The competitive hierarchy is well-established in the American League's Central Division. The Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox are expected to fight among themselves for the title -- and a possible wild-card berth -- while the other three teams battle over third place.
That's the conventional wisdom anyway, but Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone isn't conceding anything.
"I'm playing to win tomorrow, and we're playing to win all 162 games," he said. "No matter how good the competition is -- I don't care if it's the '27 Yankees -- we're not going to play it any differently."
The Royals have a long way to get back into contention, especially after the White Sox signed Albert Belle and the Indians pulled off the megadeal last week for David Justice and Marquis Grissom, but they made enough moves of their own since the end of the 1996 season to be considered a possible sleeper in the wild-card derby.
General manager Herk Robinson traded veteran pitcher Mark Gubicza to the Anaheim Angels for designated hitter Chili Davis in October, then pulled off another big off-season deal to acquire veterans Jay Bell and Jeff King from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Royals completed their preseason maneuvering last week with the trade that sent outfielder Michael Tucker and infielder Keith Lockhart to the Atlanta Braves for promising outfielder Jermaine Dye and minor-league reliever Jamie Walker.
Davis and closer candidate Jaime Bluma will start the season on the disabled list, but Boone said yesterday that this Royals team still is far better than the one that finished last in 1996.
"Absolutely," he said. "The best example of that is the players who are not starting for us this year. Johnny Damon, who started last year, is not playing because of the other people we have around, and David Howard is a utility guy for us this year."
The acquisition of the three veterans was the first indication in several years that the Royals might really be interested in competing for the division title. Bell is one of the game's top shortstops, and King is coming off a terrific 1996 season (30 homers, 111 RBIs). Davis is out with a strained adductor muscle, but he also is a big-time run producer who will have clubhouse influence.
"They are certainly the kind of quality people you want to have in there," Boone said. "We've had good chemistry here in the past, but when you add quality people, they can do nothing but help you."
The Royals should be able to score some runs, but their postseason potential depends heavily on how many runs they give up. The pitching staff ranked third in the league with a 4.55 team ERA last year, and it should be deeper and more experienced this season.
Boone seems confident that his rotation -- which consists of Opening Day starter Kevin Appier, Chris Haney, Tim Belcher, Jose Rosado and Hipolito Pichardo -- is comparable to those of the other AL Central contenders, but the Royals need some time to get their bullpen up to full strength.
Veteran closer Jeff Montgomery is coming off shoulder surgery and still may need a few weeks to return to full effectiveness, so Boone will use a handful of young relievers in a closer-by-committee arrangement until the situation becomes clearer.
The bullpen could be pivotal during the early weeks of the season, since Appier has not been particularly effective this spring.
"Appier has not been real good," Boone said, "but you aren't going to see Cy Young out there every day. I'm not worried at all. You don't have time to worry."
Pub Date: 4/01/97