x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Yankees and Red Sox face competition from the pack

The emergence of other teams willing to spend should make for a competitive season in major league baseball, Sean McAdam predicts.

New York Yankees, the world series champions, are expected to dominate again. But they are by no means the obvious choice to win this year.
New York Yankees, the world series champions, are expected to dominate again. But they are by no means the obvious choice to win this year.

A year ago, the baseball season began with allegations that Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees third baseman, took performance enhancing drugs. This spring, while Rodriguez is dogged by suggestions that he was associated with an unsavoury doctor in Canada, the game has been relatively scandal-free.

And that is how it should be. Spring is the season for optimism and about half of the game's 30 teams enter the year with reasonable hopes for the post-season. The Yankees, who romped to a division title and encountered little resistance in the play-offs, are again the favourites to win the World Series, but by no means are they considered dead-certs. Once more, the American League East may be home to the three best teams in baseball - the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays - and yet, at most, only two can qualify for the post-season.

While rich teams such as the Yanks and Red Sox, who meet in tonight's season opener, will continue to dominate, other teams have managed to qualify for the upper middle class. The Minnesota Twins, about to open a mostly public-funded ballpark, spent freely in the off-season, then made the most important move of any team in March by signing their catcher, Joe Mauer, on an eight-year contract extension. The best team in the National League are Philadelphia, who have won the last two NL championships. Most encouraging of all was the arrival of some good prospects. It's been some time since baseball had a list of rookies as good as Washington's Stephen Strasburg, Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman and Atlanta's Jason Heyward.

The Yankees are the defending champions, and thus the team to beat. They've upgraded their rotation with the addition of Javier Vazquez and are more athletic with the arrival of Curtis Granderson.

Boston spent the off-season focusing on run prevention, and upgraded four positions in the field while signing John Lackey. Their rotation might be the deepest, although there are some legitimate questions about their offence. Tampa Bay, two years removed from the AL pennant, might have their best collection of talent - and still miss the play-offs. After 12 consecutive losing seasons, the Baltimore Orioles are, finally, heading in the right direction. Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, the outfielders, and catcher Matt Wieters form a great nucleus, but the young pitchers have not caught up in their development - yet. Toronto traded Roy Halladay five months too late, and now must start their rebuilding process all over again.

In a flawed division, Chicago White Sox have the best starting pitching and that should be enough for them to win. The newcomer, Juan Pierre, adds speed to the top of an otherwise average line-up.

Minnesota would have been the pick here. They have the division's best player (Mauer) and another former MVP (Justin Morneau) in the line-up. But the loss of Joe Nathan, the closer, will be too much to overcome. Detroit Tigers shuffled some pieces, but there are too many holes in their line-up and as good a one-two punch as Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello are, the rotation might be otherwise thin.

It is hard to believe that Cleveland Indians were a win away from the World Series just three years ago. They have some intriguing young players and the word is Fausto Carmona has regained his form. That will make them interesting, but not contenders. Kansas City have little going for them beyond the Cy Young Award-winner, Zack Greinke, pitching every five days.

There are plenty of candidates poised to knock off the perennial champions of this division, but none seem ready. So the Los Angeles Angels are still the pick, based somewhat on default and more than a little based on their rotation, which has depth none of the other clubs can match. Seattle added Chone Figgins to their line-up and Cliff Lee to the rotation, but there are too many question marks in the rotation beyond the top two of Lee and Felix Hernandez. Will troubled Milton Bradley undo the improved chemistry?

Texas remained in the race much longer than anyone could have forecast last season, but Rich Harden, obtained to lead the inexperienced rotation, has not looked good in spring training. Then there is the matter of Ron Washington, the manager, whose recreational drug use last summer was revealed this spring and could be something of a liability if the team do not start well. Oakland tried to give money to potential free agents all winter and finally got Ben Sheets, a starting pitcher, to bite. But Sheets was off form in spring training and their offence might be the worst in the league.

Pennant winners in each of the last two seasons, Philadelphia are clearly the class of not just the division but the entire National League. Halladay gives them a true ace, though they continue to be second-guessed for trading Cliff Lee rather than pairing him with Halladay. This is Bobby Cox's final year in the Atlanta dugout and the Braves are particularly motivated to send him out a winner. The offence is a question, but Heyward, the hot-shot rookie, will help.

The Florida Marlins always seem capable of doing more with less. The rotation, headed by Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, is very strong and in Hanley Ramirez, they have one of the five best players in the game. What else can go wrong for New York Mets? Two of their three best players - the shortstop Jose Reyes and the outfielder Carlos Beltran - won't be ready for the start of the season. Washington Nationals do not have much, but in time they will have Stasburg, the phenom pitcher, which is a start.

The St Louis Cardinals have the best rotation in the division and the best player in the league in Albert Pujols. That should be enough to win the division. A bounce-back season could happen for Chicago Cubs, who rid themselves of Milton Bradley and have a healthy Alfonso Soriano for a change. Their pitching, as always, is suspect. A team to watch are Cincinnati Reds, who were the surprise winners in the bidding for Chapman, a pitcher from Cuba.

Milwaukee made the play-offs in 2008 but seem to have slipped since. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder anchor the line-up. Perhaps the new pitching coach, Rick Peterson, will get more from the young arms. Pittsburgh are not anywhere close to ending their streak of 17 successive losing seasons, but the presence of some young players - with Pedro Alvarez waiting in the wings - could lift them out of the cellar. It is not starting well for Houston Astros. Their best pitcher, Roy Oswalt, has had spring injuries, and their best hitter, Lance Berkman, has, too.

The Colorado Rockies were the best team in the National League for the final four months after Jim Tracy took over. They have the best pitching in the division and a possible MVP in the shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The Los Angeles Dodgers have reached the post-season in last two seasons, but their rotation has holes that have not been addressed.

The San Francisco Giants boast of having the two-time Cy Young Award-winner, Tim Lincecum, and a super No 2 starter, Matt Cain, behind him, but they do not score enough runs to support them. Arizona hope that Brandon Webb can return to the mound in late April or May to boost the rotation. If the San Diego Padres begin poorly, the focus will immediately turn to a sell-off of the closer Heath Bell and the first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.