AL EAST PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK YANKEES

Where they're coming from: The Yankees won 19 of 22 games after the All-Star break and finished in first place by 6 1/2 games at 70-43.

Where they're going: To the playoffs for the first time since 1B Don Mattingly joined the team in 1982. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson says this team is better than those during New York's most recent dynasty, 1976 to 1981. Hyperbole, probably; impossible, no.

Key newcomers: P Jack McDowell (most wins in AL in 1990s), P John Wetteland (25 saves), SS Tony Fernandez (.279).

What must go right: Jimmy Key (AL-high 17 wins) can't suffer a big drop-off after off-season shoulder surgery. McDowell must be the pitcher who finished last year 8-2, not the one who started 2-7. Fernandez must cope better in New York than he did as a Met.

What could go wrong: A lineup with seven projected starters in their 30s could wilt over 162 games; the Yankees lost five of their final six games. OF Paul O'Neill, who entered last season a career .268 hitter, could flirt with .200 instead of .400. Wetteland could be the closer who led the NL in blown saves and relief losses, not the one who has given up just 168 hits in 232 innings over three years. OF Luis Polonia could get hurt, making this the slowest team in baseball.

X-factor: Manager Buck Showalter has put together a team with productive platoons and great chemistry, but combustible owner George Steinbrenner could react adversely to adversity. Already, Gene Michael's job is said to be in jeopardy. And how would Steinbrenner treat a late-season slump similar to last year's? By rushing top prospects Derek Jeter and Ruben Rivera? By bringing Goose Gossage out of retirement? By rehiring manager Stump Merrill?

Key statistic: Key is the only pitcher to win at least 12 games in each of the past 10 seasons.

ORIOLES

Where they're coming from: They never had sole possession of first place despite moving within one game or a half-game of the lead on three occasions. They were 52-36 and a half-game out July 15 but tumbled to 10 games back just three weeks later. The Orioles finished second at 63-49, and manager Johnny Oates was fired.

Where they're going: Any team that gives up the fewest runs in the league has to be reckoned with. So does any team that might have a 19-game, late-season homestand -- if the AL moves the Sept. 8-10 series against the Indians to Camden Yards to ensure that SS Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak at home.

Key newcomers: P Kevin Brown (more than 200 innings in 1991, and '93), P Doug Jones (27-for-29 in save tries), OF Andy Van Slyke (5 Gold Gloves), 2B Bret Barberie (.301).

What must go right: The team must finish better than 29-27 at home. Workhorse Brown must enable the Orioles to rest a bullpen that has tired in previous seasons. New manager Phil Regan, who helped Cleveland go from second-worst in the league in home runs allowed to best, must help Sid Fernandez keep the ball inside Camden Yards.

What could go wrong: The attention to Ripken's streak could provide unwanted distractions, affecting his play. Van Slyke could continue to slide offensively. Chris Hoiles' shoulder could keep him from regular catching duty.

X-factor: Will Peter Angelos meddle with first-year manager Regan's lineup? Will general manager Roland Hemond's stretch-drive acquisition have the talent of a Ron Gant or of a Ron Kittle?

Key statistic: The Orioles did the little things right. They had the majors' highest stolen-base percentage (.841, 69-for-82) and highest fielding percentage (.986).

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Where they're coming from: A roller coaster sent the Blue Jays on a six-game winning streak, 10-game losing streak and eight-game winning streak before depositing them in third place. Thanks to the strike, they're the first 55-60 team to be defending world champion.

l,.3l Where they're going: There's enough talent for a third straight World Series title. And enough questions for another sub-.500 finish. The strike-shortened season won't help; 17 of Toronto's 18 canceled games were against losing teams.

Key newcomers: 1994 AL Cy Young Award winner David Cone, 1988 AL Cy Young winner Frank Viola (recovering from elbow surgery), P Danny Darwin (6.30 ERA).

What must go right: An All-Star-studded offense, which finished just 10th in the AL in runs, must bounce back. CF Devon White must overcome a sore knee that cut his steals from 34 to 11 and compromised his range. 2B Roberto Alomar must shake off back trouble that cut his RBIs from 93 to 38. Juan Guzman (5.68 ERA) must find the form that made him 30-8 in 1992-1993. OF Joe Carter (103 RBIs) and DH Paul Molitor (.320 batting average or better every year since 1991) must continue to defy age.

