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American League outlook
Yet again, the Yankees are too good to be true

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Talk about your competitive imbalance.

Few, if any, teams in the American League could accomplish what the Yankees did after losing in the World Series and watching Scott Brosius, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch, Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill leave.

Such attrition would decimate most others.

But because they are endowed with George Steinbrenner's wallet and Brian Cashman's vision, the Yankees not only restocked during the past offseason. To the tune of a $118-million payroll, they upgraded significantly with perennial MVP candidate Jason Giambi, pitchers Steve Karsay and David Wells, outfielder John Vander Wal, third baseman Robin Ventura and outfielder Rondell White.

They join star holdovers shortstop Derek Jeter, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, catcher Jorge Posada and centerfielder Bernie Williams.

"I think everybody has fit in fine here," Jeter said recently. "Everybody understands what we are about here and that's winning. These guys wanted to come here to play, so I think they knew what they were getting themselves into."

Which could very well be yet another trip to the World Series thanks to a starting rotation of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Wells and Orlando Hernadez.

Mussina ranked third in the AL in quality starts last season. Clemens won 20 games and another Cy Young Award. Wells is healthy and happy to be playing in the Bronx again. Pettitte is Pettitte and should win at least 15 games.

The starters will need to pitch deeper into games to preserve closer Mariano Rivera's arm.

"We will be in contention," owner George Steinbrenner said. "But this idea that nobody can touch us. Well, they better forget that."

The only teams who might not be fooled?

The Mariners, who won 116-games last season and have something to prove after losing to the Yankees in the ALCS. The A's, who won 102 and lost out on the Giambi sweepstakes. The Twins because they don't know any better. The White Sox thanks to Frank Thomas.

And, dare we say, the revamped Red Sox?

East

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Was he worth the seven-year, $120-million contract the Yankees gave him? That's the question Jason Giambi will face in his first season in the Bronx. Expect the same kind of numbers he put up with the A's as a perennial MVP candidate.

MANAGER ON THE SPOT: Grady Little inherits a team that had a serious meltdown last season. The Red Sox have the tools to contend with the Yankees. Now it's up to Little to keep the clubhouse intact and joyous.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Nick Johnson must have thought first base was his when Tino Martinez left the Yankees. Then the club signs Giambi. Johnson hit .256 with a .407 on-base percentage, 18 homers and 29 RBIs in Triple A last season and should see time at first and at designated hitter.

Central

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: After missing nearly all of the 2001 season, Frank Thomas returns to the White Sox lineup. Much will be expected from the Big Hurt, who hit 43 homers and batted .328 in his last full season.

MANAGER ON THE SPOT: How long can Tony Muser hold on to his job? Granted the Royals don't have the payroll or talent of the Yankees, but they could do better. A new manager might be the starting point.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Coming off a year in which he hit .301 with 30 homers and 87 RBIs in 141 games in Class AA, the Twins must be eager to see if Michael Cuddyer can duplicate those stats at the major-league level. Scouts laud him not only for his bat, but for his exceptionally strong arm, work ethic, intelligence and versatility.

West

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: He collected AL MVP and Rookie of the Year honors, but can Ichiro Suzuki continue igniting the Mariners offense in his second go-round? The only areas where he could possibly improve are power and discipline at the plate.

MANAGER ON THE SPOT: Losing to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series after a 116-victory season doesn't reflect well on Lou Piniella. He has the team, but can he lead it a few steps further this season?

ROOKIE TO WATCH: The Athletics thought so highly of first baseman Carlos Pena they traded a number of prospects to the Rangers just to get him. The 23-year-old, who has done well on every minor-league level, will be counted to fill the void at first left by Jason Giambi.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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