Since the Tampa Bay Rays bowed to the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 of the World Series on Oct. 29, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez has admitted to drug use, baseball's top free agents have waited, waited and waited for new contracts in an uncertain economy and minor-league deals have been all the rage, with the Toronto Blue Jays leading the way.
Free agent Pat Burrell left the Phillies thinking the grass might be greener with the Rays, while Matt Holliday, John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Kerry Wood, Mike Jacobs and Andruw Jones were among the other National League defections.
But how much has really changed? CBCSports.ca is predicting three of last year's four playoff participants will return to the big dance. Can Minnesota's starting pitchers lead the Twins to a Central title? Can the Los Angeles Angels overcome injuries to their top hurlers?
These questions and more are addressed in our American League preview.
THE POST-SEASON TEAMS
Boston Red Sox (East)
Last year: 95-67, 2nd in East (lost to Tampa Bay in ALCS)
Key arrivals: SP Brad Penny, SP John Smoltz, OF Rocco Baldelli, RP Takasashi Saito, RP Ramon Ramirez
Key departures: OF Coco Crisp, SS Alex Cora, SP Paul Byrd
What to like: With the top three spots in the starting rotation set with Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester, general manager Theo Epstein did a nice job adding a veteran presence to the back end with former National Leaguers John Smoltz (currently recovering from shoulder surgery) and Brad Penny. The bullpen has been bolstered with Saito, who converted 18 of 22 save chances with the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago. Having left-fielder Jason Bay for a full season will be a huge boost, and he's playing for a contract. He hit .293 with nine homers and 37 RBI in 49 games with Boston in '08 after being traded from Pittsburgh.
What to sweat: There are few concerns, but one is the health of ace right-hander Beckett. He missed three weeks late last season with an inflamed right elbow and later needed six weeks to recover from an oblique injury. Also, his earned-run averages for his three seasons in Boston are 5.02, 3.28 and 4.03. Matsuzaka walks too many (5.05 per nine innings in '08), so he's unlikely to repeat last year's 18 wins and 2.90 ERA. Third baseman Mike Lowell is 35 and coming off hip surgery but appeared healthy in spring training.
Minnesota Twins (Central)
Last year: 88-75, 2nd in Central
Key arrivals: 3B Joe Crede
Key departures: SP Livan Hernandez, OF Craig Monroe
What to like: A starting pitching staff on an upward trend. Two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery, ace Francisco Liriano should improve upon his 6-4 record and 3.91 ERA of a year ago, while Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins experienced the pressure of a playoff race with last year's tiebreaking game against division rival Chicago. There's speed at the top and bottom of the lineup in leadoff man Denard Span (25 stolen bases in '08) and No. 9 hitter Carlos Gomez (33 SB), and good power in the middle with 4-5 hitters Justin Morneau (.290, 23 HR, 129 RBI) and Jason Kubel (20 HR in 141 games).
What to sweat: The health of catcher and No. 3 hitter Joe Mauer. After a season in which he averaged .328 to win the American League batting title, Mauer missed all of spring training recovering from inflammation in his sacroiliac joint, which connects the spine to the pelvis. The good news is the all-star is responding to medication and treatment. There is no timetable for his return. Former Chicago White Sox infielder Joe Crede and his fragile back take over at third base. He has 25-homer power but no speed and is also a batting-average risk (.248 in 2008).
Los Angeles Angels (West)
Last year: 100-62, 1st in West (lost to Boston in ALDS)
Key arrivals: OF Bobby Abreu, RP Brian Fuentes
Key departures: RP Francisco Rodriguez, 1B Mark Teixeira, OF Garrett Anderson, SP Jon Garland
What to like: The roster is similar to the 2008 edition that reached the century mark in wins for the first time in franchise history. Abreu (20 HR, 100 RBI in '08 with New York Yankees) was brought aboard to offset the loss of Teixeira and is capable of a repeat with 20 stolen bases, while Fuentes could prove to be a strong Plan B to Rodriguez's defection. The three-time all-star has saved at least 30 games in each of the last four years. Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo are a lethal 1-2 punch in the bullpen.
