1. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
THE REVIVAL The irony of iron man Cal Ripken Jr.'s setting the
consecutive-games-played record last summer was that while it
was uplifting for the rest of baseball, the Baltimore clubhouse
under rookie manager Phil Regan remained as joyful as the
waiting room of a dentist's office. "There was no enthusiasm at
all," pitcher Jesse Orosco says. "Now we've got a lot of
goofballs and guys who like to have fun." Following their 71-73
finish, the Orioles added veteran lefthanders Randy Myers and
David Wells and righthander Roger McDowell, all of whom are
clubhouse cutups. More important, new second baseman Roberto
Alomar adds his infectious enthusiasm on the field, not to
mention the kind of offensive and defensive skills that could
mean an MVP season in this power-packed lineup. New skipper
Davey Johnson finished first or second in each of the eight full
seasons he has managed with the Mets and the Reds.
ROTISSERIE RECIPE Baltimore has added an elite offensive player
each of the past three years: first baseman Rafael Palmeiro
(1994), third baseman Bobby Bonilla ('95) and Alomar ('96). Its
Opening Day lineup includes six players who have combined for 30
All-Star Game appearances. Should the Orioles find themselves in
need of another All-Star in the second half, new general manager
Pat Gillick has a track record, gained during the 18 seasons he
held the same post with the Toronto Blue Jays, of making the
right trade at the right time.
OUTLOOK Baltimore hasn't won a division title since 1983. That
streak should end.
2. BOSTON RED SOX
WHERE'S THE KEG? The Red Sox are a slo-pitch softball team.
After outslugging every club in the league except the Indians
last season, Boston added more muscle to its lineup by obtaining
bashers Kevin Mitchell, Mike Stanley and Wil Cordero. The heart
of the order--John Valentin, Mo Vaughn, Jose Canseco, Mitchell
and Mike Greenwell--all have blasted at least 22 homers and
batted at least .298 in a season.
IMITATION LEATHER Boston's fielding will be downright scary,
too. Canseco's trying to play the expansive, tricky rightfield
at Fenway Park is a particularly frightening thought. The Sox
made the most errors in the American League last year (120) but
still easily won the East and were 25-15 in one-run games. "We
covered up a lot of our mistakes with offense," says Valentin.
HEARTBREAK HILL Boston needs only middle-of-the-pack pitching to
win consistently. Good thing, too, because it doesn't figure to
be much better than that. The rotation is riddled with
uncertainties. Roger Clemens hasn't won more than 11 games since
1993; Tim Wakefield turned into a pumpkin down the stretch last
year, going 2-7 after a 14-1 start; Tom Gordon, a Flash in the
pan with 17 wins in '89, hasn't won more than 12 since then; and
Aaron Sele missed the last four months of '95 with tendinitis in
his right shoulder.
OUTLOOK The Red Sox will reach the postseason in back-to-back
years for the first time since 1915 and '16. They have the wild
card to thank for that.
3. NEW YORK YANKEES
GOING TO THE POST Down the stretch last season, righthander
David Cone received all sorts of advice from fans on how to
treat a blister on his pitching finger. "The best advice was to
soak it in my grandmother's urine," he says. "Supposedly the
older the person, the higher the acidic content. Someone else
said use a pregnant woman's urine." Cone decided on a lotion
used to toughen horses' hooves. That was fitting, considering
that Cone was the Yankees' workhorse. He threw a
major-league-high 229 1/3 innings last season, plus 15 2/3 more in
the Divisional Series against the Seattle Mariners. After a
147-pitch effort in Game 5 of that series, Cone could hardly
lift his arm. Questions about his arm strength lingered through
several so-so spring training appearances. "I understand the
rumors," he says. "But I'm fine. I'll be ready."
THE STEINBRENNER FACTOR While centerfielder Bernie Williams was
mired in his usual early-season slump last year (he's a career
.229 hitter before June), Yankees owner George Steinbrenner
ordered then general manager Gene Michael to trade him. Michael
resisted, once conveniently forgetting to tell the Boss that the
Giants offered Darren Lewis for Williams. Williams hit .350 in
the second half, blossoming into one of the game's stars.
KENNY ROGERS ROASTED? Because of Steinbrenner, the Yankees face
obstacles other teams don't. Only with the Yankees, for
instance, would lefthander Rogers, whose 44 wins over the past
three years with the Texas Rangers were the fifth most in the
American League, be considered a potential Terry Mulholland-like
flop. Rogers is a small-town guy with a 6.47 career ERA at
Yankee Stadium whose worst month is his first (6-8, 4.70 in
April). Fast starts are critical in New York. "I'll need time to
adjust to the cold weather," Rogers says. "After that I'll be
OUTLOOK As one National League general manager says of this
division, "Somebody paid a hell of a lot of money for the
privilege of finishing third."
4. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
CANADA DRY Since Toronto won a second straight world
championship in 1993, no team has lost more games than the Blue
Jays, who went 111-148 over the past two years.
TWO BAD Nothing symbolizes the Toronto crash better than the
flameout of pitchers Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen. In the Jays'
championship seasons, they went a combined 54-19 with a 3.69
ERA. But over the last two years they were 39-47 with a 5.03.
Says Guzman, "My velocity is back. I'm going to go out there and
be a power pitcher again. I'm going to challenge people with my
best stuff and see what happens." In spring training, Hentgen
pitched well while Guzman was inconsistent.
OUTLOOK Despite patchwork additions of some veterans, the Blue
Jays are clearly rebuilding.
5. DETROIT TIGERS
LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD MEN This is an exploratory year for
Detroit, and not just because it could have Lewis (Mark) and
Clark (Tony) on the right side of its infield. "We have to find
out what we have here and move forward," says new manager Buddy
Bell. "Whether that takes three months or six months, we'll do
it." In Bell the Tigers found the right man for a job that
requires lots of patience. Bell played 2,405 games in his career
without getting to the postseason. It was not until last
year--his 20th season in a big league uniform--that Bell reached
the promised land, as a coach of the Cleveland Indians.
PITCHING, BY ANONYMOUS The Tigers opened spring training with 30
pitchers, who had a combined major league record of 188-243. The
big winner? Journeyman reliever Joe Boever (34-43).
OUTLOOK Until pitching help from the minors arrives in a year or
two, the Tigers are Detroit's biggest disaster since the Pinto.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE It's a safe bet that Alomar and the immensely improved Orioles will slide by the opposition in this potent division. [Roberto Alomar sliding head-first into base]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A deep bullpen, which includes Mike Maddux in long relief, could overshadow a suspect Red Sox rotation.