By nearly everyone's early evaluation of the American League East, there is only minimal encouragement for the five pretenders for the division title.
That's because the two best teams -- the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox -- are better now than they were a year ago. And if all the pieces fall into place for the Blue Jays, the defending champions could put a lot of daylight between themselves and their six challengers.
"Championships aren't won on paper," said Baltimore Orioles manager John Oates, "because you don't know what's going to happen, especially with injuries. But the same teams that have been favored the last couple of years [Toronto and Boston] are the two who have improved the most.
"After those two teams, I think you can throw a blanket over the other five. We've all got our strong points and our weak points.
"I'm optimistic, but I'm also realistic -- and I think the Orioles' chances are as good as any of the other five. I really believe that on Opening Day, we've got a chance to win the AL East. But you'd have to say that Toronto and Boston have to be favored."
Pat Gillick, the Toronto general manager, won't argue with the assumption that his team is the one to beat. He signed starting pitcher Jack Morris to replace Tom Candiotti, and added Dave Winfield as a full-time designated hitter. The two free agents improve an already potent roster.
"I try to be objective," said Gillick. "I'd have to say that Boston is still the toughest team for us to beat. After that, I'd put the Orioles, Detroit and Milwaukee together, with Cleveland and New York behind them."
The addition of Morris, who helped the Minnesota Twins win the World Series last year, is considered the key acquisition of the off-season. "They already had the best pitching staff in the league," said Detroit slugger Cecil Fielder.
"Now, you add Jack to a staff that includes [Jimmy] Key, [Todd] Stottlemyre and [Juan] Guzman, and it's going to be three tough days any time you play them.
"And don't forget about [Dave] Stieb," said Fielder, who was in town this weekend to accept the Sultan of Swat award at the Tops in Sports banquet. "If Stieb is healthy, then they have an unbelievable staff."
Stieb underwent surgery for a herniated disk last summer. Signing Morris was a hedge against Stieb's not coming back, but Gillick says both will be instrumental for the Blue Jays this season. "We like everything about Morris that everybody else likes," said Gillick.
"He's a competitor, he gives you innings, he likes to take the ball. He's the type of guy you go after. And I think Stieb will be ready -- if not by Opening Day, then shortly thereafter.
"There's no problem with his arm. He's scheduled to start throwing in about two weeks."
Although there is some question about how much Frank Viola will help Boston, Fielder said the Red Sox have gotten a solid No. 2 starter to back up Roger Clemens.
"Don't worry about Frank," said Fielder. "He'll do all right. I think bTC he might be the kind of guy who pitches better in this league than the National League [where Viola has pitched for the Mets the past three years]."
Except for the addition of Viola, the Red Sox's roster is virtually unchanged from a year ago.
"Re-signing [Joe] Hesketh was important for them," said Oates. "They've got a good lineup, and if [Danny] Darwin comes back, they have the making of a good staff."
Oates says the Orioles could, too. He is banking that veteran right-handers Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis will give his starting rotation a shot in the arm.
"Our No. 1 priority was to improve our starting pitching," said Oates. "And our No. 2 priority was to improve our starting pitching. That's how much of a priority it was.
"We only had one guy win 10 games last year -- and you can't compete like that. There's no doubt in my mind right now that, regardless of who they are, all five of our starters can win in double figures next year.
"Having Glenn Davis for the entire year would be a big plus -- but adding Sutcliffe and Davis might be even more important. I feel like we've improved ourselves, and we're going to continue to try improve.
"I don't know that we've done enough yet -- we could still use some more team speed -- but we've made some strides. Brady Anderson played well at the end of the year, and I think we're close to upgrading ourselves with Luis Mercedes.
"Some teams have their speed at shortstop and their power in left field. But we've got a pretty good offensive player at shortstop, so maybe we can do it a little different than other teams."
With the addition of Sutcliffe, Davis, minor-league free-agent right-hander Eric Hetzel and outfielder Darrell Sherman, a minor-league draftee, the Orioles have been one of the most active teams in the division. The Tigers have added only free-agent outfielder Dan Gladden, and the Brewers' only significant change would appear to be the loss of second baseman Willie Randolph to free agency.
However, Detroit general manager Jerry Walker (a member of the Orioles' 1960 Kiddie Korps), said he doesn't think inactivity is an indication of his team's possibilities. "We feel we have the makings of a good club," said Walker.
"We've got some good position players, and if a couple of our young pitchers, like left-hander Scott Aldred and right-hander Greg Gohr, come through, we feel like we'll be improved."
Although conceding that the Blue Jays and Red Sox are the class of the division, Walker said he doesn't think either is a lock.
"[The Blue Jays] have good talent -- but you can only put so many people on the field at one time," he said.
"We went to Sept. 1, but then [closer] Mike Henneman got hurt. I'm not looking at it through rose-colored glasses -- but we can't worry about what other clubs do. We have to play to our potential, then we can start worrying about catching them."
Under new president John Hart, a former Orioles coach, the Indians don't disguise their desire to build with young players. They traded left-hander Greg Swindell this winter once they became convinced they wouldn't be able to sign him -- and actually started their rebuilding campaign last summer, when they dealt Candiotti to Toronto.
"Our future is with young players," said Hart. "We feel we've added some depth to our pitching staff. And we've got some good young players [most notably Mark Lewis] coming along."
New York and Milwaukee appear to be the biggest puzzles in the division. The Yankees traded Steve Sax to the White Sox for Melido Perez to open second base for Pat Kelly, but they're desperate for a third baseman. They are overloaded in the outfield, and there is some question how much the spacious outfield in Yankee Stadium will affect Tartabull.
Since installing a new front office, with Sal Bando replacing Harry Dalton as general manager, the Brewers have moved with extreme caution. They have been hurt by injuries in the past, and for the most part will try again with the same cast of players.
Putting on the moves
The significant player moves by AL East teams in the off-season:
BALTIMORE: Obtained -- RHP Rick Sutcliffe (free agent), RHP Eric Hetzel (minor-league free agent), RHP Storm Davis (trade), OF Darrell Sherman (minor-league Rule V draft). Lost -- LHP Mike Linskey (waivers), RHP Dave Johnson (free agent), C Bob Melvin (trade).
BOSTON: Obtained -- LHP Frank Viola (free agent).
CLEVELAND: Obtained -- RHP Jack Armstrong (trade), RHP Scott Scudder (trade), LHP Derek Lilliquist (waivers), LHP Mike Thomas (minor-league Rule V draft), OF Kenny Lofton (trade), SS David Rohde (trade), LHP Dennis Cook (trade), RHP Mike Christopher (trade). Lost -- LHP Greg Swindell (trade), LHP Jesse Orosco (trade), RHP Willie Blair (trade), RHP Rudy Seanez (trade), C Eddie Taubensee (trade).
DETROIT: Obtained -- OF Dan Gladden (trade). Lost -- RHP Rusty Meacham (waivers), OF-DH Pete Incaviglia (free agent), OF Lloyd Moseby (free agent), LHP John Cerutti (free agent), LHP Jerry Don Gleaton (free agent), C Mark Salas (free agent), C Andy Allanson (free agent).
MILWAUKEE: Obtained -- LHP Jesse Orosco (trade), RHP Mike Fetters (trade), LHP Bruce Ruffin (trade). Lost -- 1B George Canale (trade), 2B Willie Randolph (free agent), RHP Chuck Crim (trade), SS Dale Sveum (trade).
NEW YORK: Obtained -- OF Danny Tartabull (free agent), IF Mike Gallego (free agent), RHP Melido Perez (trade). Lost -- C Bob Geren (waivers), 2B Steve Sax (trade).
TORONTO: Obtained -- RHP Jack Morris (free agent), OF-DH Dave Winfield (free agent). Lost -- RHP Tom Candiotti (free
agent), RHP Alex Sanchez (waivers).