Detroit's new stadium won't open for a couple of years, and until then, the Tigers won't be a serious contender in the AL East. Plenty of time for Randy Smith, in his first year as Detroit general manager, to rebuild his organization and study the rest of the teams in the division.
When spring training opens later this week, Smith will spend much of his time scouting other teams. Unless the Tigers pull off the greatest upset since the 1969 Mets -- and that just isn't going to happen -- Smith will be nothing more than an interested observer in the title chase this year. He likes what he sees in Baltimore, enough to pick the Orioles as the front-runners in the division.
"As it stands right now," he said, "Baltimore is the team to beat. I think they've got a very strong everyday lineup and some good starting pitching. The bullpen might be suspect, but they've got Randy Myers and Jesse Orosco and a couple of other options. It's a pretty strong club on paper."
The Yankees? "They've got to be [second]," Smith said. "They've got some good pitching."
Yes. The Yankees retained David Cone, signed Kenny Rogers to be their No. 2 starter, and have slotted Andy Pettitte, so successful as a rookie last year, in their third spot. They've got the strongest right-handed relief in the game, with John Wetteland, Jeff Nelson, Bob Wickman and Mariano Rivera.
The Red Sox stand third, in Smith's mind. "They've got a pretty good infield," he said, "with Mo Vaughn and John Valentin and Tim Naehring, and they've got Heathcliff Slocumb coming in. They had a lot of guys who had great years last season. Right now, though, I think they've got some questions with their health and other situations."
Smith declined to delve into specific stumbling blocks for the Yankees and Red Sox. (Toronto, having lost Roberto Alomar, Al Leiter and Paul Molitor, among others, also is going through a rebuilding year and will be hard-pressed to contend.) But in many respects, New York and Boston face the same volume of questions the Orioles did before the disastrous 1995 season. Lots of ifs.
The Yankees could win the division if Derek Jeter handles the pressure of being a rookie shortstop in New York. They can win if Ruben Sierra, one of the few established run-producers in the Yankees' lineup, actually produces runs. If Tim Raines becomes a viable leadoff hitter again, something he hasn't been in recent years. If Rogers holds up under the scrutiny of being the highest-paid New York free agent. If they acquire some left-handed relief.
The Red Sox could win if Aaron Sele's arm is sound again (he says he thinks it is). If knuckleballer Tim Wakefield doesn't continue the downward spiral that began in August. If they can overcome what figures to be one of the worst defenses of this generation. If Vaughn's contract negotiations don't become more of a distraction than they already are. If guys like Troy O'Leary will step up and again have career years, as they did last season.
The Yankees are capable of shutting down any team over a three-day period with their starting pitching and right-handed relief. Boston will have an awesome offensive team, augmented by the addition of catcher Mike Stanley and bopper Wil Cordero (the Red Sox intend to sign either Kevin Mitchell or Darryl Strawberry, as well as a designated hitter).
But New York and Boston have holes the Orioles do not. As Orioles ace Mike Mussina said last week: The Orioles aren't counting on anybody to step up, to go above and beyond reasonable expectations. They're not hoping some rookie plays a major role. They're not dependent upon a pitcher coming back from a substance-abuse problem (as the Yankees are with Dwight Gooden). They're not relying on players coming back from serious physical problems (as the Red Sox are with Sele and Cordero).
A comedian at the New York baseball writers banquet offered this indictment of Mets third baseman Jeff Kent: "The Mets have hired Mark Fuhrman [the controversial detective in the O. J. Simpson case] to plant a glove on Jeff Kent."
* Eight of the 30 pitchers in the Phillies' camp this year are coming back from major arm problems.
* There is a viable short-term alternative if Chris Hoiles has more arm problems that affect his ability to catch for the Orioles. Any team in need of a solid everyday catcher can always contact the Oakland Athletics, in the midst of dumping most of their stars. All-Star catcher Terry Steinbach is in the last year of a contract that pays him $3.5 million a year, and the rebuilding Athletics would gladly move him for a prospect or two.
* How young is the Oakland rotation? Well, the Athletics' No. 1 starter is Todd Van Poppel, who recently turned 24.
Eck move in the Cards?
Oakland would like to grant Dennis Eckersley his wish and deal him to St. Louis, where he can close out games and his career for former Athletics manager Tony La Russa. But Oakland GM Sandy Alderson is balking at the Cardinals' request that the Athletics eat about $1 million of Eckersley's $2.25 million salary this year.
St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty eventually could give in and pay the Eck's salary; it would seem inane for the Cardinals to spend major dollars on La Russa, slugger Ron Gant and pitcher Andy Benes, trade for an everyday shortstop (Royce Clayton) and then begin this season with a glaring hole in their bullpen.
* San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds has been working out with Raymond Farris, personal trainer for 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice. Bonds reportedly has lost 12 pounds and increased his strength. "He didn't realize how bad a shape he was in," Farris said. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe he got away with this and did what he did.' "
* The Rangers had better score a bunch of runs this season. The first four members of their rotation -- Kevin Gross, Ken Hill, Roger Pavlik and Bobby Witt -- made a combined 119 starts last season, and managed one win when pitching with support of three runs or fewer.
To have and have not
Montreal manager Felipe Alou sounded discouraged about the chances of his team competing, and he blames the disparity between the haves and have-nots in the game.
"It's going to be a long year," he said. "In today's baseball, it's tough to compete with teams that spend $60 million a year. Better yet, it's just not fair. We are an example of the trampling going on. Last year, we saw Larry Walker, Ken Hill and John Wetteland march off because we couldn't pay them. Then Marquis Grissom goes and we get back a few rookies. What kind of deal is that?"
* Cleveland slugger Albert Belle had to have been thrilled at the four-year, $34 million deal signed by Ken Griffey. Belle's agent is convinced he's worth more than Griffey, and could attempt to get the first $10 million-a-year deal.
* James Hurst, the left-handed pitcher called up and then dropped by the Orioles last August after the team discovered belatedly that he had been a replacement player, has signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.
By the numbers
* The month-to-month ERA for Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield last season, beginning in May: 0.63, 1.91, 1.53, 5.12, 4.28.
* Average number of victories for Boston ace Roger Clemens during the past three years: 10 (11-14 in '93, 9-7 in '94 and 10-5 in '95).
* The batting average of Ruben Sierra when he batted cleanup for the Yankees last year, a job he'll have again in 1996: .253.
* The batting average for Bobby Bonilla when he hit cleanup last year: .329.
* The total number of major-league homers hit by the possible Orioles bench of Jeff Huson, Bill Ripken, Manny Alexander, Greg Zaun and Kimera Bartee: 28.
* Last year, the Red Sox made more errors (120) than any other AL team, and this off-season they've actually downgraded their defense, picking up erratic center fielder Alex Cole, lame-armed catcher Mike Stanley and Wil Cordero, who is suffering from shoulder problems. In addition, they're planning on playing Jose Canseco in right field; last year, Canseco played one game in right.
* The number of games played at second by possible Red Sox second baseman Cordero: 0.
* The conventional wisdom on new Yankees left-hander Kenny Rogers is he doesn't pitch well out of his comfort zone. Last year, he had a 9-1 record and 2.96 ERA at home, 8-6 record and 3.83 ERA on the road. Sure hope that, for his sake, those New Yorkers in the Bronx Zoo make him feel welcome.