|With BC-BBA--AL Preview Capsules|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 21 March 2008 18:02|
Suddenly, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox don't look as imposing.
That hardly means they lack the goods to repeat, something no major league team has done since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees. But the Red Sox figure to face as many roadblocks as a Boston fan driving down Brookline Avenue on game day.
Five or six teams in the rugged American League appear loaded with enough talent to win it all after a busy offseason.
Detroit geared up with a blockbuster deal for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Seattle added Erik Bedard to an improved rotation, while the Los Angeles Angels splurged on Torii Hunter.
And don't forget the Indians and Yankees, who put their faith in young pitching.
One thing's for sure: Someone is going to feel left out in October.
``It's just a really good league,'' Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. ``There's a lot of potential forces out there.''
Beckett, the postseason power who was baseball's only 20-game winner last year, stayed behind in Florida when the Red Sox traveled overseas. They open the major league regular season Tuesday against the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo, with Japanese icon Daisuke Matsuzaka scheduled to pitch.
Boston expects Beckett to return quickly from his injury, an important issue as the club chases its third championship in five seasons following an 86-year drought.
Every key player from 2007 is back, including two who could have departed: World Series MVP Mike Lowell and the 41-year-old Schilling, also a postseason star.
Beckett's absence creates room in the rotation for touted youngsters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Bartolo Colon was signed as an insurance policy.
New York won nine consecutive AL East titles before Boston finished first last season. And the Red Sox did repeat as Series champs once - with Babe Ruth on the mound in 1916.
``This is the first year since I've been here in five years that we're not the team to beat and I think it's a good position to be in,'' said Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, coming off his third AL MVP.
Senior vice president Hank Steinbrenner disagrees.
``We'd rather be Darth Vader. Let them be the underdog,'' he said.
New York had a wild winter heading into its final season at storied Yankee Stadium. The Bronx Bombers, moving in 2009 into an expensive new ballpark being built across the street, retained all their key free agents but said goodbye to a popular manager.
After guiding the Yankees to playoff berths in all 12 seasons at the helm, Joe Torre walked away when the team offered him just a one-year contract with a pay cut. He hooked on with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was replaced by former bench coach Joe Girardi.
Over in the Central, Cleveland is led by potential MVP Grady Sizemore and 2007 Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia, who is eligible for free agency after this season.
The Indians matched Boston for baseball's best record last year and had the Red Sox down 3-1 in the AL championship series before losing three straight. Cleveland is still seeking its first title since 1948.
``We're not going to sneak up on anybody, that's for sure,'' Sabathia said. ``We're going to have to go out and earn it. We'll grind it out, look up every now and again to see where we're at, and keep grinding.''
They'll have their hands full trying to hold off the Tigers, who also traded for shortstop Edgar Renteria and boast seven All-Stars in a fearsome lineup.
``It's like a dream team,'' Renteria said.
Justin Verlander leads a balanced rotation, but two key relievers are hurt. Jim Leyland's bunch made a surprising run to the 2006 World Series and certainly could get back.
``A lot of people are saying a lot of nice things about us, but if we don't do anything, they'll say a lot of bad things about us,'' the manager predicted.
It's probably a two-team race out West between Los Angeles and Seattle.
The Angels own a deep roster and three of the past four division titles, but their top two starting pitchers are likely to begin the season on the disabled list: John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar.
Ichiro Suzuki and the Mariners might have one of the best rotations around with Bedard, Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Carlos Silva. J.J. Putz is a dominant closer, too.
``We know the Angels are the team to beat. And I think the Angels know we've got a really talented ballclub,'' Seattle manager John McLaren said. ``I really like our chances. We are getting better and better.''
Of course, a couple of wild cards could potentially affect the pennant race. Anyone want Barry Bonds as a designated hitter or Roger Clemens for half a season?
A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:
New York Yankees
With Chien-Ming Wang as a No. 1 starter, however, whether the Yankees can finally win a postseason series is a different matter. They've been eliminated in the first round three straight times.
The league-leading offense returns intact, but another reliable reliever would help. Success depends largely on young pitchers Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, who is back in the bullpen to set up Mariano Rivera. Keep an eye on Andy Pettitte, determined to stay focused on the field despite his role in Clemens' steroid scandal.
Boston Red Sox
Maybe the Red Sox will be the team that gets off to a tough start this time. The rotation is banged up and they've got a long journey that takes them from Florida to Japan to California to Toronto before their April 8 home opener against Detroit.
Boston still has a deep squad with a solid bullpen and talented prospects ready to emerge, including center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez anchor the lineup again, the game's most formidable 1-2 punch. Does a wild-card berth warrant an Irish jig by closer Jonathan Papelbon? It'd be hard to pick against Boston in any playoff series, as long as Beckett is healthy.
Toronto Blue Jays
Forever chasing the two big spenders in the AL East, Toronto retooled the left side of its infield with third baseman Scott Rolen and gritty shortstop David Eckstein. What this team needs most, however, are bounce-back years from Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay.
Led by ace Roy Halladay, the pitching staff was better than many realized last season. The Blue Jays had a 4.00 ERA, second in the league to Boston (3.87). Toronto closer B.J. Ryan is returning from elbow surgery, one of several key injuries that derailed the club in 2007. This team looks pretty good, but probably not good enough to keep up with the AL juggernauts.
Tampa Bay Rays
After dropping the ``Devil'' from its nickname, Tampa Bay has a good chance to climb out of the AL East cellar thanks to a rich farm system that's beginning to bear fruit.
The offense features Carlos Pena (46 homers and 121 RBIs in a breakout season), B.J. Upton and All-Star Carl Crawford. The Rays traded AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Delmon Young to Minnesota in a deal that landed them young starting pitcher Matt Garza. His development will be important to the franchise's future.
