AL East Preview
The O's moved in the right direction this offseason, hiring former Expo GM Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan to head up their front office. This signals a departure from the high profile player strategy to one more grounded in baseball reality. In short, good players like Gary Matthews Jr and Jay Gibbons, who were squeezed out for playing time because of the need to justify some bad contracts, will get ample opportunity to show what they can do. In the end, the O's won't be disappointed. Gibbons showed good pitch recognition in the minors and Matthews has decent power and speed; both could be pleasant surprises this year. Jerry Hairston's strong second half last season will push Brian Roberts to the trading block, which could be a good thing because Roberts, who has a good eye and speed, could be a terrific bargaining chip. The big offseason move, or at least the one that got the most publicity, was bringing BJ Surhoff back into the fold, but that may be more ceremony than team building. The real deal that will boost the O's fortunes was trading Chris Richard for Jack Cust, who's essentially a clone of Jeremy Giambi - good hitter with power, lots of walks and strikeouts but poor on defense. With David Segui perpetually injured, Cust should get plenty of at bats as a DH. The O's also acquired Deivi Cruz, who gives them a little more range at short, but less offense. The starting staff was bolstered with Omar Daal and Rick Helling, which isn't a bad thing because the O's really don't have any pitching prospects to block. While they're nowhere close to contending, for the first time in 5 years it looks like the O's are finally moving in the right direction. Prediction: 69 wins, 4th in the division
Boston Red Sox
Red Sox owner John Henry lamented last season that his team was first in pitching and first in hitting in the East but still wasn't going to make the playoffs because of their poor record in one-run games. He wasn't exactly right as the Yanks were a better offensive team, but the one-run game part, which are widely viewed as the result of luck, did have merit. That shouldn't be an issue this year. New GM Theo Epstein, a hybrid of the scouting school and sabermetric school of talent evaluation, has made some outstanding acquisitions this winter to make the Sox downright Curse-proof. He brought in Jeremy Giambi, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz to handle the DHing and first base duties, all of whom have a solid history of power and on base skills. Millar and Ortiz, both good defensive players, will take the majority of time at first base, with Giambi slated to be the primary DH. Epstein also brought in Todd Walker to take over second base. While his defense has been questioned, his ability to hit should be a substantial improvement over what the Red Sox have fielded there. Bill Mueller will take away playing time from Shea Hillenbrand at third because of his superior on-base skills, and Damian Jackson gives them tremendous speed and flexibility off the bench. Epstein also renovated the bullpen by replacing his closer with an assortment of relievers with closing ability. In essence, he's re-incarnated the Big Red Machine's bullpen from the mid 70s - four or five guys who offer a wide variety of angles, deliveries and pitches so that hitters are never fully prepared for what's coming. Alan Embree and Chad Fox are the early favorites to garner most of the save opportunities, but Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin and Ramiro Mendoza could each get a handful. He also added depth to the rotation with the signing of Robert Person, who could become a major factor down the stretch. While no is saying it publicly for fear of incurring the wrath of the Babe's curse, as long as Pedro Martinez stays healthy, this team is the best in the East right now. Prediction: 97 wins, 1st in the division.
New York Yankees
The Yanks made two big offseason acquisitions - Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui. Contreras got off to a rocky start this spring and many observers wrote him off as just another over-hyped Cuban. What they may forget is that it was Contreras who pitched against the O's in Havana back in 1999, and that he shut out a line-up that contained Albert Belle, Will Clark, Charles Johnson, Harold Baines, Brady Anderson and BJ Surhoff for 8 innings, allowing only 2 hits (and 4 walks) and striking out 10. There's a fairly good chance that he will be as good or better than Orlando Hernandez was in his first year in the bigs. As for his spring troubles, they were likely due to his father's grave illness, which has since been stabilized. His two outings since the good news have been outstanding. Matsui also comes with some expectation, and because no Japanese player has hit for power, there are many who discount his 50 home run output last year with Yomiuri. However, he has shown a discerning eye at the plate (114 BB/104 K last season) and ability to make solid contact ( he hit .334 last year and .300 for his career), so even if he experiences a substantial drop in his power numbers, he'll still be a very solid hitter. One lesser deal they made that could be just as significant is dealing injury prone Rondell White for Bubba Trammell and minor league prospect Mark Phillips. White and Trammell are similar hitters and because the Yanks have Juan Rivera as a defensive replacement, getting a decent hitter who can stay healthy was paramount. Trammell should get plenty of opportunities in the outfield and at DH. Phillips, who has tremendous potential, could be a steal for a farm system that was running low on quality. They also signed Todd Zeile to help off the bench. The Yanks also changed their bullpen but it's hard to see how it's improved. Gone is Mike Stanton, who has been one of the best lefty relievers in the game for the last 7 years. In his place is Chris Hammond, the epitome of one-year wonders. Also gone is steady right-handed swingman Ramiro Mendoza, who made it possible for the Yanks to field so many older starters. In his place are short relievers Antonio Osuna and Juan Acevedo. There's no debate the Yanks still have a very good team, but there are definitely some cracks in the armor and age in the rotation is a significant concern. Prediction: 95 wins, 2nd in the division
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
What has Lou Pinella gotten himself into? He wanted to work closer to his Tampa home, but this will likely be more torture than work. Sure, the Devil Rays have some toolsy players who might one day become good ballplayers, but right now, they have a lot to learn. One concern that was addressed was the team's defense. Travis Lee and Rey Ordonez were brought in to bolster a pretty bad infield D, and rookies Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford have good defensive skills in the outfield. But none of those players project to be above average offensive players for their positions and the rest of the team just doesn't hit enough to carry four glovemen. The pitching staff got some depth with the additions of Steve Parris and Jim Parque to take the pressure off youngsters Joe Kennedy, Victor Zambrano and Nick Bierbrodt, but it won't be enough to make this team significantly better than last season. If the Devil Rays win 70 games this season, it will be Lou Pinella's greatest achievement as a manager - and this is a guy who swept the juggernaut A's in the 1990 World Series and won 116 games with the Mariners a couple of years ago. Prediction: 58 wins, 5th in the division.
Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto successfully addressed it's three concerns this offseason - depth in the rotation and bullpen and getting someone to get on base ahead of the team's prodigious power hitters. Cory Lidle was brought in to start behind staff ace Roy Halladay, and the Jays took a chance on Tanyon Sturtze, who has good stuff, but has only found limited success. Perhaps the change of scenery and a better offense and defense behind him will give him the confidence he needs to pitch aggressively, as opposed to getting himself into trouble by nibbling which was his modus operandi in Tampa. GM JP Riccardi also added Jeff Tam and Doug Creek to the bullpen which will take some of the strain off closer Kelvim Escobar and set-up man Cliff Politte. On the offensive side, the Jays acquired Frank Catalanotto, who was running out of positions to try in Texas, but is a nice fit in the Blue Jay outfield. Catalanotto is a hit machine and has some speed as well. The Jays still don't have the starting pitching depth to compete with the BoSox and Yanks, but if they can find one or two more solid starters from the mix of Mark Hendrickson, Justin Miller, Corey Thurman, Aquilino Lopez, Josh Towers or Pete Walker, they won't be far off. Prediction: 88 wins, 3rd in the division