Al Central Preview

April 25, 1995|By Andy Knobel

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Where they're coming from: They finished 67-46, just good enough for first place, but the strike kept them from a shot at their first World Series title since 1917.

Where they're going: First place. No other team has better young pitching, and no other team has Frank Thomas, who led the AL in runs, walks, on-base average, slugging average, extra-base hits and gushy comparisons to Ted Williams.

Key newcomers: P Jim Abbott (4.55 ERA), DH Chris Sabo (11 HRs in 258 at-bats), OF Mike Devereaux (.203).

What must go right: Frank Thomas must contend for an unprecedented third straight MVP award. Roberto Hernandez must pitch like the closer who saved 80 percent of his tries before 1994, not the one who blew six save tries last year.

What could go wrong: Michael Jordan could coax Thomas to play power forward for the Bulls in the playoffs. Barring that, Sabo and Devereaux could fail to support Thomas in the batting order the way Julio Franco (.319, 98 RBIs) and Darrin Jackson (.312, 51 RBIs) did before leaving to play in Japan. Wilson Alvarez, second in the AL in shutouts, could fail to shake spring shoulder soreness.

X-factor: The absence of Jack McDowell. The league's most durable starter threw a patch over the Sox's biggest hole, threadbare relief. Abbott, who takes his place, finished 1994 poorly. Chicago's best two prospects, Scott Ruffcorn and James Baldwin, are pitchers.

Key statistic: Since 1993, only the Braves' Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux have more wins than Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and Jason Bere.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Where they're coming from: An exciting season with sold-out crowds and an 18-game home winning streak. They finished 66-47, good enough for a wild card, and their first postseason berth since 1954 . . . but it didn't count.

Where they're going: Probably to the playoffs, but baseball's unluckiest team may be struck down by the strike. All except one of its canceled games were against sub-.500 teams; Chicago lost 12 games against winning teams.

Key newcomers: P Orel Hershiser (3.79 ERA), P Bud Black (4.47), P Paul Assenmacher (AL holds leader), DH Dave Winfield (10 HRs).

What must go right: Triple Crown threat Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, the AL steals and hits champion, must battle it out for AL MVP. Paul Shuey, with five career saves, must succeed as the closer. Winfield, who hit .343 against left-handers, must boost an offense that was third-worst in the AL against lefties. Eddie Murray must drive in 75 or more runs for a record 19th straight year -- and get the 70 hits he needs for 3,000.

What could go wrong: Something always does. A strike, a lockout, a worldwide cork shortage. Pitchers Dennis Martinez (39), Hershiser (36) and Black (37) could fold under the rigors of a full season. Mark Clark (11-3) could miss ex-pitching coach Phil Regan. C Sandy Alomar's left knee could buckle under. A defense that committed the third-most errors in the AL could get even worse.

X-factor: The Indians lost a league-high 12 games they led entering the seventh inning. Will the only management in baseball wise enough to lock up young players to inexpensive, long-term contracts also be smart enough to get a veteran closer -- Florida's Bryan Harvey or Minnesota's Rick Aguilera?

Key statistics: This offense was the juggernaut of our generation. Cleveland led the AL in slugging, runs, hits, homers and RBIs and was second in batting average and steals. The Indians had the third-best slugging average this century (.484).

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Where they're coming from: The Royals were 9 1/2 out before winning 14 straight to move to one game out. They finished third at 64-51, and manager Hal McRae was fired.

Where they're going: Into a new era. Artificial turf is out. Outfield fences are in 10 feet and down 3 feet. And big contracts are way out.

Key newcomers: P Tom Browning (recovering from broken arm), C Pat

Borders (.247).

What must go right: New manager Bob Boone must provide a more nurturing atmosphere than McRae for an organization whose minor-league teams had baseball's best record (408-285). Michael Tucker must succeed Bob Hamelin as Rookie of the Year.

What could go wrong: A team built around pitching and defense could feel like a stranger in Kauffman Stadium. Closer Jeff Montgomery could suffer -- opponents hit .328 against him last year on grass surfaces. Nobody fills the void left by the trade of Cy Young Award winner David Cone.

X-factor: If the team starts poorly, will owner David Glass continue the salary fire sale by dumping Montgomery, P Kevin Appier, P Tom Gordon and SS Greg Gagne?

Key statistic: Hamelin may not develop into anything more than a platoon player; all 24 of his homers were against right-handers.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Where they're coming from: Minnesota was one game out on June 15 but finished 14 behind, with a 53-60 record in fourth place.

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