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Pujols, Fielder power up American League

Major League Baseball

POSTED March 24, 2012 6:34 p.m.
The Associated Press/

Albert Pujols, left, made one of the most high-...

Albert Pujols gave the Texas Rangers an October preview of what they can expect 18 times in this season, now that the Los Angeles Angels are shelling out a hefty sum for his services.
Prince Fielder is bringing his big bat to the American League, too. He’s being paid a pot of gold to help power the Detroit Tigers to a title.
Throw in the Angels luring C.J. Wilson away from Texas and, get this, Los Angeles and Detroit combined to spend more than half a BILLION dollars for a better chance at stopping Texas’ run as AL champions at two.
And let’s not forget the rest of a restless league.
The AL East champion New York Yankees rearmed their rotation, adding Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, and welcoming back Andy Pettitte. The Red Sox hired master manipulator Bobby Valentine to manage Boston out of the historic mess it made last September. With Moneyball playing better on the big screen than in the Oakland Coliseum, the A’s spent big on Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban defector with a YouTube following.
“The American League has gotten really competitive,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “We feel we can play with anybody.”
It’s not easy being the first repeat AL champs since the Yankees from 1998-2001. Rangers president Nolan Ryan isn’t going to cede anything without a fight, though — new Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura knows all about that from his playing days.
The Hall of Fame pitcher is paying more than $107 million for Japan League ace Yu Darvish and his flashy 1.99 ERA over the past seven seasons for a shot at bringing that elusive World Series title to Texas at last.
“Our league has always been tough, but I’m pretty sure they’re excited over in Anaheim to have Albert, C.J. I think it’s kind of cool that Prince is in Detroit, you know what I mean, because everyone remembers him with his dad, following his dad around over in Detroit. It made two great teams even better,” New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “It’s scary for the whole American League, but especially for the West and Central.”
Don’t count out the East, either. With the new playoff format, the Yankees, Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays with their young aces could all make the postseason. The Toronto Blue Jays are much improved and ready to challenge the big 3, too.
“That’s the one great thing about playing for the New York Yankees is, every year you have an opportunity to, not only make great moves, but you’re going to have an opportunity to win a championship,” Jeter said. “For us, going to the World Series is not enough ... winning it (is).”
The upstart Royals led by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar want to break up that party but they’ll likely have to settle for hosting the All-Star game in July rather than the playoffs in October.
A more probable scenario is a team from the West will take that third wild card away from the beasts in the East. Texas came a strike from winning the World Series twice against St. Louis last fall and lost, and they are hungry. They bring back a lineup that led the league with a .283 average and added former Twins closer Joe Nathan to the bullpen, freeing up Neftali Feliz to enter the rotation.
The Angels missed the postseason for the second straight season and made a big move to correct that. They shelled out $240 million for Pujols, $77.5 million for Wilson and signed Chris Iannetta at catcher.
“It takes a whole team to win a World Series. It’s not just one guy who is going to carry a ballclub. I’m a big believer in that,” Pujols said. “Obviously, we know what kind of ballclub we have and our expectations are really high.”
A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:

NEW YORK YANKEES

After finishing with the best record in the AL, the Yankees made a disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs. General manager Brian Cashman didn’t go on a spending spree, but he did address the team’s main problem area: starting pitching. On one January day the Yankees traded prized prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle for Pineda, a powerhouse pitcher who was an All-Star as a rookie in 2011, and signed Kuroda. With the surprise unretirement of Pettitte, the Yankees now have an abundance of able arms to make a run at another title in what could be closer Mariano Rivera’s last season.
All-Star setup man David Robertson and Rafael Soriano are going to have to carry a heavier burden of getting the ball to Rivera. The expected return of Joba Chamberlain from elbow surgery was put off indefinitely when the big righty had surgery Thursday night after he dislocated his right ankle playing with his son.
And much hinges on the health and production of aging stars Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez — he only played 99 games last year and went for medical treatment on his knee and shoulder in Germany at the urging of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. The Yankees also need Mark Teixeira to rebound from a sluggish season and Curtis Granderson to approach the career-high numbers he reached last year.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Fresh off an inspiring run to make the playoffs on the last day of the season, the Rays enter 2012 optimistic that their young and talented pitching staff led by James Shields, David Price, and Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson will lead them to a second straight trip to the postseason.
The low-spending ballclub boosted its payroll 50 percent to about $65 million and bolstered its offense by bringing back Carlos Pena, who hit 28 homers for the Cubs in his one year away from Tampa, and signing former Orioles first baseman-outfielder Luke Scott to a $6 million deal. Scott, though, is returning from season-ending shoulder surgery in July.

