February 18, 2008

The AL East remains the game's glamour division, but the Red Sox and Yankees could be challenged by Toronto, and an emerging Tampa team is building a contender.

Where: Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 69-93 (4th, AL East)

New guys: Matt Albers,Adam Jones,Troy Patton,Guillermo Quiroz, Chris Roberson, Dennis Sarfate, Luke Scott, George Sherrill

Gone guys: Paul Bako, Erik Bedard, Rob Bell, Chris Gomez, Corey Patterson, Miguel Tejada

Wow, he's still here?Brian Roberts has been on his way to the Cubs for the better part of a year without actually being dealt. The trade makes sense for both teams, but it appears that the baseball people still don't make all the decisions in Baltimore, hence it hasn't been consummated.

Winter grade: A-. The Bedard trade jumped them from a C+ -- primarily for the so-so haul for Tejada -- to an A-. It was the perfect move for a team that hasn't drafted and developed Adam Jones-caliber talent in a while.

NRI (Non-Roster Invite) to watch: The only pure prospect -- someone with no MLB experience -- to come over in the Tejada deal, Mike Costanzo could push for a job immediately in camp. The left-handed hitter with the so-so glove won't force Melvin Mora off of third base; however, he could be a comparable player to Kevin Millar or Aubrey Huff right now, and could worm his way into some time at first.

Job battle to track: The Orioles don't have a major league shortstop in the organization, and seem prepared to go with Braves reject Luis Hernandez, whose career Triple-A line is .217/.217/.283 with no walks and no steals in about 100 PA. No one's glove makes up for that, so Brandon Fahey, who's also terrible, could slide into a job. They need to find a patch to cover them for themselves for the year.

One move to make: Well, acquiring a shortstop better than Nate Silver would help. After closing the Bedard deal, Adam Jones becomes the Orioles' best prospect since Mike Mussina, the kind of franchise building block they haven't drafted in a long time, at least before taking Matt Wieters last year. Bedard wouldn't be able to get this team above .500, much less into contention, so he won't be missed.

Baseball fans under the age of 30 have little memory of a time when the Orioles were one of the game's flagship franchises, the team of Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer. Now, the Orioles are a member of the underclass, without a winning season since 1997 and with just two post-season appearances in nearly a quarter-century. They've become irrelevant, and only a complete teardown and rebuild, lasting three or four years and comprising several successful drafts, will make it better. There aren't many teams who enter March lacking hope and faith. The Orioles are one of them.

Where: Fort Myers, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 96-66 (1st, AL East)

New guys: David Aardsma

Gone guys: Brendan Donnelly, Eric Gagné, Eric Hinske

Wow, he's still here?Coco Crisp, who was made expendable late last year by the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury, and in fact lost his job to the rookie in the postseason.

Winter grade: W (withdrawal). They didn't do anything, effectively withdrawing from the class. That's not a criticism, just an observation. The Red Sox Opening Day roster may well feature 22 of the 25 guys who were on their World Series roster.

NRI to watch: Journeyman right-hander Lee Gronkiewicz has a 2.48 career ERA in the minors with nearly a 4:1 career K/BB. That ratio was 85/12 last year in 78 2/3 innings at three levels. There's not much room in Fenway's bullpen, but an injury to somebody could create an opportunity for the veteran to be this year's Lee Gardner.

Job battle to track: Crisp versus Ellsbury is the only thing close to one, and it will be interesting to see how manager Terry Francona distributes playing time between those two plus J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez in the corners. The latter two players need enough days off to make the Sox' fourth-outfielder role a regular job. There's a lot of talk about Jed Lowrie versus Julio Lugo at shortstop; realistically, Lugo will have to completely fail again to make that contest happen.

One move to make: It's hard to find one. A fifth outfielder better than Brandon Moss wouldn't hurt, and they do have six starters for five slots, so there's an issue there. This is the best team in baseball, as much a favorite to repeat as any team since the 1999 Yankees. They have frontline talent and depth, they can score and prevent runs, and they have prospects and money with which to make an major add-on in-season if they need to do so. Buck up, New England sports fans; your long stretch of disappointments will end soon.

Where: Tampa, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 94-68 (2nd, AL East)

New guys: Jonathan Albaladejo, LaTroy Hawkins

Gone guys: Roger Clemens, Tyler Clippard, Doug Mientkiewicz, Andy Phillips, Ron Villone, Luis Vizcaino

Wow, he's still here?Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract amid threats by the Yankees front office that doing so would end his time with the team. Lo and behold, he's back, he's even more wealthy, and he's all but expected to hit 800 career home runs.

Winter grade: B-. They didn't add much, but retaining irreplaceable parts in Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada kept the winter from being a complete disaster.

NRI to watch: Ex-Met/Indian/National Billy Traber is in camp. Lefties have hit .210/.303/.310 off of him in 232 career PAs, and the Yankees have a need for at least one lefty reliever, particularly a specialist.

Job battle to track: When you spend $200 million on a baseball team, you really should end up with a better collection of first-base candidates than this. With Jason Giambi set as the DH, Shelly Duncan, Wilson Betemit, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, and perhaps a leftover outfielder are all vying for playing time at the cold corner.

