02/04/2003 10:15 pm ET
AL East Spring Training preview
They don't make Evil Empires the way they used to. Or, Luke Skywalker has been hitting the weight room. Either way, the gap between the division's Godzillas isn't as dramatic as the offseason Boston Teed Off Party would have you believe.
In running off their last four consecutive AL East titles, the Yankees have been a cumulative 30 games up on the Red Sox, a bridgeable average gap of 7 1/2 games. Whether that bridge will be crossed in 2003 depends on Boston's stream of low-key changes proving to be more influential than the Bombers' headlining international geysers.
One thing for sure: It remains the Tango Division. Two on the dance floor, the others still waiting to cut in.
New York Yankees
Now the Angels made them angry. So a club that already tied for the most wins in the Majors rolled up its sleeves and reloaded. On all cylinders, it could be a six-month warmup for October. But an aging rotation and keep-your-fingers-crossed bullpen makes them vulnerable.
Biggest ST challenge: Avoiding any international incidents while keeping the Japanese media at bay.
Best position battles: In right field, Raul Mondesi tries to prevail over his diminishing skills and reputation. Otherwise, Joe Torre's main task is refining his new bullpen's pecking order.
Spring outlook: Challenging. Must settle on starting five early to give them enough preseason innings.
Projected regular season finish: First place, without mercy. This time, it's personal.
Boston Red Sox
The Fens didn't back up the truck, only a convoy of dollies. The Opening Day roster could include a dozen fresh faces, supporting actors to the still solid core cast. Appear to be serious about the closer-by-committee approach, but they'd better at least isolate a chairman.
Biggest ST challenge: Developing the confidence to match their talent.
Best position battles: At the corners of the infield. If Shea Hillenbrand remains in uniform, he'll have to fight off newcomer Bill Mueller to remain at third base. Across the diamond, Jeremy Giambi and David Ortiz will compete for the right to look brilliant after Tony Clark.
Spring outlook: A lot calmer than a year ago, when new ownership and management took over in midstream.
Projected regular season finish: Second place, and an easy Wild Card berth.
Toronto Blue Jays
More like a grayhorse. If they don't concern the frontrunners, they should. After a 44-32 second-half record (topped by only the AL's playoff quartet), addressed every area and have a backlog of promising youngsters in case they need to go to Plan B.
Biggest ST challenge: Choosing an Opening Day starter, very carefully. The last two (Esteban Loaiza and Chris Carpenter) quickly unraveled so, Roy Halladay, you've been warned.
Best position battles: Ken Huckaby and Tom Wilson were virtual clones of each other while splitting catching duties last season; shortstop Chris Woodward may have to fend off an unexpected challenge from all-world glove man Mike Bordick.
Spring outlook: A lot of work, to get off the bubble.
Projected regular season finish: Third place.
Maybe next year
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Lou Piniella proved you can go home again, but can he win again? This is familiar territory for him in other ways, too: In 1990, he took over the 75-87 Reds and led them to a World Series title; in 1993, he took over the 64-98 Mariners and turned them into an 82-80 winner. All the focus on Sweet Lou will allow the young Rays to develop in peace.
Biggest ST challenge: Retooling the rotation; let go 88 starts (Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson, Wilson Alvarez).
Best position battles: Camp-wide, but most compelling is 21-year-old Rocco Baldelli's fight to prove he's ready to replace All-Star Randy Winn in center.
Spring outlook: More Lou, 24/7.
Projected regular season finish: Fourth place, enough to validate the Piniella transaction.
Shared the Red Sox's frustration in being rebuffed by every high-profile player they sought, but do not share the BoSox's talent base. Not even the '59 White Sox Hitless Wonders or the Koufax-Drysdale Dodgers could win with this offense -- and the Orioles' pitching is a few arms shy of that level.
Biggest ST challenge: Getting David Segui back on track.
Best position battles: Marty Cordova, Melvin Mora and Chris Richard fight it out in left.
Spring outlook: Opportunistic; there are a lot of jobs to be won here.
Projected regular season finish: Last place.
1) Roger Clemens wins his 300th game by Memorial Day, then George Steinbrenner persuades him to retire immediately and dramatically -- and turn over his spot in the rotation to Jose Contreras, who has been lighting it up out of the bullpen.
2) The Red Sox and Yankees, feasting on the NL Central in Interleague play, will both win 100-plus games.
3) The shortstop turned away by the Mets will stabilize Tampa Bay's young infield, and by June they'll be known as the Devil Reys.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.