FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He may be the most intimidating hitter of his generation, but Boston Red Sox slugger Jose Canseco isn't afraid to say which American League East pitching staff scares him the most.
It is not the New York Yankees, who have added Jack McDowell and John Wetteland since last year. It is not the Toronto Blue Jays, who pulled off the most surprising trade of the spring when they acquired 1994 Cy Young Award winner David Cone. And it certainly isn't the Red Sox, who will need some help just to avoid becoming the Detroit Tigers.
Canseco surveyed his new division yesterday and predicted the Orioles would have the most effective staff.
"That's a really good staff," he said. "It's early, but if I had to choose [the best] right now, that would be the one."
That might come as a surprise even to the Orioles, who took some heat last week when the Yankees beat them to Wetteland and up graded their pitching for the second time since finishing first in last year's strike-shortened AL East race. But Canseco sees holes in the Yankees' rotation and sees nothing but quality starters in Baltimore -- especially since the Orioles signed former Texas Rangers ace Kevin Brown.
"Kevin Brown is one of the nastiest guys I've seen," Canseco said, "and Sid Fernandez is very deceptive. Arthur Rhodes? I hit him real well, but he has an outstanding arm."
Canseco was rating only the back end of the rotation. He didn't even bother to evaluate Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, acknowledging that the credentials of the Orioles' top two pitchers are well established.
It is a surprising appraisal, considering that Canseco mopped up on Orioles pitching a year ago. He batted .455 against Baltimore and hit four home runs in 22 at-bats. The only team he hit better was the Red Sox, who acquired him from the Rangers in December for outfielder Otis Nixon and infielder Luis Ortiz.
The Yankees are hard to dismiss, of course, especially now that they have a hard-throwing right-hander (Wetteland) to pair with left-handed closer Steve Howe. So are the Blue Jays, who have three premier starters -- Cone, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen. The Red Sox and Tigers are going to have to make some moves or hope that they can score enough runs to overcome their pitching deficiencies.
If any club can hit its way into contention, it is the Red Sox, who have added Canseco and outfielder Mark Whiten to a lineup that includes big hitters Mo Vaughn and Mike Greenwell. But Canseco said it would be foolhardy to open the season without upgrading the pitching staff.
"I think we need one more blue-chip starter and a couple of guys who know how to pitch," he said. "I'm sure Kevin [Kennedy, manager] and everyone is trying to complete the puzzle."
General manager Dan Duquette said yesterday that he has talked to the Seattle Mariners -- presumably about left-handed ace Randy Johnson -- and has been in contact with the agent for former Blue Jays right-hander Todd Stottlemyre.
It may take a dynamic acquisition to change the balance of power in the league's toughest division.
"This division is going to be won on pitching, and strictly pitching," Canseco said. "I know from my experience in Texas, where we had an awesome lineup. I don't care how strong you are offensively, if you don't have the pitching, you aren't going anywhere."
The Red Sox's Jose Canseco sizes up the pitching staffs in the AL East:
Orioles: "That's a real good staff. It's early, but if I had to choose [the best] right now, that would be the one."
Yankees: "I know they have gotten some quality out of their rotation, but will they be consistent?"
Blue Jays: "David Cone is really going to help them. He's nasty."
Red Sox: "If we don't get any pitching, I might have to go back to the mound."
Tigers: "Their pitching? Suspect . . . bad, as usual."