In new AL East, O's face same old hurdles

BASEBALL

February 13, 1994|By PETER SCHMUCK

Welcome to the new American League East, which isn't substantially different from the old American League East. The three-time defending division champion Toronto Blue Jays again are the team to beat, and they are looking at more of the same stiff competition that kept pressure on them into late September last year.

"Realignment didn't do a whole lot for us," said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who hopes to steer his team to a third straight World Series championship.

The AL East figures to be the toughest division in baseball, even after the departure of an upgraded Cleveland Indians club that finally was ready to make a run at the top. The Blue Jays still have outstanding talent after a relatively inactive winter, but the shop-till-they-drop Orioles have put a scare into the rest of the division with a long list of off-season acquisitions.

"Without a doubt, they've had an outstanding off-season," said Boston Red Sox manager Butch Hobson. "They had one of the better clubs last year, but injuries to their key people kept them from coming out on top. The acquisition of [Rafael] Palmeiro, [Sid] Fernandez and [Chris] Sabo is going to make them very tough."

The Red Sox did not stand pat, either. They hired a new general manager, Dan Duquette, and picked up center fielder Otis Nixon to add some speed to their lineup. They also hope that the addition of veteran catcher Dave Valle will have a positive influence on a solid pitching staff, but their outlook for 1994 depends more heavily on the healthy re-emergence of pitching ace Roger Clemens and outfielder Andre Dawson.

The New York Yankees also have improved, particularly with the trade that put left-hander Terry Mulholland into their starting rotation last week, and the Detroit Tigers stepped up with the re-signing of Eric Davis and the recent addition of starting pitcher Tim Belcher.

If the unimproved Blue Jays appear ripe for the taking, don't jump to conclusions. Toronto has much of the same talent that won the division by seven games last year. There are a couple of openings in the starting lineup (shortstop and left field) and room for improvement in the starting rotation, but there is plenty of time for the capable Blue Jays front office to shore up the club for the regular season.

"We're pretty much going in with the same ballclub," Gaston said. "We still have some of the same problems we had last year -- in left field and at shortstop -- but I think we will solve those problems in spring training."

Bet on it. The Blue Jays have a history of doing what it takes to get in position to win. The best thing going for the other four East teams is that they don't have to win the division to get into the postseason this year. The team in each league with the best second-place record also makes the playoffs, and there is an excellent chance that the American League's wild-card team will come from the AL East.

That takes some pressure off Toronto during the regular season, too. The Blue Jays are attempting to become the first team to win three straight world championships since the Oakland Athletics did it in 1972, '73 and '74. They don't have to win the division to keep that streak alive, but a three-peat may be tougher, because the eventual world champion must now survive three postseason series instead of two.

Don't dismiss that possibility. For all of the improvements the Orioles made, the Blue Jays remain the standard by which every other AL East club measures itself.

"I think you always have to look at what Toronto has got and the players they have in their minor-league system," Hobson said. "You still have to consider them the team to beat. But New York and Detroit

have improved, we're going to be tough and Baltimore scares me. It's going to be an intense American League East race this year."

One wish

Gaston hopes that the Blue Jays are able to pull off a deal for a starting pitcher. The club has been mentioned in several trade rumors involving front-line starters, but Gaston has watched from the sidelines while the Orioles acquired Fernandez, the Yankees got Mulholland and the Tigers acquired Belcher.

"It wouldn't hurt to have a starting pitcher," Gaston said. "You never finish the season with the same four or five starters that you start with. We are going to have five starters, but I would like to go in with at least six in case someone goes down."

The Blue Jays' rotation is considered a weakness, though it was good enough to get them another trophy last year. They'll need big years from 19-game winner Pat Hentgen and Juan Guzman and decent performances by Dave Stewart and Todd Stottlemyre to keep the rest of the division from catching them.

Bold prediction

Hobson apparently is confident that Clemens will shake off last year's physical problems to re-establish himself as the league's best starting pitcher.

"I'm so confident that I'm predicting that he'll win the Cy Young Award again," Hobson said, "because of the caliber of person and athlete he is."

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