Al East

March 30, 1997|By Andy Knobel

Orioles

Where they're coming from: Team Turmoil was 12 games out of first place on July 28, then rallied to finish 88-74 and earn a wild-card berth. Team Rejuvenated upset the favored Indians in the Division Series before Team without Master October Jeffrey Maier lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.

Where they're going: Team Retrofit is going to the playoffs, probably with less selfishness, fewer 10-run wins and fewer one-run losses.

Key newcomers: P Jimmy Key, P Shawn Boskie, SS Mike Bordick, RF Eric Davis.

What could go right: Bordick, who led AL shortstops with 476 assists last year, and Davis, a three-time Gold Glove outfielder, help relieve the pressure on a pitching staff that had a 5.14 ERA in 1996. Every infield starter is an All-Star candidate and potential Gold Glove winner, something that should help ground-ball pitchers Key and Scott Erickson. In turn, Key's ability to hold runners should give Chris Hoiles a chance against base stealers. Ace Mike Mussina reaches 20 wins after getting stuck at 19 the previous two seasons.

What could go wrong: Nearly all the position players are in their 30s, and since most of them play every day, the team could wear down. Maybe even pitching guru Ray Miller can't figure out how to keep baseballs from flying out of Camden Yards.

X-factor: 2B Roberto Alomar needs to recover from his sprained ankle and handle the pressure of being Public Enemy No. 1. Alomar, a keen judge of the plate -- he saw 2,953 pitches last season, second most in the major leagues -- must hope that umpires don't stretch the strike zone on him.

Key stat: Brady Anderson's 29-homer jump from his previous-best home run season is the largest in history for a player with at least three previous seasons. Sabermetrician Bill James predicts he'll hit 32 this year.

1996 by the numbers:

..................... No., AL rank

Batting avg. ........ .274, 10th

Slugging avg. ....... .472, 9th

On-base avg. ........ .350, 3rd

Runs ................ 949, 2nd

Home runs ........... 257, 1st

Stolen bases ........ 76, 12th

ERA ................. 5.14, (T) 8th

Saves ............... 44, 3rd

Fielding ............ .984, 2nd

Blue Jays

Where they're coming from: Toronto finished fourth at 74-88 despite having the AL Cy Young Award winner, Pat Hentgen, and AL ERA champion, Juan Guzman.

Where they're going: Now that the Blue Jays have added the AL strikeout champion, Roger Clemens, they have become the chic pick to win the division and regain their early 1990s glory. But his addition and those of several good National League hitters probably won't be enough to add 20 wins to last year's total.

Key newcomers: Clemens, RF Orlando Merced, 2B Carlos Garcia, P Dan Plesac, C Benito Santiago, P Robert Person.

What could go right: Garcia (.285), Merced (.287) and Santiago (30 HRs) spark an attack that finished 13th in batting average, 12th in runs and 11th in homers. OF Shawn Green, who hit .337 after the All-Star break, has a breakthrough season.

What could go wrong: Joe Carter, who batted just .216 during the second half of 1996 and turned 37 last month, may no longer be the RBI machine of old; he also may be a poor fit at first base on a team that will struggle defensively.

X-factor: Clemens had 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings last season, the highest rate in baseball history for a 33-year-old pitcher but threw 162, 157 and 151 pitches in three different games. Can Rocket Man, who has just 48 wins the past five years, keep launching?

Key stat: Manager Cito Gaston has made the fewest pitching changes in the major leagues the past three seasons (1.9 a game) and may never have to move from the dugout now that Clemens is in town.

1996 by the numbers:

........................ No., AL rank

Batting avg. ........... .259, 13th

Slugging avg. .......... .420, (T) 12th

On-base avg. ........... .331, 13th

Runs ................... 766, 12th

Home runs .............. 177, 11th

Stolen bases ........... 116, 4th

ERA .................... 4.57, 4th

Saves .................. 35, 10th

Fielding ............... .982, 8th

Yankees

Where they're coming from: A World Series parade. The Yankees finished 92-70 in the regular season, beat the Rangers and Orioles in the playoffs, then rallied past the Braves for their first world championship since 1978.

Where they're going: The old-age home. The Yankees, with an average age of 30 years, 0 months last season, are tied for the 11th-oldest team to reach a World Series; of the 16 teams on that list, none returned to the Series the next season. Still, any team that has a $50 million payroll and enough character to go an amazing 18-0 at Cleveland, Atlanta and Camden Yards can't be counted out.

Key newcomers: P David Wells, RP Mike Stanton, OF Mark Whiten.

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