O's division problem

AL East: The Orioles and Blue Jays have added lots of essential pieces, but the Yankees and Red Sox just keep compounding the challenge of keeping up.

American League Focus

April 02, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona has been in the American League East for about four months, but he already knows how to say all the right things.

It's not just the Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The Orioles are much improved this year. So are the Toronto Blue Jays and even the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The AL East is the toughest division in baseball, so who can predict what will happen when everybody has to play everybody else 19 times during the regular season?

"We play the East too many times, and everybody is too improved," said Francona, who will make his regular-season debut as Red Sox manager Sunday night at Camden Yards. "The Orioles made three impressive moves, and the Blue Jays, I don't know how they stayed under the radar with the great additions they made to their rotation.

"We'll be obsessed with the Yankees when we play the Yankees, but when we play the Orioles we'll be obsessed with them."

Joe Torre is good that way, too.

Somehow, he never comes off as presumptuous, even as his team stacks expensive player on top of expensive player to maintain dominion over a division that has finished in the same order six seasons in a row.

The great divide

Now, it's time to get real.

The Orioles and Blue Jays did make some major improvements during an exciting offseason that pumped up expectations for the 2004 season, but if the game were played on paper, they still wouldn't be on the same page as the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Alex Rodriguez saga was proof of that.

"We have our third baseman blow out his knee playing basketball, and we go out and get Alex Rodriguez," said Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. "I just laughed. My first reaction was, `Are you kidding?'"

The Red Sox almost got Rodriguez, but they were looking for a discount on his tremendous contract, and the players union wouldn't allow it. They did pick up power pitcher Curt Schilling earlier in the winter, however, and they signed big-time closer Keith Foulke, which probably helped persuade Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to thumb his nose at baseball's luxury tax (which is really baseball's Yankees tax) and approve the pursuit of Rodriguez after signing big-ticket outfielder Gary Sheffield.

Must be nice.

The Orioles committed more than $120 million to re-sign Sidney Ponson and add Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, and they enter the season with no guarantee that they can overtake the Blue Jays and finish above fourth place for the first time since 1997.

OK, so there are no guarantees - not even for the Yankees - but the Orioles are getting ready to navigate the toughest division in baseball and they have only one starting pitcher who is coming off a successful major league season.

"I think getting Ponson back was big for them," Torre said. "I think they have some fine young players and they've really given them some support. Palmeiro, Lopez, Tejada, that's big-time stuff. But it's going to come down to pitching."

Pitching probably won't be a big problem in New York or Boston, even though the Yankees lost starters Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells to free agency. They simply moved Mussina to the front of the rotation and brought in $15 million-a-year right-hander Kevin Brown and emerging star Javier Vazquez.

Must be nice, indeed.

Others bulking up, too

The Red Sox added Schilling to a rotation that already featured three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. They scrapped their much-maligned closer-by-committee concept and acquired Foulke - one of the most effective ninth-inning guys in the game.

Even the Blue Jays were able to shore up their rotation with veteran pitchers, acquiring Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista and former Oriole Pat Hentgen, who went back to Toronto after the Orioles decided not to exercise a $4 million contract option to keep him.

The Jays also have the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Roy Halladay, and a scary lineup that scored nearly 900 runs last year, so there is the real possibility that the Orioles will spin their wheels in 2004 and end up in the same place they've been since the organization went into decline in the late 1990s.

Still, the Orioles did enough during an active offseason that both Torre and Francona made a point of saying this spring that they could not dismiss them in 2004.

"That's nice, because we're not dismissing the Yankees and Red Sox," Jim Beattie, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations, said with a wink. "We know they're out there."

O's optimistic, realistic

Beattie isn't delusional. He knows that the Orioles aren't as talented as the Big Two up top ... not yet at least.

"Every year, there are happy surprises and there are disappointments," he said. "We're looking to be one of the surprises. If everything falls in place, we're looking to play some important games in September."

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