1. CLEVELAND INDIANS
FAT HEADS? Are the Indians too confident? "We're talking a lot
because our team looks really good," says shortstop Omar
Vizquel. Leftfielder Albert Belle says that there could be three
or four 20-game winners on the pitching staff and that Cleveland
can break the American League record of 111 regular-season
victories, a mark the 1954 Tribe set. Opponents can only hope
that the arrogant Indians are not as hungry as they were in '95.
FAT CONTRACT The one Indian who did get fat on his 1995
accomplishments, rightfielder Manny Ramirez, paid for it in
spring training. After signing a four-year, $10.1 million
contract in the off-season, Ramirez, who hit .308 with 31 home
runs and 107 RBIs last year, reported to camp 29 pounds heavier
than his 195-pound playing weight. Every morning after workouts,
Cleveland's strength and conditioning coach, Fernando Montes,
had the 23-year-old Ramirez ride a bike around the Indians
complex for at least an hour. To embarrass Ramirez even more,
Montes had him ride a pink bicycle. Ramirez learned his lesson,
lost the weight and, eventually, the pink bike.
STICK FIGURE That's the name of righthander Jack McDowell's new
rock band. And Black Jack, who signed a two-year, $10.1 million
free-agent contract with the Indians in December, is looking
forward to exploring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. McDowell,
who has won more games (98) in the 1990s than any other American
League pitcher, brings his act to a staff that led the league in
ERA (3.83) last year. He joins veteran righthanders Dennis
Martinez, Orel Hershiser and Charles Nagy to form a top-notch
rotation. "I can't imagine a better situation," says McDowell.
"I've never been on a staff with so many quality guys."
BIG ADDITION With three-time All-Star Julio Franco also having
signed on as a free agent, the Cleveland lineup, which included
seven .300 hitters last season, is even more fearsome. Franco,
who spent last season in Japan, hit .319 with 20 homers and 98
RBIs for the White Sox in 1994.
BIG BANDWAGON Everyone loves a winner. In early December the
Indians became the first major league team to sell out every
game before the start of a season.
OUTLOOK The Indians will win it all.
2. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
BIG HURT'S WALKATHON The record for career walks belongs to Babe
Ruth, who had 2,056 over 22 seasons. In 5 1/2 years in the
majors, Chicago's Frank Thomas has already walked 661 times. To
try to keep teams from pitching around Thomas, the White Sox
loaded up in the off-season, signing free-agent bangers Harold
Baines and Tony Phillips and trading for Danny Tartabull. For
this strategy to work, Tartabull, who has a history of nagging
injuries, will have to stay healthy.
MORE HURTFUL NUMBERS Thomas is the only player in major league
history to bat better than .300 with at least 20 home runs, 100
RBIs, 100 runs scored and 100 walks for five consecutive years.
JUST PLAIN HURTING? Righthanders Alex Fernandez and Jason Bere
and lefthander Wilson Alvarez were a combined 28-34 with a 4.88
ERA last season, after going 35-17 with a 3.71 ERA in 1994.
Fernandez, at least, regained his winning form late last year
when he went 7-0 with a 1.35 ERA in his last 11 starts.
OUTLOOK Even if everything falls into place for Chicago, it will
be tough to catch the Indians.
3. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
JOHNNY BE GREAT The Royals believe they finally have a player
with the superstar potential to succeed George Brett--Johnny
Damon, 22, a centerfielder with daring speed and a sizzling bat.
Last season he hit .343 at Double A Wichita and then .282 with
23 RBIs in 47 games with K.C. In fact, the Royals' new marketing
campaign features a commercial with Brett and Damon battling
over a remote control to see who gets to watch replays of himself.
LINEUP BE WEAK During the off-season Kansas City traded first
baseman Wally Joyner and lost shortstop Greg Gagne and third
baseman Gary Gaetti to free agency. Last season those three
accounted for 39% of the Royals' run production and 45% of their
home runs. And even with those players, K.C. finished last in
the league in runs, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. The
Royals desperately need first baseman-DH Bob Hamelin to regain
the stroke that earned him the 1994 American League Rookie of
the Year award; last year Hamelin batted .168 with seven homers
in 72 games with K.C. and spent part of the season in the minors.
OUTLOOK What makes Kansas City better than Minnesota and
Milwaukee in this division? Righthander Kevin Appier, the staff
ace who has recovered from last season's bout of tendinitis, and
Jeff Montgomery, the star closer.
4. MINNESOTA TWINS
HEAVY HITTER Kirby Puckett's uniform fits as snugly as a sausage
casing, but he insists he's not out of shape. "Scales don't
bother me," says Puckett, who is 5'9" and 223 pounds. "I weigh
myself by my swing." To avoid another slow start--in 1995 he hit
.244 in April and May--Puckett stepped into a batting cage
during the off-season for the first time.
ANOTHER SAVE After the 1989 season manager Tom Kelly told
starter Rick Aguilera that the Twins needed a closer because
they were losing free agent Jeff Reardon. "He knew I would do it
because it was best for the team," says Aguilera, who went on to
save 204 games from '90 to '95, including part of last season
with the Red Sox. Once again when the Twins found themselves in
a jam--their top four returning starters had a combined ERA of
5.73 last year--they turned to Aguilera, who came back to
Minnesota as a free agent and will become the Twins' No. 1
starter. However, Minnesota needs a workhorse, and the
34-year-old Aguilera has not thrown more than 145 innings in any
of his 11 major league seasons.
OUTLOOK The Twins have plenty of pop in their lineup, but with
an awful pitching staff they'll lose a lot of 10-9 games.
5. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
NO ACE The Brewers signed underachieving free-agent righthander
Ben McDonald to a two-year, $6 million contract even though he
was 3-6 and started only 13 games for Baltimore last season
because of tendinitis in his pitching shoulder. This spring his
fastball was clocked only in the upper 80's, and that's bad news
for the Brewers, who in 1995 had just one starter with as many
as 10 victories, righthander Ricky Bones.
POWER OUTAGE In 1995 the Brewers hit only 56 dingers at County
Stadium, the second-lowest figure by an AL team at its home
park. (By comparison, the Mariners led the league with 101
homers at the Kingdome.) Milwaukee needs a big year from
leftfielder Greg Vaughn, who had 30 homers in '93 but only 17
OUTLOOK "Worst team I've seen here," declared one manager during
spring training in Arizona. Enough said.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER With players like the portly Puckett, the Twins have pop, but Minnesota is pitching-poor. [Kirby Puckett sliding into home plate]