AL CENTRAL PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Where they're coming from: They finished 67-46, just good enough for first place, but the strike kept them from a shot at their first World Series title since 1917.

Where they're going: First place. No other team has better young pitching, and no other team has Frank Thomas, who led the AL in runs, walks, on-base average, slugging average, extra-base hits and gushy comparisons to Ted Williams.

Key newcomers: P Jim Abbott (4.55 ERA), DH Chris Sabo (11 HRs in 258 at-bats), OF Mike Devereaux (.203).

What must go right: Frank Thomas must contend for an unprecedented third straight MVP award. Roberto Hernandez must pitch like the closer who saved 80 percent of his tries before 1994, not the one who blew six save tries last year.

What could go wrong: Michael Jordan could coax Thomas to play power forward for the Bulls in the playoffs. Barring that, Sabo and Devereaux could fail to support Thomas in the batting order the way Julio Franco (.319, 98 RBIs) and Darrin Jackson (.312, 51 RBIs) did before leaving to play in Japan. Wilson Alvarez, second in the AL in shutouts, could fail to shake spring shoulder soreness.

X-factor: The absence of Jack McDowell. The league's most durable starter threw a patch over the Sox's biggest hole, threadbare relief. Abbott, who takes his place, finished 1994 poorly. Chicago's best two prospects, Scott Ruffcorn and James Baldwin, are pitchers.

Key statistic: Since 1993, only the Braves' Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux have more wins than Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and Jason Bere.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Where they're coming from: An exciting season with sold-out crowds and an 18-game home winning streak. They finished 66-47, good enough for a wild card, and their first postseason berth since 1954 . . . but it didn't count.

Where they're going: Probably to the playoffs, but baseball's unluckiest team may be struck down by the strike. All except one of its canceled games were against sub-.500 teams; Chicago lost 12 games against winning teams.

Key newcomers: P Orel Hershiser (3.79 ERA), P Bud Black (4.47), P Paul Assenmacher (AL holds leader), DH Dave Winfield (10 HRs).

What must go right: Triple Crown threat Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, the AL steals and hits champion, must battle it out for AL MVP. Paul Shuey, with five career saves, must succeed as the closer. Winfield, who hit .343 against left-handers, must boost an offense that was third-worst in the AL against lefties. Eddie Murray must drive in 75 or more runs for a record 19th straight year -- and get the 70 hits he needs for 3,000.

What could go wrong: Something always does. A strike, a lockout, a worldwide cork shortage. Pitchers Dennis Martinez (39), Hershiser (36) and Black (37) could fold under the rigors of a full season. Mark Clark (11-3) could miss ex-pitching coach Phil Regan. C Sandy Alomar's left knee could buckle under. A defense that committed the third-most errors in the AL could get even worse.

X-factor: The Indians lost a league-high 12 games they led entering the seventh inning. Will the only management in baseball wise enough to lock up young players to inexpensive, long-term contracts also be smart enough to get a veteran closer -- Florida's Bryan Harvey or Minnesota's Rick Aguilera?

Key statistics: This offense was the juggernaut of our generation. Cleveland led the AL in slugging, runs, hits, homers and RBIs and was second in batting average and steals. The Indians had the third-best slugging average this century (.484).

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Where they're coming from: The Royals were 9 1/2 out before winning 14 straight to move to one game out. They finished third at 64-51, and manager Hal McRae was fired.

Where they're going: Into a new era. Artificial turf is out. Outfield fences are in 10 feet and down 3 feet. And big contracts are way out.

Key newcomers: P Tom Browning (recovering from broken arm), C Pat

Borders (.247).

What must go right: New manager Bob Boone must provide a more nurturing atmosphere than McRae for an organization whose minor-league teams had baseball's best record (408-285). Michael Tucker must succeed Bob Hamelin as Rookie of the Year.

What could go wrong: A team built around pitching and defense could feel like a stranger in Kauffman Stadium. Closer Jeff Montgomery could suffer -- opponents hit .328 against him last year on grass surfaces. Nobody fills the void left by the trade of Cy Young Award winner David Cone.

X-factor: If the team starts poorly, will owner David Glass continue the salary fire sale by dumping Montgomery, P Kevin Appier, P Tom Gordon and SS Greg Gagne?

Key statistic: Hamelin may not develop into anything more than a platoon player; all 24 of his homers were against right-handers.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Where they're coming from: Minnesota was one game out on June 15 but finished 14 behind, with a 53-60 record in fourth place.

Where they're going: No hanky waving this year, just throwing in the towel. Without Kent Hrbek (53 RBIs), Dave Winfield (43 RBIs) and Shane Mack (.333), this small-market wonder will have a small winning percentage to match.

Key newcomers: 1B Kevin Maas (23 Triple-A homers), P Greg W. Harris (3-12).

What must go right: OF Kirby Puckett (AL-high 112 RBIs) and 2B Chuck Knoblauch (45 doubles) must repeat. C Matt Walbeck, who

threw out 40 percent of runners trying to steal, must get on base a few times himself; he batted .204. Kevin Tapani (4.62 ERA) and Scott Erickson (5.44) must regain their form, and P LaTroy Hawkins must compete for Rookie of the Year with LF Marty Cordova (.358 in Triple-A).

What could go wrong: The team ERA was a major-league worst 5.68 and might get worse. Harris, whose great curveball didn't drop in Denver's high altitude, was 4-20 the past two seasons and is out for

up to a month with a broken finger.

X-factor: Minnesota may start as many as six rookies on any given day. If they fail, will new GM Terry Ryan succeed at obtaining talent on a tight budget the way his predecessor, Andy MacPhail, did?

Key statistic: Kirby Puckett's $6 million salary is roughly half that of the rest of the roster.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Where they're coming from: They were tied for first on May 10, but a 14-game slide left their season as odoriferous as Cheeseheads at a July 4 doubleheader. Milwaukee finished 53-62, in fifth place.

Where they're going: Washington? Orlando, Fla.? With revenue sharing still just a concept, owner Bud Selig could intensify his threats to leave Milwaukee if he doesn't get a new stadium

there.

Key newcomers: OF Derrick May (.284), C Joe Oliver (missed most of season with ankle injury).

What must go right: Mike Fetters must duplicate his 17-for-20 performance in save tries. Ricky Bones (3.43 ERA) must repeat as an All-Star. Cal Eldred (4.68) and 2B Pat Listach (54 at-bats) must

return to rookie form. Leadoff hitter Darryl Hamilton must rebound from reconstructive elbow surgery. Oliver must stop the running game; last year's starting catcher, Dave Nilsson, now projected for first base, threw out an AL-low 15 percent of opposing runners.

What could go wrong: Recovery from rotator cuff surgery could hurt the swing of Greg Vaughn, who has 49 homers the past two years. Manager Phil Garner, who gets the most out of his players, could be made the scapegoat for a slow start.

X-factor: Call them the Bruised Crew. Six top players -- 3B Kevin Seitzer, Nilsson, Listach, Hamilton, Vaughn and Oliver -- are coming off surgery. And talking about being bitten by injury bugs, Nilsson (who led the team with 69 RBIs) could miss up to six weeks with Ross River Fever, a malaria-like virus transmitted by mosquitoes.

Key statistic: Why were the Brewers pathetic offensively? On a ZTC team that hit an AL-low 99 homers, two of the top power hitters, Vaughn (19 HRs) and SS Jose Valentin (11), hit . 094 and .098 in the clutch, worst and second-worst in the league, respectively.

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