What to sweat: The starting rotation. The Nos. 1 and 2 starters, John Lackey and Ervin Santana, and projected No. 5 Kelvim Escobar will miss the first few weeks of the season with injuries. Lackey (forearm tightness) missed the first six weeks last season with an elbow injury, while Santana (right elbow irritation) is coming off a career season (16 wins, 3.49 ERA). Escobar, who wasn't expected back until late July from right shoulder inflammation, could be the first to return. There are capable fill-ins in Dustin Moseley, Nick Adenhart and Shane Loux. At 33, outfielder Vladimir Guerrero is aging and has posted dwindling offensive numbers the past three seasons.
Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
Last year: 97-65, 1st in East (lost to Philadelphia in World Series)
Key arrivals: DH Pat Burrell, OF Matt Joyce, RP Jason Isringhausen
Key departures: OF Cliff Floyd, SP Edwin Jackson, RP Trever Miller
What to like: Burrell obviously likes what he sees, having bolted the defending World Series champion Phillies. Replacing the oft-injured Floyd, he is a consistent 30-homer, 90-RBI bat. The core of the rotation is back with James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine. Future ace David Price will work on his game at triple-A before being summoned, likely in the first two months. A stacked lineup that includes Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford is the best in the AL, while the defence and a bullpen of Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour and Isringhausen aren't far behind.
What to sweat: A let-down season. A lot went right for the reigning AL champions in 2008. There is some concern with 39-year-old closer Percival, who missed more than half of last season due to injuries. Kazmir won 12 games last season but is prone to injury and wildness, while Price, despite an impressive '08 playoff (1.93 ERA in five appearances and 12 strikeouts in 14 innings) is unproven.
New York Yankees: Despite the loss of third baseman Alex Rodriguez (torn labrum in right hip) until at least mid-May, the Yankees have plenty of talent to contend for a playoff berth. They significantly upgraded their starting pitching by throwing big bucks at free agents C.C. Sabathia (seven years, $161 million US) and the injury prone A.J. Burnett (five years, $82.5 million US), as well as $180 million US over eight years to first baseman Mark Teixeira (.308, 33 HR, 121 RBI in '08). But they're old (Jorge Posada is 37 and Johnny Damon 35), and youngsters such as outfielders Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera are underwhelming offensive players.
Oakland Athletics: Coming off a second consecutive losing season (75-86), the A's could be the most improved team in the American League this season. General manager Billy Beane, who is never shy to deal proven talent for youngsters, will combine the two in 2009. Notable additions include slugging outfielder Matt Holliday, first baseman Jason Giambi and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who, combined with a bevy of young hitters, form a strong lineup. With Joey Devine nursing a sore elbow, Brad Ziegler will lead a solid bullpen as closer to open the season. The starting rotation, minus ace Justin Duchscherer (elbow surgery) until mid-May, is a question mark.
Kansas City Royals: This isn't a misprint. The Royals, who won 75 games last season — the most since 2003 — could push for a playoff berth this season. The batting order boasts a legitimate leadoff hitter (newcomer Coco Crisp), middle-of-the-order power (David DeJesus, Jose Guillen and Alex Gordon) and an up-and-comer (Billy Butler). The bullpen has a legitimate closer in Joakim Soria (42 saves, 1.60 ERA in '08), but do the Royals have enough starting pitching after Gil Meche, emerging ace Zack Greinke and Kyle Davies? Retreads Sidney Ponson (4.95 career ERA) and Horacio Ramirez (39 major league wins) likely won't strike fear in the opposition.
AL Division Series: Red Sox over Angels; Rays over Twins
AL Championship Series: Rays over Red Sox
World Series: Cubs over Rays