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A.L. East Division Preview

Yankees Will Take Crown Over Sox

By Rory P. Pheiffer

SPORTS COLUMNIST

The time has finally come for me to review the American League East. I have been agonizing over who to take as the champion of this division for a bit, and I’m sure whichever way I go, I’ll surely get criticism, but hey, that's the great thing about sports and close races, they always stir up good debates. So, working our way from the bottom to the top of the division, here we go.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

At first glance this line-up looks like it has potential: Jose Canseco, Fred McGriff, Greg Vaughn, and Vinny Castilla. However, Canseco and McGriff were putting up numbers in their primes and are definitely hitting the tail end of their careers, while Castilla put up impressive numbers at Coors Field and his statistics will surely fall this season.

The pitching staff also has a few name players in Wilson Alvarez, Steve Trachsel, and Juan Guzman, but none of these pitchers have been too impressive as of late. Add a sub-par bullpen, outside of quality reliever Roberto Hernandez, and you have a sub-par team. Tampa Bay should win enough games to prevent itself from hitting rock bottom in the American League standings, but they surely will not give any team in this division much trouble.

Baltimore Orioles

One of baseball’s most disappointing organizations as of late, the Baltimore Orioles continue to spend money and do not have the record to show for it. This year they didn’t make very many roster moves, but they did acquire one of the more predominant managerial names in the business, former Cleveland Indians’ manager Mike Hargrove. Coach Hargrove has lots of talent to work with, but the problem is much of it is past its prime. Neither Harold Baines, Cal Ripken, nor Will Clark, have played more than 100 games. All three had good seasons at the plate, but if they aren’t in the line-up they can't help their team.

Still, even when these guys aren’t in the line-up, the Orioles can still depend on the bats of Brady Anderson, B.J. Surhoff, and Albert Belle to get their team some runs. As for the pitching staff, they will definitely be hurting with Scott Erickson out with injury. Mike Mussina is still their ace. Mike has a career winning percentage of .673, second only to Pedro Martinez. Sidney Ponson is a young gun who shows promise for Baltimore. The rest of the starting rotation though isn’t very favorable for the Orioles and the bullpen for Baltimore is definitely a problem area for them. As a result, Baltimore will not finish any higher than third in their division, but more likely fourth. A potentially powerful but inconsistent batting order, decent starting rotation, and weak bullpen will lead to another disappointing season for O’s fans.

Toronto Blue Jays

Generally a team that I predicted to finish in the middle to upper pack of their division is weak in the pitching department. This is certainly not the case with the Blue Jays. They have one of the best staffs depth-wise in the majors. Outside of David Wells, none of the starters are household names, but the rest of the rotation has all shown the signs of being able to win 15 to 20 games if given the opportunity and run support. Their bullpen is improved from last year, and with closer Billy Koch returning, Toronto should prove to be a solid defensive ball club.

As for swinging the stick, the Jays have a great young leadoff hitter in Shannon Stewart. The center of their line-up is also solid, featuring the likes of Raul Mondesi, Carlos Delgado, and Tony Batista. If the Blue Jays were to overachieve a bit, they might make a run at the wild-card spot, much like they did last year, but more than likely they will not come away with the wild card and will land right where they did last year, third in the AL East.

Boston Red Sox

I would love to see Boston bring home a division crown, but the fact of the matter is that in a 162-game season, the lack of depth in the pitching staff will prevent the Red Sox from doing so. Boston has close to as much talent as the Yankees have in the batting order, and the Sox obviously have some top-notch pitchers, but New York certainly has more depth in the pitching staff.

In any given series, the Sox can certainly put everything together to beat New York, but over the course of 162 games, Boston cannot put together enough wins by their mediocre pitchers to win a division crown. Boston had a very good batting order last year, and only made it better by acquiring Carl Everett from the Astros. Remember though that the Red Sox bottom half of the order is not the most dangerous around, and many of the players down there have not always put up the same types of numbers that they did last year. I think they can continue to produce, but don’t be surprised to see a little let-off in one or two of their numbers. Regardless, they should produce more runs than they did last year.

On the hill, the Red Sox have the best starter in baseball. Nobody dominates a game quite like Pedro Martinez. If his brother Ramon can find his old stuff, he too will be very dangerous. The rest of the staff doesn’t quite have the expectations that the Martinez brothers have, but you can definitely count on them to win around ten to fifteen games so long as the offense provides sufficient run support. The bullpen has some strong and weak points. Derek Lowe and Rod Beck provide two very good late inning relief pitchers, so as long as the rest of the staff can get them to the eighth or ninth inning, they should be able to do the rest. This has been a problem area for the Red Sox in the past, so let’s hope that either the starters can last longer or that the middle relievers can do a better job of keeping the opposing offense from scoring.

Anyway, look for the Red Sox to finish second to the Yanks in the division, but come out on top over the Blue Jays and Athletics for the wild card spot (much like last year).

New York Yankees

The team to beat is once again the Bronx Bombers. They provide a great mix of solid pitching and hitting to make them the odds-on favorite to be the first team since the Athletics in the early 70’s to win three consecutive championships. The key to the Yankees success is obvious: pitching. Sure their line-up is very good offensively as well, but there are definitely holes as well. None of their bottom three hitters hit above .250 (Jorge Posada, Shane Spencer, and Scott Brosius), and left fielder Ricky Ledee isn’t proven either. Provided Chuck Knoblauch gets back to his old hitting ways like he hit as a Minnesota Twin, the Yankees definitely have a spectacular front five, but they trail off considerably after that.

This line-up got them to the championship before though, so there is no reason it can’t do it again. I’m just noting that it certainly isn’t an unbeatable line-up. Unbeatable is their pitching staff. Orlando Hernandez, David Cone, Roger Clemens, and Andy Petitte would be better known as the fearsome foursome. Three of the four of them have had at least one 20-win season, and Hernandez, the only one without a 20-win season, has only been in the majors for two years and already posted records of 12-4 and 17-9. Add a bullpen that is deep and includes ace closer Mariano Rivera and you have the most deadly pitching staff in the American League, and maybe even the majors (either the Yanks or the Braves). Put that all together over a full season and you have yet another Yankee division crown. Related stories: