Underdog Red Sox thinking title again Moves by O's, Yanks don't faze '95 champs; Around the AL East

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With expectations running high for the Orioles, The Sun is looking at the other teams in the AL East. Today's preview is the last in a four-part series. FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Boston Red Sox were involved only peripherally in the winter of one-upmanship that supposedly changed the balance of power in the American League East, but they aren't ready to concede the division race to the Orioles or the New York Yankees.

"They don't scare us," said 1995 American League MVP Mo Vaughn. "You can't say that the Yankees did this or the Orioles did that. We just have to worry about ourselves. If we do that, we can compete with anybody, and we're ready to do that."

It's spring and the Red Sox are picked to finish off the pace again. What else is new? They were a consensus fourth-place club a year ago, and everyone knows what happened. The starting rotation -- and the planets, it seemed -- lined up and pointed the way to the playoffs.

Vaughn says it can happen again. The offense is beefier than a year ago and the pitching staff has potential and the Red Sox have one thing that the Orioles and Yankees don't -- last year's division title.

"When you already have done something, you know you can do it," Vaughn said. "I want to get back to the playoffs. I think we've got a better shot. We walked in here with a serious attitude about winning."

Is that realistic? The Orioles spent liberally to deepen their pitching staff and add several quality position players. The Yankees re-signed David Cone, added free-agent starter Kenny Rogers and traded for Tim Raines and Tino Martinez. The Red Sox added power-hitting catcher Mike Stanley, pitcher Tom Gordon and bullpen stopper Heathcliff Slocumb, but those big additions were offset by some major losses.

The Red Sox were not able to re-sign 1995 pitching ace Erik Hanson, whose 15-win season made him marketable over the winter, and they had to give up promising outfielder Lee Tinsley in the trade for Slocumb, who replaced veteran closer Rick Aguilera.

The net result may be some modest improvement, but last year's division winner also must replicate some of last year's unexpected success. Hanson and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield were a combined 25-5 by mid-August, which gave the club enough cushion to hold off the Yankees down the stretch. Vaughn had a career year (.300, 39 HRs, 126 RBIs) on the way to his first MVP trophy. Shortstop John Valentin had 27 homers and 102 RBIs in a season that was shortened 18 games by the players strike.

Hanson is gone and Wakefield went 2-7 down the stretch last year, raising questions about his potential in 1996. Vaughn is the real deal and Valentin is a quality offensive player, but it still requires a small leap of faith to assume that both will duplicate their 1995 performances.

Nevertheless, general manager Dan Duquette says there is enough untapped potential to fuel another run at the division title.

"Roger Clemens didn't start the season on time last year -- that will be a big plus -- and Aaron Sele didn't make a substantial contribution," Duquette said. "I think Wakefield should be able to give us some quality innings. If [Jamie] Moyer or Vaughn Eshelman come through, our starting pitching should be OK."

The focus this spring is on Sele, whose emergence as one of the top young pitchers in the game was interrupted by a serious arm injury. He appeared in just six games last year (3-1, 3.06), but is expected to be a full-time starter in 1996. His return to form is one of the keys to the club's continued success.

The Red Sox can no longer assume that Clemens will carry the rotation, but he also has some upside potential this year. He pitched well (10-5) once he was able to go to the mound regularly in 1995, and he appears to be in excellent shape this spring.

Wakefield is another big question mark. He was 14-1 in mid-August last year and finished with excellent overall numbers (16-8, 2.95 ERA), but his late-season collapse makes him an unknown quantity. If he steps up again and Gordon can take advantage of the improved run support he's likely to get in Boston, the club may indeed be able to replace the spectacular numbers that Hanson and Wakefield put up during the first 3 1/2 months of last season.

There is far less uncertainty in the offensive lineup, where the addition of Stanley and Wil Cordero increase the depth of a club that ranked fourth in the league in scoring (791 runs) last year. Stanley may be the top power-hitting catcher in the league and Cordero, who hit .284 for the Montreal Expos last year, gives the club another solid right-handed bat.

Much could depend on mercurial superstar Jose Canseco, who had great numbers last year for the number of games he played. He batted .306 with 24 homers and 81 RBIs in just 102 games. He has found it more and more difficult to stay healthy, and his durability will again be a question, especially if manager Kevin Kennedy goes through with his plan to play Canseco regularly in right field.

Duquette seems to enjoy doing it the hard way. He didn't have the wherewithall that the Yankees and Orioles employed to upgrade their rosters, but he was in the same position last year. Maybe that's why the Orioles/Yankees spending spree did little to dampen the club's enthusiasm.

"It's fun to watch how the game evolves," said Kennedy, "and to see how the large-market teams respond. I respect what they [the Orioles and Yankees] did. The fun part was working with Dan. It's kind of a challenge with the resources that we have, but I think we did a great job."

Of course, it will be even more difficult to win this year, with the two most dangerous competitors significantly improved and both capable of making expensive in-season adjustments if necessary.

The Red Sox are not without resources, but the front office definitely is on a shorter leash.

"I think the Red Sox perspective is that Dan is very adept at identifying guys who are on the brink of getting their games back together," said assistant GM Mike Port.

Kennedy is looking forward to the opportunity to prove people wrong for the third year running. His Texas Rangers finished first in the strike-shortened 1994 season and he took a dark horse team to victory last year.

"The AL East is a very tough division," Kennedy said. "The fact that we're picked third doesn't bother me at all. That means the challenge is right there in front of us. We don't mind. We were picked fourth last year and we won the division, so maybe this means we're going to go another step."

Boston Red Sox

1995 record: 86-58 (First).

Manager: Kevin Kennedy (Second year).

New in camp: C Mike Stanley, RHP Heathcliff Slocumb, RHP Tom Gordon, LHP Jamie Moyer, IF/OF Wil Cordero, LHP Brad Pennington, LHP Butch Henry.

Key losses: RHP Rick Aguilera, RHP Erik Hanson, OF Lee Tinsley,

What it will take to make the playoffs: The Red Sox need to replace the big performances turned in last year by Erik Hanson and Tim Wakefield, though Hanson is gone and Wakefield faded down the stretch. If the starting pitching is solid, everything else should be OK. The club has a big-time lineup and a decent bullpen depth, so good health should mean a good season.

What could go wrong: Aaron Sele could fail to emerge as a dependable starter and Roger Clemens could prove fragile. If that happens -- and Wakefield wakes up on the wrong side of his 1995 performance -- the Red Sox could be in big trouble.

Projected finish: Third.

Dates with Orioles: April 16-18 at Baltimore; July 4-7 at Baltimore; July 18-21 at Boston; Sept. 24-26 at Boston.

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