AL Central

March 29, 1996|By Andy Knobel

Cleveland Indians

Where they're coming from: The Indians won 100 games in a 144-game season, leading the league in every important category: on-base average, slugging average, runs, hits, homers, RBIs, steals, ERA and saves. Cleveland won 27 games in its final at-bat, including 10 with game-ending home runs, then overwhelmed the Red Sox and Mariners in the playoffs before losing the World Series to the Braves.

Where they're going: It took the Indians 41 years to get back to the World Series; this time, it may take only six months. Manager Mike Hargrove can start setting up his playoff rotation.

Key newcomers: 1993 Cy Young Award winner "Black Jack" McDowell and 1991 AL batting champ Julio Franco, who won the equivalent of a Gold Glove in Japan at first base last season.

What must go right: McDowell, who has led the AL in complete games three times, must take pressure off an aging rotation that might not have the stamina for the first 162-game season since 1993. Jose Mesa must be the reliever who saved 46 games last year, not the one who saved two before last year.

What could go wrong: Nothing serious enough to cost them the division. The law of averages could keep the Indians from going 13-0 again in extra innings. McDowell could flip his finger at the fans again, ingratiating him with his surly Indians teammates and making Cleveland the team America loves to hate.

X-factor: Designated hitter Eddie Murray has 479 career home runs. Will he hit No. 500 before Albert Belle reaches 61?

Key stat: The Indians were the first team to lead the AL in both batting average and ERA since the 1971 Orioles.

Chicago White Sox

Where they're coming from: The White Sox were first in the West in 1993 and 1994, then tumbled to 32 games back in the Central at 68-76, costing manager Gene Lamont his job in midseason. Terry Bevington was 57-56.

Where they're going: Second place by default. The White Sox have holes, but unlike the threadbare Twins, Brewers and Royals, can afford to be mended.

Key newcomers: Pitcher Kevin Tapani, center fielder Darren Lewis, DH Harold Baines, left fielder Tony Phillips, right fielder Danny Tartabull.

What must go right: Young pitchers Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere must bounce back after disappointing seasons attributed to lack of conditioning during the strike. Baines and Tartabull must provide lineup protection for Frank Thomas, a Triple Crown threat if he gets good pitches. Roberto Hernandez, who blew 10 of his first 32 save tries, must return to form; he still throws hard, leading the league with 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

What could go wrong: Lewis could be a poor substitute for Lance Johnson, who reached double figures in doubles, triples and homers. New hitting instructor Bill Buckner could try doubling as a fielding coach; then again, even he could improve a defense that started last season with 25 errors in 10 games. Michael Jordan could return.

X-factor: Each year, GM Ron Schueler takes a right fielder off the scrap heap, gets a great year out of him, then discards him: first bTC Ellis Burks, then Darrin Jackson, then Mike Devereaux. This year's candidate is often-injured Danny Tartabull, looking to prove himself in the last year of a big contract.

Key stat: Fernandez's ERA was 5.69 before the All-Star break and 2.39 after it, the biggest difference in the majors among pitchers with 150 innings. Alvarez was 5.45 before and 3.49 after.

Kansas City Royals

Where they're coming from: Despite finishing last in the AL in slugging average, homers and runs, the Royals somehow were in the wild-card race until losing nine of 11 games on their last homestand. They finished 70-74.

Where they're going: Down. Gone are third baseman Gary Gaetti, first baseman Wally Joyner and shortstop Greg Gagne, who combined for 45 percent of the team's home runs and much of its defensive prowess.

Key newcomers: Key newcomers: (Light) Second baseman Bip Roberts, catcher Mike Macfarlane, shortstop Jose Offerman, pitcher Tim Belcher.

What must go right: They'll need big contributions from outfielders Johnny Damon, Tom Goodwin and Michael Tucker; first baseman Joe Vitiello; and third baseman Joe Randa. All are capable, none proven.

What could go wrong: 1994 Rookie of the Year Bob Hamelin could repeat his 1995 stats: .168 with seven homers. Offerman could make another 35 errors. Kevin Appier, who started the year 11-2 and finished 4-8, could wilt again under manager Bob Boone's inclination to pitch him on three days' rest.

X-factor: Management cut the payroll from $32 million to $22 million and probably isn't done. If the team flounders early, how long will it take for Appier, a free agent after the season, to be auctioned off to the richest contender?

Key stat: Damon, 22, the projected No. 3 hitter, led pro ball with 198 hits last year: 53 for the Royals and 145 in Double-A. He was MVP of the last four minor leagues he played in.

Minnesota Twins

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