While everyone else was saving their pennies, the New York Yankees were spending big.

Defying the economic crisis, they forked over $423.5 million to put Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in pinstripes for the team’s first season in a new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium.

But all that cash couldn’t keep Alex Rodriguez out of the steroids scandal or the operating room.

It won’t guarantee New York a return to the playoffs, either. Not in a rugged division that also includes rival Boston and American League champion Tampa Bay.

So after missing the postseason last year, ending their run of 13 straight appearances, the big-budget Yankees could be in for a demanding pennant chase that piles of money just can’t buy.

“I think you’d probably have to have your head in the sand if you didn’t know what the expectations were,” manager Joe Girardi said.

Even Rodriguez’s injury hasn’t tempered those expectations. The three-time MVP is expected to be out until May following arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right hip.

That was only part of his tumultuous offseason. Often fodder for the New York tabloids, A-Rod made it worse when he admitted that he used steroids from 2001-03 while playing for Texas.

Now, his injury leaves inexperienced backup Cody Ransom as the Yankees’ starting third baseman when the season opens. Not exactly what the Bronx Bombers had in mind when they busted open the piggy bank for Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett.

“He’s a vital part of the team. But just like when anyone else gets hurt, you can’t sit around and wait for them to come back,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “You’ve got to play without them, that’s the bottom line. People get hurt, other guys have to step up and fill in for him.”

No one is going to feel sorry for the Yankees anyway. Not after a winter spending spree that kept their payroll above $200 million.

With the national economy crumbling, New York’s costly moves irritated other teams and prompted calls for a baseball salary cap – even though the Yankees’ payroll actually declined by $7 million in the end, as they parted ways with a handful of players including the retiring Mike Mussina.

“If you try to compete through monetary means, you’re not going to do it,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said at the winter meetings in Las Vegas. “You’ve got to figure out another way to get it done and for us that’s through execution.”

Maddon and his surprising Rays went on a wild ride that took them from last place in 2007 to an improbable pennant one year later. Budding young stars such as Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and James Shields led the charge to the World Series, where Tampa Bay lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.

Now, the question is whether the Rays can win big again, this time with a projected opening-day payroll of about $64 million – an increase of nearly 50 percent.

“I think a lot of guys feel like we have unfinished business from last year,” said Andrew Friedman, executive vice president of baseball operations.

The Red Sox, beaten by Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the AL championship series, tweaked their pitching staff with relatively inexpensive moves for John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito.

The grind-it-out offense is still led by David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia. There should be less drama in the clubhouse, as Boston plays its first full season since trading Manny Ramirez. Even opinionated pitcher Curt Schilling retired, following shoulder surgery that sidelined him last season.

“It’s our responsibility to be as good a team as we can be, whether it’s quiet or loud or in between,” manager Terry Francona said. “Our division is really difficult, but I do think there are some advantages. … If you’re good enough to get through it I think it bodes well in the postseason, (but) when you’re playing teams that are that good that often, it takes a toll on you.”

The AL Central appears to be wide open after the Chicago White Sox beat Minnesota 1-0 in a one-game tiebreaker for the division title last year. The Twins are worried about All-Star catcher and batting champ Joe Mauer, sidelined all spring by lower back pain.

Cleveland might be a contender again, with Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee and potential MVP Grady Sizemore leading the way. The high-priced Detroit Tigers, a huge disappointment last season, are looking to rebound. Even up-and-coming Kansas City could make some noise.

In the soft AL West, Vladimir Guerrero and the Los Angeles Angels are still the favorites despite losing Teixeira and record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez in free agency. Counting on a new batch of young arms, Oakland could present a challenge after acquiring Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi and Orlando Cabrera to boost the lineup.

Same old story for Josh Hamilton in Texas: big bats, no pitching. The Seattle Mariners cleaned house, installing a new regime after Ichiro Suzuki and his disgruntled teammates lost 101 games last year.

A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:


Boston Red Sox

Seeking their third World Series title in six seasons, the Red Sox boast a deep pitching staff that includes emerging star Jon Lester and two-time World Baseball Classic MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Slowed by injuries last year, ace Josh Beckett is looking to rebound. Smoltz bolted for Boston after two decades in Atlanta and should be ready by June. He is rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Hard-throwing closer Jonathan Papelbon anchors the dependable bullpen.

David Ortiz was hampered by a wrist injury last year. Can he be as dangerous and productive at the plate without Ramirez around? Third baseman Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, is back from hip surgery. Right fielder J.D. Drew had back trouble early in spring training.

