Al East

March 30, 2003|By Roch Kubatko

Orioles

Manager: Mike Hargrove

2002 record: 67-95 (fourth)

What's new: The front office. Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have replaced Syd Thrift, who took the brunt of the criticism for a fifth straight fourth-place finish. Free agents Omar Daal and Rick Helling should constitute two-fifths of the rotation, and Kerry Ligtenberg will handle the right-handed setup duties. Shortstop Deivi Cruz has replaced Mike Bordick, and the bench could include utility players John Valentin and Jeff Reboulet.

On the spot: Hargrove is in the final year of his contract, and a slow start - after last year's 4-32 finish - could bring a change. Thrift isn't around anymore to serve as a lightning rod. Blame will fall elsewhere if the Orioles continue to flounder, and it might seep under the manager's door.

Where they'll be in October: At home rechecking the list of available free agents, with wallets open.

Boston Red Sox

Manager: Grady Little

2002 record: 93-69 (second)

What's new: Having a general manager who gets carded at hotel bars. Theo Epstein, 29, is out to prove that he can mix it up with the big boys. He brought in relievers Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Timlin and Chad Fox and added infielders Todd Walker, Bill Mueller, Jeremy Giambi and David Ortiz.

On the spot: Epstein must overcome the perception that he's too young and overmatched for such a big job. He's left wide-open for criticism with his decision to go with a closer-by-committee approach to finishing games. If it doesn't work, he'll be skewered in the media.

Where they'll be in October: In a state of exhaustion from fighting it out for the league's wild-card berth. Any team with Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez has a legitimate chance.

New York Yankees

Manager: Joe Torre

2002 record: 103-58 (first)

What's new: It's actually an old tale revisited. Owner George Steinbrenner is meddling again, issuing warnings to Torre and his coaching staff and alienating his star shortstop. Yet, he still finds time to bloat the payroll and import players from Japan (Hideki Matsui) and Cuba (Jose Contreras).

On the spot: Steinbrenner took aim at Derek Jeter this winter, accusing the shortstop of losing focus and not playing up to his capabilities because of his outside commitments and interests. Jeter had better have an All-Star caliber season or the criticisms will begin to take on merit.

Where they'll be in October: Sitting on their usual perch in the East Division, with the usual roster excesses that make them deeper and more dangerous than any other team.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Manager: Lou Piniella

2002 record: 55-106 (fifth)

What's new: Check the manager's chair. The volatile Piniella wanted to be closer to home, even if it meant joining the Devil Rays. His family never should question his devotion. Tampa Bay hasn't finished above last place since coming into the league, but the lineup is improved with infielders Travis Lee, Rey Ordonez and Marlon Anderson. No. 1 draft pick Rocco Baldelli might start in center field on Opening Day.

On the spot: When the manager is put on the media guide cover, that says plenty about the team's talent level and the pressure placed upon the man in charge. The Devil Rays have hitched their wagon to Piniella, who might buck when he sees the rotation and bullpen.

Where they'll be in October: The Devil Rays no longer rent space in the cellar. They've decided to buy.

Toronto Blue Jays

Manager: Carlos Tosca

2002 record: 78-84 (third)

What's new: Pitchers Cory Lidle and Tanyon Sturtze have joined the staff, and Frank Catalanotto most likely will replace Jose Cruz in right field. The infield also could be adjusted if former Oriole Mike Bordick eventually unseats shortstop Chris Woodward.

On the spot: Bordick turned down a $1.5 million offer from the Orioles, then accepted $1 million from a team that couldn't promise him the starting job. A team that plays a few miles farther from his Baltimore-area home. Will it all prove too distracting to build upon his record streaks of consecutive errorless games and chances?

Where they'll be in October: Maybe wedged again in the middle of the division pack, with two teams above them and two below them. If there's any movement, it'll be downward.

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