Roger Clemens in the National League. Barry Bonds under thickening clouds of suspicion. Pennant fever on Chicago's North Side. Joe Torre's possible last hurrah in the Bronx. Desperate times in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. New hope in Kansas City and Baltimore. New owner in Los Angeles (and down the freeway, too). Kaz Sasaki is back in Japan, and Greg Maddux is still in limbo. Then there's perhaps the biggest news -- Alex Rodriguez is headed to the Yankees.
The 2004 baseball season officially opened yesterday when Lou Piniella's Devil Rays, who will be playing the Yankees in Japan at the end of March, welcomed their pitchers and catchers to spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Yanks are due in Tuesday, with most other teams scheduled to be in camps by the weekend.
Here's a team-by-team look at the American League heading into the season:
RED SOX: The Yankees are getting Rodriguez, and they already had reworked their pitching staff. But Boston had a busy and productive offseason, too, after winning 95 games and coming within five outs of the World Series. GM Theo Epstein landed top-of-the-line starter Curt Schilling from the Diamondbacks and signed closer Keith Foulke, the reigning AL saves leader, to shore up the bullpen. The long-term future is uncertain, with only eight players contractually guaranteed employment with the Sox next season, but right now they're loaded. Possible negatives? They tried to trade Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez (as part of their bid to get A-Rod), and who knows what fallout that will have in '04? Can Schilling and Pedro Martinez mesh, and is new manager Terry Francona the man to keep it all together?
YANKEES: No team in the last 100 years, notes crack ESPN reporter Tim Kurkjian, has lost three 15-game winners as the Yankees did in Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells. The corollary, of course, is that no team has reloaded like the Bombers, who added Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown and are counting on Jon Lieber to be fully recovered from elbow surgery in 2002. Now comes word of A-Rod to the Bronx for Alfonso Soriano, with Rodriguez to play third base. Gary Sheffield was hired to fill the void in right field (remember, they could have had Manny) and with Kenny Lofton aboard, the plan is for Bernie Williams to DH. They were looking to sign Travis Lee to back up Jason Giambi and his bad knees at first base. Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon will form the new bridge to closer Mariano Rivera, but Torre will not have Don Zimmer by his side as he enters the last year of his contract.
ORIOLES: Fans who stayed away in record numbers last season (attendance hit a 13-year low) have a reason again to come to Camden Yards, where owner Peter Angelos spent big bucks on a new shortstop (Miguel Tejada), a new catcher (Javy Lopez), and a first baseman (Rafael Palmeiro) making his second tour of Baltimore. Lee Mazzilli, who was Torre's first base coach in New York, inherits a lineup that has blossoming talent in Larry Bigbie and Jay Gibbons, but the pitching staff, despite the return of Sidney Ponson, will leave the O's more worried about fighting off a challenge from the D-Rays for fourth than moving up on the Yanks and Sox.
BLUE JAYS: If you're looking for this year's version of the '02 Angels or '03 Marlins as a dark horse to play in the Series, you need look no farther than the team Worcester's J.P. Ricciardi has assembled in Toronto. The Jays scored a franchise-record 894 runs last season as Carlos Delgado had an MVP year and center fielder Vernon Wells announced himself as one of the best young players in the game. But Ricciardi has made over the pitching staff, adding Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista, and Pat Hentgen to a staff anchored by Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, whom he locked up for the next four years. He will either trust former Rockie Justin Speier to close or go with a bullpen by committee. This team won 86 games last season and while the retooled rotation could stumble, watch out.
DEVIL RAYS: Piniella is on record as saying the D-Rays won't finish last. That may not be an idle boast, after an active winter in which the team added veterans Tino Martinez, Jose Cruz Jr., Rey Sanchez, Geoff Blum, and Brooks Fordyce, while investing in former Indian Danys Baez as a closer. The young talent (Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Audrey Huff, local boy Doug Waechter) is as good as any in the division, and there are more kids (Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Ricky Weeks, perhaps former No. 1 overall pick Josh Hamilton) in the pipeline. Pitching is still woefully thin, but there should be more smiles from sweet Lou.
TWINS: Much of the splendid work Terry Ryan did in the last few years to overcome tightwad ownership and assemble a contender came unraveled this winter, when owner Carl Pohlad proved unwilling to keep the team together. Ryan lost his closer, Eddie Guardado, and setup man LaTroy Hawkins, and traded catcher A.J. Pierzynski and lefty Eric Milton. Ryan is hopeful that Joe Nathan, who came from the Giants in the Pierzynski deal, might step up to closer status, and homegrown top pick Joe Mauer is ready for full-time action behind the plate, but it looks like the Twins have taken a big step back toward the rest of the division.
