SPRING TRAINING 2004

THE BALTIMORE SUN

American League East

Orioles

Manager: Lee Mazzilli

2003 finish: 71-91 (fourth place)

On deck: Given payroll room to maneuver, the Orioles signed a group of free agents who instantly provide muscle to what had been a punchless lineup. Fans responded by scarfing up tickets as if waiting to attend a Beatles reunion. The Fab Fourth has designs on moving up in the standings, even if it's one slot.

Changing places: The middle of the order now includes shortstop Miguel Tejada, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and catcher Javy Lopez. They combined for 108 home runs last season. Sidney Ponson returned to the club, this time as the No. 1 starter, and Mike DeJean replaced Kerry Ligtenberg in a right-handed setup role. Mark McLemore and Rule 5 draft pick Jose Bautista would join the bench if they make the team. The rotation lost Pat Hentgen as a free agent, and pitchers Jason Johnson and Damian Moss were not tendered contracts. Third baseman Tony Batista and shortstop Deivi Cruz were allowed to leave.

Long-range outlook: Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem, especially if Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos and Jay Gibbons continue to progress as expected. But how will the rotation hold up? Ponson left camp last spring as the fourth starter, and there are plenty of questions behind him this season. Closer Jorge Julio's weakened shoulder also bears watching.

Boston Red Sox

Manager: Terry Francona

2003 finish: 95-67 (second place, wild-card berth)

On deck: A team that came within five outs of going to the World Series must push forward with a new manager and two players, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and left fielder Manny Ramirez, who spent most of the winter hearing their names involved in trade talks. Clubhouse harmony never was the Red Sox's strong suit.

Changing places: Curt Schilling arrived from Arizona to provide a powerful top of the rotation with Pedro Martinez, and closer Keith Foulke, who led the AL in saves last year, should again make it safe for Red Sox fans to watch the ninth inning. Second baseman Pokey Reese will provide better defense than Todd Walker, who joined the Chicago Cubs, but only if he stays off the disabled list. Ellis Burks should be the designated hitter against left-handers.

Long-range outlook: How far the Red Sox go could largely depend on how firm a grip Francona keeps on the clubhouse. Deposed manager Grady Little, the ALCS scapegoat, held the team together during the most turbulent times. Can players like Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar be expected to duplicate their 2003 success? And will Garciaparra's unsettled contract status become a distraction?

New York Yankees

Manager: Joe Torre

2003 finish: 101-61 (first place, won AL title)

On deck: Only the Yankees could lose third baseman Aaron Boone to injury, sift through all the in-house candidates and trade for Alex Rodriguez. They'll find out later how he adjusts to a new position. And how a rotation without Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells compares with one that has Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Jon Lieber.

Changing places: Besides giving the rotation and third base facelifts, the Yankees signed Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton to make up two-thirds of the outfield, and relievers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill to improve the bullpen. Miguel Cairo could replace Alfonso Soriano at second base. OK, not every move is an upgrade.

Long-range outlook: The Yankees appeared ready to slip behind the Red Sox before prying Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers. Now they again seem more than capable of ruling the AL East and making a serious run at a World Series championship if Brown and Lieber stay healthy.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Manager: Lou Piniella

2003 finish: 63-99 (fifth place)

On deck: Piniella got through his first season as Devil Rays manager without jumping out a window. He'll field a better team this season because the young position players continue to mature and the front office made numerous moves during the winter. But the cellar still beckons.

Changing places: The Rays were one of the most active teams in the majors this winter, adding 14 players to the 40-man roster. They traded for first baseman Tino Martinez and signed outfielder Jose Cruz, shortstop Rey Sanchez and closer Danys Baez. The rotation could include newcomers Mark Hendrickson and Damian Moss, and Geoff Blum could start at third base after coming over in a trade with Houston. Eduardo Perez, Robert Fick and Brook Fordyce should bolster the bench.

