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AL Central; BASEBALL 2000; Teams listed in predicted order of finish

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Indians

That was then: Cleveland won the division by 21 1/2 games, as the other four teams finished 101 games under .500, but was exposed in the Division Series as little more than a neighborhood bully. Up 2-0 in games on Boston and ahead 1-0 in Game 3, the Indians gave up 27 runs in the next 27 innings.

This is now: The Indians fired manager Mike Hargrove, replacing him with popular hitting coach Charlie Manuel, whose offense scored 1,009 runs, the most in the majors since 1950.

Upside: Chuck Finley, second in the AL in strikeouts, adds a veteran presence and is 16-9 against the Yankees. Jaret Wright has a new sinker and better command of his changeup. Sandy Alomar, Travis Fryman and David Justice are healthier.

Downside: Center fielder and leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton is likely out at least temporarily with a rotator cuff injury. Ace Bartolo Colon reported to camp 20 pounds heavier than expected.

Don't miss : Oct. 3. The Division Series opener, the only date that matters for a powerhouse in a division in which only one other team -- the '96 White Sox -- has finished over .500 in the past five seasons.

Don't be surprised : if Cleveland deals for starter Brad Radke or closer Roberto Hernandez. The Indians got burned by not acquiring Finley last year, and new owner Larry Dolan is more interested in winning than was predecessor Dick Jacobs, who always demanded an 8 percent profit.

Don't expect : Manny Ramirez to be around after this year. The first major-leaguer since 1938 with 160 RBIs wants to return to New York.

Web site unseen: www.indiansummer.com

Tigers

That was then: Detroit lost six of its first seven games and never contended, ending an 88-year run at Tiger Stadium with 92 losses and without many roars.

This is now: The stadium -- Comerica Park -- is new, but the mind-set isn't. After suffering through their sixth straight losing season, the Tigers hired Phil Garner, who was fired after seven straight losing seasons in Milwaukee. What, Gene Mauch wasn't available?

Upside: GM Randy Smith, under heat to produce a winner, traded for two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez. Hideo Nomo comes over with Garner from Milwaukee, where he resurrected his career. Dave Mlicki was 10-4 after the All-Star break after regaining the outside part of the plate.

Downside: Juan Encarnacion won't fulfill his potential by walking just 14 times in 132 games. In a park built for pitching and speed, the Tigers lack both. The team's deficiencies will look especially glaring on baseball's largest scoreboard.

Don't miss : May 16-18 at Cleveland. Perhaps forgetting that Detroit finished 27 1/2 games behind the Indians last year, Garner said the Tigers are "going to beat Cleveland. They're vulnerable." So are you, Phil.

Don't be surprised : if management brings in the fences in a bid to keep Gonzalez from leaving as a free agent. The 398-foot power alley in left-center is five feet deeper than the one he whined about at The Ballpark in Arlington.

Don't expect : Gonzalez to approach his 140-RBI average of the past four seasons. The on-base average of the Tigers' 1-2-3 lineup spots last year was a dreadful .336.

Web site unseen: www.paper- tigers.com

White Sox

That was then: Chicago, which made the playoffs only twice in the 1990s despite baseball's fourth-best record, teased in 1999 with a 42-43 first half before playing 10 games under .500 the rest of the way.

This is now: The average age of the season-ending roster was 25.9, the youngest in the majors. With no significant off-season additions, the team is committed to only $16 million in payroll, child-care expenses included.

Upside: Magglio Ordonez had 318 total bases, seventh in club history. Setup man Keith Foulke is the best reliever you may never have heard of, using a wicked changeup to limit hitters to a .188 batting average. Greg Norton had a huge spring training to keep his job at third base, but Paul Konerko could play there some, too.

Downside: Frank Thomas failed to hit 20 homers or drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career, then irked manager Jerry Manuel this spring by begging out of a running drill. Chicago led the league in errors for the third year in a row. Jim Parque was 9-6 the first half of the season and 0-9 the second.

Don't miss : July 7-9 at Wrigley Field. The highlight of last season was a three-game sweep at the cross-town confines. Sox win! Sox win! Sox win!

Don't be surprised : if Kip Wells, Aaron Myette and Jon Garland front baseball's best young rotation in another year. Wells should be a factor this season after finishing 1999 with a 4-1 record.

Don't expect : second baseman Ray Durham to get exactly 181 hits, 73 walks and 105 strikeouts for a third straight season. If only he were as consistent in the field.

Web site unseen: www.babygapsox.com

Royals

That was then: It started with such promise. Kansas City went 22-9 in the 1999 Grapefruit League, then was 21-18 on May 20 before dropping 79 of its last 125 games and finishing with the worst record in the franchise's 31-year history.

This is now: Despite the collapse, the Royals can be this year's Athletics, a low-budget team whose youngsters mature so quickly that winning is possible before too many players are arbitration-eligible.

Upside: Carlos Beltran was the first rookie with 100 RBIs since Mike Piazza in 1993. Fellow rookie Carlos Febles tied for second in the AL in triples. DH hopeful Mark Quinn won batting titles in Double-A in 1998 and Triple-A in 1999, then announced his major-league arrival by becoming the fourth player to homer twice in his debut game.

Downside: Kansas City was the first team in major-league history with more blown saves (30) than saves (29). Though scoring a club-record 856 runs, the Royals allowed a club-record 921.

Don't miss : $hare the Wealth Day. No date is set, but last year 3,000 fans walked out of Kauffman Stadium during a game against the Yankees to protest the baseball economics that keep small markets from competing.

Don't be surprised : if Jay Witasick (C. Milton Wright, UMBC) has a breakout season; he had six quality starts in his last seven decisions and has a mid-90s fastball.

Don't expect : Ricky Bottalico, who blew nine saves last year in St. Louis, to solve the bullpen problem. The long-range answer is Orber Moreno, who had a 2.10 ERA in 16 games last season.

Web site unseen: www.doscarlos.com

Twins

That was then: Playing at one point with more rookies on the roster than veterans, Minnesota had the fewest wins in the majors (63), not to mention the fewest runs, total bases, homers and RBIs.

This is now: The Twins are bringing back the Twin Cities caps from their early glory years, but unfortunately won't get to put them on Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Rod Carew.

Upside: Minnesota committed only 92 errors, second-best in the American League, an amazing achievement for such a young team. Corey Koskie was the third Twin to hit .300 as a rookie.

Downside: No current Twin had more than two saves last year, but that doesn't bother realistic manager Tom Kelly, who said there is "no sense having a closer if you're going to win 40 games." The Twins have had only one hitter with more than 20 homers since 1995 -- Matt Lawton with 21 in '98.

Don't miss : Maryland alum Eric Milton's breakthrough season. Just 24, he allowed fewer base runners per inning than any American League pitcher not named Pedro Martinez.

Don't be surprised : if coach Paul Molitor is managing this team before long. Kelly, who recently joined former Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack as the only managers to lose 1,000 games for the same team and not be fired, will decide someday soon that enough is enough.

Don't expect : Brad Radke to be with the team by season's end. A 20-game winner in 1997, he rejected an offer of $21 million over three years. Don't expect the majors' cheapest team to pay more.

Web site unseen: www.identicaltwins.com

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