The long winter is beginning to recede and spring is in the air.
The crack of the bats in spring training is underway in Florida and Arizona. There were more offseason moves in baseball than in any other sport. The last two World Series champions have come out of nowhere, with the Angels a 50-1 shot two years ago and the Marlins 80-1 last spring.
This week I’ll take a look at some of the top teams from the American League and next week I’ll examine the NL hopefuls.
Oakland (96-66 in ’03): Small market teams have trouble staying competitive for long stretches, but the A’s are trying to keep it rolling one more year. They lost SS Miguel Tejada, LF Jose Guillen and ace closer Keith Foulke. Fortunately, they still are loaded where it counts most: Starting pitching. Lefty Barry Zito (14-12, 3.30 ERA, 231 IP), Mark Mulder (15-9, 3.13) and Tim Hudson (16-7, 2.70, 240 IP) round out the best troika in baseball.
If the A’s had Mulder and Hudson healthy for the playoffs, they might have made a run at the World Series. Young Rich Harden pitched well after coming up from the minors and Oakland added veteran lefty Marc Redman (14-9) from the champion Marlins. The offense has a new leadoff hitter in CF Mark Kotsay, acquired from San Diego. Oakland also hopes RF Jermaine Dye bounces back from injuries. The pitching makes the A’s a threat even if the offense has diminished.
Seattle (93-69): Last roundup for the ancient Mariners? This team has won 116, 93 and 93 games the past three years. DH Edgar Martinez (.294, 24 HRs) is 41, 1B John Olerud is 35, and 42-year old lefty Jamie Moyer (21-7 in 2003) will start opening day. Still, this is a talented team, and they’re not all old Mariners. RF Ichiro Suzuki (.312, 34 steals, 111 runs) is a terrific all-around player, while Olerud and 2B Bret Boone (.294, 35 HRs, 117 RBI) anchor the best defensive infield in the AL West. Newcomers 3B Scott Spiezio (Angels) and SS Rich Aurilia (Giants) are key upgrades.
Outside of Moyer, the pitching staff is young and deep. Right-hander Joel Piniero (16-11, 3.78 ERA, 211 IP) is a budding ace at 25, while Gil Meche (15-13) and Freddy Garcia are solid. The bullpen has great depth with Shigetoshi Hasegawa (1.48 ERA, 16 saves), Julio Mateo (4-0, 85 IP) and 24-year old Rafael Soriano (53 IP, 30 hits, 1.53 ERA). Adding ace closer Eddie Guardado (41 saves) from Minnesota rounds out this new-and-improved team.
Anaheim (77-85): One-year wonders? Yes, they were. The Angels slipped from 99 wins and a World Series to 77 wins in 2003. However, ownership went shopping and added a ton of top talent in pitcher Bartolo Colon, RF Vladimir Guerrero and LF Jose Guillen. The outfield looks like the best in baseball, with Guerrero and Guillen joining CF Garrett Anderson (.315, 29 HRs, 49 doubles, 116 RBI). In Las Vegas, the "over/under" for wins by the Angels is 91.
A deep bullpen was the key to Anaheim’s World Series title. They look dominant again, with hard-throwing Troy Percival (33 saves), Brandon Donnelly (1.58 ERA, 74 IP), Ben Weber and 22-year old Francisco Rodriguez (8-3, 3.02 ERA). Rodriguez allowed just 50 hits in 86 innings last season! Newcomers Colon (15-13, 3.87 ERA, 223 IP with the White Sox) and Kelvim Escobar (4.29 ERA, 13-9, with Toronto) will help to take the pressure off starters Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey. The strong offense/bullpen formula worked for the Cincinnati Reds championship teams of 1975, 1976 and 1990 and the Angels in 2002.
Boston (95-67): Is this the year? The truth is, last season should have been the year! The Cubs/Red Sox World Series matchup that America wanted last October went up in smoke in a pair of colossal collapses. The Cubs blew a 3-1 series lead to the Marlins, while the Red Sox suffered a late-inning meltdown in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. New manager Terry Francona takes over and inherits a talented veteran team that has a lot of unsigned stars, so this appears to be the last roundup for this Red Sox group.
Offense won’t be a problem, with sluggers SS Nomar Garciaparra (28 HRs, 13 triples), LF Manny Ramirez (.325, 37 HRs), C Jason Varitek (25 HRs), RF Trot Nixon (28 HRs), batting champ 3B Bill Mueller (.326, 45 doubles) and 1B David Ortiz (31 HRs, 101 RBI). Boston added Ellis Burks and improved the infield defense considerably with 2B Pokey Reese. The Sox rolled the dice by bringing in ace Curt Schilling from Arizona and closer Keith Foulke (43 saves) from Oakland. Schilling combines with 32-year old Pedro Martinez (14-4, 2.22), Derek Lowe (17-7) and Tim Wakefield to form a solid rotation.
New York (101-61): The Yankees are in a league of their own. The Bronx Bombers have the most terrifying offense the baseball world has seen in many a season. Newcomer CF Kenny Lofton and SS Derek Jeter (.324) will set the table for sluggers Bernie Williams, C Jorge Posada (28 HRs, 103 RBI), 1B Jason Giambi (41 HRs) and OF Hideki Matsui (.287, 42 doubles). Throw in offseason acquisitions RF Gary Sheffield (.330, 37 HRs, 130 RBI with the Braves) along with MVP 3B Alex Rodriguez (47 HRs, 118 RBI) and you’re looking at an offense for the ages.
The key will be a revamped pitching staff. Gone are starters Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells. The rotation still has Mike Mussina (17-8, 3.40, 214 IP), but four new starters step in. The Yanks added 27-year old Javier Vazquez (13-12, 241 Ks with Montreal), past Cy Young winner Kevin Brown (Dodgers). New York will also work in Jose Contreras and oft-injured lefty Donovan Osborne. New York has some age and has to beware of wear and tear. The middle relief was poor last season, so the hope is a healthy Steve Karsay and Paul Quantrill can assist ace closer Mariano Rivera.