They'll contend if... American League version

Right now, there are 14 teams in contention to be the American League Champions. Here's a look at what has to happen for each of those teams to stay in the hunt.

Their pitching staff -- particularly starters John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar -- is healthy enough to carry them. Young players such as Howie Kendrick, Kendry Morales and Erick Aybar need to continue their development, adding depth to an offense lacking departed free agents Mark Teixeira and Garret Anderson. Offseason knee surgery must allow Vladimir Guerrero to turn back the clock and once again carry the offense.

The team's many young pitchers, including hotshot left-hander Brett Anderson and, right behind him, right-handers Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro, step up and contribute on a regular basis. With a far more powerful offense, Oakland's hopes ride on an inexperienced rotation that will not include, at least initially, injury-prone right-hander Justin Duchscherer. If the pitching doesn't come together, the team is expected to trade All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday by the deadline.

Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard are healthy and consistently give the team six to seven innings a start. It will be tough to get that from Bedard in April, but the talent is there once he builds up arm strength. The offense will need to go from last year's 671 runs to about 750 runs to make it all work. If things don't click, look for Jarrod Washburn and the team's home run leader last season, third baseman Adrian Beltre, to be dealt by the All-Star break.

RHPs Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla each give the team 200 innings pitched. Neither has for either of the last two seasons. Both are in contract years. The last time they were in the same situation, Millwood led the AL in ERA (2.86 in 2005) and Padilla set a career high for wins (15 in 2006). If they can properly carry the burden of a 1-2 combination, a lot of the Rangers' pitching questions will nicely fall into place.

They can stay healthy. They have a lineup made up of some China dolls that could break with the slightest touch. Not only do Bartolo Colon and Jose Contreras have a recent injury past, but Carlos Quentin is coming off a broken wrist, Paul Konerko fought with an injured thumb, and there are always concerns about Mark Buehrle's workload over the last seven years catching up with him.

Left-hander Cliff Lee and right-hander Fausto Carmona, at the top of the rotation, both win 15-20 games. There are so many question marks in the last three spots of the rotation that it's incumbent on Lee and Carmona to have big seasons. It's difficult to see the Indians winning their division without big contributions from those two.

Justin Verlander returns to form, Jeremy Bonderman returns to health with a solid fastball, Edwin Jackson makes another step forward, Armando Galarraga continues his rookie showing and a solid fifth starter emerges. The bullpen also must protect leads the way it did in the World Series year of 2006 and not fritter them away like 2008. Should Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry not open the season with the Tigers, they'll be up quickly -- and quite possibly make significant contributions. Pitching is pivotal for the Tigers.

Gil Meche and Zack Greinke stay healthy and win 15 or more games; Kyle Davies pitches all season the way he did in September, when he was 4-1 with a 2.27 earned-run average; Coco Crisp has a high on-base percentage and scores 100 runs; and Alex Gordon cuts down on his strikeouts (257 the last two seasons) and increases his batting average (career .253).

LHP Francisco Liriano becomes the star the Twins think he will be. Scouts begin using the word "Pedro" when describing Liriano's changeup, referring to Pedro Martinez. His lethal slider, which propelled him to momentary stardom in 2006 before it devoured his elbow, is diving for the dirt again, but not with the same force. But Liriano has added a changeup that, used in conjunction with his 94-mph fastball, is so good, so Pedro-esque, manager Ron Gardenhire believes it will become Liriano's out pitch. A big year from the Dominican could help the Twins cover for an iffy bullpen.

The rest of the American League East is stricken by the injury bug and Matt Wieters is the second coming of Babe Ruth. With upstart Tampa Bay joining perennial powers Boston and New York, the Orioles will have a long road toward preventing a 12th consecutive losing season, let alone reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Mike Lowell and David Ortiz enjoy rebound seasons after dealing with injuries in 2008, and Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis continue their ascension to superstar status. The pitching excellence is a given, but if catcher Jason Varitek can rebound from a season in which he droped to a .220 batting average with subpar power and production totals, then the Red Sox offense could again be special.

Alex Rodriguez recovers from his hip injury and can go a day or two without causing some major distraction or, at least, blocks out the ones he causes. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui stay healthy. CC Sabathia pitches like the ace the Yankees have coveted for years. RHP Brian Bruney steps up into the setup role and RHP Mariano Rivera doesn't let age or a surgically repaired shoulder derail him. 1B Mark Teixeira adjusts easily to the New York spotlight and carries the club until A-Rod returns, then helps provide a dangerous 1-2 punch in the middle of the order.

The rotation stays healthy and pitches up to expectations until the team deems left-hander David Price worthy of promotion from the minors. Pat Burrell needs to make a smooth adjustment to the designated hitter role and the AL game. If outfielders Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton put their injuries behind them and both must get hot and stay hot. Closer Troy Percival has to take his strong spring into the regular season, and third baseman Evan Longoria needs to avoid having a sophomore slump.

Absolutely everything goes their way in 2009. Initially, they will need left-handers David Purcey and Brad Mills to show instant maturity and post winning records right out of the gate. They will also need a quick return of health by right-hander Casey Janssen to stabilize the rotation in May and a return to health in June of Dustin McGowan to further bolster the rotation. Along the way they will need the bullpen to stay healthy and not be overworked. The Blue Jays also need a breakout year from right fielder Alex Rios and a Rookie of the Year type season from powerful left fielder Travis Snider. They will need big contributions from center fielder Vernon Wells, second baseman Aaron Hill, third baseman Scott Rolen and first baseman Lyle Overbay. That's a lot to ask.

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