Al West

March 30, 1997|By Andy Knobel

Mariners

Where they're coming from: After fighting injuries most of the season, Seattle won 10 straight Sept. 12-21 to pull one game behind the first-place Rangers and rekindle memories of 1995's dash past the Angels. But the Mariners went 2-6 the rest of the way and finished second at 85-76.

Where they're going: Only Seattle has gone longer than the Orioles without winning 90 games, but that streak likely will end this year. The Mariners should win 95 games and may reach the World Series.

Key newcomers: P Jeff Fassero, P Scott Sanders, 3B Mike Blowers.

What could go right: Randy Johnson, the AL Cy Young Award winner in 1995, comes back from a herniated disk that limited him to eight starts last season. Even pitching hurt, the Big Unit led the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (12.5). The load on his fragile back could be lightened by Fassero, the NL's third-winningest left-hander last season, and Sanders, who gave up just 117 hits in 144 innings. Norm Charlton, who had the second-lowest save percentage in the AL, regains command of his forkball.

What could go wrong: Other than injuries, not much. Mariners Row accumulated 2,741 total bases, breaking the 1936 Yankees' major-league record. Any of four players could be the AL MVP favorite: Alex Rodriguez (.358, 54 doubles, 36 homers), who had the best offensive year of any shortstop ever; CF Ken Griffey, who had 49 homers; DH Edgar Martinez, a two-time batting champ who was on pace to set the major-league doubles record before fracturing ribs; and RF Jay Buhner, who had 44 homers and 138 RBIs.

X-factor: Jose Cruz Jr. hit .339 with four homers and 12 RBIs this spring before being sent to Triple-A. It shouldn't be long before he's becomes the 47th left fielder to play next to the other Jr.

Key stat: Despite missing the equivalent of 162 games due to injuries, Griffey has 238 home runs through the age of 26, a pace exceeded only by five Hall of Famers. Think how the pace would pick up if he hits 62 this season.

1996 by the numbers:

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

Batting avg. ........... .287, 4th

Slugging avg. .......... .484, 1st

On-base avg. ........... .366, 2nd

Runs ................... 993, 1st

Home runs .............. 245, 2nd

Stolen bases ........... 90, 9th

ERA .................... 5.21, 11th

Saves .................. 34, 11th

Fielding ............... .982, 9th

Rangers

Where they're coming from: Texas (90-72) held or shared first place for 178 of 182 days and won its first division title -- but not without stirring the ghosts of a failed past by turning a nine-game lead with 17 to play into a one-game lead with nine to play. The Rangers lost the Division Series to the Yankees.

Where they're going: It won't take another 35 years for this franchise to reach the playoffs, but it won't happen this year, either.

Key newcomers: RP John Wetteland, RP Xavier Hernandez, OF Mike Devereaux, IF Bill Ripken, IF Dave Silvestri.

What could go right: 2B Mark McLemore (.389 on-base average; 27 steals) proves to be a more reliable leadoff hitter than the departed Darryl Hamilton. Major-league saves leader Wetteland comes through for a team that blew 16 save tries, A rotation led by Ken Hill (16-10) and Darren Oliver (14-6) eats up innings again to cover up a lack of middle relief.

What could go wrong: AL MVP Juan Gonzalez, out with a torn thumb ligament, is talking about trying to hurry back before May; he could reinjure himself and leave Texas without its power Ranger for much of the season. Pinch hitters need to do better than one extra-base hit in 74 at-bats.

X-factor: And you thought Ripken was done playing shortstop? The departure of free-agent Kevin Elster and continued slow development of Benji Gil could give former Orioles utility player Bill Ripken considerable time at the position.

Key stat: The genius is in the defense for manager Johnny Oates, whose Orioles teams led the AL in fielding percentage and whose Rangers team did it last season, two years after being last in 1994. Oates and the Braves' Bobby Cox are the only managers in the majors with winning records each of the past five seasons.

1996 by the numbers:

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

Batting avg. ........... .284, 5th

Slugging avg. .......... .469, 4th

On-base avg. ........... .358, 6th

Runs ................... 928, 4th

Home runs .............. 221, 4th

Stolen bases ........... 83, 11th

ERA .................... 4.65, 6th

Saves .................. 43, 4th

Fielding ............... .986, 1st

Athletics

Where they're coming from: Oakland was 53-49 and 4 1/2 games out of first place before losing 25 of 38 to fall out of the race. The Athletics finished in third place at 78-84 -- with more wins than in any season since 1992.

Where they're going: Last year, Oakland Coliseum was under construction. This year, the entire team will be. And remember to wear your hard hats if you're sitting anywhere behind an Athletic wearing a glove.

Key newcomers: RF Jose Canseco, C Dave Valle, IF Dave Magadan, RP Scott Service.

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