Baseball is the most difficult sport to handicap, but it's clear Toronto should win the AL East this season, and even clearer that New York and Cleveland should finish sixth and seventh.
The difficult part is guessing which teams will finish second through fifth. The Orioles, Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee are impossible to separate at this point. The club that pitches the best stands the best chance of chasing Toronto.
That said, I'm picking the Orioles fourth -- a conservative prediction, considering they're probably the most improved team the division, but a calculated one, considering they've placed higher than fifth only once in the past six years.
A spoilsport, you say? Hardly. The Orioles could easily prove the best of the in-between clubs. But with so many critical players (Rick Sutcliffe, Ben McDonald, Glenn Davis) coming off injury-plagued seasons, it's dangerous to expect too much.
Fourth place, then, behind Milwaukee and Detroit, ahead of Boston. I like Milwaukee because starters Bill Wegman and Jamie Navarro each had 14 or more wins last season (Bob Milacki led the Orioles with 10). I like Detroit because it has finished lower than third only once in the past nine years.
Boston is always formidable by the sheer force of Roger Clemens' will, and adding Frank Viola can only help. Still, the rest of the staff frightens no one, and it's time this club had a poor season. Besides, I hate Boston. Just rooting against them is fun.
As for the Orioles, this should be the year Davis proves he's worth the money, the year Cal Ripken flirts with back-to-back MVPs, the year Mike Devereaux becomes a star. The Opening Day roster hasn't looked this good since 1984. That club was aging. This one is emerging.
Of course, even the best teams face serious questions at this time of year. Thus, without further ado, here are five things that must happen for the Orioles to contend. As they say in the NFL expansion biz, it's only the short list:
1. Three pitchers combining for 90 starts. Hate to bring this up again, but it's simply the key to the season. It doesn't matter which three pitchers become the workhorses. It just matters that the rotation finally attains a measure of stability.
Thirty starts. The total reflects not just a healthy pitcher, but an effective one, too. The Orioles have had only four such pitchers in the past five years. Sutcliffe and Bob Milacki are their only current starters who have reached the big three-oh, and they haven't done it since 1989.
2. The emergence of a leadoff hitter. Again, the identity of the player isn't important. It could be Brady Anderson. It could be Luis Mercedes. It could be Devereaux. It just better be someone, or else the Orioles' attack will sputter before it starts.
Poor starting pitching is the main reason they kept falling behind 3-0 last season, but the offense was a frequent no-show in the early innings as well. Yes, the heart of the Orioles' order is as powerful as any. Unfortunately, it's reduced to a mere showpiece without runners on base.
3. Sudden breakthroughs. Minnesota got them from Chuck Knoblauch, Shane Mack and Scott Erickson. Atlanta got them from Terry Pendleton, Alejandro Pena, Otis Nixon and its entire starting rotation. Championship teams always feature surprise players, be it youngsters seizing an opportunity, or veterans thriving with a new club.
By that measure, the Orioles to watch are the young starting pitchers (Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald, Jose Mesa), the new regulars (catcher Chris Hoiles and third baseman Leo Gomez) and the veteran additions (Sutcliffe and Storm Davis).
Add Bill Ripken to that list. If he plays 140 games at second base, it means he's healthy and hitting. Anderson also qualifies. He's a .219 lifetime hitter, and 28 years old. This is his last chance to prove he can play every day.
4. An encore performance by the bullpen. Last season, three rejects from other clubs (Mike Flanagan, Todd Frohwirth, Jim Poole) combined for a 2.11 ERA. It's unfair to disparage a group that went so far beyond expectations, but even manager John Oates wonders if it was all a mirage.
The starters figure to work deeper into games this season, and the relievers figure to pitch in tighter situations. The best sign is, Storm Davis threw so well this spring, Oates felt comfortable abandoning his plan to keep two lefthanders.
Oh yes, don't forget Gregg Olson.
Few teams win without an effective closer.
5. The right moves by the front office. Minnesota went the entire '91 season without adding a player from another club, but Atlanta acquired Pena for the stretch drive, then went one step further by adding Mike Bielecki and Damon Berryhill six days before the season ended.
Neither Bielecki nor Berryhill was eligible for the postseason, but in the middle of a pennant race, the Braves already were planning for next year. Ironically enough, they helped Detroit win the '87 AL East title in reverse fashion, parting with Doyle Alexander for a young righthander named John Smoltz.
The last time the Orioles were in contention, general manager Roland Hemond took his best shot, obtaining Keith Moreland for Brian Dubois, a pitcher he later reacquired. Moreland was a flop, and the '89 club finished second, but Hemond had the right idea.
If he reaches that point again, it will mean wonderful things are happening at the new downtown ballpark. If he reaches that point again, we'll be talking about first place, not fourth.