Oakland and Cincinnati will repeat as division champions, Toronto will win by default in the feeble American League East, and the Chicago Cubs have finally put together a lineup that can overpower the National League East.
That's the feeling among 10 baseball experts, as shown in the accompanying chart.Picking Oakland is no surprise, of course. The only major-league team to win more than 100 games last season returns largely intact and figures to be good, if not great, again. Note, however, that of the three contributors (Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and San Francisco Examiner) to this survey that made their choices recently instead of before spring training, two tabbed the A's to finish second.
A similar result occurred in the AL East, where Toronto was a heavy pre-spring training favorite but lost support after stumbling around in Grapefruit League play. The contender that seems to have gained the most support as the Jays faltered is Baltimore.
The closest race is expected in the NL West, where Cincinnati, San Francisco and Los Angeles are separated by just four points. The Reds got four first-place votes, the Giants and Dodgers three each.
These surveys usually reveal several consensus picks (such as Atlanta for last place in the NL West), but this year's edition didn't produce any. The closest any teams came to unanimous selection were Philadelphia and St. Louis, but the Dallas Morning News gummed things up by granting the Cards their lone fifth-place vote.
Here's a look at some key factors for each team:
Oakland - Strengths: Dave Stewart-Bob Welch; bullpen; speed and power in first five spots in lineup; sound defense. Weaknesses: Jose Canseco's back; starting pitching after Stewart and Welch; no hitting in bottom of lineup. Biggest loss: Carney Lansford, knee injury. Rookie to watch: Kirk Dressendorfer, latest pitching phenom from University of Texas, could be in rotation by midseason. Key factor: Does Rickey Henderson dog it because he wants more money, or does he try to prove he's worth it?
Kansas City - Strengths: Deep pitching staff; experience; Kirk Gibson's attitude. Weaknesses: Gibson's legs; below-average defense; little punch in lineup. Biggest loss: Bo Jackson. Biggest gain: Loss of Bo Jackson. Rookie to watch: Terry Shumpert, second baseman. Key factor: Will Bret Saberhagen and Mark Davis rebound from subpar seasons?
Chicago - Strengths: Speed; above-average defense; reliever Bobby Thigpen. Weaknesses: Inexperience; lack of dominant starting pitcher. Biggest loss: Thigpen will miss set-up man Barry Jones. Biggest gain: Tim Raines, who wants to prove he's Rickey Henderson's match. Rookie to watch: If lefty Wilson Alvarez learns to throw something besides heat, he could be a factor. Key factor: Can Sox avoid tendency for teams that make quantum leap one year to drop back into the pack the next year?
Texas - Strengths: Nolan Ryan; top of order. Weaknesses: questionable bullpen; poor defense. Biggest loss: Pete Incaviglia's release has team wondering who's in charge. Biggest gain/Rookie to watch: Scott Chiamparino, righthanded pitcher acquired from A's in trade for Harold Baines. Key factor: After arm surgery, can Jeff Russell return to bullpen-stopper form of 1989?
California - Strengths: Veteran leadership; hitting. Weaknesses: Bullpen; outfield defense. Biggest loss: Devon White's outfield defense. Biggest gain: Dave Parker's attitude. Rookie to watch: Righthander Scott Lewis. Key factor: Will Mark Langston and Jim Abbott have kind of season that will make a good starting rotation and excellent rotation?
Seattle - Strengths: Starting pitching; Ken Griffey Jr. Weaknesses: Weak bottom of order; no righthanded RBI guy; poor infield defense. Rookie to watch: First baseman Tino Martinez could get a chance to replace Pete O'Brien soon. Key factor: Return of reliever Mike Schooler from shoulder injury.
Minnesota - Strengths: Reliever Rick Aguilera. Weaknesses: No power; pitching staff in which Jack Morris (15-18, 4.51 ERA last year) is the ace. Biggest gain: Right now, Morris, but could end up being Chili Davis. Biggest loss: Gary Gaetti. Rookie to watch: Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Key factor: Can Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek start hitting the long ball again?
Toronto - Strengths: Starting pitching; bullpen; balanced lineup; strong defense. Weaknesses: Lack of fifth starter. Biggest gain: Devon White's outfield defense. Biggest loss: Power of George Bell and Fred McGriff. Rookie to watch: Switch-hitting outfielder Mark Whiten. Key factor: Will rest of division present enough of a challenge to keep them interested?
Boston - Strengths: Strong hitting lineup. Weaknesses: No speed; shallow bullpen; Jack Clark's mouth. Biggest gain: NL ERA champ Danny Darwin. Biggest loss: 17-game winner Mike Boddicker. Rookie to watch: Outfielder Phil Plantier, who led all minor-leaguers with 33 HRs last year. Key factor: Can Darwin, who has never won more than 10 games, and 18-game loser Matt Young offset loss of Boddicker?
Baltimore - Strengths: Above-average defense. Weaknesses: Starting pitching depth; hitting against righties; no speed. Biggest gain: Glenn Davis. Rookie to watch: Catcher Chris Hoiles. Key factor: Can anyone besides Ben McDonald pitch?
Detroit - Strengths: Solid bullpen; power. Weaknesses: Mediocre starting staff; strikeouts of Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer and Mickey Tettleton. Biggest gain: Righthander Bill Gullickson, who becomes staff "ace." Biggest loss: Jack Morris. Rookie to watch: Outfielder Milt Cuyler. Key factor: Will pitching staff get more strikeouts than Fielder-Deer-Tettleton?
