Spring Training 2004

American League East

February 20, 2004|By ROCH KUBATKO

American League East

Orioles

Manager: Lee Mazzilli

2003 finish: 71-91 (fourth place)

On deck: Given payroll room to maneuver, the Orioles signed a group of free agents who instantly provide muscle to what had been a punchless lineup. Fans responded by scarfing up tickets as if waiting to attend a Beatles reunion. The Fab Fourth has designs on moving up in the standings, even if it's one slot.

Changing places: The middle of the order now includes shortstop Miguel Tejada, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and catcher Javy Lopez. They combined for 108 home runs last season. Sidney Ponson returned to the club, this time as the No. 1 starter, and Mike DeJean replaced Kerry Ligtenberg in a right-handed setup role. Mark McLemore and Rule 5 draft pick Jose Bautista would join the bench if they make the team. The rotation lost Pat Hentgen as a free agent, and pitchers Jason Johnson and Damian Moss were not tendered contracts. Third baseman Tony Batista and shortstop Deivi Cruz were allowed to leave.

Long-range outlook: Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem, especially if Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos and Jay Gibbons continue to progress as expected. But how will the rotation hold up? Ponson left camp last spring as the fourth starter, and there are plenty of questions behind him this season. Closer Jorge Julio's weakened shoulder also bears watching.

Boston Red Sox

Manager: Terry Francona

2003 finish: 95-67 (second place, wild-card berth)

On deck: A team that came within five outs of going to the World Series must push forward with a new manager and two players, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and left fielder Manny Ramirez, who spent most of the winter hearing their names involved in trade talks. Clubhouse harmony never was the Red Sox's strong suit.

Changing places: Curt Schilling arrived from Arizona to provide a powerful top of the rotation with Pedro Martinez, and closer Keith Foulke, who led the AL in saves last year, should again make it safe for Red Sox fans to watch the ninth inning. Second baseman Pokey Reese will provide better defense than Todd Walker, who joined the Chicago Cubs, but only if he stays off the disabled list. Ellis Burks should be the designated hitter against left-handers.

Long-range outlook: How far the Red Sox go could largely depend on how firm a grip Francona keeps on the clubhouse. Deposed manager Grady Little, the ALCS scapegoat, held the team together during the most turbulent times. Can players like Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar be expected to duplicate their 2003 success? And will Garciaparra's unsettled contract status become a distraction?

New York Yankees

Manager: Joe Torre

2003 finish: 101-61 (first place, won AL title)

On deck: Only the Yankees could lose third baseman Aaron Boone to injury, sift through all the in-house candidates and trade for Alex Rodriguez. They'll find out later how he adjusts to a new position. And how a rotation without Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells compares with one that has Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Jon Lieber.

Changing places: Besides giving the rotation and third base facelifts, the Yankees signed Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton to make up two-thirds of the outfield, and relievers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill to improve the bullpen. Miguel Cairo could replace Alfonso Soriano at second base. OK, not every move is an upgrade.

Long-range outlook: The Yankees appeared ready to slip behind the Red Sox before prying Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers. Now they again seem more than capable of ruling the AL East and making a serious run at a World Series championship if Brown and Lieber stay healthy.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Manager: Lou Piniella

2003 finish: 63-99 (fifth place)

On deck: Piniella got through his first season as Devil Rays manager without jumping out a window. He'll field a better team this season because the young position players continue to mature and the front office made numerous moves during the winter. But the cellar still beckons.

Changing places: The Rays were one of the most active teams in the majors this winter, adding 14 players to the 40-man roster. They traded for first baseman Tino Martinez and signed outfielder Jose Cruz, shortstop Rey Sanchez and closer Danys Baez. The rotation could include newcomers Mark Hendrickson and Damian Moss, and Geoff Blum could start at third base after coming over in a trade with Houston. Eduardo Perez, Robert Fick and Brook Fordyce should bolster the bench.

Long-range outlook: The Rays must sort through all these pitchers and come up with a starting rotation. They also will see how shortstop Julio Lugo adjusts to second base. It won't be long before phenom B.J. Upton is starting at shortstop. So many promising young players -- including holdovers Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Aubrey Huff -- and such long odds of escaping last place.

Toronto Blue Jays

Manager: Carlos Tosca

2003 finish: 86-76 (third place)

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