ROYALS: So far, GM Allard Baird has held onto his All-Star outfielder, Carlos Beltran, a year away from free agency, and stirred hope in Kansas City by adding the potent bat of Juan Gonzalez, which should help offset the departure of Raul Ibanez. Another addition is ex-Giant Benito Santiago, who was benched by Felipe Alou in the playoffs last season but brings 18 years of experience behind the plate. Tony Pena worked wonders with this team last season, when it posted its first winning record since 1994 despite using 15 starting pitchers; his young arms will have to improve if he hopes to contend.
WHITE SOX: The Sox brought back former shortstop Ozzie Guillen to manage a club that made precious few offseason moves while allowing Robbie Alomar and Carl Everett to leave. GM Kenny Williams flirted with the idea of trading Magglio Ordonez to the Red Sox for Garciaparra, and because he's making $14 million and is a year away from free agency, Ordonez still could be dealt eventually. There's plenty of offense in Carlos Lee, Ordonez, Frank Thomas. Paul Konerko, and Joe Crede, but a return to form by closer Billy Koch (11 saves last season, 44 in 2002) would help.
INDIANS: It will be another season of rebuilding for the Tribe, though not one without hope. GM Mark Shapiro took the hits he had to take, including the loss of immensely popular Jim Thome, to set the Indians on a new course, but young players like Milton Bradley, Jody Gerut, C.C. Sabathia, Jason Davis, Travis Hafner, Ben Broussard, Alex Escobar, and Cliff Lee are developing and the team's best prospect, outfielder Grady Sizemore, is a step away from the big leagues.
TIGERS: After a 119-loss season, owner Mike Ilitch gave GM Dave Dombrowski the green light to spend some money, and Dombrowski responded not only by adding Rondell White and Fernando Vina to bring some needed professionalism to the club, he also made the winter's most surprising move, signing free agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year deal that could be worth $40 million and gives the club some financial relief in case I-Rod's back problems return. Did the Tigers overpay? Of course. But the team had its best single day of ticket sales the day Rodriguez signed, and the Tigers had to do something to give the fans a reason to come to the park again.
ATHLETICS: They have a Red Sox-like legacy of playoff failure to contend with, having been bounced in the first round four straight seasons, going 0-9 in elimination games. That includes last season's debacle against the Sox when they won the first two games, then lost three straight. As usual, GM Billy Beane absorbed major roster defections, losing Tejada and Foulke to free agency, but he has retooled the outfield with Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay joining a healthy Jermaine Dye; gambled that Arthur Rhodes can give him closer's stuff out of the pen; and is counting on rookie Bobby Crosby to replace Tejada at short. The A's will hold their breath that Mark Mulder is recovered from a hip injury that caused him to exit the playoff round against the Sox, but with ex-Marlin Mark Redman added to the Big Three (Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mulder) and Rich Harden showing promise as a rookie, the A's still may loom as the team to beat in the West.
ANGELS: New owner Arte Moreno created good will by lowering beer prices as one of his first acts, but there may be champagne days again in Anaheim after Moreno bought two new aces to anchor his staff, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, added a big outfield bat in Jose Guillen, then landed perhaps the biggest free agent prize of all in Vladi Guerrero. If this were Rot League baseball, the Angels would be a lock to win the division. A slow start and injuries to Troy Glaus, Darin Erstad, Adam Kennedy, David Eckstein, and Bengie Molina kept the Halos from mounting a defense of their '02 title. They still have the league's deepest bullpen, and an MVP type in Garret Anderson.
MARINERS: The timing of Sasaki's decision to return to Japan cost new GM Bill Bavasi the chance to make a serious run at Tejada with the $9.5 million he saved on Sasaki. The Mariners already had signed Guardado, who will take Sasaki's place, but they lost center fielder Mike Cameron to the Mets. Randy Winn moves over from left but won't match Cameron's Gold Glove defense, and while Ibanez, Scott Spiezio, and Rich Aurilia will upgrade the offense, none has the power to help a lineup that hit just 139 home runs last season (13th in the AL). The M's used just five starting pitchers all season, but Freddy Garcia was maddeningly inconsistent.
RANGERS: A-Rod, thwarted in his attempts to land in Boston, now is headed to the Yankees. This after he said he'd made up with manager Buck Showalter and was committed to leading a talented corps of kids that includes Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, Ramon Nivar, and Michael Young. But all the good intentions in the world can be worn down by a lack of pitching, and the pitching-poor Rangers (5.67 ERA) also lost their best starter, John Thomson, to the Braves.