O's, Red Sox piece together share of title No one beyond compare in position-by-position AL East breakdown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a position-by-position analysis, the Boston Red Sox and Orioles stack up very closely in the American League East, with the New York Yankees not far behind. The Detroit Tigers are a distant fourth and the Toronto Blue Jays somewhere just above Triple-A.

First basemen

1. Mo Vaughn, Red Sox: Vaughn won AL MVP last year, hitting .300 with 39 homers and 126 RBIs. But he struck out 150 times and is a defensive liability.

2. Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles: He is a very, very close second. Palmeiro is better defensively, and his production is almost identical -- .310 average, 39 homers and 104 RBIs.

3. Tino Martinez, Yankees: He had a terrific season for the Mariners, batting .293 with 31 homers and 111 RBIs in '95 after career highs of .265, 20 and 66. He'll benefit from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium but miss the stacked Seattle lineup.

4. Cecil Fielder, Tigers: His defensive and base-running liabilities no longer are overshadowed by his power.

5. John Olerud, Blue Jays: Sure, he batted .291 and drew 84 walks for a .398 on-base average, but at SkyDome he had just one homer and 18 RBIs.

Second basemen

1. Roberto Alomar, Orioles: Montreal manager Felipe Alou recently talked about how there are few players with a gift for greatness, mentioning Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente -- and Alomar, all in the same breath. Great defense, great offense, great presence.

2. Wil Cordero, Red Sox: The Red Sox got him from the Expos and moved him from short to second, hoping to lessen his shoulder trouble. He is a solid hitter.

3. Mark Lewis, Tigers: He had potential for stardom when Cleveland made him the second pick overall in the draft in 1988 but hadn't showed it in the majors until batting .339 in 81 games last year for the Reds.

4. Mariano Duncan, Yankees: Duncan is a good veteran, perfectly suited as role player. But as a regular at second base, in the absence of the injured Pat Kelly and Tony Fernandez, Duncan is out of his element.

5. To be named, Blue Jays: Domingo Cedeno, Felipe Crespo and Tilson Brito all might get a chance to follow Alomar.

Third basemen

1. Wade Boggs, Yankees: He's breaking down more frequently now, his speed has gone from bad to worse, and his 1995 Gold Glove probably was a result of there being so few good third basemen in the league. But Boggs still hits: .324 with 22 doubles, four triples and five homers in '95.

2. Travis Fryman, Tigers: A strong Gold Glove candidate, he batted .275 with 15 homers and 81 RBIs.

3. B. J. Surhoff, Orioles: He is the most underrated of the Orioles' acquisitions, a line-drive, left-handed hitter who can hit left-handed pitchers. He'll struggle in the field, at least early.

4. Tim Naehring, Red Sox: Naehring, hampered by injuries for much of his career, had his best season last year, a career-high 10 homers with 57 RBIs and a .307 batting average. He is one of Boston's better defensive players (that's not saying much, really).

5. Ed Sprague, Blue Jays: He is consistent, no question. He batted .275 in his first year, and since then his average hasn't fluctuated much -- .234, .260, .240, .244. He may be the most average player in the East.

Shortstops

1. John Valentin, Red Sox: Other than Cincinnati's Barry Larkin, he's the best all-around shortstop in baseball. Last year, Valentin hit .298 with 27 homers, 108 runs, 102 RBIs, 20 steals and 37 doubles. He drew 81 walks. He's average defensively.

2. Cal Ripken, Orioles: His consecutive-games streak is at 2,153 games and counting. Ripken catches everything hit to him, and he's fabulous on grounders up the middle. Nearing his 36th birthday, Ripken is a complementary offensive force now -- he hit 17 homers and drove in 88 runs.

3. Derek Jeter, Yankees: He is a rookie shortstop in New York, and that will present problems when he struggles. But there is every reason to believe Jeter eventually will be a star. Only 21, he hit .317 with 20 steals, 27 doubles and nine triples in Triple-A. He's erratic defensively.

4. Alex Gonzalez, Blue Jays: A big disappointment in 1994, he bounced back to hit .243 with 19 doubles and 10 homers. He made 17 errors.

5. Chris Gomez, Tigers: Gomez hit .223 with 50 RBIs and is serviceable until Detroit finds somebody better.

Catchers

1. Mike Stanley, Red Sox: The Yankees let him go because they didn't think he could handle pitchers anymore. Apparently the Red Sox didn't agree -- they signed Stanley to be their everyday catcher and bat No. 5 or No. 6.

2. Joe Girardi, Yankees: He's a good defensive player who will bat for a decent average, but few people can figure out why New York dumped Stanley, then traded prospects the Rockies to for a relatively expensive singles hitter.

