American League keys

Good (if preliminary) news from YankeeLand:

    BALTIMORE -- Alex Rodriguez could resume baseball activities back at the team's Tampa, Fla. minor league complex as early as next Monday, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
    "He's in a good frame of mind and his rehab is going well," said Girardi, who has been texting Rodriguez over the last month, which the star has spent in Vail, Colo. recovering from hip surgery. "You hope that he doesn't have any setbacks."

    Girardi said he is operating under the assumption that the May 15 target date for Rodriguez's return still applies.

Obviously, Alex Rodriguez is the X-factor for the Yankees this season. If he's back reasonably soon and plays as usual, the Yankees are as good as anybody. If not, they're just another contender. Which got me to wondering about the other key players among the American League contenders ...
Red Sox: Mike Lowell. Nobody's been talking much about Lowell; speculation generally trends toward David Ortiz or perhaps John Smoltz. But Ortiz will hit and if Smoltz isn't good the Red Sox have other options. If Lowell's not good, though? Jed Lowrie has to slide over, with Julio Lugo taking over as the every-day shortstop.

Rays: B.J. Upton. If the Rays get anything like the Upton we saw last October, there's no obvious reason they can't win 95 games. If they get the Upton we saw from April through September, they're the third-best team in their division (not that there's anything wrong with that). Considering that he's opened this season on the DL, which do you think is more likely?

Indians: Carl Pavano. Yes, I picked the Indians to win the Central. And yes, when I picked the Indians, I knew they were relying on Pavano to win a dozen or so games this season. No, I don't bet real money on my predictions.

Tigers: Justin Verlander. Speaking of lousy predictions, I believe I might have offered Verlander as my Cy Young choice, one year ago. So of course he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA, after going 35-15 (and 3.65) over the previous two seasons. Verlander wasn't the Tigers' biggest problem last year, but he might have been their unhappiest surprise. If he can flip that 11-17 around this year, the Tigers should be competitive into September.

Twins: Joe Mauer. Duh.

Athletics: Justin Duchscherer. It's odd to anoint a 31-year-old pitcher with 31 career wins as the key anything, but Duke might be the key to the American League West. I just don't know if the A's win without someone who's likely to win more than a dozen games.

Angels: Kendry Morales. Well, probably not. But the Angels do need to score some runs, and Morales -- finally given the chance to play regularly -- should help at least a little (though it won't matter much if the Angels' two best starters don't get back soon and strong).

For my next trick, I'll come up with a similar list for the National League contenders.