What could go wrong: Closer Duane Ward could fail to recover from shoulder surgery in time. SS Alex Gonzalez (.151), OF Shawn Green (.091) and C/DH Carlos Delgado (.215) -- highly regarded prospects who failed in 1994 -- again could prove not-ready-for-prime-time.

X-factor: There is speculation that Labatt's brewery, the parent company, may be taken over. If so, new owners may not be as willing to support a SkyDome-high payroll and make the late-season pickups that separate the Blue Jays from the pack.

Key statistic: Blue Jays pitchers led the AL in strikeouts last season, then added Cone, who is second in the 1990s in K's. That would negate defensive liabilities, if only Toronto had them.

BOSTON RED SOX

Where they're coming from: The Red Sox started 20-7, but an 11-game losing streak in June greased the skids into fourth place. The 54-61 finish cost manager Butch Hobson his job and hastened a turnover that could result in Boston's having as few as eight players Opening Day who were on last spring's 40-man roster.

Where they're going: Back, back, back, back to the 1970s era of questionable pitching and big hitting. The batting coach is, appropriately enough, former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice.

Key newcomers: DH Jose Canseco ("the biggest steal in Boston since the Brink's robbery," Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda says), OF Mark Whiten (14 HRs), C Mike Macfarlane (14 HRs), P Erik Hanson (4.11) and a host of others. Invest in a program.

What must go right: The newly acquired Green Monster-mashers must use their Fenway-tailored swings to provide lineup protection for 1B Mo Vaughn (82 RBIs). The result should be a better home record than last year's 31-33. Rotation additions Hanson, Zane Smith and Rheal Cormier must come through.

What could go wrong: 2B Luis Alicea could fail to provide the leadoff spark that Otis Nixon did. OF Mike Greenwell's production could continue to slide. Ken Ryan's 98-mph fastball could fail to close games, forcing Boston to turn to Canseco's knuckleball.

L X-factor: Three-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens has

a strained shoulder muscle and probably won't be available until June. Dan Duquette shuffled his cards more than any other GM " in baseball, but this team can't win without its ace.

Key statistic: Vaughn led the AL with 20 intentional walks. That won't happen with this lineup.

DETROIT TIGERS

Where they're coming from: Finished fifth with a 53-62 record despite a $42 million payroll, sixth-highest in the majors.

Where they're going: Detroit has discarded several expensive players, so this year it'll cost less to finish last. "If you want me to tell you where this team should be picked," manager Sparky Anderson said, "let me be honest: the other side of Siberia."

Key newcomer: OF Chad Curtis (25 steals).

What must go right: Pleased that Anderson refused to manage (( replacement players after saying, "they're not the Detroit Tigers," the card-carrying Tigers must perform way above others'

expectations. 3B Travis Fryman must cut his strikeouts and join the AL's elite hitters. Utility player Alan Trammell must bounce back after driving in an AL-low 9.48 percent of 211 available runners; he and 2B Lou Whitaker start the year on the disabled list. C John Flaherty must shut down the running game.

What could go wrong: Anderson could quit in midseason, saying of his roster, "they're not the Detroit Tigers." Mike Moore could be the team's best pitcher again -- with a third straight ERA over 5.00. The offense, third in the AL last year, could suffer without Tony Phillips' 91 runs and Mickey Tettleton's .419 on-base average. Curtis could continue to struggle to reach base. Rookie outfielders Rudy Pemberton and Bobby Higginson could flop, delaying the rebuilding program.

X-factor: Can the management that has committed such personnel boners as trading Rico Brogna to the Mets, where he hit .351, for Alan Zinter (185 strikeouts in 471 Triple-A at-bats) pull off a youth movement with what some consider the worst farm system in baseball?

Key statistic: Last year, the Tigers had a 5.38 ERA, worst in club history. Yet it was the first time in the past six years that the Tigers' ERA ranked as high as 11th in the AL.

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