New York Yankees

Led by Sabathia and Burnett, the rotation goes five-deep and looks terrific. Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain, however, aren’t necessarily sure things. Chien-Ming Wang returns after missing the final 3 months last season with a foot injury.

The offense slipped dramatically last year, due in large part to injuries to Jorge Posada (shoulder) and Hideki Matsui (knee). Both are back following surgery. Still, age and health are definitely concerns for this lineup loaded with past-their-prime stars, and the defense isn’t strong at all. Teixeira should be a big boost at first base – as long as he can handle the pressure.

When A-Rod returns, will the hip injury affect him at all? He’ll need another, more extensive operation after the season.

Mariano Rivera is still a dominant closer.

Tampa Bay Rays

This struggling club was stockpiling high draft picks and young talent for years, but few realized it would all come together at once the way it did.

Playing an exciting brand of team baseball, the Rays won 97 regular-season games and didn’t stop until the World Series. They even overcame key injuries to Longoria, Carl Crawford and Troy Percival. There’s no reason to think the Rays won’t be winners again this year, but an October encore could be difficult to achieve.

Tampa Bay has the talent. With only one wild card available, however, it could take more than 95 wins to reach the playoffs from this division. It’s hard to imagine everything clicking as smoothly as it did last season.

The biggest offseason addition was DH Pat Burrell, signed away from Philadelphia. Rookie pitcher David Price is slated to start the season in the minors, but he could join the solid rotation soon.

Toronto Blue Jays

Roy Halladay paced the best pitching staff in baseball last year, but he probably won’t have as much help this time. Burnett opted out of the final two years of his contract and signed with the Yankees. Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan are hurt, depleting a now-inexperienced rotation.

Second baseman Aaron Hill is back from a concussion, but the offense appears to be lacking – even if Vernon Wells stays healthy. Keep an eye on touted prospect Travis Snider.

Baltimore Orioles

Under president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, the once-proud Orioles are trying to build with talented youngsters such as outfielder Adam Jones and big-time catching prospect Matt Wieters, who could reach the big leagues this year. Still, major improvement is probably a long way off.

Nick Markakis is a nice player in right field. He got a long-term contract. Brian Roberts sparks a decent everyday lineup that gets thin at the bottom. The pitching staff offers little to get excited about other than new starter Koji Uehara, the team’s first Japanese import.


Minnesota Twins

A legitimate argument can be made for – or against – any team in the AL Central winning this division. Ron Gardenhire is an outstanding, underrated manager, and every year his hustling Twins play the most consistent and fundamentally sound baseball of any club in the division.

So they’re the pick this year, partly by default.

The Twins made one notable addition in the offseason, signing former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede. Many of Minnesota’s athletic players are on the rise, while several other teams in the division appear jammed with aging or declining boppers in the middle of the lineup.

The young rotation lacks big names other than Francisco Liriano, but it was deep and effective last season. The setup situation is shaky in front of All-Star closer Joe Nathan.

After a season ravaged by injuries, Michael Cuddyer is healthy. That should help an offense anchored by 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau.

Of course, the back pain stunting Mauer could be a huge problem. He had offseason surgery to repair a blockage in his kidney, and if he can’t get healthy it would mean a major blow to the Twins in several areas.

Kansas City Royals

A doormat for decades, the Royals appear ready for a breakthrough within the next few seasons. Even a 10-win improvement over last year’s 75-87 record could make them contenders in this division.

Kansas City hasn’t been to the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series – the longest drought in the American League. But GM Dayton Moore and no-nonsense manager Trey Hillman have this club headed in the right direction with patience and young arms.

At the top of the rotation, Gil Meche and Zack Greinke might be ready for the Cy Young race. Joakim Soria is one of baseball’s best closers. Mike Aviles was a pleasant surprise at shortstop last year. Everyone is waiting for third baseman Alex Gordon to bust out.

Cleveland Indians

Injuries took a major toll on the Indians last season. They stumbled out of the gate, then traded CC Sabathia and Casey Blake during the summer. But they played better in the second half and finished with a .500 record.

Now, Cleveland wants to get back in contention. Remember, this team came within one victory of the 2007 World Series. But the rotation is largely unproven behind Lee, and the offense needs a healthy Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to rediscover their power strokes.

Kerry Wood was signed to be the closer, and oft-injured Carl Pavano has a spot in the rotation after four mostly idle years with the Yankees.

Chicago White Sox

General manager Ken Williams has been trying to make the White Sox younger while still fielding a contender, and he’s done a solid job.

Josh Fields gets another shot at third base, and Chris Getz won the second base job. Alexei Ramirez, runner-up to Longoria for AL Rookie of the Year last season, shifts from second base to shortstop.

