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O's, Yankees are positioned for run at AL East title

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Although many prognosticators are saying this will be the New York Yankees' year, a position-by-position analysis shows that the Orioles rank as tops in the American League East.

First basemen

1. Cecil Fielder: He always will be a punch line to AL fat jokes. But he always is good for 30 homers and 100 RBIs.

2. Rafael Palmeiro: He had 55 extra-base hits in 111 games last year with a .550 slugging average, and he has good hands.

3. John Olerud: With that tremendous swing, he consistently should threaten .300. Average defensively at best, and coming off a relatively poor season.

,fgb 4. Mo Vaughn: He could be the next great player to spend his entire career in Boston. Hit 26 homers and drove in 82 runs. There's no hope for him defensively.

5. Don Mattingly: Hard to believe, eh? Says a lot about the strength of this position in the division when this guy is fifth. It was too bad he missed his chance to play in a pennant race last year. Best defensive first baseman in the division, but he's no longer an impact hitter.

Second basemen

1. Roberto Alomar: The total package, with power, speed, average, defense. Last year, Alomar batted .306, with eight homers, 38 RBIs and 19 stolen bases. A future Hall of Famer.

2. Lou Whitaker: He's on his last legs at age 37, and his defense has regressed. But he's still a productive player. Last year, he hit .301 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs, with a .377 on-base average.

3. Pat Kelly: Not a lot of range, and he doesn't really do anything particularly well. A decent hitter (.280 in '94) with a little bit of sock (26 extra-base hits), and he doesn't steal any bases. But he must be doing something right, because Buck Showalter continues to play him.

4. Bret Barberie: He hasn't hit much for the Orioles this spring, somewhat of a surprise, because his history suggests that hitting for average is the one thing he does well. Doesn't offer much power or speed or defensive range, but he has a good arm and has surprised the Orioles with his ability to turn double plays.

5. Luis Alicea: A fill-in until the Red Sox find somebody else. Alicea is 29 and never has played more than 115 major-league games in a season. OK defensively, but can't steal many bases or hit many doubles and homers. A weak position in the division.

Third basemen

1. Wade Boggs: Still a great hitter, batting .342 for the Yankees last year and compiling an incredible .433 on-base average. Not flashy on defense, but his ability to make plays won him a Gold Glove.

2. Travis Fryman: He has 90 career homers, almost 400 career RBIs, and he's only 26. Average defensively -- ranked 15th among major-league third basemen in chances per nine innings, committed 14 errors and turned 12 double plays in '94.

3. Ed Sprague: All in all, he has been a disappointment, and the Blue Jays could replace him before the end of the year. But he hits just enough in this lineup to be a respectable RBI man.

4. Leo Gomez: Lots of people around baseball, including the Orioles, are waiting to see whether the Leo Gomez of 1994, with the .502 slugging average, will return this year. Not a lot of range on defense, but good hands and a good arm.

5. Tim Naehring: Scott Cooper is gone, and, for now, the Red Sox go with Naehring. But this just may be a temporary solution. Naehring, injury-prone, hit .276 with seven homers and 42 RBIs last year. May be better as a utility player.

Shortstops

1. Cal Ripken: Some question the validity of the range rating -- chances per nine innings -- to measure defensive ability, but Ripken usually ranks at or near the top. Turned more double plays than any other shortstop in baseball last year. He's coming off a good offensive year, as well. One more bonus: He plays every single day.

2. John Valentin: A classic Fenway Park middle infielder, with good power. Valentin hit nine homers last year and drove in 49 runs. Has shown good hands and average range. A nice player, but a far cry from Ripken.

3. Chris Gomez: The Tigers like him a lot, and even moved Travis Fryman from short to third to get him into the lineup. Gomez should get better as a hitter. Last year, he batted .257 with 19 doubles and eight homers. Ranked 27th among everyday major-league shortstops in chances per nine innings.

4. Tony Fernandez: A stopgap until Derek Jeter is ready for the big leagues. Fernandez still can be an effective major-leaguer -- last year, he batted .279 for the Reds -- but his reputation as a clubhouse disruption precedes him. Fernandez mostly played third base last year.

5. Alex Gonzalez: Blue Jays thought he was ready last year, but that didn't work out. Gonzalez lasted only 15 games with Toronto and batted just .151. He's getting another shot this year, and some scouts think he eventually can be a star.

Left fielders

1. Joe Carter: Even in a strike-shortened season, he found a way to drive in more than 100 runs. Just in case you're wondering, that makes eight years in the past nine that Carter has had more than 100 RBIs. He's below average defensively, but that probably won't be noted that on his Hall of Fame plaque.

