AL East heads and shoulders above rest

On Baseball

November 30, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It should no longer be up for debate. The American League East clearly is the strongest and most compelling division in baseball, even after replacing the up-and-coming Detroit Tigers with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Case in point: The Boston Red Sox acquired National League Cy Young Award-winner Pedro Martinez from the Montreal Expos during the trading frenzy that accompanied the expansion draft.

Case in point: The Toronto Blue Jays signed free-agent closer Randy Myers on Wednesday, allowing them to make the argument that they now have the best starting pitcher (Roger Clemens) and the best closer in the league.

Factor in the loss of Myers by the division champion Orioles, and the distance between first place and fourth place next year could be just a handful of games.

The Red Sox still have some holes, but the addition of Martinez fills the crater that was left in the starting rotation when Clemens bolted for a record contract in Toronto last off-season. The starting rotation still isn't deep enough to make them a division favorite, but there is every indication that they will do much more to improve before Opening Day.

The Blue Jays haven't turned it all the way around, either -- and rookie manager Tim Johnson is an unknown quantity -- but the upside potential of their roster is high. Clemens, former Cy Young Award-winner Pat Hentgen and right-hander Juan Guzman again give them the nucleus of a potentially outstanding starting rotation, and Myers gives them a bona fide closer for the first time since Duane Ward had 45 saves in 1993.

Offensive production remains a big question mark, but the Jays also are expected to make some more significant acquisitions before the 1998 season begins.

If the season were to begin today, the New York Yankees would have to be considered the favorite -- even assuming that Brady Anderson re-signs with the Orioles. The Yankees have cleared the deadwood out of their starting rotation and probably will sign another front-line pitcher in the next few weeks.

The loss of Myers, meanwhile, leaves the Orioles with a huge dilemma. They can gamble on inexperienced Armando Benitez as the full-time closer, but there may be too much at stake to go into the season without a veteran relief closer.

The Orioles cannot afford to risk a down year in Ray Miller's first season as manager. The controversial departure of Davey Johnson -- and now Myers -- makes it imperative that the club do everything possible to return to the postseason. Otherwise, the club is certain to get hammered with hindsight next fall.

Throw them all in a hat. There are four teams in the AL East who now have a legitimate chance to win the division, and no reason to think that the divisional stranglehold on the American League wild-card entry will be broken.

Johnson overplayed hand

Did former Orioles manager Johnson miscalculate? He'll never tell, but it appears that he resigned earlier this month because he felt confident that he would get one of the three managerial openings available at the time -- most likely the one in Toronto.

Since then, the Devil Rays have hired former Florida Marlins coach Larry Rothschild and the Blue Jays last week turned to minor-league manager Tim Johnson. The White Sox job remains open, but Davey Johnson is not considered to be a serious candidate.

No doubt, he felt his track record would speak for itself. He has led a team to the playoffs in each of his past three seasons and was named American League Manager of the Year by both the Baseball Writers Association of American and The Sporting News this season.

He reportedly got positive recommendations from former bosses Pat Gillick and Cincinnati Reds GM Jim Bowden, but the darker side of his record clearly worked against him.

"Davey has an excellent track record," Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash said. "But we wanted our manager to be here for a while. I didn't get that feeling with Davey."

Don't let RJ get away

The Mariners are entertaining offers for left-handed pitching ace Randy Johnson and apparently are willing to trade The Big Unit to avoid giving him the big money when he becomes a free agent next off-season.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux recently signed for $11.5 million per year. The going rate to keep Johnson beyond the 1998 season undoubtedly will approach that figure. The Mariners have been involved in trade talks with the Yankees for the past few weeks because they are worried that they will lose him to free agency next off-season and get nothing but a draft choice in return.

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