The middle of the lineup still features Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko. Can left fielder Carlos Quentin duplicate his huge, breakout season of a year ago? There could be a hole in the leadoff spot.

Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and John Danks lead a capable rotation with question marks at the back end. Jose Contreras is way ahead of schedule in his return from an Achilles’ injury. Does Bartolo Colon have anything left? Will prospect Clayton Richard live up to his billing? Bobby Jenks is a solid closer.

Nobody knows what outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen will say next. Gone are Javier Vazquez, Nick Swisher, Ken Griffey Jr., Orlando Cabrera and Crede.

Detroit Tigers

There certainly is talent on this roster, with a projected opening-day payroll of about $128 million. But manager Jim Leyland’s group just didn’t seem to fit last year after entering the season as a popular choice to win the pennant.

The Tigers can score, with Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera at the top of the lineup. But their pitching and defense were often abysmal last season. Detroit dropped all the way to last place, one game worse than Kansas City.

The defense was upgraded with Adam Everett at shortstop. Gerald Laird takes over at catcher, so Brandon Inge can go back to third base, where he has a good glove.

There’s no reason why Justin Verlander shouldn’t rebound from these numbers: 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA. His stuff is too good. Obtained from Tampa Bay in a trade, Edwin Jackson joins a rotation that needs Jeremy Bonderman to be healthy and effective. Armando Galarraga was a pleasant surprise last year.

Gary Sheffield is one homer shy of 500.


Los Angeles Angels

Even after losing Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, pitcher Jon Garland and longtime outfielder Garret Anderson, the Angels appear to be the class of this division thanks to their signature depth and balance.

Two of the team’s top starting pitchers were hurting in spring training: John Lackey and Ervin Santana. The latter is expected to miss at least the first month because of a sore elbow. Kelvim Escobar is still working his way back from surgery. Nick Adenhart is among the potential fill-ins.

Bobby Abreu ($5 million for one year) was added to an already crowded outfield that also includes Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Juan Rivera and Gary Matthews Jr. Abreu is slated to play left most of the time. Cuban defector Kendry Morales takes over at first base for aggressive manager Mike Scioscia.

Brian Fuentes was signed to be the closer, replacing K-Rod. The setup situation is still strong with Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo.

Texas Rangers

If you like offense, Texas is fun to watch in its hitter-friendly ballpark. Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and the Rangers led the majors with a .283 batting average and 901 runs.

But there doesn’t seem to be much immediate hope for a pitching staff that had a major league-worst 5.37 ERA and baseball’s most overworked bullpen. If Brandon McCarthy finally stays healthy, maybe he can help a bit. Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla are the top two starters. Team president Nolan Ryan emphasized tougher workouts in the offseason and spring training.

Hamilton’s resurgence from drug addiction was one of baseball’s most heartwarming stories last year, complete with his incredible display of power during the All-Star Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

A Gold Glove winner at shortstop last season, Young was shifted to third base to make room for 20-year-old prospect Elvis Andrus. Texas brought in veteran Omar Vizquel to mentor the talented kid.

Look for a breakout season from right fielder Nelson Cruz. Andruw Jones might stick with the team in a part-time role.

Oakland Athletics

The next crop of promising young pitchers is on its way in Oakland, and general manager Billy Beane upgraded a punchless offense in an effort to help.

Acquired in a trade with Colorado, Holliday probably won’t stay with the A’s for long. He can become a free agent after the season and is likely to draw significant interest from much richer teams. In the meantime, maybe he can help Oakland make a run at the Angels this year.

After seven season with the Yankees, the enthusiastic Giambi is back with his original team. Oft-injured third baseman Eric Chavez is still trying to get healthy.

The inexperienced pitching staff is mostly untested. Elbow pain has sidelined No. 1 starter and two-time All-Star Justin Duchscherer, a major concern.

Seattle Mariners

Expected to challenge for the 2008 division crown, Seattle flopped instead and slogged through a horrendous season. Afterward, departed players and coaches commented about the jealousy and bickering that went on, insinuating that Suzuki was a reason for the team’s divided clubhouse.

The Mariners fired their manager, coaching staff, general manager and most of the scouting department as first-time GM Jack Zduriencik and rookie manager Don Wakamatsu set about rebuilding the team and changing the clubhouse culture.

Partly with an eye toward attendance, Griffey (611 homers) was brought back for a farewell season in Seattle, where he started becoming a superstar 20 years ago.

There are good arms at the top of the rotation in Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard, when healthy. The bullpen, though, is a complete mess.

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