Al Central

April 04, 1999

Club listed in predicted order of finish

Indians

That was then: Cleveland, which has owned or shared first place for 639 of the past 700 days, has won the past four Comedy Central titles by a combined total of 59 1/2 games. The Indians beat the Red Sox in the 1998 Division Series, then lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.

This is now: They're still the rich kids in a poor neighborhood. They have a ballpark sold out for the season, 18 Gold Gloves up the middle and an All-Star or former one at every position, thanks to the signing of Roberto Alomar.

Upside: Veteran leaders Kenny Lofton, David Justice and Sandy Alomar are healthy again, making it likely the team will be better than last year's sixth in the AL in runs.

Downside: All-Star Game winner Bartolo Colon had a 5.65 ERA after the break. The all-right-handed rotation isn't suited for parks like Yankee Stadium.

Inside pitch: Paul Assenmacher has pitched in the most games this decade (589), trailed by fellow Indian Mike Jackson (572). Add Jerry Spradlin and Ricardo Rincon and it's baseball's deepest pen.

Outside chance: At 26, Manny Ramirez has 13 postseason homers, fourth all-time. He might break the all-time record of 18 this year.

Coming distractions: They could become the first team to reach the AL playoffs for five straight seasons since the 1960-1964 Yankees, but the lack of meaningful regular-season games doesn't keep the team sharp. The Indians have lost Game 1 of their past eight postseason series.

Now playing: "Indian Summer," "Stay Hungry"

Tigers

That was then: Coming off a 26-game improvement in 1997, Detroit lost 17 of its first 21 games last year and finished 14 games worse than the previous season. Detroit now has a franchise-worst five straight seasons under .500.

This is now: The young team finished 13-12 under interim manager Larry Parrish, who has been retained. The first month will be key again. The Tigers, a major-league-worst 35-69 in March/April since 1994, play 12 of their first 15 games against playoff teams.

Upside: Dean Palmer, acquired from the Royals, led AL third basemen with 119 RBIs. Catcher Brad Ausmus, credited for his handling of pitchers in Houston, takes charge of a young, talented pitching staff.

Downside: Justin Thompson's ERA rose a full run. Brian Hunter had the AL's worst on-base average (.302), one reason his steals tumbled from 74 to 42.

Inside pitch: The Tigers will probably be the losingest team of the 1990s. They have 760 setbacks, 24 more than the Twins and 22 more than the Phillies.

Outside chance: Bryce Florie might find a way to retire Juan Gonzalez. In eight at-bats against him, the Rangers' slugger has five doubles, a triple and two homers.

Coming distractions: The Tigers were 15-40 against the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Rangers and Orioles. As Detroit prepares to move into a new ballpark in 2000, it has to learn to play with the big-market boys.

Now playing: "Baby Geniuses," "Tigers Are Better Looking"

White Sox

That was then: After starting 35-51, the White Sox were 45-31 after the All-Star break, fourth best in the majors. By then, however, no one noticed; only the Twins and Athletics drew fewer people than the club's 19,000 average.

This is now: Jerry Reinsdorf hasn't kept his cost-cutting to the Bulls. Albert Belle and Robin Ventura, who combined for 243 of the team's 806 RBIs, are the latest two veterans to be cast aside, so a team that ended last season with a major-league-low average age of 26.1 will be even younger.

Upside: Ray Durham batted .667 with the bases loaded and led the AL in highest percentage of extra bases taken as a runner (.667). Magglio Ordonez hit .483 this spring.

Downside: Mike Caruso had just 14 walks in 523 at-bats, and led the majors in errors with 35. Frank Thomas' batting average fell 82 points to .265. Jaime Navarro, whose 6.36 ERA was the AL's worst, still has two years and $10 million left on his deal. The team ERA this spring? 6.54.

Inside pitch: Look out, Ted Williams. Utility infielder Craig Wilson hit .468, the best batting average in major-league history for a player with at least 50 plate appearances.

Outside chance: Michael Jordan might make a comeback. He probably could crack this lineup.

Coming distractions: There's scheduling trouble on the horizon. Said manager Jerry Manuel, "We're so young, we won't have enough kids for the father-son game."

Now playing: "Scrooged," "Baby Boom"

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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