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Blue Jays are vulnerable in East White Sox might emerge from West's six-team toss-up

It was an off-season of unprecedented change, but one thing remained the same. The Toronto Blue Jays, a seemingly perennial division favorite, again look like the team to beat in the American League East.

The good news, of course, is that they appear to be a lot more beatable than last year.

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The defending world champions are far from defenseless, but they have lost enough power to convince manager Cito Gaston to alter his style of play. This year's model will be a more sleek, speedier version of the well-manned team that defeated the Atlanta Braves in the World Series to become baseball's first champion from foreign soil.

Designated hitter Dave Winfield has taken his personal North American Tour to Minnesota, carrying 108 RBI off with him. Right-hander David Cone, who joined the club late in the season, signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals. Left-hander Jimmy Key went to the New York Yankees. Stopper Tom Henke signed with Texas. Third baseman Kelly Gruber also is gone, but that cannot be considered a major loss now that it has been announced that he underwent shoulder surgery and miss at least two months.

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The Blue Jays might have been the No. 1 victim of baseball's new economic order if they had decided to rest on their laurels and cut back their giant payroll. The improving Orioles might have gone into spring training as the new division favorite.

But Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick spent the winter plugging holes, and he did a masterful job. He might have knocked the second-place Milwaukee Brewers out of the picture when he signed veteran free agent Paul Molitor. He replaced Cone with veteran Dave Stewart. He took a chance on right-hander Danny Cox and signed veteran shortstop Dick Schofield.

Still, it's obvious that the Blue Jays are not quite the same team they were when they broke out the champagne in October. The top five spots in the lineup still are very impressive (Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Molitor, Joe Carter, John Olerud), but the chemistry remains in question and Toronto's pitching depth no longer can be taken for granted.

The Orioles suffered more modest losses over the winter. They did not re-sign left-hander Craig Lefferts, but he never really established himself in the starting rotation. They also let go of right-handers Storm Davis and Bob Milacki, first baseman Randy Milligan, outfielder Joe Orsulak and designated hitter Sam Horn. The roster will be significantly different this year, but the acquisition of second baseman Harold Reynolds and designated hitter Harold Baines clearly have made the club stronger.

The big loser of the winter was the Brewers, who lost Molitor to Toronto and pitching ace Chris Bosio to the Seattle Mariners. Manager Phil Garner has to hope that veteran outfielder Tom Brunansky can be reincarnated as a top-flight run-producer, and power-hitting Kevin Reimer can fulfill the potential the Texas Rangers once ascribed to him.

The best of the rest just might be the youthful Cleveland Indians, who were on their way to developing into a division contender well before they shored up the starting rotation with veteran left-hander Bob Ojeda and right-hander Mike Bielecki.

No doubt, there will be a disproportionate amount of attention directed toward the New York Yankees this spring, but they still have a lot to prove. The return of George Steinbrenner will keep them in the news. The acquisition of Key and left-hander Jim Abbott could keep them in the hunt, but only if several key players -- Don Mattingly and Danny Tartabull in particular -- come out of spring training healthy enough to drive the offense.

The Boston Red Sox made some moves and spent some money, but the depth of the pitching staff remains very suspect. The arrival of Andre Dawson should beef up the offensive lineup (if his knees hold up) but it will take more than that to make a sixth-place team into a contender.

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That leaves the schizophrenic Detroit Tigers, who scored more runs than anyone in the league last year and still were outscored by the opposition -- which isn't easy to do. They have kept the offensive lineup together and added right-hander Mike Moore to the starting rotation, but still figure to be looking up at the rest of the division.

The AL West is much harder to handicap, because there are six teams that have a legitimate chance to contend. The exception, of course, is the California Angels, who are fast becoming the Exxon Valdez of baseball.

Here we go again. The Chicago White Sox looked like the best team in baseball last spring, but nearly sent new manager Gene Lamont packing with a sub-par season. Expectations may not be so high in 1993, but Lamont will be under the gun again. If he comes out of spring training with a healthy team and a solid pitching staff, this could be a year of redemption.

It will be a scramble. The Texas Rangers have worked hard to improve, adding Henke, left-hander Charlie Leibrandt, shortstop Manuel Lee, second baseman Bill Ripken and outfielder Gary Redus. The only impact player they lost was injury-ridden Jose Guzman, so they could be ready to make a serious run at their first division title.

The Minnesota Twins fell back in the pack following their 1991 world championship, but they have picked up Winfield, Bert Blyleven, left-hander Jim Deshaies and right-hander Mike Hartley. If manager Tom Kelly can pull a solid pitching staff NTC together, his team could parley its home-field advantage into another division title.

Don't count out the Oakland A's just yet, even though they suffered some serious losses during the off-season. Stewart is gone. So is Moore and Baines, but manager Tony La Russa will find a way to be competitive.

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The real variables in this equation are the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, two teams that have come a long way this winter, but two teams that had a long way to come. Either could emerge as the surprise team of the division.

Which brings us to the Angels, the team that good fortune forgot. If it can go wrong, it has gone wrong for the Angels, who learned this week that Gruber would undergo shoulder surgery just two months after the club traded for him. This comes in the wake of an Abbott deal that was a public-relations disaster and a couple of embarrassing lawsuits that were filed recently against Angels management. The only thing left to do is turn in another embarrassing season, which should not be a tall order.

Peter Schmuck's American League handicap

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Preseason edition

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. East Division

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1. Toronto Blue Jays .. .. .. .. .. .. Rebuilt for speed; still good enough.

2. Baltimore Orioles .. .. .. .. Better than before, but not quite there yet.

3. Cleveland Indians .. .. .. .. Almost ready for prime time.

4. New York Yankees .. .. .. .. Will George lead the way or get in it?

5. Milwaukee Brewers .. .. .. .. Tough year for cheeseheads.

6. Boston Red Sox .. .. .. .. .. Bad days ahead in Beantown, even if Clemens wins 25.

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7. Detroit Tigers .. .. .. .. .. Little Caesers will deliver; Tigers won't.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. West Division 1. Chicago White Sox .. .. .. .. It will all come together . . . finally.

Texas Rangers .. .. .. .. .. Canseco, Henke may put Rangers back in saddle.

3. Oakland A's .. .. .. .. .. .. Never count La Russa out.

4. Minnesota Twins .. .. .. .. .. Need too much help from likes of Winfield, Blyleven.

5. Kansas City Royals .. .. .. .. Not out of the hunt, but it's crowded at the top.

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6. Seattle Mariners .. .. It's crowded at the top, but M's could be a factor.

7. California Angels .. .. .. .. .. There really is an Angels curse.


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