Baseball returns rich in problems

March 26, 2002 10:33 AM
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Baseball is back and so are its problems.

The economic conditions of America’s pastime have, sadly, made things very predictable. The Major Leagues possess a few haves and whole bunch of have-nots who have little chance of making the post-­­season, let alone grabbing a World Series ring.

So you’re not likely to see baseball teams do what the Rams, Ravens and Patriots have done the last three seasons in the NFL ”” come out of nowhere to win the championship.

The Arizona Diamondbacks made a surprising run to win the World Series last October, but remember that the D-Backs won 100, 82 and 92 games from 1999-2001, so it was not exactly a worst-to-first story.

A high payroll alone doesn’t guarantee success, or course, as we’ve seen with Baltimore, Boston, Colorado and Los Angeles in recent years. But it’s also true that the almighty dollar is an enormous factor in getting teams to the playoffs. We saw this with small-market surprise Minnesota last season, as the Twins didn’t have the cash to pick up one or two sluggers last July, which is all they needed to make a serious run. All they could do to improve the team was to trade a good hitter for”¦ Rick Reed. Not exactly a pennant-clinching deal.

There are too many dollar-strapped teams and only a handful of clubs that have the proper balance of talent and cash to compete. Let’s take a look at the few American League teams that do have a chance to win the pennant.

The AL in 2002 is as simple as that car commercial slogan a few years ago: “There are the Yankees, and not exactly.”

New York: The Bronx Bombers are again the team to beat. New York has won four of the last six World Series and five of the last six AL pennants. They are loaded with talent, have an intelligent front office, and all the cash on hand to get whomever they want. That is a deadly combination and only injuries will derail them from playing in late October. The pitching staff is stocked with Roger Clemens (20-3, 3.51 ERA), Andy Pettitte (15-10, 3.99), Mike Mussina (17-11, 3.15), Sterling Hitchcock and El Duque Hernandez. Age and injuries are a concern, but there is pitching depth that was lacking a year ago with a healthy Ramiro Mendoza and former Yankee hero David Wells. Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera (50 saves) are dynamite relief pitchers, but it was the off-season acquisition of Steve Karsay that makes this bullpen even better. Karsay throws 100 MPH and is one of the best middle relievers in the game. His acquisition didn’t receive a lot of attention, but it was a key coup.

The offense is anchored by three potential Hall-of-Famers in SS Derek Jeter, CF Bernie Williams and catcher Jorge Posada (22 HRs, 95 RBI in a breakout season), all in their prime. All of those players are home grown, which is the first step to building a champion. 1B Jason Giambi, the 2000 AL MVP, was added as a free agent and he is off a monster season with Oakland: .342, 38 HRs, 47 doubles, 120 RBI, 109 runs and 129 walks. 2B Alfonso Soriano (18 HRs, 43 steals) combines with Jeter to form a deadly infield defensive punch. With plenty of cash left over, the front office added Rondell White, John Vander Wal and 3B Robin Ventura. Throw in highly-heralded 1B Nick Johnson, and there is little to stop this team. Baseball has not seen four 20-game winners on one staff since the 1970 Orioles, but the Yankees seem to have the pieces in place to make a run at it.

Seattle: The Mariners have the best shot in the AL to top New York. The Mariners won 116 games last year and the only significant loss was pitcher Aaron Sele (15-5, 215 IP). Manager Lou Piniella’s squad is loaded with speed, defense and pitching, particularly in the bullpen. The Mariners have speed to burn in AL-MVP Ichiro Suzuki (.350, 56 steals), CF Mike Cameron (34 steals, 25 HRs), and Mark McLemore (39 steals). 2B Brett Boone is a great defensive player and put up MVP numbers (37 homers, 141 RBI), while veterans Edgar Martinez (94 walks) and John Olerud (93 walks) both hit over .300 and burn out opposing pitchers with their patience at the plate. Seattle added 3B Jeff Cirillo from Colorado, a strong all-around player, and features great defense and pitching depth.

Texas: The Rangers will be very intriguing, with potentially baseball’s most explosive offense in Pudge Rodriguez (25 HRs), Alex Rodriguez (52 HRs), Rafael Palmeiro (47 HRs), Rusty Greer, Gabe Kapler (17 HRs), Frank Catalanotto (.330) along with newcomers Juan Gonzalez (35 HRs with Cleveland) and Carl Everett. Their pitching is still a weak spot, but the addition of Chan Ho Park was a great move giving this team a much-needed ace. Park has electric stuff (a 96 MPH fastball and a biting forkball). He could win 20 games, and if that offense bangs out 6-7 runs per game, maybe  a run at 30.

Oakland: The Athletics won 102 games last season and have a deadly young starting rotation with Tim Hudson (18-9, 3.37), Mark Mulder (21-8, 3.45), Barry Zito (17-8, 3.49) and Cory Lidle (13-6, 3.59). The A’s have a strong farm system and managed to keep their four ace pitchers, but they didn’t have the bucks to hold onto three key contributors in Jason Giambi, CF Johnny ­­Damon and closer Jason Isringhausen. That is a major loss of talent. The A’s will be in the running for a post-season slot, but approaching 102 wins again seems a stretch.

Boston: The Red Sox have lacked health and conformity the last two seasons, which has prevented them from returning to their Wild Card teams of 1998-99. They’re certainly due for some good health and the front office is more stable with new ownership and the firing of GM Dan Duquette last month. New skipper Grady Little was brought in and supplied with several talented weapons in Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and newcomer Johnny Damon. Most of these stars missed significant time with injuries last season, second and third base is a major weakness and the pitching staff is thin beyond Pedro. Newcomers Dustin Herkett are coming off strong seasons, but tiny Fenway Park is not friendly to pitchers with marginal ability, and Hermanson and the 38-year old Burkett spent last year in good pitcher’s parks (St. Louis and Atlanta) with better defense behind them than Boston currently has.

Those three teams have weaknesses and need for things to break right, but remember, a year ago Arizona was a 7-1 shot to win the World Series while Barry Bonds was 7-1 to win the home run title. Next week we’ll take a look at the more wide-open NL.