American idols

The Baltimore Sun

The indicators have been in place for years now.

The American League is 10-0-1 in the past 11 All-Star Games.

The AL has won eight of the past 12 World Series and four straight interleague matchups, and had seven of the 10 highest payrolls heading into Opening Day 2007.

But this season, perhaps more than ever, fans should clearly see the immense difference between the mediocre but evenly matched National League and the top-heavy but talent-laden AL.

In fact, the logjam of quality AL teams might be the most interesting story to monitor as spring training begins. Are they as good as they look on paper?

We'll find out, but they sure look impressive now.

One baseball executive recently ranked the majors' best teams, and his top five was, in order, the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees - all AL clubs.

He paused for a moment and then added the Seattle Mariners as No. 6 with a bullet after their acquisition of former Orioles ace Erik Bedard.

Two from each of the three AL divisions before mentioning one NL club. It's possible that has never been the case before entering a season.

The NL might have gained some momentum this offseason when pitchers Dan Haren (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Johan Santana (New York Mets) and shortstop Miguel Tejada (Houston Astros) were traded from the AL to the NL, but it's still not enough.

League balance of power is often cyclical. But this one is rooted more in economics than happenstance. The Yankees and Red Sox, baseball's superpowers, outspend other clubs by a considerable margin. Teams that want to compete with the big boys for the AL title need to spend freely.

In the NL, the payroll disparity isn't as great. So it's not as crucial for teams to spend as lavishly as long as they have the young talent.

The NL has the parity, but this season the AL should, unquestionably, have the best talent - maybe as much as it ever has.

Here are other important story lines to watch as spring training unfolds:

Another new sheriff in town

This offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers hired their sixth manager since Tom Lasorda left in 1996. But this one's different from the others. Former Yankees manager Joe Torre joins the Dodgers with 12 straight playoff appearances on his resume. And he'll take over a perpetually underachieving team that has made the postseason just twice since 1997. Torre is a great handler of people, but is he a great manager without Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Co.?

Welcome back to the Bronx

The flip side of Torre's move to Los Angeles is a new manager in the Yankee Stadium home dugout for the first time since 1996. Joe Girardi was the 2006 NL Manager of the Year in his lone season with the Florida Marlins. But this isn't sunny Florida anymore. As Torre's former bench coach, he knows the Yankees players. And as a former big league catcher, he knows the game. But dealing with a bunch of kids happy to be in the big leagues isn't the same as juggling Big Apple-sized egos. He had run-ins with Marlins management and the Miami media. What will it be like for Girardi dealing with the Steinbrenner family and New York's tough press corps?

The Mitchell Report hangover

In December, major league managers and front office personnel were preparing for the worst as the Mitchell Report on steroids loomed. But few current impact players were implicated, maintaining business as usual to start the spring. Still, the story isn't going away. The most ominous cloud is hovering over Tejada, the former Orioles shortstop who was traded to the Astros the day before the report was released. The federal government is investigating whether he lied about his drug use during sworn statements in 2005. Tejada isn't facing disciplinary or criminal action yet, but he could. The Yankees' Andy Pettitte is still in the news after admitting to previously taking human growth hormone. And Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons begins the season with a 15-day suspension for admitted hGH use.

Languishing legends

Four Hall of Fame-worthy players - Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza - don't have jobs as spring training starts, though none has officially retired. Bonds and Clemens are obvious risks based on their inclusion in baseball's performance-enhancing-drug investigation. Sosa and Piazza were not singled out in the Mitchell Report, but their skills are declining and they are nothing more than designated hitters these days. A desperate club might take a chance on one, however.

Repeating champs?

The Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series and then did little to improve their roster this offseason. But they didn't have to. The only key member of that title team whose return was a true question, third baseman Mike Lowell, was re-signed. Everyone else was already on his way back to attempt a third World Series championship in five seasons. The Red Sox have to deal with the health of starter Curt Schilling, but they still will be the favorites heading into the season. Let's see if they are as hungry this spring as they were last year.

Refueling in Motor City

The Tigers emerged from the dust to win the 2006 AL crown and then failed to make the playoffs last season. So what did Dave Dombrowski, perhaps the best GM in baseball, do? He traded a boatload of kids to the Marlins for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and solid left-hander Dontrelle Willis. The Tigers suddenly have the best offense, top to bottom, in the majors, and they have some pretty strong arms, too. It'll be fun to watch manager Jim Leyland get this team to focus and jell in the spring.

Johan's trip to the Big Apple

OK, so Santana will just be hanging out in Port St. Lucie for the next six weeks and not Gotham. But Santana, who had spent his entire big league career in small-market Minnesota, will now get to experience what it's like to live in a fishbowl. It shouldn't matter. When healthy, Santana is baseball's best pitcher, and his transition to the Mets should be seamless.

Watch out for snakes

While the Mariners were embroiled in the Bedard saga and the Mets were adding Santana, the Diamondbacks landed a top pitcher in former Oakland Athletics right-hander Dan Haren. A 15-game winner for the A's, Haren joins Brandon Webb to make a great 1-2 punch for a young club that surprisingly made it to the 2007 NL Championship Series. If veteran Randy Johnson can return from back surgery - and he is supposed to be ready to participate in spring drills - the Diamondbacks might be the favorite to win the NL.

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