Long-range outlook: The Rays must sort through all these pitchers and come up with a starting rotation. They also will see how shortstop Julio Lugo adjusts to second base. It won't be long before phenom B.J. Upton is starting at shortstop. So many promising young players -- including holdovers Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Aubrey Huff -- and such long odds of escaping last place.

Toronto Blue Jays

Manager: Carlos Tosca

2003 finish: 86-76 (third place)

On deck: General manager J.P. Ricciardi set 2005 as the target date to become a contender, but the Blue Jays weren't idle this winter. They improved the rotation and bullpen -- and still watched the two teams ahead of them get better. They must decide whether to negotiate a new deal with pending free agent Carlos Delgado or wait for better payroll flexibility once his four-year, $68 million contract runs out.

Changing places: The Blue Jays traded for left-hander Ted Lilly and signed free-agent starters Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen. The bullpen gates opened for Kerry Ligtenberg, Terry Adams and Justin Speier. Shortstop Chris Gomez will press Chris Woodward for the starting job after arriving from Minnesota. Gomez takes the place of Mike Bordick, who retired. The rotation lost Kelvim Escobar and Cory Lidle as free agents and Mark Hendrickson in a trade, and outfielder Bobby Kielty was dealt to Oakland for Lilly.

Long-range outlook: Is there any way for the Blue Jays to get out of third place in this division? They might be headed for fourth if Kevin Cash isn't ready to be the right-handed side of the catching platoon with Greg Myers and if the closing committee that includes Aquilino Lopez fails. At least the rotation still includes Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay.

American League Central

Chicago White Sox

Manager: Ozzie Guillen

2003 finish: 86-76 (second place)

On deck: Guillen was a popular player in Chicago, but he has no managerial experience. Jerry Manuel was fired after his club blew a two-game lead in September, and he had more talent on his roster than the one Guillen inherits. His job will become a lot tougher if outfielder Magglio Ordonez is traded.

Changing places: The White Sox weren't very active this winter. They couldn't keep starter Bartolo Colon from leaving as a free agent. Second baseman Roberto Alomar also left. The White Sox signed Japanese saves leader Shingo Takatsu, just in case Billy Koch can't rebound from a miserable 2003. But Takatsu's poor velocity might not translate into big league success.

Long-range outlook: A soap opera already is developing, with Guillen and moody DH Frank Thomas as the central figures. They weren't close as teammates, and Guillen criticized Thomas during his introductory news conference. Beyond that, Guillen must contend with potential trouble spots at center field and second base and decide on a closer from a group that also includes left-hander Damaso Marte.

Cleveland Indians

Manager: Eric Wedge

2003 finish: 68-94 (fourth place)

On deck: The rebuilding continues, and Wedge will oversee the project while also peeking over his shoulder. Mike Hargrove returned to the organization, in a flimsily defined front-office position, after being fired as manager in Baltimore. Is he waiting in the wings? And is that fair to Wedge, whose roster isn't exactly brimming with All-Star talent?

Changing places: The Indians signed second baseman Ron Belliard to replace Brandon Phillips, the one-time phenom who couldn't handle big league pitching last year and returned to Triple-A. Relievers Jose Jimenez and Bobby Howry signed as free agents, and left-handed setup man Scott Stewart arrived in a trade with Montreal. Danys Baez, who blew 10 saves last year, has moved on to Tampa Bay, and Bob Wickman should replace him as closer after missing last season because of elbow surgery.

Long-range outlook: General manager Mark Shapiro said the Indians may be contenders by the All-Star break. Sure, and Bob Feller might win 20 games this year. Youngsters Jody Gerut, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez provide hope, but Wedge must prove he can settle on a lineup after using 145 different ones last season. It doesn't help that shortstop Omar Vizquel had double surgery on his right knee, which killed a trade to Seattle.