One move to make: Trading for a real first baseman, of course. Beyond that, the Yankees need to commit to Melky Cabrera as the everyday center fielder, even if it means making Johnny Damon a $13 million fourth outfielder. They need Cabrera's defense, and Cabrera needs 600 plate appearances to develop his power and be the player he can be.

For the first time in a long time, the Yankees open spring training as a considerable underdog to win the AL East. The Red Sox have moved far ahead of them, as the financial investments they made in older players have paid off a bit better than those that the Yankees made, and their farm system is about a year ahead of the Yankees in supplying inexpensive, good young players. The Yankees aren't necessarily playing for the wild card, but that slot -- beating out the Indians -- is a more realistic goal than first place in the AL East.

Where: St. Petersburg, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 66-96 (5th, AL East)

New guys: Jason Bartlett, Cliff Floyd, Matt Garza, Troy Percival

Gone guys: Shawn Camp, Elijah Dukes, Casey Fossum, Brendan Harris, Greg Norton, Josh Paul, Mark Salas, Jae Seo, Brian Stokes, Josh Wilson, Delmon Young

Wow, he's still here?Rocco Baldelli has played in just 127 games since the end of the 2004 season, killing the Rays' ability to trade him. Still just 26, he'll be a right fielder this year if he can stay on the field.

Winter grade:A-. The Young-for-Garza trade was an excellent example of an organization that has developed a lot of talent now shaping that talent into the form of a baseball team. Adding Percival, who pitched well last year, can't hurt a bullpen that was hideous in 2007.

NRI to watch:Evan Longoria isn't on the 40-man roster yet. He will be by March 30, and will start the season as the Rays' third baseman. Longoria is one of the best prospects in baseball, an Edgar Martinez-caliber hitter with a much better glove. He's the frontrunner for AL Rookie the Year.

Job battle to track: For a team that has such a history of poor records, the Rays come into '08 with a fairly set roster. If Baldelli can't go, you might see some push to play Justin Ruggiano in right field, rather than risk moving the entertainment-value platoon of Cliff Floyd and Jonny Gomes out into the pasture. It's also possible that prospects Jacob McGee and Wade Davis could push Edwin Jackson and Andrew Sonnanstine at the back of the rotation, although it's more likely that those first two come up at midseason.

One move to make: There's not much in the way of lefty relievers to be found, which is one reason why Brian Anderson has washed ashore in St. Pete this spring. The Angels, and to a lesser extent the 2007 Diamondbacks, have shown that you don't need to micromanage a pen to be successful. However, the unbalanced schedule puts David Ortiz and J.D. Drew in front of the Rays 19 times, and Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi 19 more. Finding someone to shave 300 points of OPS off critical ABs 30 times a year in the division would be a good idea.

First win of the season: Joe Sheehan not using "Devil" in the section header. That cost Will Carroll some money, I guarantee you. That win will be followed by many more this season; the Rays are poised to crack .500 for the first time behind a vastly improved defense and bullpen, and the best rotation in team history. They'll score, too, even if Carlos Peña doesn't reprise his Jim Thome impersonation this year. This is a good baseball team, and maybe the worst Rays team of the next six years.

Where: Dunedin, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 83-70 (3rd, AL East)

New guys:Rod Barajas, Buck Coats, David Eckstein, Scott Rolen, Marco Scutaro

Gone guys:Troy Glaus, Jason Phillips, Josh Towers

Wow, he's still here? The Jays don't have an obvious spot for Matt Stairs, with a full-time DH and good young players on the outfield corners. Nevertheless, they signed the veteran hitter to a two-year deal for just $3.25 million this winter, a bargain.

Winter grade: B- The Stairs deal was canceled out by the inexplicable decision to sign David Eckstein on the heels of giving a two-year deal to John McDonald. Judging Glaus-for-Rolen is guesswork, because it's all about whether Rolen can stay healthy. The trade does upgrade the infield defense for a team that is loaded with ground-ball pitchers.

NRI to watch:Jamie Vermilyea remains one of my favorite minor-league pitchers, a ground-ball machine with a career major-league ERA of 0.00 in six innings. It would be nice to see him get a chance while he's young enough to turn it into something. He's a healthier version of Brandon League.

Job battle to track: McDonald is arguably the best defensive shortstop in the AL, one of the few players whose glove really does carry his bat. While Eckstein provides more OBP, McDonald's overall value will be higher. This is especially true for the Blue Jays, who have four ground-ball pitchers in the rotation, and four others in the bullpen. If Eckstein is the starter, the Jays will be hurt considerably, but if McDonald is the starter, they could be among the league leaders in run prevention.

One move to make: With all due respect to Stairs and Frank Thomas, this team is one big hitter short. They're paying Vernon Wells to be that guy, and he's just not. Having a non-hitter at first base doesn't help things. As good as Adam Lind could be, and as ridiculous as this might sound, Barry Bonds is a better fit for the Blue Jays he is than for any other AL contender.

With Thomas and A.J. Burnett probably leaving after this season, the Jays have a lot riding on 2008. The problem of chasing two juggernauts persists. However, this may be the best 25-man roster the Jays have had since 1993, and if they can stay out of their own way -- by not doing silly things like playing Eckstein or making Reed Johnson a regular -- they can push the Yankees and Indians for the wild-card slot. The Jays shot themselves in the foot last year with some spring decisions; not doing so in 2008 will be the difference between contending and disappointing.

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