosa, one of the most prolific home run hitters of the past two decades
Sosa complements an offense already featuring Javier Lopez, former MVP Miguel Tejada, and 500-homer man Rafael Palmeiro, as well as emerging sensation Melvin Mora, who might be the most complete player in baseball who almost never grabs media attention. Sosa’s already been ejected from a spring training game, and claimed that “all the people here love me,” so the marriage between slugger and city might be a bit temperamental. The Orioles have pop, and lots of it — Baltimore is a good bet to top Cleveland’s 2004 AL-leading 6.1 runs per game this year.
And they’re gonna need it, because their rotation and bullpen might give up 10 runs per nine. Sidney Ponson is the closest thing the O’s have to a “household name” in the rotation, and that’s a stretch — he’s inconsistent in all aspects. Rodrigo Lopez has some good stuff, but he had a shaky 2004 and bounced in and out of the rotation. Honestly, Baltimore might be a great team to watch some nights, but they would have been better off landing Pavano (who apparently made two visits) than Sosa.
4) Toronto Blue Jays: GM J.P. Riccardi, a Billy Beane protégé in Oakland, has been given a spending green light never previously afforded to him after the Jays’ purchase of SkyDome. If nothing else, this means Riccardi will be a player at the trading deadline if Toronto’s hanging around anywhere near the AL wild card.
The Jays are inconsistent, but Vernon Wells should return to All-Star form, and Orlando Hudson has become a key contributor in the middle infield and bottom half of the lineup. Corey Koskie — who I once owned for three consecutive fantasy baseball seasons — might provide some homers, and Roy Halladay, one year removed from the AL Cy Young, should become a workhorse again. They have Gregg Zaun behind the dish, who handles staffs ably and has a good deal of playoff experience.
On sheer talent alone, you should rank the Jays ahead of the D-Rays, and giving Riccardi the ability to spend might finally get them to second or third in this division within the next three years. As some are quick to point out, the 1-5 order of finish in the AL East hasn’t changed at all since Tampa Bay broke into the league.
5) Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Before you completely dismiss Tampa Bay, stop for a second. The team has some excellent young talent in All-Star Carl Crawford, corner infielders B.J. Upton and Aubrey Huff, and outfielders Rocco Baldelli and Joey Gathright. The problem is, they play in a division occupied by baseball’s two most powerful teams, and regularly get knocked around by them.
Oh yes, and their rotation is awful. Scott Kazimir will probably establish himself as the ace this year, after being the most-said name on NYC sports radio for the past 15 months. But have you ever heard of Dewon Brazelton, Rob Bell, or Doug Wachter? I didn’t think so. Robbie Alomar claims that in his 17 years of baseball, this is “the best group of arms” he’s ever seen. We’re not entirely sure what Alomar is smoking, but we figure he was on the same stuff when he hocked a loogie in John Hirschbeck’s face a few years ago.
The buzz on Brazelton in spring training has been good, but the buzz is coming exclusively from Tampa’s staff. It’s hard to imagine him hanging with Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling in a big-game situation. Tampa’s farm system is deep, but their ownership is limiting, and it’s going to be a few years before they finally emerge from fifth in the East.
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