Detroit Tigers

Manager: Alan Trammell

2003 finish: 43-119 (fifth place)

On deck: Is it asking too much for a team to improve on 43 wins? The Tigers made some bold moves to upgrade their roster, and nobody should question their character after weathering all those storms in 2003. The worst season in team history, and one of the worst ever in the majors, is behind them. It's time to move forward.

Changing places: That wasn't an illusion. Ivan Rodriguez really did sign a four-year, $40 million contract to play at spacious Comerica Park. The middle infield already underwent a major transformation with second baseman Fernando Vina signing as a free agent and shortstop Carlos Guillen coming in a trade with Seattle. Outfielder Rondell White, pitchers Jason Johnson and Al Levine and backup catcher Mike DiFelice also signed as free agents, with Johnson an early favorite to start on Opening Day.

Long-range outlook: The Tigers will try to keep their loss total in double digits. Johnson seems miscast as a No. 1 starter, Fernando Rodney might not be ready to close and Rodriguez could regret his decision the first time he checks the standings or the dimensions at Comerica. But on paper, this is an improved team.

Kansas City Royals

Manager: Tony Pena

2003 finish: 83-79 (third place)

On deck: Pena led the Royals to their first winning record since 1994, and expectations are unusually high in Kansas City. A division title is within reach, but much depends on the rotation. Three right-handers are coming off surgery: Kevin Appier, Miguel Asencio and Kyle Snyder. Left-hander Jeremy Affeldt kept getting blisters on his middle finger, and a recurrence could force him to the bullpen.

Changing places: Juan Gonzalez could be a steal, though he's such a flake, it's a wonder he doesn't melt in the summer months. If he stays healthy and focused, he could be the final piece to the playoff puzzle. The Royals also signed catcher Benito Santiago to guide a young staff, and added pitcher Scott Sullivan, second baseman Tony Graffanino and first baseman/outfielder Matt Stairs.

Long-range outlook: The Royals can win their division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 1985 if Gonzalez and Mike Sweeney, a four-time All-Star who missed 45 games last season with a neck injury, stay off the disabled list and the rotation isn't destroyed by injuries. Brian Anderson and Darrell May are the only certainties among the collection of starters.

Minnesota Twins

Manager: Ron Gardenhire

2003 finish: 90-72 (first place)

On deck: General manager Terry Ryan had to reduce payroll after the Twins won their second straight division title, which didn't sit well with fans. But he was under orders from ownership. In this division, it's possible to rebuild and repeat at the same time.

Changing places: Catcher A.J. Pierzynski was traded to the Giants to create room for Joe Mauer, and the deal also netted the Twins a closer, Joe Nathan, who must replace Eddie Guardado. He has one career save and a lot to prove. Setup man LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Cubs, so late-inning relief is an issue. The rotation also is in a transition period without Rick Reed, Eric Milton and Kenny Rogers. Is Rick Helling really a suitable replacement? Jose Offerman has resurfaced as a utility player.

Long-range outlook: The Twins remain one of the best fielding teams in baseball, and Mauer is an early Rookie of the Year favorite. The rotation should be fine if Johan Santana and Kyle Lohse meet expectations. That's the good news. The bullpen could torch any chance the Twins have of repeating as division champion.

American League West

Anaheim Angels

Manager: Mike Scioscia

2003 finish: 77-85 (third place)

On deck: The Angels couldn't repeat in 2003, but they sure did reload over the winter. Did any team improve more? Anaheim isn't just thinking playoffs, it has serious designs on a second World Series title in three years - as long as a certain right fielder's back doesn't give out.

Changing places: The Angels definitely changed their payroll after signing pitchers Bartolo Colon (four years, $51 million) and Kelvim Escobar (three years, $18.75 million) and right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (five years, $70 million). They also snagged left fielder Jose Guillen and utility man Shane Halter, and let Scott Spiezio leave as a free agent.

