No Asterisks, Please

Handicapping the races in baseball's first full season since 1993.

Sparky Anderson will be in the Hall of Fame someday, but somehow I don't think the Tigers are going to miss him much. This, after all, is the guy who gave Mike Moore 25 starts last season. The result? Moore posted one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in major-league history: 5-15 with a 7.53 ERA. I mean, who exactly benefited from that arrangement? Buddy Bell is the new skipper, and he certainly can't be any worse than Sparky. Detroit's problem hasn't been management, but rather the farm system's utter inability to produce anything resembling a major-league player in recent years. Is that about to change? The STATS 1996 Minor League Scouting Notebook ranks the top 50 prospects in the game; no Tiger appears on the list.

AL CENTRAL

1. Cleveland

2. Chicago

3. Minnesota

4. Kansas City

5. Milwaukee

With Jack McDowell joining the rotation, and budding superstars Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome gaining a year of experience, it's tempting to suggest that the Cleveland Indians will be even better in 1996 than they were in 1995, when they simply overwhelmed the American League. We're talking about a team that scored the most runs (840) in the league and allowed the fewest (607), a truly awesome combination. And make no mistake about it, the Tribe will win the AL Central again, and quite possibly the World Series. But they'll have to work for both. Age works both ways, and Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez are both on the long side of 40 now. And McDowell is a solid pitcher, but his ERA has gone up every season since 1992. One last note on the Indians: The last team to dominate like the Tribe did last year was the 1986 New York Mets, who won 108 games on their way to a World Championship. In 1987, the Mets won 92 games and finished second.

If the Indians have any competition in the Central, it will come from the Chicago White Sox. Remember, this is a club which is in many ways little different from the squad that finished first in both 1993 and 1994. There's no reason to think that pitchers Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez will duplicate their nightmarish 1995 campaigns. Bere, for example, was just 8-15 after going 24-7 in his first two big-league seasons. Alvarez was 2-5 with a 5.45 ERA at the All-Star break, but turned things around in the second half. He'll be okay as long as his weight is under control. On the other side of the equation, any lineup that includes Frank Thomas, Tony Phillips, and Robin Ventura is going to score some runs. The Sox should be in the wild-card hunt when September rolls around.

A friend of mine is an Iowa native, a pretty smart guy and a Twins fan, and every spring he tells me the same thing: "The Twins have some good hitters, and if they can get just a little pitching they'll win some games." And in the grand tradition of baseball fans, my friend never loses hope. How bad has it been lately? The Twins' composite ERA over the last two seasons is 5.72. That's the worst since 1939-40, when the St. Louis Browns rang up a 5.91 mark. Yikes. Still, with Marty Cordova in left field, Kirby in right, and Rich Becker in center backed by Roberto Kelly, the Twins will score their fair share of runs. And yes, if Rick Aguilera's arm can last for 30-odd starts, the rotation will be better. But are Frank Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins ready for the big time? Young pitchers will break your heart.

The Kansas City Royals boast center fielder Johnny Damon--widely regarded as perhaps the top prospect in the game--and not much else. True, Kevin Appier has been one of the top starting pitchers of the '90s, but he and his well-earned salary are likely to find themselves on the trading block if the club falls out of contention early. Kansas City has played better than expected in each of the last three seasons, but this might be the year the bubble bursts. If Damon isn't able to handle the pressure that the Royals have perhaps foolishly placed on his shoulders--he was a centerpiece of their offseason promotional campaign--it could get ugly.

They Milwaukee Brewers are a lot like the Royals: small-market team, usually loaded with a bunch of mediocre white guys, not enough power, not enough walks. The difference is, where the Royals have Johnny Damon and Kevin Appier, the Brew Crew features Mark Loretta and Ben McDonald. The latter, Milwaukee's big free-agent pickup in the offseason, is being counted on as a number-one starter despite the fact that he's never won more than 14 games in a season. A piece of advice: If you haven't seen a game at Milwaukee's County Stadium, make a trip to Wisconsin before they tear the old place down. It features lots of cheap, empty seats, friendly people, and the flavor of an old-time ballpark.

AL WEST

1. Seattle

2. California

3. Texas

4. Oakland

Prevailing wisdom holds that the Seattle Mariners are the best team in the AL West. After all, Ken Griffey should be healthy after missing much of 1995, and Randy Johnson is surely the best pitcher in the American League. On the other hand, those conditions both pretty much applied in 1993, when the M's finished fourth. It's going to be a dogfight in the West, but I'm picking Seattle on the strength of super young shortstop Alex Rodriguez. If manager Lou Piniella leaves him in the lineup all season, and Edgar Martinez remains even close to his 1995 level--Martinez deserved the MVP Award rather than Boston's Mo Vaughn--the M's should again be the best in the West.

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