James Shields is slated to start on opening day because of Scott Kazmir's elbow strain, which could be a concern. Watch for touted third-base prospect Evan Longoria, who is on the way.
The rebuilding Orioles traded Bedard and star shortstop Miguel Tejada in the offseason, hoping to stockpile prospects that will pay off down the road.
Center fielder Adam Jones was the centerpiece of the Bedard deal with Seattle. The Orioles also acquired George Sherrill, a former lefty specialist who takes over as closer. Once a proud franchise, Baltimore appears headed to a club-record 11th straight losing season.
Detroit made a huge splash by acquiring Cabrera and Willis from Florida for six players, including two top prospects: lefty Andrew Miller and center fielder Cameron Maybin. The Tigers also struck deals for Renteria and new left fielder Jacque Jones. Now, they look capable of scoring 1,000 runs - maybe more.
Pitching is the question mark. Verlander is a Cy Young Award candidate and the rotation behind him is capable, but not a sure thing. Kenny Rogers is 43, Jeremy Bonderman is inconsistent and Willis is coming off a down season with the Marlins.
The bullpen is the biggest area of concern. Hard-throwing setup man Joel Zumaya is out for at least half the season and Fernando Rodney will begin the year on the DL, both because of shoulder injuries. Still, the Tigers might just hit enough to overtake Cleveland.
The Indians made few notable changes after coming so close to a pennant. Now, they need to get past the pain of last October.
Sabathia and Fausto Carmona give this team quite a tandem at the top of the rotation. The bullpen was a quiet strength last season, with super setup man Rafael Betancourt and lefty Rafael Perez. This year, the unit adds Masa Kobayashi, who came over from Japan. The Indians could use bounce-back years from slugger Travis Hafner and pitcher Jake Westbrook.
Chicago White Sox
One of baseball's biggest disappointments a year ago, the White Sox ranked last in the AL in runs (693) and 12th in ERA (4.77). No wonder they finished 72-90 after going 90-72 in 2006.
Several sluggers with big league track records slumped at the plate, including Jermaine Dye. Was it just a one-year slip or the start of a decline? There's still power in the middle of the lineup with Jim Thome and Paul Konerko. Chicago traded pitcher Jon Garland to the Angels for Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and acquired outfielder Nick Swisher from Oakland. Those two should help.
The White Sox also think they improved a miserable bullpen by adding Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel. That remains to be seen. Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle lead a questionable rotation.
Outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen expects his team to rebound. The White Sox might have enough to pass Minnesota in this division, but it's hard to imagine them challenging Cleveland and Detroit.
Francisco Liriano, an All-Star in 2006, returns from elbow surgery. It will be interesting to see how effective he is. There's a hole in center field after Hunter's departure, with three youngsters trying for the job. The lineup still includes Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer. Elite closer Joe Nathan enters the final year of his contract.
Kansas City Royals
This team finally appears headed in the right direction. Trey Hillman takes over as manager after a successful stint in Japan, and several young players showed promise last season.
A maturing Zack Greinke could be the key to the rotation, paced by Gil Meche and Brian Bannister. Both are coming off strong seasons. Meche, however, got little run support.
Jose Guillen was signed to provide much-needed pop on offense. He got a $36 million, three-year contract that raised eyebrows. He also has appealed a 15-day steroids suspension.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels signed Hunter to a $90 million, five-year contract, giving them a perennial Gold Glove winner in center field. He'll bat in the middle of a versatile lineup that also includes Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson and speedy Chone Figgins.
The Angels have long relied on fine pitching and an excellent bullpen, but the arm injuries to Lackey and Escobar are a big concern. Lackey was 19-9 with an AL-leading 3.01 ERA in 224 innings last season. Escobar went 18-7 with a 3.40 ERA.
Lackey is expected to miss at least the first month with a strained right triceps. There's no timetable for Escobar's return from a sore shoulder. That will test the team's enviable depth.
Banking on a promising pitching staff, the Mariners are looking for their first trip to the playoffs since 2001.
Bedard has nasty stuff, but still needs to prove his durability. Suzuki was hitless in his first 21 spring training at-bats, but don't expect any carry-over for a guy with a .333 career batting average and more than 200 hits in each of his seven major league seasons.
This team plays solid defense. Richie Sexson could be the key to the offense after slumping to .205 with 21 homers and 63 RBIs last year. The setup situation in the bullpen is uncertain. But if Felix Hernandez has the huge season everyone's been waiting for, the Mariners could be tough to beat.
Looking to escape the AL West basement, Texas still has plenty of question marks.
The shaky pitching staff is relying on starters Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. Brandon McCarthy is already hurt, and Dallas native Jason Jennings hopes to rebound from an awful season with Houston.
The Rangers signed hot-tempered Milton Bradley and acquired Josh Hamilton from Cincinnati to play center field. Hamilton was the top pick in the 1999 draft before his career was derailed by drug and alcohol abuse. He looked great at the plate this spring.
Texas played better down the stretch last season, even after trading several key veterans.
Not far removed from a trip to the 2006 ALCS, Oakland is rebuilding under general manager Billy Beane. He traded Swisher and ace Dan Haren for a bevy of prospects this offseason, and pitcher Joe Blanton could be next.
Several of the established big leaguers who are still around are injury-prone: Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, Rich Harden. Add new DH Mike Sweeney to that list, too.
Chavez didn't make the trip to Japan because he's still rehabbing from back surgery. Justin Duchscherer switches from the bullpen to a starting role.
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports Writers Howard Ulman, Tom Withers, Larry Lage and Gregg Bell contributed to this report.