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American League Preview

April 01, 2007|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer



Are Suzuki's days in Seattle numbered?

Ichiro Suzuki took America by storm six years ago, when the Seattle Mariners won 116 games and he was the American League most valuable player. Suzuki still does his thing every year -- 200 hits, 100 runs, 30 stolen bases, All-Star appearance, Gold Glove winner. But the Mariners haven't returned to the playoffs since the 2001 season, finishing last three years running as clusters of empty seats sprout at Safeco Field.

Is a divorce between Suzuki and the Mariners in the offing? The question would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but he can file for free agency this fall and has hinted he's tired of losing. And he's not the only one: Mariners Chairman Howard Lincoln said late last season that General Manager Bill Bavasi and Manager Mike Hargrove "are on my hot seat."

Rebuilding wouldn't impress Suzuki -- or save any jobs -- so Seattle imported veterans Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro, Jeff Weaver and Miguel Batista in what appears to be a push for .500. The Mariners look good enough for mediocrity, probably not good enough for Suzuki.

So would Lincoln sacrifice Bavasi and Hargrove in an effort to keep his franchise player in town?



Harden is facing high expectations

Even before Barry Zito found his $126-million pot of gold at the other end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, some A's fans rationalized away his departure. Zito would be overrated and overpaid, or so they said, and Rich Harden would be better anyway.

Zito has seven years to prove his worth, but Harden had better prove his this year. Zito has a terrific curveball, Harden an otherworldly fastball, but Zito got the big bucks in large part because of his durability. Zito never has missed a start, while Harden's innings pitched dropped from 190 to 128 to 47 over the last three years.

He's 25, and with another injury-filled season, he'll find his name next to Mark Prior in the "brilliant flash" category. The A's could be doomed too, because their offense isn't strong enough to carry a rotation of Dan Haren and question marks. Harden did look amazing in the Cactus League, striking out 25 of 53 batters and posting a 1.32 earned-run average.


1. Angels (89-73)

On stuff alone, you'd take John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver over anyone in Yankees rotation.

2. Texas (80-82)

Power at the corners, and elsewhere. Home runs from infielders last season: Rangers 82, Angels 43.

3. Oakland (93-69)

Mike Piazza won't catch, so he can DH every day. He homered once every 18 at-bats last season, same as Vladimir Guerrero.

4. Seattle (78-84)

Closer J.J. Putz faced 303 batters last season, struck out 101, walked 13, and gave up four home runs.




Sheffield gives Tigers the big bat they need

By his standards, Gary Sheffield had a quiet spring. He called baseball's steroid investigation a "witch hunt" aimed at Barry Bonds, testified against his former agent, Scott Boras, in a hearing over disputed commissions, and proclaimed he wanted to sign with the Boston Red Sox had the rival New York Yankees declined to exercise the $13-million option in his contract.

The Yankees didn't dare afford him that chance, so they picked up the option, then traded him to Detroit for three prospects. The Tigers extended Sheffield's contract through 2009, when he will be 40, adding two seasons at $28 million.

That should buy relative tranquillity this season. That also should ensure a menacing bat in an already potent lineup, all in support of the pitching staff with baseball's best ERA last year. No one on the Tigers hit 30 home runs last season; Sheffield has done that in every season with 500 at-bats.



Work awaits Twins' bullpen

Even the most devoted fantasy league players might have a tough time with this one: What are the first names of these Minnesota relievers: Nathan, Crain, Rincon and Neshek?

The Twins had baseball's best bullpen earned-run average last year, but can they weather the decimation of their starting rotation?

As they shoot for their fifth division title in six years, with a lineup that led the majors in batting average last season, they'll lean on their relievers every day that Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana does not start.

With Brad Radke retired and Francisco Liriano injured, the Twins must patch four spots in the rotation, picking for now from veterans Sidney Ponson, Carlos Silva and ex-Angel Ramon Ortiz and youngster Boof Bonser.

The Twins don't need complete games from those guys -- good thing, because there's no chance -- but they do need five or six decent innings so their relievers aren't exhausted by the All-Star game.

Their names: Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Juan Rincon and Pat Neshek.


1. Cleveland (78-84)

New closer Joe Borowski had 36 saves in 43 chances for Marlins last season; Indians had 24 in 47.

2. Detroit (95-67)

Growing pains for young arms? Jeremy Bonderman threw 234 innings last season, Justin Verlander 208, including playoffs.

3. Minnesota (96-66)

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