Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

American League Preview: Angels will struggle to repeat

Yankees, Twins, Athletics best bets to win divisions

March 30, 2003


Darin Erstad and the Anaheim Angels haven't even gotten their World Series rings yet, and they already know the skeptics doubt whether they can repeat as champions.

That shouldn't be surprising, considering the Angels had never won a playoff series before their shocking run through October last year, they play in baseball's toughest division, and they're competing in a league with the high-paid All-Star team known as the New York Yankees.

"I'm sure people don't think we'll be the team to beat," Erstad said. "The Yankees have the whole history and everything, while we did it just one year. But we feel like we can do it again."

Getting out of AL West could be a problem for Anaheim, which won the Series as a wild-card team last year.

Oakland has made three straight postseason appearances; Seattle's 209 wins the past two seasons are the most in baseball; and Texas is improved under new skipper Buck Showalter.

The Angels will try to repeat with essentially the same roster as last year -- backup outfielder Eric Owens is the most noteworthy addition.

"The fact that we will have a pennant flying over our stadium is a nice decoration to have," general manager Bill Stoneman said. "But what's important is what's ahead. We have to play well if we're going to have a shot to win our division."

The Athletics, led by aces Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, are the pick to repeat in the West, finally make it past the first round and all the way to the Series.

"We're tired of watching other people play later on in the year," Mulder said.

But if they don't get off to a good start, there's a chance they could trade MVP Miguel Tejada instead of losing him to free agency at the end of the season.

They'll also have to get by the Yankees and their nearly $150 million payroll. For the first time since 1998, the Yankees don't enter the season as defending AL champions after being eliminated in four games by Anaheim in the first round.

"It's something you should remember," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "You should remember how it feels when you lose. You should not want to experience that again."

New York will edge out Boston in the East, but the age of the pitching staff will catch up in October.

The Red Sox greatly improved their depth and will make it back to the playoffs as the wild-card team after falling short the past three years.

The Central will be a two-team race between Minnesota and the White Sox, who added 20-game winner Bartolo Colon. The Twins will edge out Chicago at the end.

A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:


New York Yankees

Led by 2B Alfonso Soriano (.300, 39, 102) and Jason Giambi (.314, 41, 122), the Yankees should have the best offense in the game no matter how well Matsui adjusts.

The potential problems for New York are on the deep pitching staff, with closer Mariano Rivera and setup man Steve Karsay starting the year with injuries. Despite an overabundance of starters, many of them come with questions.

Roger Clemens (13-6, 4.35) turns 41 in August and David Wells (19-7, 3.75) turns 40 in May. Mike Mussina (18-10, 4.05) was inconsistent last year, Andy Pettitte needs to stay healthy for the entire year, and Jeff Weaver has to show he can succeed in New York.

Juan Acevedo (28 saves for Detroit) proved to be a smart pickup and will close until Rivera returns from an injury.

Boston Red Sox

Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Damon provide as talented a core as any team in baseball.

Manager Grady Little is counting on Tim Wakefield (11-5, 2.81 ERA) to have another good season and LHP Casey Fossum (5-4, 3.46) to show why the Red Sox refused to give him up for Colon.

2B Todd Walker and 1B Jeremy Giambi bring more patience to the lineup.

The Red Sox will go without a traditional closer. Alan Embree, Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Timlin and Bob Howry will share the duties.

Toronto Blue Jays

The improving Blue Jays can't compete with the high-spending Yankees and Red Sox for the division title and appear destined for a sixth straight third-place finish.

Roy Halladay (19-7, 2.93) has developed into an ace and 3B Eric Hinske (.279, 24, 84) was the Rookie of the Year. CF Vernon Wells (.275, 23, 100) is emerging as a force in the middle of the lineup with 1B Carlos Delgado (.277, 33, 108).

2B Orlando Hudson and SS Chris Woodward are a young, talented duo in the middle of the infield and Shannon Stewart (.303, 103 runs) is one of the better leadoff hitters.

Cory Lidle (8-10, 3.89) needs to be more consistent as a No. 2 starter in Toronto than he was as a No. 4 in Oakland.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles spent the spring dealing with the aftermath of the death of minor-league pitcher Steve Bechler.

After going 4-32 to finish last year, the Orioles need lots of help -- especially on offense. Marty Cordova was the team's leading hitter at .253, and Jay Gibbons (28 HRs) and Tony Batista (31 HRs) are the only real power threats.

RHP Rodrigo Lopez (15-9, 3.57) and closer Jorge Julio (5-6, 1.99, 25 saves) excelled as rookies. Omar Daal gives Baltimore its first lefty starter in five years.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

New manager Lou Piniella is in for a long season. Piniella has never lost 90 games in a season and is taking over a team that has lost more than 90 in all five of its seasons -- including at least 100 the past two years.

Piniella got his wish to move closer to home but ended up about as far away in the standings as he could be after leaving Seattle.

The Devil Rays are committed to a youth movement but it will take time to develop those players.

Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Josh Hamilton could provide an exciting outfield of the future, although Baldelli is being rushed to the majors and Hamilton hasn't made it past Class A.


