By nearly everyone's early evaluation of the American League East, there is only minimal encouragement for the five pretenders for the division title.
That's because the two best teams -- the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox -- are better now than they were a year ago. And if all the pieces fall into place for the Blue Jays, the defending champions could put a lot of daylight between themselves and their six challengers.
"Championships aren't won on paper," said Baltimore Orioles manager John Oates, "because you don't know what's going to happen, especially with injuries. But the same teams that have been favored the last couple of years [Toronto and Boston] are the two who have improved the most.
"After those two teams, I think you can throw a blanket over the other five. We've all got our strong points and our weak points.
"I'm optimistic, but I'm also realistic -- and I think the Orioles' chances are as good as any of the other five. I really believe that on Opening Day, we've got a chance to win the AL East. But you'd have to say that Toronto and Boston have to be favored."
Pat Gillick, the Toronto general manager, won't argue with the assumption that his team is the one to beat. He signed starting pitcher Jack Morris to replace Tom Candiotti, and added Dave Winfield as a full-time designated hitter. The two free agents improve an already potent roster.
"I try to be objective," said Gillick. "I'd have to say that Boston is still the toughest team for us to beat. After that, I'd put the Orioles, Detroit and Milwaukee together, with Cleveland and New York behind them."
The addition of Morris, who helped the Minnesota Twins win the World Series last year, is considered the key acquisition of the off-season. "They already had the best pitching staff in the league," said Detroit slugger Cecil Fielder.
"Now, you add Jack to a staff that includes [Jimmy] Key, [Todd] Stottlemyre and [Juan] Guzman, and it's going to be three tough days any time you play them.
"And don't forget about [Dave] Stieb," said Fielder, who was in town this weekend to accept the Sultan of Swat award at the Tops in Sports banquet. "If Stieb is healthy, then they have an unbelievable staff."
Stieb underwent surgery for a herniated disk last summer. Signing Morris was a hedge against Stieb's not coming back, but Gillick says both will be instrumental for the Blue Jays this season. "We like everything about Morris that everybody else likes," said Gillick.
"He's a competitor, he gives you innings, he likes to take the ball. He's the type of guy you go after. And I think Stieb will be ready -- if not by Opening Day, then shortly thereafter.
"There's no problem with his arm. He's scheduled to start throwing in about two weeks."
Although there is some question about how much Frank Viola will help Boston, Fielder said the Red Sox have gotten a solid No. 2 starter to back up Roger Clemens.
"Don't worry about Frank," said Fielder. "He'll do all right. I think bTC he might be the kind of guy who pitches better in this league than the National League [where Viola has pitched for the Mets the past three years]."
Except for the addition of Viola, the Red Sox's roster is virtually unchanged from a year ago.
"Re-signing [Joe] Hesketh was important for them," said Oates. "They've got a good lineup, and if [Danny] Darwin comes back, they have the making of a good staff."
Oates says the Orioles could, too. He is banking that veteran right-handers Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis will give his starting rotation a shot in the arm.
"Our No. 1 priority was to improve our starting pitching," said Oates. "And our No. 2 priority was to improve our starting pitching. That's how much of a priority it was.
"We only had one guy win 10 games last year -- and you can't compete like that. There's no doubt in my mind right now that, regardless of who they are, all five of our starters can win in double figures next year.
"Having Glenn Davis for the entire year would be a big plus -- but adding Sutcliffe and Davis might be even more important. I feel like we've improved ourselves, and we're going to continue to try improve.
"I don't know that we've done enough yet -- we could still use some more team speed -- but we've made some strides. Brady Anderson played well at the end of the year, and I think we're close to upgrading ourselves with Luis Mercedes.
"Some teams have their speed at shortstop and their power in left field. But we've got a pretty good offensive player at shortstop, so maybe we can do it a little different than other teams."
With the addition of Sutcliffe, Davis, minor-league free-agent right-hander Eric Hetzel and outfielder Darrell Sherman, a minor-league draftee, the Orioles have been one of the most active teams in the division. The Tigers have added only free-agent outfielder Dan Gladden, and the Brewers' only significant change would appear to be the loss of second baseman Willie Randolph to free agency.