3. Chris Hoiles, Orioles: If Hoiles can't catch effectively with shoulder arthritis, he'll be used in other roles, such as DH. He batted .291 after the All-Star break.

4. John Flaherty/Mark Parent, Tigers: Flaherty batted .339 in May, .254 in June and .280 in July, then collapsed to .169 in August and .159 in September. Parent hit 18 homers in the NL last year.

5. Sandy Martinez/Charlie O'Brien, Blue Jays: The Blue Jays really want Martinez, 23, to establish himself as the No. 1 catcher with O'Brien as a tutor.

Left fielders

1. Brady Anderson, Orioles: He'll start in center and likely shift to left, his natural position, when Mike Devereaux plays center. Anderson is a great left fielder, especially chasing balls to the foul line. He hit .262 with 108 runs and 64 RBIs. Jeffrey Hammonds will play a lot in left, too.

2. Joe Carter, Blue Jays: One of baseball's aging lions, he continues to drive in runs (76 in 139 games in '95) and occasionally will drive a hanging breaking ball over the wall (25 homers last year). But he's less imposing now.

3. Mike Greenwell, Red Sox: Remember the controversy around Don Mattingly last year? An older player in the last year of his contract and not hitting for as much power as the team would like. Well, that's Greenwell. He batted .297, but with only 15 homers. He is terrible defensively.

4. Tim Raines, Yankees: He's not a stolen base threat anymore, swiping only 13 in each of the past two years. He's an average hitter making star money, and he is a subpar outfielder. It didn't help that he showed up to spring training out of shape.

5. Melvin Nieves, Tigers: Nieves will strike out one out of every three at-bats, won't hit with runners in scoring position and is a poor outfielder -- but if he gets 500 at-bats, the switch-hitter will mash 35 homers.

Center fielders

1. Bernie Williams, Yankees: Good with the glove, he was very underrated offensively, hitting .307 with 29 doubles, nine triples and 18 homers, scoring 93 runs and driving home 82.

2. Otis Nixon, Blue Jays: Playing for Texas last year, Nixon stole 50 bases and scored 87 runs, batting .295. Not bad for a 37-year-old outfielder. He's one of the game's better defensive outfielders.

3. Mike Devereaux, Orioles: He'll play a lot of all three outfield positions, starting the season in right and sharing time with Tony Tarasco and perhaps Hammonds. Devereaux batted .299 for the White Sox and Braves last year.

4. Chad Curtis, Tigers: He had 21 homers and 27 stolen bases, but has frustrated club officials by not making contact more often. Don't be surprised if he's dealt.

5. Dwayne Hosey, Red Sox: Don't expect him here for long. Boston will take a run at the Expos' Moises Alou, and if it can't get him, the Red Sox may attempt to acquire a defensive standout who can run down fly balls that Mike Greenwell and Kevin Mitchell don't reach.

Right fielders

1. Paul O'Neill, Yankees: O'Neill won the AL batting title with a .359 average in '94; last year, he hit .300, with 22 homers and 96 RBIs. He's fair defensively. He also did a pretty good job on a "Seinfeld" appearance. He's versatile.

2. Kevin Mitchell, Red Sox: He's fat, no question. It'll be interesting watching him try to play the most difficult outfield spot in baseball -- Fenway's huge, asymmetrical right field. But Mitchell will drive in lot of runs.

3. Shawn Green, Blue Jays: He hit .288 with 15 homers and 31 doubles as a rookie but was terrible in the field.

4. Tony Tarasco, Orioles: He has lots of ability -- he can run pretty well, can hit for power and has a strong arm -- but needs work on his swing before becoming an everyday player. Devereaux will play here, too.

5. Bob Higginson, Tigers: He hit .224 and struck out 107 times, yet probably will start again. He has a decent arm.

Designated hitters

1. Jose Canseco, Red Sox: He is almost a cartoon character now, a Bluto-like hitter with bulging arms and a menacing stance who occasionally fields fly balls with his head. Easy to laugh at, unless you happen to be a pitcher. In 102 games, he hit 24 homers, had 81 RBIs and batted .306.

2. Bobby Bonilla, Orioles: A villain to many Mets fans, he was embraced warmly by Orioles fans last season and responded in kind, batting .333 with 10 homers and 46 RBIs in 61 games. He's listed as a DH here, but he'll move around.

3. Ruben Sierra, Yankees: He was productive after being traded from Oakland, driving home 44 runs in 56 games. But wherever he plays, he seems to be a flash point for controversy.

4. Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays: He's a good hitter who doesn't really have a position.

5. Eddie Williams, Tigers: He'll drive in a good share of runs if his aching knees hold up.

Starting pitchers

1. Orioles: Mike Mussina is the best pitcher in the division, David Wells was one of baseball's top left-handers last year and Scott Erickson is capable of dominating. The biggest questions are whether Kent Mercker can rebound from a bad spring, whether Mercker is durable enough to pitch every fifth day and whether Jimmy Haynes can throw his breaking ball consistently for strikes.

2. Yankees: New York has big names and the potential for big disappointments. Dwight Gooden is coming back from a suspension for failing drug tests, Jimmy Key is coming back from shoulder surgery, David Cone's arm has been bothering him and Kenny Rogers has to deal with the high expectations of being a $20 million free agent in the Big Apple. Second-year left-hander Andy Pettitte might be the one sure thing.

3. Red Sox: Ace Roger Clemens is one of the league's most intimidating pitchers, but he has won only 30 games the past three years. Aaron Sele is talented but coming back from arm trouble, nobody knows whether Tim Wakefield's knuckler will knuckle, and No. 5 starter Jamie Moyer could be very good or very bad. Tom Gordon was a good pickup.

4. Blue Jays: Pat Hentgen and Juan Guzman are capable of dominating good teams and getting pounded by bad teams. Erik Hanson was signed to stabilize the rotation, but his arm bothered him enough last year that, for a while, he wouldn't throw a breaking ball. Paul Quantrill had a horrible spring.

5. Tigers: Felipe Lira is the ace, and the other four spots will be filled by pitchers who won't threaten the memory of Jack Morris.

Bullpen

1. Yankees: They are deep with quality right-handers, starting with John Wetteland (31 saves). During the off-season, they added Jeff Nelson, traded by the Mariners after a terrific season. Then there's Bob Wickman, hard-throwing Mariano Rivera and probably Scott Kamieniecki, if he's not part of the rotation. However, they have a glaring need for a left-hander other than Steve Howe.

2. Red Sox: Closer Heathcliff Slocumb was acquired from the Phillies, and if Mike Stanton, Stan Belinda, Joe Hudson and Mike Maddux all pitch well again -- and that's a big if -- then this is a deep and balanced bullpen.

3. Orioles: Closer Randy Myers led the NL in saves last year, left-hander Jesse Orosco led AL relievers in appearances, Roger McDowell has the lowest home run ratio of any active pitcher, and Armando Benitez looked awesome this spring. But the O's lack depth.

4. Blue Jays: Newly acquired Bill Risley pitched poorly this spring and may have lost the closer job to Mike Timlin. Beyond those two are a collection of youngsters.

5. Tigers: Brian Williams, who was 3-10 with a 6.00 ERA last year for the Padres, is the closer.

Bench

1. Red Sox: Like the lineup, the bench has lots of good hitters -- Reggie Jefferson, Phil Clark and Troy O'Leary -- but few players capable of catching the ball. But backup catcher Bill Haselman is solid all-around.

2. Orioles: On a team with six regulars who play just about every day, the bench won't be relied upon as much as it might be on other teams. But it's not bad.

3. Yankees: Looked to be good until Pat Kelly and Tony Fernandez were sidelined by injuries. Gerald Williams does the job as a fourth outfielder, and Jim Leyritz is excellent as a part-time player.

4. Tigers: Alan Trammell is a utility player, and that's a good start. Beyond him are a lot of youngsters -- outfielders Danny Bautista, outfielder/catcher Phil Nevin and first baseman Tim Hyers -- hoping for a chance to start.

5. Blue Jays: Cito Gaston never uses his bench much, anyway, and this year, he has an excuse.

Intangibles

1. Tigers: With no pressure to win, the Tigers can play hard and have fun. Along the way, they'll probably surprise a few people.

2. Orioles: Used to be the Blue Jays would identify their major need in July, then get the player they needed, Rickey Henderson, or perhaps David Cone. The guy who made those deals is with the Orioles now -- GM Pat Gillick.

3. Red Sox: 3. Red Sox: (Light) Someone walked up to Boston general manager Dan Duquette last year and asked him about the dreaded Curse of the Bambino. Duquette paused a minute and then replied, "I've never heard of it." The Red Sox are in denial.

4. Yankees: It is Opening Day and the Yankees lose, then Joe Torre's phone starts ringing. Calls from George Steinbrenner, calls that won't stop until the pressure eventually collapses this team.

5. Blue Jays: The Blue Jays haven't bottomed out yet, and they won't until Carter and Olerud and Gaston are gone.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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