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Michael Taylor 25th Mar 2010 - 17:58

The Evil Empire can strike in the AL again

This time last year the New York Yankees were heading into the new season with renewed optimism; this year they're going in with a World Series and the scent for even more blood.

After missing out on the playoffs in 2008 the Yankees did what they do best for 2009 and invested heavily in free agency bringing in starting pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett and gold glove, slugging first basemen Mark Teixeira.

That, combined with another amazing season from Derek Jeter and big numbers from Alex Rodriguez proved far too good for any franchise in baseball - and guess what, they're even stronger this year.

The Steinbrenners might not have flexed their financial muscles quite so fiercely this year but the acquisition of Curtis Granderson to replace Johnny Damon in centre field is sure to pay huge dividends in left hander friendly Yankee Stadium.

Granderson might not bat for a high average but his power, pace and fielding prowess gives the Yankees so many extra tools plus he's a genuine lead-off man who can make stuff happen on the base pads.

It also means the Yankees can kick-off the season at Fenway Park with a top five in the line-up that reads Granderson, Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez and Cano - who in the American League honestly can compete with that?

Not the Boston Red Sox is one answer.

By the end of last season I really started feeling the Sox Nation's demise as Jason Bay, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek and Josh Beckett all slowed down, in the end making their playoff exit to the LA Angels inevitable.

The changes have been wrung with John Lackey adding a Cy Young type arm to the rotation (if he can stay healthy) and Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida filling some of the holes of last year.

Unfortunately though none of those hitting acquisitions really captures the imagination, while the glory years of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez seems further away than ever.

I expect they'll challenge for a wild card spot but don't be surprised if they fall short given the strength coming out of the West this year.

The West Division is where the action is this year after Seattle and Texas both strengthened immeasurably and even Oakland could be in with a shout of challenging the Angels' dominance.

The Mariners perhaps did best of everyone in the off season bringing in Cliff Lee, Ian Snell and Chone Figgins giving them the foundations for a very successful ball club.

Figgins and Snell will bring experience and potential to Seattle, however it's the signing of Lee that turns them from also rans into real contenders.

They now have a one-two at the top of the rotation of Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee and if the latter can find the form that brought him and Cleveland a Cy Young in 2008 then Seattle could be one of the most feared sides in the playoffs if they make it.

As for Texas they also look strong with Vladimir Guerrero and Rich Harden coming in to compliment the progress that was achieved in 2009.

Scott Feldman was hugely impressive and a real shock as he garnished genuine Cy Young consideration in the closing months of the year while Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz and Julio Borbon are the type of youngsters that'll energise the Rangers throughout the season.

It's always hard to write-off Mike Scioscia's Angels because they find ways to win like no other, it's just hard to see how they can be quite as prominent as they've weakened while all around have improved.

Moving into the Central I think we should be looking at a three horse race between Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit all of whom will feel they've done enough to make the Central competitive when it gets to the post-season.

The reigning champion Twins move into Target Field buoyed by Joe Mauer's contract extension that should keep him in the Twin Cities for the rest of his career but also disheartened by the loss of Joe Nathan for the year.

If they can find a new closer then the division is theirs to lose with JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson coming in to form a much improved double play combo, however if the bullpen struggles then expect a strong challenge from the White Sox and Tigers.

Can the AL Central claim to be a genuine World Series threat? Maybe not, but whoever progresses to the ALDS should provide a much better series than the Twins last year who were swept away by the Yankees.

Verdict: The Yankees are trying to build another dynasty and at 7/4 you wouldn't bet against them but if anybody is to challenge them come September then I have a real feeling it could be the Mariners (12/1)
Divisional betting: East - Yankees 4/6, Central - Minnesota Twins 11/8, West - Seattle Mariners 2/1




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