Minnesota Twins

The Twins overcame contraction attempt to make it all the way to the ALCS as one of the best feel-good stories in 2002. One of baseball's youngest teams could be even better this year.

LHP Kenny Rogers was signed in spring training to replace injured Eric Milton. Brad Radke (9-5, 4.72) and Joe Mays (4-8, 5.38) were slowed by injuries and need to be healthy this season for the Twins.

CF Torii Hunter (.289, 29, 94, Gold Glove) is one of the most exciting players in baseball but needs more help from the right side of the plate from youngsters Dustan Mohr and Michael Cuddyer.

Eddie Guardado had a team-record 45 saves in first full season as a closer.

Chicago White Sox

The addition of Colon to a staff that already includes 19-game winner Mark Buehrle makes the White Sox a legitimate contender.

Jon Garland (12-12, 4.58) provides depth and Billy Koch (11-4, 3.27 ERA, 44 saves), on his third team in three years, can be overpowering but is also inconsistent.

The lineup is formidable with five 25-homer hitters last season. Magglio Ordonez (.320, 38, 135) and Paul Konerko (.304, 27, 104) are dangerous hitters and Frank Thomas (.252, 28, 92) could be poised for a bounce-back season.

Cleveland Indians

After a decade of dominance in the AL Central, the Indians are rebuilding and should be in good shape within a year or two.

They have some good pieces to start with, including 2B Brandon Phillips, 1B Travis Hafner and RHP Ricardo Rodriguez.

Slugger Jim Thome will be missed, leaving Ellis Burks (.301, 32, 91) as the only proven power bat in the lineup.

C.C. Sabathia (13-11, 4.37) needs to develop into an ace and Danys Baez has to show that he can be a legitimate closer.

Kansas City Royals

After losing 100 games for the first time in franchise history, this is a rebuilding year.

OF Carlos Beltran (.273, 29, 105, 35 SBs) and 1B Mike Sweeney (.340, 24, 86) are top-notch hitters but there's little else there for manager Tony Pena. Beltran might not last the season if the Royals decide to trade him instead of losing him to free agency.

Detroit Tigers

The biggest names on this team will be in the dugout -- new manager Alan Trammell and coaches Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish.

The stars of the Tigers' 1984 championship team would have a hard enough time making Detroit a contender again even if they were in their prime as players.

Moving in the fences at Comerica Park will help the game's most anemic offense. Unfortunately for Detroit, the opposition will benefit even more by the change.

LHP Mike Maroth and RHP Jeremy Bonderman lead a rotation that has 56 career starts.


Oakland Athletics

After falling short in Game 5 of the opening round of the playoffs the past three years, the A's will finally break through this season under new manager Ken Macha.

Cy Young winner Zito (23-5, 2.75), Mulder (19-7, 3.47) and Hudson (15-9, 2.98) are the biggest reasons why Oakland should be the favorite in the division.

Tejada (.308, 34, 131) and 3B Eric Chavez (.275, 34, 109) form the best left side of the infield in baseball and DH Erubiel Durazo and CF Chris Singleton are good additions to the lineup.

Anaheim Angels

A relentless offense, overpowering bullpen and the Rally Monkey led the Angels to the World Series title last season but might not be enough in 2003.

World Series MVP Troy Glaus (30 HRs, 111 RBIs) looks poised for a breakout year and Garrett Anderson (.306, 29, 123) can no longer be considered underrated. Pesky David Eckstein makes the offense go.

The starting rotation was good enough in the postseason but doesn't have an overpowering pitcher.

Jarrod Washburn (18-6, 3.15 ERA) and John Lackey (9-4, 3.66) lead the staff, but Ramon Ortiz (40 HRs allowed) is inconsistent and Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele don't strike fear in anyone.

Troy Percival and Francisco Rodriguez can be unhittable at times in the bullpen.

Texas Rangers

After two straight last-place finishes with Alex Rodriguez, the Rangers are hoping Showalter can return Texas to the team that won three division titles in four years.

Hitting won't be a problem even with C Ivan Rodriguez gone to Florida. Alex Rodriguez (.300, 57, 142) is the best player in the league, and is joined by 1B Rafael Palmeiro (.273, 43, 105) to form a fearsome duo in the middle of the lineup.

RF Juan Gonzalez is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued year and INFs Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira are two of the top young hitting prospects in baseball.

Ugueth Urbina (40 saves) and Esteban Yan (19 saves) upgrade the bullpen and John Thomson, Ismael Valdes and Ryan Drese should help the rotation.

Seattle Mariners

Seattle went from 116 wins in 2001 to 93 last year, one of the biggest drops in baseball. Another big fall could come again for an aging team that lost Piniella.

Bob Melvin has a tough task in his first managerial job. Melvin's NL-style play should fit well in spacious Safeco Field with speedy Ichiro Suzuki (.321, 111 runs, 31 SBs) and Randy Winn (27 steals).

Edgar Martinez, the 40-year-old DH, is showing signs of aging and batted .277 last season, his lowest since 1993.

Freddy Garcia (5-5, 5.65 ERA in final 21¼2 months) needs to be more consistent.

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