Last season nearly ended in disaster when the player’s association went on strike for several hours before ultimately settling without missing any games. But the season went on, and after defeating the heavily favored Yankees and the Twins in the American League playoffs, the Angels came back from a huge deficit in game six of the World Series to beat the Giants and proceed win the series the following night. Their victory also put an end to the myth that teams need to spend big money in order to win championships. Of the four American League teams to make the playoffs last season, only the Yankees are a big market team. The A.L. standings should appear somewhat similar this year, with few teams revamped enough to truly contend for a playoff spot.

East1. New York Yankees – as usual, the Bronx Bombers made headlines all winter. They signed Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui, a.k.a. Godzilla, and replaced the departed El Duque with another Cuban, Jose Contreras. Their big question comes in the bullpen, where Mariano Rivera was injured for parts of last season, Mike Stanton moved across town to the Mets, and Steve Karsay has a shoulder injury. Pitcher David Wells, manager Joe Torre and shortstop Derek Jeter all got in trouble with owner George Steinbrenner over the winter, but that shouldn’t stop the Yanks and their $170 million payroll.

2. Boston Red Sox – like the Yankees, their bullpen raises some big questions. They have the depth, but their decision to go without a definitive closer could ultimately make or break their season. Manny Ramirez remains an RBI machine, and Nomar Garciaparra is one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe finished second and third in Cy Young voting, but the Sox will only go as far as those two can carry them. They will battle into October, and would make a formidable opponent in the short first round.

3. Toronto Blue Jays – Roy Halliday established himself last season as one of the top young pitchers in baseball, but one man can’t carry a team. That’s why the enigmatic Carlos Delgado will need to improve upon his numbers from last season and return to the Triple Crown threat of 2000. If he has a huge season and gets some help from veteran outfielder Shannon Stewart and sophomore third baseman Eric Hinske, the Jays could make a run at the Wild Card. If not, it’s going to be a long season north of the border.

4. Baltimore Orioles – their spring got off on a horrible note when pitcher Steve Bechler overheated during a workout and died of heatstroke the following day. Although Bechler wasn’t considered an impact player, his death could leave a dark cloud over an already weak team. They have potential in pitcher Jorge Julio, who last year became a solid closer with 25 saves and a 1.99 earned run average, starter Rodrigo Lopez, and outfielder Jay Gibbons, but are still a year away from contending.

5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays – an argument can be made that Lou Piniella is baseball’s version of Bill Parcells, as he has already turned around three teams, and now he looks to bring respectability to the D-Rays for the first time in their short history. He has set realistic goals this season, aiming for 75 wins out of an inexperienced team. With Piniella in charge and a group of solid young prospects, in three seasons Tampa might just contend for a playoff spot.

Central1. Minnesota Twins – this season, there won’t be any surprises from the Twins, as the baseball world is now well aware of their capabilities. Torii Hunter became known for his solid hitting and his outstanding defense, and Jacques Jones is no slouch in left field. Brad Radke leads a strong pitching staff, and Eddie Guardado came out of nowhere to post 45 saves in 2002. They should contend for the division championship, but opponents will no longer take them lightly so they need to be up for the challenge.

2. Chicago White Sox – trading for ace pitcher Bartolo Colon could be the best move of the off season. Colon, along with lefty Mark Buehrle, form a scary 1-2 pitching combination. They also acquired closer Billy Koch for Keith Foulke, who struggled last season. First baseman Paul Konerko put together a stellar season and outfielder Magglio Ordonez is possibly the most underrated player in baseball. Frank Thomas appears past his prime, but a team that will battle for the division lead all season needs his help.

3. Kansas City Royals – Mike Sweeney’s homerun total fell slightly from the previous two seasons, but fans in Kansas City can hardly complain about his production, as he batted .340, finishing second in the A. L. Carlos Beltran and Sweeney form a great 3-4 combo in the batting order, but there’s not much else there. Trading Paul Byrd will hurt their pitching rotation, which is without any solid starters. Only an awful division keeps them out of last place.

4. Cleveland Indians – the Tribe made a very tough decision this winter when it parted with All-Star first baseman Jim Thome. They still have veterans Ellis Burks, Matt Lawton, Omar Vizquel, but this young team has finally entered the inevitable rebuilding phase that follows nearly a decade of success. If outfield prospect Alex Escobar can return to form and continue to develop, and pitcher C.C. Sabathia continues to improve, Cleveland will rebound quickly and could once again contend in a few years.

5. Detroit Tigers – between the Tigers and the Lions, all the city needs are some bears to form a circus. The outfield wall was moved in to make fan friendly Comerica Park more hitter friendly, and former shortstop Alan Trammell was hired as manager to try to fix things. First baseman Carlos Pena is a top prospect, but by the time the Red Wings end their season, the Tigers will already be out of playoff contention.West

1. Oakland Athletics – with a pitching staff that includes Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, the A’s are the favorite to win the division. With Miguel Tejada in his last year in Oakland, this might be their last real chance to contend for a World Series. Trading Billy Koch could come back to haunt them if Keith Foulke struggles, but if all goes as planned, the A’s will end this season with their first championship since the Mark McGwire era.

2. Anaheim Angels – the Halos had little pressure heading into last season, as nobody expected they would win it all. But now that they are the defending champs, they will be the team to beat, making their job much tougher. Their roster has remained relatively intact, and the emergence of reliever Francisco Rodriguez last fall will help if he can continue to make batters look foolish like he did in the playoffs. They are a Wild Card team, but any setbacks could drop them out of contention.

3. Seattle Mariners – after allowing Lou Piniella to return home to manage in Tampa, they replaced him with rookie skipper Bob Melvin. Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer lead a solid rotation, and Kaz Sazaki is one of the top closers in baseball. Ichiro, Mike Cameron and Randy Winn form possibly the top outfield in the game, and they also have an excellent infield. But the M’s are in baseball’s toughest division, which could prevent them from getting the Wild Card even if they finish second in the West.

4. Texas Rangers – Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro are both dangerous hitters, and Alex Rodriguez is still baseball’s best all around player. The loss of catcher Ivan Rodriguez won’t hurt too badly, as Einar Diaz is a capable replacement. Until Texas management learns that pitching wins, it will remain in last place.

Swidler can be reached at

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