On the surface the AL East looks like a two-horse race with the Orioles, Devil Rays and Blue Jays left at the starting gate by the Yankees and Red Sox, but with the addition of Sammy Sosa to supplement what was already one of the AL's strongest lineups, Baltimore has the offense to put a scare into some teams. The key to its season is how much the young pitching staff has developed under guru Ray Miller.
Worth Every Penny
For years, the AL boasted the big three shortstops, but now there's one clear king of the hill among major league middle infielders. Miguel Tejada was last season's MLB RBI champ and is one of the few sure things in all of baseball. He hasn't missed a game since 2000 and keeps improving each season. He enters the year as a 28-year old so he'll be in the prime of his career and projects to be a keeper for years.
About to Blossom
Left fielder Larry Bigbie is the classic left-handed, line-drive hitter reminiscent of a young Paul O'Neill. Last season he got a bit more lift in his swing and generated some power. In fact, it was the first time in his pro career that he hit 15 home runs at any level in a single season. Look for the upward trend to continue and he'll hover around .300 with 20 home runs and 75 RBIs this year.
Going into this season, projected closer B.J. Ryan has saved six major league games. He's also blown 12 -- not exactly a stellar record. However, he struck out 122 batters in only 87 innings last year (a rate of 1.4 per inning) and in his career has struck out 365 in 311 innings. He gets the nod as Lee Mazzilli's closer.
Do You Feel Lucky?
Rafael Palmeiro is 40 years old and coming his first season with less than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs since the 1994 strike. He'll now hit in a lineup with more protection than ever and is making an effort to make himself more attractive to Hall of Fame voters, so despite a loss of bat speed, one last outstanding season is possible. Not probably mind you, but possible.
With Jerry Hairston gone to the Cubs in the Sosa trade, second base belongs to Brian Roberts without any challenge. Last season he stole 29 bases. That followed 23 steals as a part timer in 2003. There's no reason to think that Roberts won't remain aggressive on the base paths. If anything, look for Roberts to get the green light and run whenever he can. If he can hold onto the starting center field job, Luis Matos could challenge Roberts for the team lead. If not, Roberts still should be good for 15 to 20 steals.
If Something Should Happen To B.J. Ryan
If you look only at the numbers from the past two seasons, it would seem like a no-brainier that Jorge Julio would be the choice not only to be the emergency closer, but also compete with Ryan for the job. However Steve Kline, brought in to free Ryan up from his southpaw set-up duties, has successfully served as a solid Plan B in the past with the Expos and Cards, and will find likely his way into that role again if needed. In the meantime, he should become one of the better AL pitchers for vulture wins.
Don't Forget About
Jay Lopez, Jay Gibbons, Erik Beard, David Newman
Don't Bother With
Chris Gomez, Sidney Ponson, Matt Riley
David Sabino is the associate editor in charge of statistics at Sports Illustrated and the author of the book, Dominate Your Fantasy Baseball League (Muska & Lipman/Premier-Trade).