Eight AL teams look to be contenders

March 27, 2001 7:07 AM
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Baseball season is just around the corner. It seems more teams are ready to challenge for a playoff spot in the American League than any time since the last work stoppage.

The Yankees and Indians have dominated the league since 1994, but neither might make the post-season this year. As many as eight Junior Circuit squads entertain realistic October dreams. The key, of course, will be pitching. In the A.L., teams are going to score runs, 10 teams scored more than 800 last year, but the contenders have the ability to get big outs when they need them.

The Yankees, while not without fault, are still the best team on paper. That’s because no team, including the Braves, can match New York’s starting pitching. The addition of Mike Mussina gives the Yankees four aces, provided Orlando Hernandez can bounce back from a poor 2000 and an injury-plagued spring. Roger Clemens returned to his dominating self last season. He’s been strong in the spring so far. Andy Pettitte very quietly went 19-9 last year.

The fifth spot in the rotation is a question mark, but if the top four stay healthy, it shouldn’t matter. In the pen, New York lost valuable setup man Jeff Nelson, and didn’t really replace him. They hope Ramiro Mendoza can stay healthy and, along with lefty Mike Stanton, provide reliable relief before Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball.

The Red Sox are viewed as the Yankees’ main competition in the East. They have the best pitcher in baseball (maybe ever) in Pedro Martinez, and led the league in team ERA last year. Martinez started just 29 games last year. With his slight build, he can’t be expected to make 33 starts like a customary No. 1 starter would. But Boston has one of the best bullpens in the game with sinkerball closer Derek Lowe, along with Rich Garces and Rod Beck. They also have a number of starters.

Free agent pickups Hideo Nomo and Frank Castillo will be slotted behind Martinez. Both were solid last year. Youngsters like Tomo Ohka and Paxton Crawford, as well as veterans Bret Saberhagen and David Cone, will fill out the rotation.

North of the border, the Blue Jays look like a contender, at least offensively. But on the mound, they lost Castillo, who went 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA, to Boston. Then they traded David Wells and got back the injured Mike Sirotka. They also picked up 17-game loser Steve Parris from the Reds. Toronto obviously hopes their improvement will come from within. Prospects like Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and Kelvim Escobar, once highly touted, must come back from awful performances in 2000 if the Blue Jays are to improve on their 83 wins.

Without Sirotka, the rotation is full of fourth and fifth starters, unless Carpenter or Halladay can rebound. They will have Esteban Loaiza in the rotation all year, and hope Joey Hamilton, once a 15-game winner in San Diego, can pitch a full season after suffering through injuries the last two seasons. Outside of closer Billy Koch, who can hit triple digits on the radar gun, the bullpen is average. But Escobar, who’s a hard thrower and pitched well in relief last year, will be his primary setup man, and could be very good.

The scourge of the Blue Jays’ off-season, David Wells, will be toiling in the Windy City with the defending AL Central Champion White Sox. Wells gives them a true No. 1 starter, as well as a ton of innings. Unfortunately, he finished poorly last year, going 5-6 with a 4.97 ERA after the All-Star break, after a 15-2 first half with a 3.44 ERA. He’s 38 years old and has thrown more than 200 innings in each of the last six seasons.

James Baldwin also had a great first half, but injuries forced him to miss much of the second half. His effectiveness was very limited. He’s expected to join the rotation in late April. Jim Parque is a good, young, left-handed starter. If Cal Eldred can also stay healthy, he can be very effective. The bullpen is strong, with closer Keith Foulke and setup men Kelly Wunsch and newly acquired Antonio Osuna.

The Indians missed the playoffs last year, despite winning 90 games. They used 32 pitchers last year, an incredible number, due to a combination of trades and injuries. But the ingredients are there for a quality staff this season. They have a very good top of the rotation, with veteran Chuck Finley, hard-throwing stud Bartolo Colon and Dave Burba. Burba tied Finley for the team lead with 16 wins. Colon contributed a 15-8 record, while striking out 212 in 188 innings.

Cleveland has been hampered by injuries to Charles Nagy and Jared Wright, although both will see time in the rotation at some point this year. The bullpen is good and deep, with Bob Wickman, Paul Shuey, Ricky Rincon and Steve Karsay, if Karsay doesn’t make it as a starter.

Out West, all four teams should be competitive, but the Angels and Rangers don’t have the same kind of quality on the mound as the Mariners and A’s do. Seattle will benefit from a full season from Freddy Garcia, and a staff that’s 11 or 12 deep. They’ll need it. They may have the weakest offense in the AL. The A’s are very young on the hill, with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder heading the rotation, but all of those guys have All-Star stuff. A bullpen with Jason Isringhausen, Jim Mecir and Jeff Tam is very formidable.