So-called purists off base criticizing realignment

BASEBALL

April 03, 1994|By TOM KEEGAN

Always be leery of those who describe themselves as baseball purists.

Philosophers don't call themselves deep thinkers, they think deeply. True baseball purists don't label themselves as such because they don't talk about themselves. They talk about baseball.

The SDP (self-described purists) soiled their loafers with tears when baseball realigned from four divisions to six and added one layer of playoffs.

Now that the new divisional alignment is upon us, consider the ways it helps baseball.

First, nearly every player in every city can fool himself into thinking he is playing for a contender, which can only help the quality of play throughout the game.

Second, almost every fan in every city can fool himself into thinking he won't have to wait 'til next year.

Third, preseason prognosticators can go 0-for-6 instead of the traditional 0-for 4.

Some glitches have to be worked out, such as reworking the schedule so that teams play more intra-division games, but overall it's difficult not to see a positive side to the expansion to six divisions.

The team to beat in each division:

* AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST: The Orioles, though any team in the division is capable of finishing first or last.

Mike Mussina's spring ERA of 6.75 is balanced by radar readings of 92 mph on the fast gun.

The lineup is every bit as good as advertised. The first seven hitters have had an 80-RBI season in the majors and the first eight have driven in at least 70. It won't be long before Rookie of the Year candidate Jeffrey Hammonds makes it a perfect nine.

* AL CENTRAL: The Chicago White Sox. The best pitching staff '' in baseball has the best shot to win it all since starting rotation depth is more important than ever with the added layer of playoffs.

The addition of Scott Sanderson as the fifth starter behind Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere keeps the Sox from having to reach into the minors prematurely or into the bullpen for help.

Designated hitter Julio Franco offers the extra bat the Sox lacked last October after foolishly not pursuing Eddie Murray in September.

Cleveland has a dangerous lineup and improved defense, but not enough pitching depth and not enough speed beyond Kenny Lofton.

* AL WEST: Seattle in a photo finish over Texas in baseball's weakest division.

The Rangers have the best offense, especially considering Jose Canseco has flashed his old power swing, but as always, pitching and fielding deficiencies will hold them back.

Why the Mariners? Three names stand out. Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. Strikeout champion Randy Johnson. Manager Lou Piniella.

* NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST: Atlanta.

Ron Gant took a spill on a dirt bike and was released. Chipper Jones, his replacement, is out for the season. Gregg Olson opens the year on the disabled list. Otis Nixon bolted via free agency. The soundness of Steve Avery's arm became an issue late in the spring.

Still, smart free agent signings from the past (Terry Pendleton, Greg Maddux) and an influx of new talent from the system (catcher Javier Lopez, left fielder Tony Tarasco) leave the Braves better equipped to deal with adversity than most teams.

Diminished speed is a legitimate concern. The players on the Braves' opening-day roster combined for 47 stolen bases last season. Nixon had 47 by himself.

* NL CENTRAL: Houston, in the weakest of the NL divisions.

No, the arrival of closer Mitch Williams is not the reason, though he qualifies as one of the most funny quotes in baseball.

"Anyone seen that Federal Express guy," Williams said recently. "My fastball was supposed to arrive last week. And I still haven't seen it."

Neither has anyone else, but the Astros have reason to be excited about their chances.

Doug Drabek anchors the division's best starting rotation. Drabek's strong spring left many believing he will reverse his 9-18 record of 1993. Left-hander Greg Swindell, troubled by shoulder problems in 1993, also had a strong spring.

Teams that go on winter spending sprees often don't see the benefits until the following season, when expectations subside.

Rookie James Mouton, a converted second baseman, will lead off and start in right field, an upgrade from departed Eric Anthony.

* NL WEST: The Dodgers.

Right fielder Raul Mondesi inspires the sort of awed descriptions Orioles prospect Alex Ochoa will in a year or two. Brett Butler remains in center and a rejuvenated Darryl Strawberry is in left.

Mondesi, who gives the Dodgers a chance to have their third consecutive NL Rookie of the Year, had seven outfield assists this spring and threw out two runners at first base after they made wide turns.

Korean right-hander Chan Ho Park, hassled all spring by umpires bent on calling him for balks, still posted a team-best 2.37 ERA.

Darren Dreifort, the hard thrower out of Wichita State the Dodgers chose with the second overall pick in last year's draft, won a bullpen job. With Park, he gives the Dodgers their first two players to bypass the minor leagues since Sandy Koufax did so in 1955.

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