BOSTON RED SOX
Boston went 7-20 in September but still would’ve made the playoffs last season with 90 wins had the new two wild-card team system been in place. Based on the lack of splashy offseason player moves, it appears the Red Sox owners believe this team has the talent to make Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary celebration extend into the postseason. To restore order to the dysfunctional clubhouse, Ben Cherington, who was promoted to GM after Theo Epstein bolted for the Cubs, turned to Valentine to replace Terry Francona. Valentine, who last managed in the major leagues in 2002, immediately banned alcohol from the clubhouse, but if the pitching staff that fell apart down the stretch doesn’t rebound, new rules might not be enough.
Former A’s closer Andrew Bailey takes over for Jonathan Papelbon, who signed with Philadelphia, and Mark Melancon could end up in the setup role if Daniel Bard moves into the rotation.
The Red Sox scored the most runs in the majors last year without much production from Carl Crawford, in the first year of a huge contract. He’s going to miss the early part of the season rehabbing a surgically repaired left wrist.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Too bad the Blue Jays are in the East because they could rack up wins in the Central or West with the unbalanced schedule. A solid lineup, led by two-time defending major league home run king Jose Bautista, and youngsters J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie should give other teams fits.
GM Alex Anthopoulos addressed Toronto’s main problem area: a bullpen that blew 25 save opportunities last year. He traded for Chicago White Sox closer Sergio Santos, right-hander Francisco Cordero and lefty Darren Oliver.
Should the Red Sox struggle, Toronto could find itself in third place.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Last season began with high hopes for a winning season after 13 straight on the losing end, but injuries and a horrible pitching staff did the Orioles in.
Pitching is still a big question mark, and Baltimore traded its workhorse Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Jason Hammel. It also signed Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada to revamp the rotation. The back end of the bullpen remains suspect with the big acquisition being Matt Lindstrom (two saves for Colorado). That means a shaky Kevin Gregg or inexperienced Jim Johnson (nine saves in 14 tries) will do the closing.

CENTRAL
DETROIT TIGERS

Winning the Central by 15 games was little comfort for the Tigers, who lost in the AL championship series. So they signed Fielder ($214 million) to complement Miguel Cabrera in a formidable middle of the order. Cabrera, though, was forced to move to third to accommodate the burly Fielder and he took a grounder in the face last week that required stitches. With Victor Martinez out possibly for the entire season after having knee surgery, Cabrera could see time at DH, too.
With AL MVP and CY Young Justin Verlander and trade-deadline acquisition Doug Fister leading the rotation, Jose Valverde should get plenty of chances to match his perfect 49 for 49 record in save opportunities and Detroit should again run away with the division.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

The Indians could improve upon their 80-82 season even without the oft-injured Grady Sizemore, who had back surgery in March, and starter Roberto Hernandez (aka Fausto Carmona), stuck in the Dominican Republic for now after settling his identity fraud case. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jiminez and newcomer Derek Lowe need to prove solid starters and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo must also remain healthy. The addition of first baseman Casey Kotchman is no match for division-leading Detroit’s addition of Fielder.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
The youthful Royals appear to have what it takes to surprise some teams.
Pitching will be the real determining factor, and Kansas City’s bullpen already had a major setback when closer Joakim Soria walked off the mound with ligament damage in his elbow last week. Former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, coming back from an injury-plagued season, might have to step into the stopper role. Acquiring Jonathan Sanchez from the San Francisco Giants should help a weak rotation.

MINNESOTA TWINS
Here’s to the Twins’ health. The perennial Central contenders lost 99 games last year in no small part because Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Justin Morneau were out for extended periods with injuries. If they have similar problems this year things could even be worse for Minnesota, which lost Michael Cuddyer to free agency.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
If they were “All In” last season, these White Sox are “hardly in” this year. In refashioning mode, the White Sox traded Santos and slugger Carlos Quentin for prospects, and let ace Mark Buehrle walk without making any big moves in the offseason — other than hiring Ventura, who once was pummeled by Ryan in a fight after getting hit by a pitch when they were players.
For the White Sox even to be competitive, they need Adam Dunn to add at least 100 points to his pathetic .159 average from his first year with Chicago and new ace John Danks to get off to a good start after opening 0-8 last season. Oh, a healthy Jake Peavy would help, too — he hasn’t played a full season since he arrived in 2009.

WEST
TEXAS RANGERS

So close, twice. But the Rangers are confident they have the pieces to finally win that World Series championship. Sure they added Darvish and Nathan, but for the most part remain intact from last season.
Texas gave 16-game winner Derek Holland a five-year contract and hard-throwing closer Feliz is moving into the rotation. Nathan will take over at closer now that he is healthy after having Tommy John surgery in 2010.
Baseball’s best offense remains intact. But 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton has been troubled by injuries and had an alcohol relapse this offseason.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Expectations are sky-high for the Angles after spending through the roof in the offseason to sign Pujols and Wilson.
Pujols will hit third in a lineup that has Mark Trumbo coming off a stellar rookie year and should include the return of Kendry Morales, who’s been out since breaking his ankle in a celebration at home plate in 2010. Pujols’ arrival might even help Vernon Wells rebound from a difficult start to his Angels career. Iannetta should boost the meager offensive production the club got from the catcher position last year.
Veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen were signed to help shore up an average bullpen.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The A’s surprised baseball by giving Cespedes a $36 million, four-year deal, and signing Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal, hoping he can find his swing by the time his 50-game drug suspension is up at the end of May and give a boost to an anemic offense.
At the same time GM Billy Beane dismantled a pitching staff that had the third best ERA in the AL last year, trading All-Star starter Gio Gonzalez, All-Star closer Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill.

SEATTLE MARINERS
The Mariners lost a team-record 17 in a row, hit a majors worst .233 and scored only 556 runs last year and the only potent bat they acquired this winter was Montero — and they had to trade Pineda to get him.
Instead, the Mariners expect promising youngsters Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp and Montero to help lift the team out of the offensive doldrums. It might not be enough with Chone Figgins, who hit .188 last year, in the leadoff spot as Ichiro Suzuki moves to third.
On the bright side, the Mariners have 2010 Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez and are flush with pitching prospects. Hector Noesi — who arrived in the Montero deal — and 23-year-old Blake Beavan will be joined by veteran Kevin Millwood in the rotation to start the season.


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