A season of change

KEN FIDLIN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

DUNEDIN -- The Yankees may have left the door ajar for the rest of the American League but, let's be honest, there just isn't enough room for all the worthy contenders to slide through.

Coming off a trying season, the Yankees are in a transition period this spring. New manager. New Boss Steinbrenner. No Torre. And, most significantly, some personnel questions that may, or may not, turn out to be just wishful thinking on the parts of their opponents.

The Yankees have made the playoffs every year since the strike washout of the 1994 season but as the 2008 season approaches, they have grudgingly ceded the bragging rights to Boston, which has won two of the last four World Series. Now if you listened only to talk in both those fine cities, you would think that the rest of the American League is composed of mere supporting actors for the Yanks and Red Sox.

"I've said it before this spring but it's absolutely true: The league is as good as it's ever been," J.P. Ricciardi said yesterday morning, just before the Yankees took the field for warmups at Knology Field.

"Sure, the Yankees have some areas that might be vulnerable. So do we. They're counting on some young arms. So are we. But overall it is going to be a real battle all season between a number of teams. Some outstanding team is going to win 85 games this year and not even be close."

Boston, of course, has to be considered the favourite until somebody beats them. Until last season, the Yankees had won nine AL East titles in a row. The Blue Jays feel they should be in the mix come September. Even Tampa Bay is making noises as if they're going to contend, but we'll believe that when we see it.

In the AL Central, there are two beasts in Detroit and Cleveland and don't totally count out the Minnesota Twins. Out west, Los Angeles Angels and the Seattle Mariners are both improved -- Angels added Torii Hunter, the M's have Erik Bedard -- and they were premier clubs last year.

That's nine out of the 14 teams in the league who have at least modest springtime support to hit it big this year.

"There are so many worthy teams in the American League that you're going to have to be able to sustain a certain level of play for the entire season, a certain level of consistency," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

"You can't afford to go into a slump or a slide because the other teams are going to make you pay for that."

If the Yankees are vulnerable, then it is on the pitching side. Coming off a poor season, aging Mike Mussina is hardly the ace he once was. Chien Ming Wang is certainly the real deal but he has not yet shown himself to be a clutch performer. Andy Pettitte seems to be weathering the storm off the field well this spring but he, too, is no youngster any more. He turns 36 on June 15. After those three, the Yanks are going to rely on young, unproven pitchers like Phil Hughes, one of five pitchers who combined on a rain-shortened perfect game against the Jays yesterday, and rookie sensation Joba Chamberlain.

Their everyday lineup is as good as any in baseball, though, and they will camouflage a lot of blemishes by bludgeoning opponents into submission.

Girardi has an unenviable job following the much-beloved Joe Torre, who was dismissed last fall after piloting the team into the playoffs in each of his 12 seasons at the helm, including 2007. Torre may be across the continent in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, but his presence will haunt the hallways of Yankee Stadium after every New York loss this season.

"We are always going to be a team that people shoot for," Derek Jeter said. "We're the Yankees, and there's always going to be people who'll hate us because of that, same as there'll always be people who are our fans because of that. It cuts both ways."

The spotlight is always at high-beam in the Bronx, and never more so than this season.


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