ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says the Orioles and New York Yankees are the top challengers in the American League East, but he cautions that the Toronto Blue Jays are still the team to beat.
"If I had to pick right now, the two with the best chance [to dethrone Toronto] are the Yankees and Baltimore," Anderson said last night before the Orioles' 3-2 victory. "But Toronto is still the best team.
"If everything is equal, which means everybody stays healthy, then they'll win it," Anderson said of the Blue Jays. "I have to laugh at people who are writing them off because of their record down here [9-16].
"They're the defending champions and teams that win the World Series usually don't win the Grapefruit or Cactus League," Anderson said. "The year we won , I think we were something like 12-and-19.
"He [Toronto manager Cito Gaston] is starting to play all of his players now, and they're playing pretty good," said Anderson, who is not among those who question the left side of the Blue Jays' infield. "Actually, I always thought [Dick] Schofield was a good defensive shortstop. He won't do much offensively, but he can play the position."
Anderson is impressed with the Yankees for a lot of reasons, but one in particular.
"For one thing, they've got the best left-handed starting pitcher in baseball. Jim Abbott will win a lot of games for them," he said. "Melido Perez is a pretty good pitcher, they picked up [left-handed pitcher] Jimmy Key and that guy in center field [Bernie Williams] is a very good player.
"The only thing about the Yankees is that they might be too left-hand minded [on offense]," said Anderson. "Left-handed pitching might shut them down. Left-handers are not going to let [Danny] Tartabull beat them. They'll pitch around him -- I know we will."
Anderson likes the Orioles' pitching, but his main reservation is whether Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson can duplicate their seasons of a year ago. "Devereaux and Anderson have to repeat," he said.
"It's very possible that they could, but you had better look at those statistics very hard. Anderson did about everything you can do, and how many times are you going to get 107 RBI from the second spot [as Devereaux did last year]? They put up some awfully big numbers.
"I've always felt that every player will put together one big year," the Tigers manager said. "Who knows? Maybe they'll have a bigger year. But those are tough numbers to match."
The Tigers manager said he thought repeat performances by Anderson and Devereaux were even more important for the Orioles than a return to form by Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis.
"I'll concede them Ripken and Davis," he said, emphasizing the importance he places on the two hitters at the top of the Orioles' lineup.
As for his own team, the manager warned people not to be influenced by an earlier 16-game winless streak during which the Tigers gave up an average of 7.8 runs. "No, it hasn't been as bad as it might seem," Anderson said. "[Mike] Moore has pitched great, and [reliever] Mike Henneman has been outstanding.
"We've got to do a little work this year, but we're going to score runs -- make no doubt about that. We're in much better shape than you might think.
"We're going to hit a lot and score a lot. If we can finish seventh or eighth in the league in pitching, then I think we can win," Anderson said. "If we don't, we'll be in the middle of the pack or worse."
Anderson's hopes for his pitching staff, however, may be too high. Bill Gullickson, the Tigers' top starter the previous two years, won't be available until about May 1 after off-season shoulder surgery.
That leaves Moore, John Doherty and Bill Krueger to make most of the starts for the first month. "I'm going to use those three until April 17, and probably only four [Tom Bolton will be the late addition] the whole first month," Anderson said.
Which means that Henneman should get a lot of work, if the Tigers can take a few leads into the late innings.
"He [Henneman] has been pitching every other day -- hasn't missed a turn -- and he's throwing real good," Anderson said of his closer, who suffered from a lack of work for long stretches a year ago.
But if the Tigers are going to be in the race, Anderson acknowledges, that they'll likely have to contend with the Yankees and Orioles before they can worry about the Blue Jays.