Baseball: Free-spending Yankees among AL’s pennant contenders
By Mike Fitzpatrick
While everyone else was saving their pennies, the New York Yankees were spending big.
Defying the economic crisis, they forked over $423.5 million to put Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in pinstripes for the team’s first season in a new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium.
But all that cash couldn’t keep Alex Rodriguez out of the steroids scandal or the operating room. So after missing the postseason last year, ending their run of 13 straight appearances, the big-budget Yankees could be in for a demanding pennant chase that piles of money just can’t buy.
“I think you’d probably have to have your head in the sand if you didn’t know what the expectations were,” manager Joe Girardi said.
Rodriguez is expected to be out until May following arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right hip. His injury leaves inexperienced backup Cody Ransom as the Yankees’ starting third baseman when the season opens.
New York’s costly moves irritated other teams and prompted calls for a baseball salary cap ó even though the Yankees’ payroll actually declined by $7 million in the end as they parted ways with a handful of players including the retiring Mike Mussina.
“If you try to compete through monetary means, you’re not going to do it,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “You’ve got to figure out another way to get it done, and for us that’s through execution.”
Maddon and his surprising Rays went on a wild ride that took them from last place in 2007 to an improbable pennant one year later. Now, the question is whether the Rays can win big again, this time with a projected opening-day payroll of about $64 million ó an increase of nearly 50 percent.
The Red Sox, beaten by Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the AL championship series, tweaked their pitching staff with relatively inexpensive moves for John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito.
A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:
Boston Red SoxDavid Ortiz was hampered by a wrist injury last year. Can he be as dangerous and productive at the plate without Manny Ramirez around? Third baseman Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, is back from hip surgery. Right fielder J.D. Drew had back trouble early in spring training.
New York Yankees
Chien-Ming Wang returns after missing the final 3 1/2 months last season with a foot injury.
The offense slipped dramatically last year due in large part to injuries to Jorge Posada (shoulder) and Hideki Matsui (knee). Both are back following surgery.
Tampa Bay Rays
The biggest offseason addition was designated hitter Pat Burrell, signed away from Philadelphia. Rookie pitcher David Price is slated to start the season in the minors, but he could join a solid rotation soon.
Toronto Blue Jays
Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan are hurt, depleting a now-inexperienced rotation. Second baseman Aaron Hill is back from a concussion, and keep an eye on touted prospect Travis Snider.
The Orioles are trying to build with talented youngsters such as outfielder Adam Jones and big-time catching prospect Matt Wieters, who could reach the big leagues this year. The pitching staff has new starter Koji Uehara, the team’s first Japanese import.
The Twins made one notable addition in the offseason, signing former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede. After a season ravaged by injuries, Michael Cuddyer is healthy, but the back pain stunting Joe Mauer could be a huge problem.
Kansas City Royals
Even a 10-win improvement over last year’s 75-87 record could make K.C. contenders in this division. At the top of the rotation, Gil Meche and Zack Greinke might be ready for the Cy Young race, and Mike Aviles was a pleasant surprise at shortstop last year.
The rotation is largely unproven behind Cliff Lee, and the offense needs a healthy Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to rediscover their power strokes. Kerry Wood was signed to be the closer, and oft-injured Carl Pavano has a spot in the rotation.
Chicago White Sox
Josh Fields gets another shot at third base, and Chris Getz won the second base job. Alexei Ramirez shifts to shortstop, and there could be a hole in the leadoff spot.
Jose Contreras is way ahead of schedule in his return from an Achilles’ injury, but does Bartolo Colon have anything left?
Detroit dropped all the way to last place last season, one game worse than Kansas City, and the defense has been upgraded with Adam Everett at shortstop. Gerald Laird takes over at catcher, so Brandon Inge can go back to third base. Obtained from Tampa Bay in a trade, Edwin Jackson joins the rotation, and Gary Sheffield is one homer shy of 500.
Los Angeles Angels
Two of the team’s top starting pitchers were hurting in spring training: John Lackey and Ervin Santana. The latter is expected to miss at least the first month because of a sore elbow. Kelvim Escobar is still working his way back from surgery. Nick Adenhart is among the potential fill-ins.
Bobby Abreu ($5 million for one year) was added to an already crowded outfield, and Cuban defector Kendry Morales takes over at first base. Brian Fuentes was signed to be the closer.
The Rangers had a major league-worst 5.37 ERA and baseball’s most overworked bullpen. If Brandon McCarthy finally stays healthy, maybe he can help a bit. Michael Young was shifted from shortstop to third base to make room for 20-year-old prospect Elvis Andrus, and Texas brought in Omar Vizquel to mentor Andrus. Look for a breakout season from right fielder Nelson Cruz, and Andruw Jones might stick with the team in a part-time role.
Acquired in a trade with Colorado, Matt Holliday can become a free agent after the season. After seven season with the Yankees, Jason Giambi is back with his original team. Oft-injured third baseman Eric Chavez is still trying to get healthy, and Elbow pain has sidelined No. 1 starter Justin Duchscherer.
Partly with an eye toward attendance, Ken Griffey Jr. (611 homers) was brought back for a farewell season in Seattle, where he started becoming a superstar 20 years ago. There are good arms at the top of the rotation in Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard, but the bullpen is a complete mess.