2. Brady Anderson: He and Barry Bonds may be the best left fielders in baseball. New manager Phil Regan would like him to be more patient at the plate and draw more walks. There was speculation all spring that he could be moved far down in the order, but on Opening Day, he'll probably be hitting leadoff again.

3. Mike Greenwell: xt Red Sox signed him to a multiyear contract before last season, one of the stranger signings of 1994. Greenwell batted .269 without much power or speed. He'll turn 32 before the season is over, and could be nearing the end.

4. Luis Polonia: He's concerned that manager Buck Showalter is looking to replace him, and he may be right. Polonia needs to run and hit exceptionally to offset his defensive problems, and last year, he was successful on just 20 of 32 steal attempts. His .383 on-base average wasn't as good as it needs to be either.

5. Tigers: They're not really sure who will play this position. Could be Danny Bautista or rookie Bob Higginson, maybe Kirk Gibson, maybe Juan Samuel or Milt Cuyler. The confusion surrounding one of the more important power positions speaks volumes about the Tigers lineup.

Center fielders

1. Devon White: Best defensive outfielder in the AL -- there's not much doubt about that. Great range and a good arm. Not the ideal leadoff man, but in this lineup, he'll score 100 runs. Has reached double figures in steals in each of the past eight seasons.

2. Bernie Williams: Very good defensively and has made steady progress as a hitter, as borne out by his batting averages each of the past four years -- .238, .280, .268, .289. If he stole bases with more success -- only 59 percent during his career -- he would have a chance to be an impact player.

3. Andy Van Slyke: Word around the National League last year was that he had lost a step on defense and just couldn't drive the ball much anymore. The Orioles are hoping that was due to back troubles and playing on artificial surfaces. In any case, a good outfielder.

4. Chad Curtis: Something must be wrong here, because Curtis stole 116 bases for California during the past three years, scored 94 runs in 1993, and yet the Angels seemed eager to trade him. Average defensively, and had a horrible on-base average of .317 in 1994.

5. Lee Tinsley: From Otis Nixon to Lee Tinsley. That would qualify as a step down. He batted .222 last year, and don't be surprised if he's replaced before the end of May. Boston needs help here.

Center fielders

1. Paul O'Neill: For a while, he threatened .400 and finished at .359. Seems to have revitalized his career with the Yankees, but he's not a big RBI man. His on-base average of .460 last year was among the best in baseball. Average defensively.

2. Jeffrey Hammonds: He's coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, but if he's healthy, the potential is scary. Hit the ball hard in exhibitions this spring and could wind up being the Orioles' No. 2 hitter. In spite of his injuries, he carries a .299 batting average in 101 major-league games.

3. Shawn Green: The next great star. He could be at the top of this list after this season, particularly because he will hit No. 6 or No. 7 in the lineup and can clean up after Paul Molitor, Carter and Olerud. If you're betting on a Rookie of the Year candidate in the AL, this is the guy.

4. Mark Whiten: Very good defensively, and he possesses one of the best arms in baseball. But he never has become the type of offensive player others thought he would be. It says a lot that, at 28, Whiten already has bounced through four organizations.

5. Danny Bautista: He has some ability, but nowhere near the class of the others on this list. Doesn't hit for power, and he's a marginal base stealer -- one year in the minors, he was successful on 18 of 38 attempts. He has to hit about .320 to really help the Tigers.

Catchers

1. Chris Hoiles: He's capable of 25 to 30 homers during a full season and 90 to 100 RBIs. Has gradually improved his defense, too. Hoiles threw out 24 of 74 runners trying to steal last year, a respectable 32 percent, and pitchers had a 4.24 ERA when he was behind the plate.

2. Mike Stanley: Early in his career, he had a reputation as being average defensively and poor offensively, but he has improved significantly during the past two years for the Yankees. Threw out 42 percent of those attempting to steal last year, and he batted .300 for the second straight year, with 17 homers.

3. Randy Knorr: Known as a great handler of pitchers, Knorr finally gets a chance now that Pat Borders has moved on to Kansas City. He has played in only in 90 major-league games, batting .242, but the Blue Jays have the luxury of carrying a weak-hitting catcher with their awesome lineup.

4. Mike Macfarlane: He's one of the better power-hitting catchers in baseball, and he has shown a pretty good arm in the past. But one reason the Royals let him go to Boston (another being money) was that he's regarded as a poor defensive catcher.

5. John Flaherty: He has a lifetime batting average of .168, and yet he'll go into the season as the undisputed No. 1 catcher. The Tigers have other options, none of them very good, including former Orioles backup Jeff Tackett and former Red Terry McGriff.

