No pat hands in '94 shuffle REALIGNMENT'S FIRST RUN

April 01, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

The Texas Rangers just might be the biggest winner in the Great Baseball Shuffle of 1994. Realignment took the defending division champion Chicago White Sox out of the American League West, leaving the Rangers as the team to beat in a division where everyone else seems very beatable.

The Orioles can't complain either, even though they were left in ++ the toughest division in baseball. Thanks to the extra tier of playoffs that have been added this year, they don't necessarily have to beat the two-time defending world champion Toronto Blue Jays to get into the playoffs.

Welcome to baseball's brave new world. The decision to break each league into three divisions created the new playoff tier and likely will lead to another expansion in the not-too-distant future. It is part of the game's long-term answer to the daunting economic problems that confront the sport, and it could provide a short-term advantage for those teams that are addressed for success.

"I can't lie to you . . . it helps us a lot," said Rangers manager ## Kevin Kennedy. "Getting Chicago out of this division helps all of us."

It isn't just the White Sox. The divisional shake-up also pulled the Kansas City Royals out of the West, leaving the Rangers as the only one of the top three finishers from 1993 still in the division. They figure to be the favorite when they open the season in New York on Monday, but they still have to play well against the entire league to get into the postseason for the first time since the franchise moved to Texas.

"One thing about that, it's not a lock," said first baseman Will Clark, who joins former Bay area rival Jose Canseco in the Rangers' lineup. "You still have to go out there and play extremely well to win your division.

"People say we are in a better situation. We are in a good situation, but Seattle is a good team and [Oakland's] Tony La Russa has a habit of finding ways to win and Buck Rodgers has some good people in California. By no means is it a lock."

Second thoughts

Clark, who could just as easily be opening the season with the Orioles this year, has some words of caution for any AL East contender that is taking solace in the notion that it can get to the playoffs without beating the Blue Jays. The second-place team in each league with the best record also will reach the new round of playoffs, but there is no guarantee that the second-place finisher in the deep AL East will be that team.

"You can't treat it like that," he said. "From an Orioles perspective, you can't look at the division and say that we can beat this team and we can beat that team, but we don't have to beat that team."

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond agrees. The Orioles -- and every other major-league team -- have been granted a second chance at the postseason, which should make for more big games and more excitement down the stretch, but they still need to focus on winning the division title.

"I think you have to shoot for the top spot," Hemond said, "because somebody else might win more games in another division. Nobody can analyze it accurately enough to say, if we finish second, we'll be OK."

The long fight over realignment and regionalization finally came to an end in January, but not before it sparked baseball's commissioner crisis in 1992 and pushed the owners into an extra set of collective bargaining negotiations to split up the new playoff revenue.

The result is an uneven alignment that includes two five-team divisions and one four-team division in each league. That's why it seems so logical that another team will be added to each league in the next three or four years.

The five-team American League East lost the improving Cleveland Indians and the last-place Milwaukee Brewers, but the Orioles were left with more of the same kind of competition they faced in 1993. The Blue Jays have some obstacles to overcome, but they still will enter the season as the team to beat. The New York Yankees have significantly upgraded their pitching staff and the Detroit Tigers have made substantial improvements.

"Mathematically, our chances of making the playoffs should be better," manager Johnny Oates said. "There are two less teams to beat and two more teams get in, but I never was very good with base-five mathematics."

The Rangers may be the biggest beneficiary of the divisional shuffle, but they are not the only team to find their road to the postseason possibly shortened by realignment. The four remaining teams in the National League West also benefit from the shorter stack and the departure of the defending National League champion Atlanta Braves.

"It's advantageous for a lot of teams," said Rangers pitcher Rick Honeycutt. "Look at the NL Central. Some of those teams that got out of the NL East and away from the Phillies and the Braves and the Montreal Expos have got to be saying, 'Thank goodness.' "

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