You can no longer call it the "best division in baseball." In fact, the American League East may no longer be the best division in the American League.
For years it's been taken for granted that the East was the superior division in the AL. In the '70s you had the pitching-rich Orioles and the Reggie Jackson-led Yankees, the early '80s saw the home run-hitting Brewers, and the Red Sox and Tigers have taken their turn in the limelight while maintaining consistently strong clubs.Last year the East still had a five-game edge over the West, but the edge may go the other way this year. The West has the best team in the league in Oakland and seems to have the better young talent coming up. The last six rookies of the year were from the West, including the last three from Oakland. That's one reason Oakland should win the pennant again this year. Here's a look at how the teams stack up this year:
Last year was one to remember for the Athletics . . . except for the ending. Oakland won 104 regular-season games and swept Boston in the AL championship series. But a loss to Los Angeles in the World Series has left the Athletics with more to prove in 1989. Everyone's back, including MVP Jose Canseco, Rookie of the Year Walt Weiss, Fireman of the Year Dennis Eckersley, All-Star Game MVP Terry Steinbach, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, etc., etc. The only change the A's have made since last year was to add fireballing Mike Moore to the pitching staff. Moore never reached his potential in his years with Seattle after being a No. 1 draft pick. The biggest problem the A's have is depth, which could be serious if the top-liners get injured. Otherwise, look for them to get a second chance in the World Series.
Despite winning six more games than the previous season when they were World champs, the Twins finished 13 games behind the awesome A's. And the Twins may find themselves in a similar position this year, although they should be strong again. The Twins are the best-fielding team in the majors, which wins them a few extra games, and they have hitting with Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti and Kent Hrbek. They have the league's top pitcher (last year, anyway) in Frank Viola, but starting pitching could be the weakest part of the team. Jeff Reardon and Juan Berenguer anchor the bullpen.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals still have remnants of their world championship team of 1985 with players such as George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson, and they have up-and-coming stars like Bo Jackson, Kevin Seitzer and Danny Tartabull. The starting pitching looks good with Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen, Floyd Bannister and Charlie Leibrandt. So what's the problem? Well, the Royals are getting old, and they could use some help in the bullpen.
Maybe the addition of Jim Lefebvre, the former Oakland coach, will give a winning attitude to the Mariners, who haven't had a winning season in their history. Although he was the subject of several trade rumors, Mark Langston returns as the ace of the pitching staff. Former Salt Lake Gull Harold Reynolds was an All-Star again last season and is one of the team's only legitimate stars. There's a lot of talk about Ken Griffey Jr., who could end up starting in center field at the age of 19.
The Rangers were busy over the winter trying to find some offense for their weak lineup. They found some in the form of a couple of .300 hitters - Julio Franco from Cleveland and Rafael Palmeiro from the Cubs. They also got a couple of old-timers in Nolan Ryan and Buddy Bell, who they hope can help stabilize young players such as Ruben Sierra and Pete Incaviglia.
In an effort to regain their division-winning status of 1987, the Angels made five trades and signed five free agents over the offseason. But all it seems to have done is add more old-timers to a lineup that needs young blood. Wally Joyner will try to bounce back after a poor season, and retreads Chili Davis, Lance Parrish and Claudell Washington could help out for awhile. However, pitching will again be the problem with Mike Witt trying to carry the load.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox had the worst fielding team in the majors and one of the weakest hitting teams with only Baltimore, Atlanta and Philadelphia, three last-place teams, worse than their .244 average. With their offensive hopes riding on 41-year-old Carlton Fisk, you know its going to be a tough year in Chi-town. The bright spot will be a young pitching staff that shows a lot of promise.
Toronto Blue Jays
Over the past five years, the Blue Jays have the second-best record in the league, just behind Detroit, which has won two division titles, including that big 1984 season. But the Jays have yet to win a title. With the rest of the AL East sliding, this should be the year for the Jays to jump to the front, perhaps by default. The Jays didn't make any changes of note since last year, when they finished two games behind Boston and had the best record in the division over the last two months. You've got to figure that the outfield trio of George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby can't be as bad as last year. The pitching is anchored by Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key with Tom Henke in the bullpen. With budding stars Fred McGriff at first base, Tony Fernandez at shortstop and Kelly Gruber at third, along with veterans like catcher Ernie Whitt, Toronto has the makings of a championship club.
The Brewers have averaged 89 victories the past two seasons but never seem to be taken seriously. Perhaps that's because they don't have the big-name stars that other AL East teams have. What they do have is a nice blend of young and experienced players and a good mix of pitching and hitting. Robin Yount, who has been around forever it seems, is still hitting .300 and knocking in runs. Paul Molitor and Rob Deer are offensive weapons and Teddy Higuera and Juan Nieves lead a young pitching staff, although both will be out with injuries to start the season. Dan Plesac, Chuck Crim and Paul Mirabella comprise one of the best bullpens around.
Boston Red Sox
With the Wade Boggs controversy swirling all spring and the fact that the Red Sox have the worst exhibition record in the league, it's natural to move the defending division champs down a few notches. The biggest reason is the loss of St. George native Bruce Hurst, who fled for San Diego in the offseason. The Sox will still make some noise with youngsters like Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks combined with veterans Dwight Evans, Jim Rice and Boggs. And they still have Roger Clemens.
New York Yankees
How can a team that must use 45-year-old Tommy John as its opening-day pitcher be a threat to win the division? With old reliables like Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson joined by newcomers Steve Sax, Andy Hawkins and Dave LaPoint, the Yankees will have plenty of talent, although Dave Winfield will miss the first half of the season. The Yanks should benefit from the managerial change to Dallas Green, who's not part of the Billy Martin-Yogi Berra-Billy Martin-Gene Michael-Billy Martin-Lou Pinella-Billy Martin rotation of recent years. In his last stint as a manager in 1980, he performed miracles in leading Philadelphia to a world title. Still, the Yankees have shaky pitching and George Steinbrenner.
Every year the tendency is to pick the Tigers lower than they end up finishing. A lot of the reason for the Tigers overachieving could be attributed to Sparky Anderson, arguably the best manager in baseball. Although the Tigers don't always seem competitive on paper, Sparky makes them competitive on the field. The problem with the Tigers is age, with the majority of their starters over 30. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon give the Tigers strength up the middle. Ex-BYU pitcher Jack Morris is the winningest pitcher of the 1980s. But the 33-year-old Morris is joined in the Tiger rotation by 35-year-old Frank Tanana and 38-year-old Doyle Alexander.
After falling flat on their faces in 1987 when big things were expected, the Indians climbed back last year and finished just under .500 at 78-84. They might make it to .500 this year with the power of Joe Carter and Cory Snyder and a young starting rotation of Tom Candiotti, Greg Swindell, John Farrell and Scott Bailes.
The awful Orioles still have the Ripken brothers, and they acquired ex-Salt Lake Gull Phil Bradley in the offseason. Otherwise they have a bunch of guys you've never heard of. Get a load of this projected starting rotation - Bob Milacki, Jose Bautista, Pete Harnisch, Jeff Ballard and Dave Schmidt. The Orioles won't lose 21 straight this year and they'll do better than 54-107. Maybe 60-102?