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Published:January 31st, 2007 09:27 EST
Indians, Yankees top AL winter

Indians, Yankees top AL winter

By Nick Pauly

Three weeks remain until the revival of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, as the hot-stove begins to simmer.

What an offseason it was - nearly as perplexing as stunning as the 2006 postseason. Was there even one free agent who signed for less than we expected?

The biggest question of this winter will be how such bloated contracts will affect Major League teams a few years down the road, and whether this surge of spending could lead to a market crash in baseball sometime in the next decade.

But for now, we focus on the offseason's effect on 2007, covering the teams that improved the most and the teams that slid the most.

Of course, baseball is about as predictable as tomorrow's DJIA performance, and all baseball "expert" outlooks should be tossed out the window come opening day. So don't come up to me in September to laugh in my face if the Yankees are fighting with the Devil Rays for 3rd place.

In this column, we will focus on the most improved and least improved American League teams, with the National League coming next week.

Heading up

Cleveland Indians - The club from northern Ohio has slipped under the headlines, but they have made significant strides to improve more toward their 2005 form. Most important, the Tribe has gotten themselves a bullpen. The days of Fausto Carmona in the closer's role surrendering walk-off hits in three straight games would appear to be over. The Indians have locked up Roberto Hernandez, Joe Borowski and Keith Foulke for '07, all three of whom were closers at some point over the last two seasons.

Josh Barfield should also make a great compliment to leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore, and the new additions of Trot Nixon and David Dellucci sure up the outfield production.

The ultra-competitiveness of the AL Central might dim the Tribe's chances of moving up to third place, but they have certainly had the most productive offseason in the league.

New York Yankees - Let's not kid ourselves into thinking the Yankees have not been a dominant team over the last few years, as they have helped themselves to six consecutive division titles even after their last World Series crown.

But to the dismay of Yankee fans, the Bronx Bombers have lost their identity of the late 1990s, often resulting in what has seemed to be gutless performances in the postseason.

It's all about addition by subtraction, and the Yankees have subtracted three major cases - and contracts. Gary Sheffield was shipped off to the Tigers, Randy Johnson to the Diamondbacks, and Jaret Wright to the Orioles, ridding the Bronx Bombers of two old and injury-prone head cases and a five-inning starter.

Maybe we expected A-rod to be donning a different uniform at this point, but that's a story for another day right there.

The Yanks also made their headlines re-signing postseason hero Andy Pettitte - a one-year deal for 16 million was almost a steal with this winter's market for arms. Acquiring Luis Viscaino puts less of a burden on the not-so-consistent Kyle Farnsworth, and Doug Mientkiewicz bolsters the defense on the right side of the infield - as much as every Yankee fan was hoping to see Jason Giambi scoop 'em at first.

Most importantly, the departure of Sheffield and Johnson and the probable end of Bernie Williams' years in New York will open the door the to the likes of the young Melky Cabrera, Scott Proctor and possibly Phil Hughes.

The Yanks took their first step this winter toward the identity they had between 1996 and 2001. Championships are won by team performance, not by the number of representatives in the All-Star Game.

Heading down

Chicago White Sox
- It looked like the makings of a dynasty; the Sox seemed to be the team to beat last spring, coming off a championship and four quality arms, all of whom pitched complete games in the 2005 postseason.

But if there's one thing we saw, it's that Chicago's staff was not quite as good as we thought, as Sox pitchers ranked 10th in the league in ERA.

The White Sox shipped off Freddy Garcia, a 17-game winner, for unproven commodities in Gavin Floyd and Giovanny Gonzalez. They also traded their prized young pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who would have slid in nicely to the extra spot in the rotation, to the Texas Rangers.

If the White Sox are going to attempt another run at the title, they will have to hope that Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras rebound from their abysmal second contributions in '06 and find a solution to the fifth spot in the rotation - the highly touted Floyd has yet to prove he can put it together, holding a 1.74 WHIP and a 6.96 ERA in 108.2 major league innings.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays - It's tough to criticize the offseason of an expansion team that's only finished out of the cellar once in its nine-year history. However, I think it's about time this team tries to find a pitcher who can provide more than 150 innings.

I like the signing of Akinori Iwamura, the 27-year-old third baseman who hit a career .300 in Japan, to a three year $7.7 million deal, but offense is not what Tampa Bay needs. If the Rays ever going to get out of the cellar and earn some respectability, they will need to find a solution to the rotation that goes beyond Scott Kazmir.

Between Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Jorge Cantu, BJ Upton and Delmon Young, the Rays should have plenty of young chips to acquire a consistent starting pitcher or two.

A reliever with an ERA below six wouldn't hurt either.

Next week we will examine the ups and downs of the National League this offseason.

*This column was published in the Rutgers Daily Targum, Jan. 23, and modified for the SOP, Jan. 30.