Bronx bombers rule A.L.
By John Dinner
The teams of the American League have reloaded in the off-season and are beginning their quest to be a part of the fall classic.
EAST The New York Yankees fell short last year in their attempt to repeat as champions and went out into the free agent market to get some help. The signing of second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and designated hitter Chili Davis solidified an already potent Yankee offence which boasts seven recent all-stars in the batting order. Along with an excellent pitching staff, led by Andy Pettite and David Cone, the signing of Knoblauch strengthened their infield and immediately improved their defence as well.
With the depth of their roster and the size of their payroll, they have become the early favourites yet with swelling payrolls come swelling egos. In the toughest division in baseball, nothing can be taken for granted.
Two more contenders come from the East, where it is most likely the wild-card berth will come from once again.
The Baltimore Orioles have put up some big dollars ($70 million) for experienced proven athletes, but with no one in the starting line-up under the age of 30, the team lacks youthful energy.
With Ray Miller taking over for Davey Johnson as the field boss, who left as a result of coming up short two years in a row, a new attitude has been brought into the club house. The question is, however, can Cal Ripken Jr. still lead the Os and if he doesn't, who will?
The other contender, surprisingly enough, will be the Toronto Blue Jays. Arguably boasting the best pitching staff in the majors (no not even Atlanta) the Jays will drastically improve.
Led by starters Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen, the Jays will look to a healthy Juan Guzman to finally bring the team back to its previous glory. The ineffective offense won't be as bad as last year, but it is still not comparable with the Yanks, Orioles, the Cleveland Indians or the Seattle Mariners. With an exceptional starting rotation and a fabulous one-two punch out of the the bullpen Kelvim Escobar as the set-up man and Randy Myers as the closer, the Jays should be able to produce enough runs to increase the win column and be contenders in the fall.
CENTRAL Only one real contender will emerge from this division the Cleveland Indians once again. The Tribe, with the signing of Kenny Lofton, have made a commitment to winning however, it also may have cost them. As a result of Lofton's signing, they lost Tony Fernandez, Matt Williams and Marquis Grissom, thinning out their veteran leadership.
The starting rotation isn't as strong as last year's and they'll have to rely heavily on closer Jose Mesa, who has yet to regain top form since blowing a save in game seven of last year's World Series.
The dark horses from the Central could be the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. With both teams following youth movements, it could be a very interesting year. The Sox may even challenge the Tribe with the likes of Frank Thomas and Albert Belle, anything can happen.
WEST Here it will be a two-horse battle for the division title and the playoffs, with the loser missing out completely.
Led by Ken Griffey Jr., the Seattle Mariners have one of the best young offences in the majors. This talented offence will be relied upon for more production in an era of expansion and weak pitching, to make up for their own lack of hurlers. Despite having the "Big Unit" Randy Johnson, the Mariners' pitching is suspect as their bullpen gave up a league worst 95 runs in the 9th inning last season and was a major reason in losing in the first round of playoffs.
Looking to build on their continual improvement and make a run at the Mariners are the Anaheim Angels. The unfortunate thing for the Angels will be the fact that if they are unable to catch the Mariners, they will most likely miss the playoffs altogether.
Free agent signings of Cecil Fielder and Jack McDowell have added to an already strong batting line-up and given strength to a mediocre pitching staff.
With one of the league's best outfield corps, the Angels will try to make it interesting in the West. Still, dethroning the Mariners will be tough, and the wild card may be out of the picture with the strength of the teams in the East.