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AL East: George pays for pennant

Feb 25, 2003 4:40 AM

The American League East always seems to come down to what George Steinbrenner has up his sleeves. The Boss has been busy, which generally is bad sign for the rest of the division. Sushi, anyone?

NY YANKEES (103-58): Baseball is going to have a hard time crying poverty when the Yankees spend enough to bring Japan’s best player and Cuba’s top pitcher into the fold.

Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras will add plenty of excitement to the Bronx Zoo when George quits knocking Derek Jeter’s private life. The Boss probably lashed out on the Golden Boy’s late-morning birthday celebration because he’s angry about not making the World Series the past two years.

On paper, the Yanks are awesome. Just look at this rotation ”” Clemens, Mussina, Contreras, Wells, Pettitte, Jon Lieber (from the Cubs). Jeff Weaver, the No. 1 pitcher at Detroit last year, is relegated to the bullpen! So is Sterling Hitchcock. Chris Hammond and Steve Karsay provide great support for closer Mariano Rivera, tops in the business when healthy.

Offensively, Matsui and his 40 to 50-homer potential would fit in nicely with Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Robin Ventura and Alfonso Soriano. Age could be a problem, after all Clemens is 40 and Wells right there.

If something goes wrong, George will have a tantrum and buy a solution. It’s hard to bet against another 100 win season and division title.

TORONTO (78-84): The Jays finished third in the division last year and, to us, have more on the plate than Boston.

Carlos Tosca did a nice job as a rookie manager and his players have a one year comfort zone. In other words, better karma this season. Carlos Delgado has 50-homer, 140-RBI credentials, but always falls into a rut. That needs to end. Delgado has plenty of offensive weapons in Jayson Werth (18 homers, 24 steals), Vernon Wells (100 RBI) and Rookie of the Year Chris Hinske.

Roy Halladay won 19 games and finally rewarded all his supporters, who stuck with him through several demotions to the minors. Toronto added Cory Lidle from Oakland and Tanyon Sturtze from Tampa Bay. Sturtze was roughed up a lot with the D-Rays, but has a big-time arm and could have a career year with far better offensive support.

The Blue Jays have a great minor league systeam, especially in the young pitching arms. If Tosca gets his guys off to a fast start, the Yanks will have some worries for a while.

BOSTON (93-69): It’s easy to see why the "Sax" hate the Yankees, but they didn’t like former GM Dan Duquette either.

And, their stud pitcher Pedro Martinez is already mandating major bucks or he’s out next season shopping. Boston’s ship is already sinking and it hasn’t even left the port.

The Sox must have a happy and healthy Pedro, a full year of Nomar Garciaparra and another solid season from right-hander Derek Lowe. Off-season acquisitions Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar should help, but are hardly the prime-time impact players the Yankees attract with the wallet.

Boston does have Fenway and its added seating above the Green "Monsta." But, patience is wearing really thin,

David Ortiz arrives from Minnesota with New Englanders hopeful he becomes the George Scott of this generation. But, the Sox have been down that road before with Tony Clark. Ramiro Mendoza comes over from the Yanks and should bolster the pitching staff as either a starter or reliever.

Boston takes a step back this year, and probably loses Pedro in the process.

BALTIMORE (67-95): Just looking at last year, this once proud franchise just has to think things can only get better. So do we.

The improvement will be subtle, much the way the Angels exploded on the scene. We haven’t located rally monkeys, but the Birds have two potential All Star pitchers in Rodrigo Lopez (15-9, 3.57 ERA) and closer Jorge Julio 1.99 ERA, 31 saves).

Mike Hargrove is one of baseball’s most under-appreciated managers. "Grover" is a player’s guy and fits in perfectly with the blue-collar attitude of the city.

Offensively, the Birds received excellent power production from Tony Batista (31 HR), Jay Gibbons (28), and Melvin Mora (19), but have too many .240 hitters to do much better than .500.

TAMPA BAY (55-106): Lou Piniella left Seattle for this? Well, the Tampa-St. Pete area is a wonderful retirement spot.

The Devil Rays were the second worst team in the AL to bet on, dropping $2,495 for every $100 wager. They were 51 games under .500 last year.

Having Piniella should be worth four or five wins, but it’s going to be a case of more small ball and large losses at the window. Avoid all TB-Yanks matchups.

UPDATE: Placido Palanco is the new second baseman for Philadelphia. Palanco, replaces Marlon Anderson, who was dealt to Baltimore.