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AMERICAN LEAGUE PREVIEW : Return of Blue Jays Will Spoil Indian Summer

April 05, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

Lou Piniella will get the first crack. He's already lasted one season, so he's either got Steinbrenner convinced, fooled or blackmailed. But if the hitters begin to bow under the weight of the pitching, Piniella could find himself managing on borrowed time.

3. Cleveland Indians--There they are, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, being proclaimed as the best team in the American League."

It might help if they first earned it. The Indians haven't won a thing since 1954, a pennant drought even longer than even Gene Mauch. Two years ago, Cleveland was in last place and last year's fifth-place standing was the highest since 1968.

Sure, the Indians could be fun. They have hitters all over the place--1B Joe Carter, .302, 121 RBIs in '86; 2B Tony Bernazard, .301; 3B Brook Jacoby, .288, 80 RBIs; SS Julio Franco, .306; LF Mel Hall, .296; CF Brett Butler, .278, 32 stolen bases; RF Cory Snyder, 24 home runs. But one question: Can they do it again? And another: Can they do it often enough to overcome the worst pitching on any serious contender?

Cleveland is hoping that Greg Swindell will become the Roger Clemens of 1987. They have two things in common--heat-seeking fastballs and University of Texas backgrounds. But Swindell was just 5-2 with a 4.23 ERA as a rookie last summer. Asking him to jump to Cy status is mission improbable.

Just about as improbable as asking Cleveland to jump to the World Series.

4. Detroit Tigers--Lance Parrish is gone and Kirk Gibson is ailing, so Manager Sparky Anderson will open the season with shortstop Alan Trammell as his cleanup hitter. And Anderson predicts that Trammell will be the best cleanup hitter in the American League by the end of the season.

Oh, that Sparky! And what was that about Chris Pittaro, the game's next great infielder?

None of Sparky's, er, verbal fertilizer will be able to fill the gaping chasm left by Parrish's departure, though. Parrish, who averaged 30 home runs and 99 RBIs from 1982 to 1985 before a back injury sidelined him for the final two months of '86, is the best all-around catcher in the sport.

Last year, each Tiger infielder hit 20 or more home runs and Detroit led the majors in home runs with 198. The club still finished third. This year, the Tigers say they'll have to pick up the slack. Uh-huh. With new catchers Mike Heath and Dwight Lowry? With the new designated hitters, Terry Harper and John Grubb?

If the Tigers are to overcome Parrish's loss, they'll have to do it with pitching. And they nearly let 20-game winner Jack Morris slip away during the winter. Anderson is counting heavily on Dan Petry returning from arm surgery, on Walt Terrell remaining a 15-game winner, on Frank Tanana holding back the clock one more year and on someone emerging as a fifth starter.

While he's at it, Sparky might as well count on another 35-5 start.

5. Boston Red Sox--No Clemens, no Gedman, no Hurst--he's hurt. No pennant in Boston this time around? No doubt.

All three players should be back--Clemens when he ends his holdout, Gedman after May 1 and Hurst once his elbow heals.

But for the time being, the Red Sox are left with Dennis Boyd, the capricious Oil Can, as their staff ace and are relying on bullpen refugee Bob Stanley as their fourth starter. The fifth starter, Al Nipper, spent much of the spring with an 11.00 ERA, prompting him to remark: "When I'm pitching, the other manager has to put a headlock on his hitters."

Other than failing to re-sign Gedman and cutting loose Tom Seaver, Dave Stapleton, Tony Armas and Sammy Stewart, Boston made no off-season changes. That's dangerous business in a division as mercurial as the East. Now, the Red Sox are left with Marc Sullivan, who hit .193 in '86, at catcher, an even thinner bench and no speed.

6. Baltimore Orioles--On Aug. 5 of last season, the Orioles were within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Red Sox. Then, they suddenly got old. They went 14-42 the rest of the way, plunging all the way to seventh, the first last-place finish in their history in Baltimore.

Over the off-season, the Orioles went out and got older. They signed Rick Burleson, who's 35, to play second base, and Ray Knight, 34, to play third. They also traded for catcher Terry Kennedy, who's 30 but plays as if he's 35. His output has slumped steadily, from .297 with 21 homers and 97 RBIs in 1982 to .264, 12 and 57 last summer.

Cal Ripken, who hit .282, and Eddie Murray, who had only 17 homers, are coming off sub-par seasons, but they have the ability to recover. New Manager Cal Ripken Sr., has no idea if he can say the same about his pitchers, whose cumulative ERA has been above 4.30 the past two years. Of the prospective starters, Mike Flanagan's 1986 ERA of 4.24 was the lowest.

It would also help if Fred Lynn could stay in the lineup. In games he played during '86, Lynn batted .287 and the Orioles went 54-50. In games he missed, Baltimore was 19-39.

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