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BASEBALL '85 : A Lopsided League: : East Gets Even Tougher; : Royals Are Best in the West

April 07, 1985|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

It promises to be a year of extremes in the American League.

The West, for example, seems to be a division in which no team is capable of winning.

The East, by contrast, seems to be a division in which every team is capable of winning--except Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Already baseball's toughest division, the East got even tougher when each contender made winter improvements in a bid to prevent another early runaway by Detroit.

Even the Tigers, who opened 35-5 on the way to 111 victories and a world championship, realized that standing pat could prove fatal.

They strengthened a rotation led by Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox by trading third baseman Howard Johnson to the New York Mets for 26-year-old right-hander Walt Terrell, who worked 215 innings and won 11 games last year.

This is not a division for the timid or the intimidated.

Consider that:

--The Toronto Blue Jays, who won 89 games despite 34 losses traceable to the bullpen, traded for right-hander Bill Caudill, who was 9-7 with 36 saves at Oakland, and left-hander Gary Lavelle, who was 5-4 with 12 saves at San Francisco.

--The New York Yankees, whose 51-29 record after the All-Star game was baseball's best, acquired an ignition system for an already potent offense in a trade with Oakland for Rickey Henderson.

--The Boston Red Sox, whose 69-53 record after May 20 was the same as Detroit's, signed the versatile Bruce Kison and prevented what might have been a summer of rancor by extending the contracts of Jim Rice and relief ace Bob Stanley.

--The Baltimore Orioles, who finished fifth with an 85-77 record, which would have won the West, scrubbed a policy of growth from within and signed free agents Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase, strengthening the offense and bullpen.


Given the likelihood that Detroit will not repeat its 35-5 start, the temptation to pick bullpen enriched Toronto is irresistible.

In what should be a dynamite race, the Blue Jays now have enough relief to compensate for the 15 games by which Detroit beat them last year, and for the loss of key players during their winter of significant decisions.

In the woeful West, where a .500 record kept the Angels and Minnesota Twins in the race until the season's final series, Kansas City is an obvious choice to repeat.

The Royals were 70-55 after mid-May, when a previously imprisoned Willie Wilson and a previously injured George Brett returned to the lineup.

A rebuilt pitching rotation that included one sophomore, Bud Black, and three rookies, Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson, pitched with poise down the stretch and figures to improve.

Here's a capsule preview, in order of preference:


1. KANSAS CITY--You can talk about Brett and Wilson and the impressive young rotation, but the one person who separates Kansas City from the rest of the West is Dan Quisenberry. There's not a comparable relief pitcher in the division. He had 44 saves last year and has averaged more than 30 for his five-plus seasons.

A three-way trade with Texas and Milwaukee brought veteran catcher Jim Sundberg, who should help with the continued development of the young pitchers. The Royals used six shortstops last year but will open with Onix Concepcion, who hit .282 in 90 games. One wonders if left fielder Darryl Motley (.284, 15 homers, 60 RBIs), right fielder Pat Sheridan (.283, 53 RBIs) and first baseman Steve Balboni (28 homers, 77 RBIs) can repeat.

2. MINNESOTA--Former owner Calvin Griffith had a last laugh as his comparatively anonymous and poorly paid Twins proved last year that they can play. Now they must prove they can play on the road. They were 47-34 in the Metrodome but just the opposite elsewhere.

The Twins' continued advancement also hinges on:

--The ability of the reacquired Roy Smalley, a disappointment in New York and Chicago, to fill a void at shortstop.

--The need for more consistency from relief ace Ron Davis, who had 29 saves but wasted 15 other save opportunities.

--The bid by Ken Schrom, who was 15-8 in '83 but 5-11 in an injury-plagued season last year, to help out a rotation of Frank Viola (18-12), Mike Smithson (15-13) and John Butcher (13-11).

--The comeback of catcher Dave Engle, who sprained his left wrist and went from a .330 batting average in the first half to .266 and no RBIs over the last two months.

3. CALIFORNIA--The Angels will open the season as an enigma. It is a team that requires positive answers to a multiplicity of questions if it is to compete.

There is still considerable ability here if:

--Age has not caught up with Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Bob Boone, Bobby Grich, Geoff Zahn, Tommy John and Ken Forsch.

--The offense can compensate for the departure of Fred Lynn by improved production from Gary Pettis, Dick Schofield and Boone.

--Donnie Moore provides the same relief he did last year in Atlanta.

--Mike Witt and Ron Romanick continue maturing.

--Forsch and John make successful returns to the rotation.

--Untested Pat Clements provides left-handed relief.

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