Long-range outlook: New owner Arte Moreno has deep pockets, and he made them look fashionable. But the Guerrero signing could blow up in his face if the outfielder's herniated disc flares up. Colon hasn't always shown enough maturity to be a No. 1 starter, but that's nitpicking. The Angels have all the tools to win the World Series.

Oakland Athletics

Manager: Ken Macha

2003 finish: 96-66 (first place)

On deck: Macha has something to prove after his questionable moves in the Division Series, most notably pinch-hitting for Jermaine Dye in the ninth inning of Game 5 and getting ripped by outfielder Terrence Long after the franchise's fourth straight first-round exit. Macha lost his star shortstop and the league's best closer. Winning the division got a whole lot harder.

Changing places: The A's will find out really soon whether rookie Bobby Crosby can replace Miguel Tejada, who signed with the Orioles. Keith Foulke, who had 43 saves, also bolted as a free agent, leaving the closer job to left-hander Arthur Rhodes. Catcher Ramon Hernandez was traded to San Diego, and former Cub Damian Miller took his place. Long was shipped to the Padres, and Chris Singleton signed a minor league deal with Pittsburgh. One of the weakest outfields in baseball has improved with Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay, and left-hander Mark Redman was acquired from the Marlins to replace Ted Lilly in the rotation.

Long-range outlook: The A's are trying to stand tall after another winter beating. Crosby was 0-for-12 in 11 games last season, but he has to fill Tejada's spikes. Rhodes didn't have the stomach to be a closer with the Orioles, and Seattle wisely used him in a setup capacity. The starting outfielders produced only 117 RBIs last year, and that deficiency was addressed. The rotation's Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito returns, but they won't like everything they see.

Seattle Mariners

Manager: Bob Melvin

2003 finish: 93-69 (second place)

On deck: After doing some tinkering with the lineup and bullpen, the Mariners must decide whether to drop Ichiro Suzuki from leadoff to third in the batting order. The experiment hinges on Randy Winn's ability to move atop the order and win the center-field job. Melvin will try to squeeze another year out of ancient DH Edgar Martinez and hope that first baseman John Olerud and No. 1 starter Freddy Garcia improve on their disappointing 2003 seasons.

Changing places: With Kazuhiro Sasaki, the team's career saves leader, returning to Japan, left-hander Eddie Guardado becomes the closer after leaving Minnesota as a free agent. The Mariners also signed shortstop Rich Aurilia, left fielder Raul Ibanez, third baseman Scott Spiezio and left-handed relievers Mike Myers, Ron Villone and Terry Mulholland. Infielders Carlos Guillen and Jeff Cirillo were traded, and center fielder Mike Cameron and utility player Mark McLemore left as free agents.

Long-range outlook: The Mariners want to avoid another late-season fade, and they should be in the thick of the division race. The outfield defense won't be as good without Cameron, but the rotation, bullpen and lineup are solid. Last year, Seattle entered August with a 66-42 record and a four-game lead over Oakland. A stronger finishing kick is needed.

Texas Rangers

Manager: Buck Showalter

2003 finish: 71-91 (fourth place)

On deck: The face of the franchise is gone, and who knows how the Rangers or their fans will respond? But this club can't get any lower in the standings, so maybe a bold move was necessary. Anyone willing to take Chan Ho Park?

Changing places: It finally happened. Alex Rodriguez was traded, but not to the Boston Red Sox. He ended up with the Yankees, who surrendered Alfonso Soriano in the blockbuster deal. The pitching staff now includes Kenny Rogers and reliever Jeff Nelson, and Brian Jordan moves into right field. Starter John Thomson hooked up with the Atlanta Braves, first baseman-DH Rafael Palmeiro signed with the Orioles and outfielder Juan Gonzalez took his act to Kansas City.

Long-range outlook: At least Rodriguez made the Rangers more interesting to watch. The rotation is still bad. Any staff that lists Park as the No. 1 starter is headed for disaster. Rogers, Nelson and Jordan will be 37 or older on Opening Day. This is rebuilding?

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