Designated hitters

1. Paul Molitor: Hard to believe that, at 38, he still has one of the quicker bats in baseball, with no wasted motion. Molitor batted .341 with 14 homers and 75 RBIs, scored 86 runs and went 20-for-20 in steal attempts.

2. Jose Canseco: The Red Sox needed right-handed power in their lineup, so they went out and added a guy who's regarded as the most powerful right-handed hitter in the game. Canseco rebounded strongly from arm surgery, hitting 31 homers and driving in 90 runs for Texas last year.

3. Danny Tartabull: When he plays, he makes a major contribution, but he usually misses 20 to 25 games a year. In 104 games for the Yankees last season, Tartabull hit 19 homers and drove in 67 runs. His batting average slipped to .256, and his slugging average dropped almost 40 points.

4. Harold Baines: He's a professional hitter. Last year for the Orioles, he batted .294 with 16 homers and 54 RBIs, and struck out only 49 times in 326 at-bats, decent numbers for a power hitter. Will share time with Sherman Obando.

5. Tigers: Kirk Gibson will face right-handers, and Sparky Anderson isn't sure who will hit against left-handers. Detroit nearly passed on Gibson during the off-season, but had a hard time walking away from his grit and the 23 homers and 72 RBIs he accumulated last year.

Starting pitchers

1. Orioles: The Atlanta Braves might be the only team with a better rotation than the Orioles, top to bottom. Mike Mussina is a genuine star, Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald have the stuff to be stars, Arthur Rhodes has star potential and Sid Fernandez is, when he's right, tough to face.

2. Yankees: Jimmy Key is the best left-hander in the league, although he has had some arm troubles in recent years. The trade for Jack McDowell was a coup. Their third and fourth starters, Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki, are solid. Rookie Andy Pettitte, a left-hander with impressive minor-league credentials, figures to make the rotation.

3. Blue Jays: They've got three guys who can be outstanding -- David Cone, Pat Hentgen and Juan Guzman. But the past two years, Guzman's performance has been spotty, and to keep up with the Orioles and Yankees, they need him to be right.

4. Red Sox: If Roger Clemens is healthy, a respectable rotation with Aaron Sele and Zane Smith. But if Clemens' tendinitis leads to more serious problems, this pitching staff would be downright awful, and the Red Sox don't have many prospects to trade for help.

5. Tigers: Let's see, there's Mike Moore (5.42 ERA), David Wells (3.96), John Doherty (6.48) and Buddy Groom (3.94). The definition for a quality start in Detroit is somewhat different: Rather than three runs allowed in six innings, it's six runs in three innings.

Bullpen

1. Yankees: The best in the division, the best in baseball. John Wetteland, acquired in a deal from the Expos, throws about 93 mph from the right side, and Steve Howe is one of the more effective left-handers in the game. Adding Scott Bankhead helps their middle relief, as well.

2. Orioles: Not solid by any means. The closer, Doug Jones, is 37 years old and gets hitters out with changeups, and the closer of the future, Armando Benitez, has had miserable spring. But there is some depth here. Jones saved 27 games last year, Alan Mills is capable, and there are Jamie Moyer, Jesse Orosco and Brad Pennington.

3. Red Sox: After the Orioles, the bullpens in this division are in terrible shape. The Red Sox will go with Ken Ryan as the closer, but few members of the organization think he's the long-term solution. He won't have much support.

4. Blue Jays: In a perfect Blue Jays world, Duane Ward's shoulder would be healthy and Toronto would be an easy pick to win this division. However, his arm isn't right, and the Blue Jays must go with Darren Hall, who surprised many folks around baseball by saving 17 games last year.

5. Tigers: Mike Henneman, their closer, already has decided to retire after this season. Based on last year's numbers (60 hits and walks in 34 2/3 innings), it might be better if he retired now.

Bench

1. Orioles: They've got experience, with guys such as Matt Nokes and Kevin Bass, and young talent, such as Manny Alexander and Damon Buford. As Andy Van Slyke said Friday, this is a group that has a very good chemistry.

2. Yankees: They had the best bench in the game last year, and that was a big reason they were the best team in the AL. However, they've lost Nokes and Mike Gallego. Re-signing Randy Velarde was an important move.

3. Red Sox: Boston has some veterans who could step forward and contribute, such as Eric Wedge, Terry Shumpert and Wes Chamberlain. But still, not exactly a group that will force opposing managers to alter late-inning strategy.

4. Blue Jays: Does it really matter, with such a strong starting lineup? Plus, Cito Gaston uses his bench less than any other manager in the big leagues -- 41 pinch hitters in 1994, the fewest of any AL manager who lasted the entire season.

5. Tigers: They have question marks in left field, right field, catcher and designated hitter because there are so few qualified candidates. What does that say about the players on the bench?

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