Al Central

March 30, 1997|By Andy Knobel

Indians

Where they're coming from: Cleveland spent 170 days in first place and won the division by 14 1/2 games with a 99-62 record before losing to the Orioles in the Division Series. The Indians were the first major-league team to lead its league in both batting average and ERA in consecutive seasons.

Where they're going: Baseball's dominant regular-season team each of the past two seasons is going back to the top, with a new cast of characters and a lot more character.

Key newcomers: 3B Matt Williams, CF Marquis Grissom, LF David Justice, RP Mike Jackson, DH Kevin Mitchell, IF Tony Fernandez.

What could go right: Grissom is in center field for the AL All-Stars July 8 at Jacobs Field when Kenny Lofton leads off for the National League. Justice is healthy enough after last season's shoulder dislocation to make Indians fans forgive him for beating their team, 1-0, with a home run in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series. Williams, too, is sufficiently healed from a shoulder injury to fill Albert Belle's cleanup spot.

What could go wrong: Gold Glove SS Omar Vizquel continues to have trouble throwing because of tendinitis in his surgically repaired right shoulder; Tony Fernandez might fill in for a while.

X-factor: GM John Hart may not be finished trading. His rotation of Charles Nagy (17-5), Jack McDowell (13-9), Orel Hershiser (15-9) and Chad Ogea (10-6) may be the AL's best, but he's reportedly still seeking the Phillies' Curt Schilling or Expos' Pedro Martinez. Cleveland has the depth to make the kinds of midseason moves that reshape a pennant race.

Key stat: Over two seasons as an Indian, Orel Hershiser has won all 30 games he left with a lead. He has effusively praised a bullpen that led the majors in 1996 by converting 88.9 percent of its hold-plus-save opportunities (58 holds, 46 saves, 117 chances). But with closer Jose Mesa facing trial on a rape charge and with Julian Tavarez and Alan Embree gone in trades, those leads may not be safe.

1996 by the numbers:

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

Batting avg. ........... .293, 1st

Slugging avg. .......... .475, 2nd

On-base avg. ........... .369, 1st

Runs ................... 953, 2nd

Home runs .............. 218, 5th

Stolen bases ........... 160, 2nd

ERA .................... 4.34, 1st

Saves .................. 46, 2nd

Fielding ............... .980, 10th

White Sox

Where they're coming from: Chicago underachieved all season, then blew a chance to clinch the wild card by going 11-12 down the stretch. The White Sox finished second at 85-77.

Where they're going: Hard to say, especially if you're manager Terry Bevington and handle the language like Yogi Berra. " Arguably," Bevington said, "we have a great offense, no doubt."

Key newcomers: LF Albert Belle, P Jaime Navarro, P Roger McDowell, P Doug Drabek.

What could go right: The combination of Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas and Albert "The Big Pain" Belle wreaks havoc. Belle led the majors in go-ahead RBIs last season with 55, four more than the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro, but sometimes when the heat is on, he smashes thermostats instead of baseballs. Former Cub Navarro executes the downtown commute to step into the stopper's role vacated by free agent Alex Fernandez.

What could go wrong: It already has: four-time Gold Glove 3B Robin Ventura, who had 34 homers last season, is out three to four months with a broken right leg and severely dislocated right ankle. In his place, DH Harold Baines, 38, must provide enough lineup protection to keep pitchers from walking Belle and Thomas. The collection of cast-offs brought in to fill out the rotation could bomb, as Danny Darwin did in a recent spring game: 12 hits allowed in 1 2/3 innings. The bullpen could be no better than the one that led the AL in blown leads in 1996.

X-factor: The White Sox tried to hire Jim Leyland during the off-season, and if Chicago doesn't get off to a fast start, look for Bevington to become the first manager fired. Third base coach Doug Rader probably would take his place.

Key stat: The pairing of Belle and Thomas has some fans thinking Ruth-Gehrig and Mantle-Maris, but consider this: Comiskey Park has been the toughest place in the AL to homer the past three seasons, decreasing long-ball totals by 17 percent.

1996 by the numbers:

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

Batting avg. ........... .281, 7th

Slugging avg. .......... .447, 7th

On-base avg. ........... .360, (T) 3rd

Runs ................... 898, 6th

Home runs .............. 195, 8th

Stolen bases ........... 105, 5th

ERA .................... 4.52, (T) 2nd

Saves .................. 43, (T) 4th

Fielding ............... .982, 6th

Twins

Where they're coming from: Minnesota, which suffered the unexpected retirement of beloved OF Kirby Puckett due to glaucoma, finished fourth at 78-84. The go-go Twins finished last in the majors in home runs with 118 but were first in triples and third in stolen bases.

Where they're going: They're the division's best small-market team, which should put them 20 games back.

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