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Will this be the year Boston overtakes Yankees?

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2004

Derek Jeter seemed puzzled.

Told that many fans were upset the New York Yankees of all teams had pulled off a trade for Alex Rodriguez, Jeter furrowed his brow.

Told that many people didn't think it was fair that baseball's richest club had acquired arguably the game's best player, Jeter shook his head.

''Really?'' he asked.

Then, he broke into a playful grin. He was pretending all along.

''It's good to be a Yankee,'' he said.

Sure is, as Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez can attest. A-Rod and the other A-listers, put in pinstripes by George Steinbrenner in his bid to win yet another World Series after coming so close last October.

Boston got better, too. The Red Sox revved up by adding ace Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke, and that brings up the eternal question in the American League: Will this be the year they overtake the Yankees?

Elsewhere, a lot of teams improved. Vladimir Guerrero, Javy Lopez and Ivan Rodriguez came over from the National League, and plenty of young players are on the rise.

Oakland hopes its pitching can rule the West, where Anaheim was active in the winter market and Seattle is still solid.

Minnesota's fundamentally sound approach may be enough in the Central. The division is for the taking, giving hope to Kansas City and Chicago that it could be their year.

New York has beaten out Boston in the East for six straight seasons. The Yankees also won out in getting Rodriguez from Texas, and that eventually led to a little name-calling. Red Sox owner John Henry referred to Steinbrenner as ''Don Rickles'' and the Yankees owner responded by tagging his counterpart as the Scarecrow from ''The Wizard of Oz.''

Boys, boys. If Jeter and Rodriguez can work out their friendship after it turned chilly, there's no need for this childish behavior.

Besides, Boston and the Yankees will see plenty of each other, starting April 16 at Fenway Park. They played 26 times last year, capped by Aaron Boone's home run in the 11th inning that lifted New York over the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS.

Steinbrenner and manager Joe Torre, meanwhile, have worked out their differences after a season that strained their relationship. But bench coach Don Zimmer left and took a job with Tampa Bay, saying he couldn't stand Steinbrenner any longer.

Probably no surprise to Donald Trump. Before watching a spring training game with Steinbrenner, the star of ''The Apprentice'' was asked who was the more difficult boss.

''George is tougher, much tougher,'' Trump said.

A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:

New York Yankees

On most teams, adding the likes of Kenny Lofton, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill would create a stir. On the Yankees, those moves barely caused a ripple.

It takes big deals to make noise in New York, and Steinbrenner provided them. Overkill for a club that came within two wins of its fifth World Series title in eight years? Maybe, that's how he does business.

Boston Red Sox

GM Theo Epstein made the right moves after coming so close last season, trading for Schilling and Foulke. As for getting A-Rod, well, almost.

A team that set the major league record for slugging percentage, scored nearly 1,000 runs and already had Pedro Martinez (14-4, 2.22 ERA) and Derek Lowe (17-7) didn't need much more. Schilling (2.95 ERA for Arizona) and Foulke (43 saves for Oakland) were nice bonuses.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles played off rookie manager Lee Mazzilli's Brooklyn accent in TV ads promoting the season. Boosted by newcomers Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, there might be a lot more to talk about this year.

The three big free agents all topped 100 RBIs and will join Jay Gibbons (100 RBIs), Melvin Mora (.317), Luis Matos (.303) and Larry Bigbie (.303) in a swatting lineup.

Toronto Blue Jays

Roy Halladay finally had the breakout season the Blue Jays projected, going 22-7 and winning the Cy Young Award. Toronto would like to see new arrivals Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly also step up.

Carlos Delgado (.302, 42 HRs, major league-high 145 RBIs) and Vernon Wells (.317, 33, 117, major league-best 215 hits) put up big numbers while 2002 AL Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske slumped.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

If they played in the AL Central, it'd be easy to see these Devil Rays are getting better. In the East, that's a tough task for Lou Piniella's bunch.

After years of poor signings and bad trades, Tampa Bay's player development is starting to pay off. Aubrey Huff (.311, 34 HRs, 107 RBIs), Carl Crawford (55 SBs) and Rocco Baldelli (.289) form a real fresh nucleus.

CENTRAL

Minnesota Twins

Aside from Torii Hunter's catches, there's nothing spectacular about these two-time division champions. How nondescript? In the playoffs last October, manager Ron Gardenhire took the subway to Yankee Stadium and hardly anyone recognized him.

These Twins play the game right, and that's often hard to do at the crazy Metrodome. Yet Minnesota will be hard-pressed to match the bullpen depth that had been such a strength with everyday Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins gone, Joe Nathan (one career save for San Francisco) could become the closer.

Kansas City Royals

AL Manager of the Year Tony Pena revitalized baseball in a city that had lost interest. The trick will be to do even better and perhaps make the playoffs in a division with no clear-cut favorite.

Carlos Beltran (.307, 100 RBIs, 41 SBs) and Mike Sweeney still deserve more credit than they get nationally. If they played on either coast, they'd rightfully be regarded as among the best in the majors.

Chicago White Sox

Ozzie Guillen brings a lot of enthusiasm and experience to the team he once starred for. Hard to tell whether that will make up for all the players Chicago lost in the winter.

The new manager seems to have soothed over his shaky past with Frank Thomas (42 HRs, 105 RBIs). The rest of the team needs a spark after a disappointing finish the White Sox led the division by two games on Sept. 9 before a slump cost Jerry Manuel his job.

Detroit Tigers

OK, surely Alan Trammell's team will be better this year. But by how much?

After setting an AL record with 119 losses, the Tigers got serious. In a surprise, star catcher Ivan Rodriguez left the World Series champion Florida Marlins to sign with Detroit, and Rondell White, Fernando Vina, Carlos Guillen and Jason Johnson also wound up at Comerica Park.

Cleveland Indians

Poor Omar Vizquel. The last remnant of those bashing Cleveland teams that won five straight Central titles, he was all set to return to Seattle until his bad knee scuttled an offseason trade to Seattle.

Now, Vizquel is surrounded by youngsters. Some such as C.C. Sabathia (13-9), Milton Bradley (.321), Jody Gerut (22 HRs) and hotshot catcher Victor Martinez are fine. But without much more, the Indians could be looking at losing over 90 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1915.

Oakland Athletics

To some, the Athletics represent quite a success story: a small-market club that's been able to compete against the big spenders despite losing the likes of Jason Giambi.

To others, they're becoming the Buffalo Bills of baseball: the team that can't quite get it done.

After four straight years of losing a decisive Game 5 in the first round of the playoffs, Oakland will try again, this time minus Miguel Tejada and Keith Foulke.

Anaheim Angels

A lot of new owners talk about making changes. Give Arte Moreno credit for doing it.

Right after buying the Angels in May from The Walt Disney Co., he cut beer prices. Then after a disappointing season in which the defending World Series champs finished below .500, the majors' first controlling owner of Hispanic background broke out his checkbook to sign Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen.

Seattle Mariners

For all of their big names in the batting order such as Ichiro Suzuki, Bret Boone and Edgar Martinez, Seattle's strength is its rotation.

Last year, the Mariners became the only AL team since 1904 to use only five starters for the whole season. Jamie Moyer (21-7) again leads a staff that includes Joel Pineiro, Freddy Garcia, Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche.

Texas Rangers

Alfonso Soriano might be a little more patient at the plate, now that he's a little bit older 28, instead of 26 as previously listed.

The two-time All-Star's strikeouts in the postseason put his job in jeopardy, and he was traded from the Yankees. On a Texas team that's lost A-Rod, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez in the last two years, Soriano (38 HRs, 35 SBs) may emerge as a true superstar.



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