The Royals as contenders? You bet:
OK, so they probably aren't going to be this year's Rays, but for no other reason than we may not see a 2008 Rays kind of season for years to come. But there are several reasons for legitimate optimism here:
Since 2005, the Royals' win total has increased from 62 to 69 to 75, suggesting that not only is a winning season (the second since 1993) a real possibility, but a total organizational building effort could produce a solid run of relative success.
The payroll has edged up to a club record of around $70 million, and most of the spending has been wise. The Gil Meche signing has proven a lot of people wrong, and this winter the Royals were willing to take on salaries to fill primary needs — namely, left-handed power and a leadoff hitter/center fielder.
Those have been filled by Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp, the latter of whom brings an edge the Royals also can use. There's also a good chance that Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth — two more relatively pricey additions — can be better than the two departed relievers they replaced, Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez.
“I came here with an open mind, not having seen much of them. I like what I see,'' one NL-team scout said.
The other ingredient here is an American League Central that has no favorite, no obvious 90-win team in the mix. You can make division-winning cases for the Indians and Twins, but they have their issues, too.
Sleepers and breakout candidates:
The Los Angeles Angels were the best team in the Cactus League, and it wasn't really close. They outscored opponents by just more than three runs per game, and that was despite starting rotation members landing on the injured list in alarming numbers.
In 377 big-league at-bats over parts of the last three seasons, Morales has 12 homers and 45 RBI. He's going way beyond those numbers in 2009.
If you didn't already know it, Shin-Soo Choo's blast over the center-field wall at Dodger Stadium off Team USA's Roy Oswalt in the WBC semifinal game should convince you: This guy can hit, and he has more power than you think.
Choo, 25, put up some impressive numbers (.992 OPS) against right-handed pitching last season, and is expected to get more of an opportunity to play against lefties.
That will translate into bigger power numbers than the 14 homers and 66 RBI he put up in 2008. And that means Choo — the second Korean position player to reach the big leagues (following Hee-Seop Choi) — is about to cement his place as the best Korean position player to reach the big leagues.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Bradley has played more than 100 games in the outfield only once in his career, and is 31; Fukudome's spring has done little to ease concern about his steep 2008 second-half decline; and if Derrek Lee's production continues to slip, there could be even more at-bats for Hoffpauir to grab.
There is life in Andruw Jones' bat, after all:
Two springs ago, Rudy Jaramillo was talking Sammy Sosa to anybody who would listen.
Sure enough, Jaramillo, the Rangers' highly regarded hitting instructor, proved correct, and Sosa led the Rangers with 92 RBI in a comeback season after sitting out 2006.
Which brings us to this spring and Andruw Jones, who is trying to resuscitate a brilliant career that alarmingly has spiraled to this: trying to make the Rangers as a fifth outfielder/right-handed bat off the bench.
Jaramillo has been Jones' biggest backer, talking about Jones' new-found receptiveness to instruction (a long-standing knock), mechanical refinements and regained confidence last amidst a horrendous 2008 with the Dodgers.
Sure enough, the Rangers, who need another right-handed power bat, kept Jones over Frank Catalanotto, and Jaramillo's proclamation that Jones 'can help our club' will get a chance to play out. Count on Jaramillo being right again.
The envelope, please...:
NL East: New York (91-71), Philadelphia (88-74), Atlanta (84-78), Florida (76-86), Washington (68-94).
NL Central: Chicago, (93-69) St. Louis (85-77), Milwaukee (84-78), Cincinnati (79-83), Houston (72-90), Pittsburgh (66-96).
NL West: Los Angeles (88-74), Arizona (84-78), San Francisco (77-85), Colorado (76-86), San Diego (69-93).
AL East: Boston (96-66), New York (90-72), Tampa Bay (89-73), Toronto (76-86), Baltimore (74-88).
AL Central: Minnesota (87-75), Cleveland (86-76), Kansas City (84-78), Detroit (78-84), Chicago (77-85).
AL West: Los Angeles (90-72), Oakland (79-83), Texas (75-87), Seattle (69-93).
NL pennant winner: Cubs. AL pennant winner: Boston. World Series winner: Boston.
HBT: Carlos Ruiz was lifted from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Reds after straining his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the second inning.
Baseball fans hit the road
FirstPerson: Been on a baseball odyssey? Our readers share their favorite photos, and it's not too late to send yours!
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.