Tigers GM likes look of O's in East

ON BASEBALL

February 11, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Detroit's new stadium won't open for a couple of years, and until then, the Tigers won't be a serious contender in the AL East. Plenty of time for Randy Smith, in his first year as Detroit general manager, to rebuild his organization and study the rest of the teams in the division.

When spring training opens later this week, Smith will spend much of his time scouting other teams. Unless the Tigers pull off the greatest upset since the 1969 Mets -- and that just isn't going to happen -- Smith will be nothing more than an interested observer in the title chase this year. He likes what he sees in Baltimore, enough to pick the Orioles as the front-runners in the division.

"As it stands right now," he said, "Baltimore is the team to beat. I think they've got a very strong everyday lineup and some good starting pitching. The bullpen might be suspect, but they've got Randy Myers and Jesse Orosco and a couple of other options. It's a pretty strong club on paper."

The Yankees? "They've got to be [second]," Smith said. "They've got some good pitching."

Yes. The Yankees retained David Cone, signed Kenny Rogers to be their No. 2 starter, and have slotted Andy Pettitte, so successful as a rookie last year, in their third spot. They've got the strongest right-handed relief in the game, with John Wetteland, Jeff Nelson, Bob Wickman and Mariano Rivera.

The Red Sox stand third, in Smith's mind. "They've got a pretty good infield," he said, "with Mo Vaughn and John Valentin and Tim Naehring, and they've got Heathcliff Slocumb coming in. They had a lot of guys who had great years last season. Right now, though, I think they've got some questions with their health and other situations."

Smith declined to delve into specific stumbling blocks for the Yankees and Red Sox. (Toronto, having lost Roberto Alomar, Al Leiter and Paul Molitor, among others, also is going through a rebuilding year and will be hard-pressed to contend.) But in many respects, New York and Boston face the same volume of questions the Orioles did before the disastrous 1995 season. Lots of ifs.

The Yankees could win the division if Derek Jeter handles the pressure of being a rookie shortstop in New York. They can win if Ruben Sierra, one of the few established run-producers in the Yankees' lineup, actually produces runs. If Tim Raines becomes a viable leadoff hitter again, something he hasn't been in recent years. If Rogers holds up under the scrutiny of being the highest-paid New York free agent. If they acquire some left-handed relief.

The Red Sox could win if Aaron Sele's arm is sound again (he says he thinks it is). If knuckleballer Tim Wakefield doesn't continue the downward spiral that began in August. If they can overcome what figures to be one of the worst defenses of this generation. If Vaughn's contract negotiations don't become more of a distraction than they already are. If guys like Troy O'Leary will step up and again have career years, as they did last season.

The Yankees are capable of shutting down any team over a three-day period with their starting pitching and right-handed relief. Boston will have an awesome offensive team, augmented by the addition of catcher Mike Stanley and bopper Wil Cordero (the Red Sox intend to sign either Kevin Mitchell or Darryl Strawberry, as well as a designated hitter).

But New York and Boston have holes the Orioles do not. As Orioles ace Mike Mussina said last week: The Orioles aren't counting on anybody to step up, to go above and beyond reasonable expectations. They're not hoping some rookie plays a major role. They're not dependent upon a pitcher coming back from a substance-abuse problem (as the Yankees are with Dwight Gooden). They're not relying on players coming back from serious physical problems (as the Red Sox are with Sele and Cordero).

Glove talk

A comedian at the New York baseball writers banquet offered this indictment of Mets third baseman Jeff Kent: "The Mets have hired Mark Fuhrman [the controversial detective in the O. J. Simpson case] to plant a glove on Jeff Kent."

* Eight of the 30 pitchers in the Phillies' camp this year are coming back from major arm problems.

* There is a viable short-term alternative if Chris Hoiles has more arm problems that affect his ability to catch for the Orioles. Any team in need of a solid everyday catcher can always contact the Oakland Athletics, in the midst of dumping most of their stars. All-Star catcher Terry Steinbach is in the last year of a contract that pays him $3.5 million a year, and the rebuilding Athletics would gladly move him for a prospect or two.

* How young is the Oakland rotation? Well, the Athletics' No. 1 starter is Todd Van Poppel, who recently turned 24.

Eck move in the Cards?

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