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Tigers Eye Comeback; Dodgers Dealt Setback : BASEBALL PREVIEW '86 : Kansas City, Detroit Are Ones to Beat

April 06, 1986|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

All right, baseball fans, you can stop rubbing your eyes. What you thought you saw during the 1985 American League baseball season wasn't a mirage or an apparition. It was the real thing.

The American League East, long the bastion of snobbery and tradition, was won by a non-American team.

The Toronto Blue Jays, an expansion team, really did make the playoffs. And in those playoffs, Toronto really did blow a 3-1 lead to the Kansas City Royals, who went on to erase another 3-1 deficit in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Buddy Biancalana really was a World Series hero. Bret Saberhagen really did win the Cy Young Award.

Those are the facts, plain and simple. The season the American League went bizarre. The year the Detroit dynasty was derailed. The summer time forgot.

It won't happen again. 1986 will be remembered as the year sanity was restored to the American League.

The Detroit Tigers, shaking off that irritable interruption, will rise again in the East. The Kansas City Royals, who provided the playoff foil for the Tigers in their championship season of '84, will assume the same role in '86.

And the Tigers will wind up in the Series. This was the script that was ordered for 1985, but half the pages were lost in the mail.

Detroit will be back because the sheer talent never left and the front office plugged any remaining gaps with a series of intelligent transactions. The off-season brought the Tigers a third baseman, Darnell Coles; a left-handed starting pitcher, Dave LaPoint; a base stealer, Dave Collins; a middle reliever, Bill Campbell, and a backup catcher, Dave Engle.

Kansas City will repeat in the West because its pitching, which distanced itself from the pack in 1985, will only be better in 1986. Saberhagen, Danny Jackson and Mark Gubicza are all 24 or younger.

Other teams worth watching are the Blue Jays, if only to determine what it was they did right last year, and the Oakland A's, who have the most intriguing team in the league. Any ballclub with Joaquin Andujar, Dave Kingman, Jose Canseco and Jose Rijo on its roster is bound to create some sort of fuss.

How the American League will return to form in 1986: EASTERN DIVISION

1. Detroit Tigers--The Tigers will never duplicate 1984. Seasons that open with 35 victories in 40 games happen maybe twice a century. But they had no business dropping 20 games in the standings last year--from 104 victories to 84.

Over the winter, General Manager Bill Lajoie came up with a handful of minor trades that should fortify the Tigers.

He also re-signed Kirk Gibson, and found some desperately needed speed--Collins stole 60 bases in 1984--and a player capable of filling Detroit's long-standing void at third base in Coles. His best bargain, though, may be LaPoint, who is thrilled to be out of San Francisco, where his 3.57 earned-run average merited him a record of only 7-17. LaPoint has dropped weight and the Tigers are talking about 15 wins from him.

LaPoint will join Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana in the division's best rotation. Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, Chet Lemon and Gibson are back to man the offense.

The only potential snag: shortstop Alan Trammell's shoulder. An inflamed tendon below his right shoulder blade has bothered Trammell on throws during the spring.

2. Toronto Blue Jays--They were generic champions--winners of the East with no 20-game winners, no 30-home run hitters, no 100-run producers, no names you cared to remember beyond last October, save maybe Dave Stieb.

Entering their 10th year of existence, the Blue Jays have yet to make their mark anywhere except in the standings. A couple of quick facts:

--The outfield of Jesse Barfield, George Bell and Lloyd Moseby averaged 24 home runs, 83 runs batted in and 27 stolen bases last season.

--Toronto had an All-Star catcher in 1985. His name is Ernie Whitt. He hit 19 home runs and drove in 64 runs.

--Toronto had a lower team earned-run average, 3.31, than Kansas City's 3.49.

--The Blue Jays also have a new manager. His name is Jimy Williams. He's an unknown. Talk about your perfect fit.

3. New York Yankees--Chaos and confusion reign as George Steinbrenner's Yankees lurch toward another season, which means that all systems are go in George's jungle.

The Yankees released Phil Niekro before he became a grandfather, which, under normal circumstances, would make sound baseball sense. But this 47-year-old won 16 games last season and is the brother of another member of New York's pitching staff, Joe Niekro. Phil and Joe are tight and by dumping one brother, the Yankees ensured that the other would dedicate himself to making management's life miserable.

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