Milwaukee - Strengths: Strong offense. Weaknesses: Gary Sheffield's attitude; chronic injury problems; poor defense. Biggest loss: Teddy Higuera, to rotator cuff injury. Biggest gain: Franklin Stubbs? Rookie to watch: Righty Chris George figures to be closer of the future. Key factor: Can they stay healthy for an entire season (in this division, that could be all it takes)?
New York - Strength: Defense. Weaknesses: unproven lineup; pitching staff of cast-offs. Biggest loss: Dave Righetti. Biggest gain: Departure of George Steinbrenner. Rookie to watch: Hensley Meulens, power-hitting outfielder. Key factor: Can Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford come back?
Cleveland - Strengths: Decent bullpen; good youngsters. Weaknesses: potentially disastrous starting pitching; unproven lineup. Biggest loss: Candy Maldonado. Biggest gain: Righty Eric King. Rookie to watch: Righthander Charles Nagy. Key factor: Will enough e come to games to keep the team from moving to Florida?
Cincinnati - Strengths: Strong starting staff; best bullpen in baseball; speed; balanced lineup; above-average defense. Weakness: Eric Davis' health. Biggest loss: Danny Jackson. Biggest gain: Ted Power: Rookie to watch: Lefty Chris Hammond. Key factor: Will Reds withstand pressure of repeating in baseball's most competitive division?
San Francisco - Strengths: Bullpen; strongest middle of order in baseball. Weaknesses: Rotation lacks ace; perennial pitching injuries; no leadoff hitter. Biggest loss: Brett Butler. Biggest gain: Bud Black. Rookie to watch: Catcher Steve Decker. Key factor: Can pitchers avoid injuries enough to keep Giants in games?
Los Angeles - Strengths: Solid starting staff; strong offensive outfield. Weaknesses: Lack of dominant bullpen closer; shortage of lefthanded pitching; below-average outfield defense. Biggest loss: For morale reasons, Fernando Valenzuela. Biggest gain: Darryl Strawberry. Rookie to watch: shortstop Jose Offerman. Key factor: Can Manager Tommy Lasorda mold this disparate crew into a team?
San Diego - Strengths: potentially outstanding rotation; decent bullpen; strong top of order; improved morale with departure of Jack Clark. Weaknesses: feeble bottom of order; one big-league outfielder (Tony Gwynn). Biggest loss: Joe Carter. Biggest gain: Tony Fernandez. Rookie to watch: Outfielder Thomas Howard. Key factor: Can they avoid disastrously slow starts that have plagued them in recent years?
Atlanta - Strengths: Ron Gant and Dave Justice. Weaknesses: poor run production; speed; youth; inconsistent pitching. Biggest loss: Lonnie Smith, to knee injury. Biggest gain: Sid Bream. Rookie to watch: Deion Sanders, who has toned down his act and had a good spring. Key factor: Can pitchers grow up fast enough to contribute?
Houston - Strengths: Mike Scott (if healthy). Weaknesses: No bullpen; no power; no infield defense. Biggest loss: Glenn Davis. Biggest gain: Pete Harnisch. Rookie to watch: First baseman Luis Gonzalez. Key factor: Can they talk National League into letting them play all games in Astrodome, the only place where they have been tough?
Chicago - Strengths: Power galore; good speed; above-average defense. Weakness: questionable starting pitching. Biggest gain: Danny Jackson. Rookie to watch: Third baseman Gary Scott. Key factor: Can Jackson, Mike Harkey and Rick Sutcliffe stay healthy?
New York - Strengths: best starting rotation in baseball; speed; strong closer. Weaknesses: the New York media; below-average defense everywhere; no bullpen depth. Biggest loss: Darryl Strawberry. Biggest gain: Vince Coleman. Rookie to watch: Lefty Doug Simons. Key factor: Will anybody on this team catch a ball?
Pittsburgh - Strengths: outstanding offensive outfield; above-average defense. Weaknesses: no guaranteed closer; no leadoff hitter. Biggest gain: Curtis Wilkerson. Biggest loss: Sid Bream. Rookie to watch: First baseman Orlando Merced. Key factor: Can these guys stop talking about money long enough to play baseball?
Montreal - Strengths: solid pitching staff; speed; sound defense. Weaknesses: lack of depth in starting rotation. Biggest gain: Ivan Calderon. Biggest loss: Tim Raines. Rookie to watch: Lefty Brian Barnes. Key factor: Can they avoid their annual tendency to drop out of the picture in August and September?
Philadelphia - Strengths: Defense; Lenny Dykstra. Weaknesses: Poor starting pitching; no lefty in bullpen; anemic middle of order. Biggest gain: Wally Backman. Rookie to watch: Second baseman Mickey Morandini. Key factor: If Dale Murphy returns to MVP form, they might finish fourth.
St. Louis - Strengths: Speed. Weaknesses: No power; doubtful pitching. Biggest gain: Gerald Perry. Biggest loss: Vince Coleman. Rookies to watch: Outfielders Bernard Gilkey and Ray Lankford. Key factor: Can entire pitching staff make enough of a comeback to make Manager Ray Torre's run-run-run philosophy matter?