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AMERICAN LEAGUE PREVIEW : Ready or Not, Mariners and Indians Will Be Contenders

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were the rusted Ford Fairlanes sitting in the parking lot full of glistening Mercedeses. They were the plaid leisure suits sitting on the rack with Armanis. They were the black-and-white TVs sitting in the showroom full of 60-inch projection screens.

They are the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners, who have been the laughingstocks of the American League while time has passed them by.

It has been 40 years and four expansion phases since Cleveland last won a pennant. They have not finished as high as second since 1959, or third since 1968.

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The Mariners have been practicing in futility since the franchise’s inception in 1977. They have failed to finish higher than sixth in 11 of those years, and never higher than fourth. Their resume includes only two winning seasons.

The history of these two franchises makes this sound so utterly preposterous, but entering a new era in baseball with three divisions and a wild card, the Indians and Mariners are the teams to beat in the American League Central and West. They should be joined in the playoffs by the Toronto Blue Jays of the East, and the Chicago White Sox as the wild card.

“This is the first Indians team in about 40 years that brings a lot of hope and promise to the city,” Manager Mike Hargrove said. “And it’s the right thing to expect. In years past, people have fooled themselves to a certain extent, thinking this was the team. But this team gives us the best chance in the last 40 years to do some good.

“If people expect a whole lot out of this club, they should.”

Said Cleveland General Manager John Hart: “I think everyone understands what this franchise has been through over the last 30 or 40 years. It’s very well documented. But in the eyes of the baseball world, we’re not perceived as a factor.”

While Cleveland appears ready to take advantage of leaving the tough American League East, no one expects to prosper more than Seattle. The Mariners, who still need to find a bullpen stopper, appear to be the overwhelming favorites to win the AL West.

Then, of course, there are the Blue Jays, who are vying for their third consecutive World Series championship. This is General Manager Pat Gillick’s final season before he retires and he’s determined to leave with one more ring.

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A look at the American League’s three divisions, in order of predicted finish:

WEST DIVISION

SEATTLE MARINERS

* 1993 finish: 82-80, fourth.

* Outlook: The game plan is simple. Make sure the bullpen blows a few games in the early going, convince ownership that a closer is necessary, and then rely on the finest starting rotation in the league to run away with the division.

Piniella continues to push for a trade for stopper Rick Aguilera of Minnesota, particularly after ownership nixed a deal a few weeks ago for Mel Rojas of Montreal. They now have no choice but to go with Bobby Thigpen, who saved a record 57 games in 1990 but has had only two saves since the 1992 All-Star break.

Keep an eye on the simmering feud between ace left-hander Randy Johnson and center fielder Ken Griffey. Johnson criticized Griffey’s work habits. Griffey demanded an explanation. Nobody’s talking.

* New Faces: Pitchers Bobby Ayala, Greg Hibbard and Thigpen. Outfielder Eric Anthony. Infielders Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson. Catcher Dan Wilson.

* Must Have: A bullpen stopper.

* Don’t Have: A general manager as aggressive as Piniella to acquire one.

ANGELS

* 1993 finish: 71-91, tied for fifth.

* Outlook: The front office indeed has let it be known by their actions that the youth movement is dead. The young players are surrounded by veterans. The time has come to win.

The Angels accelerated their willingness to put together a contender because of the realignment. They have a strong nucleus, surrounded by veterans, many hand-picked by Manager Buck Rodgers. It’s still a mystery why they are not more concerned with their bullpen. Maybe they forgot that Bryan Harvey is still gone.

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* New Faces: Outfielders Dwight Smith and Bo Jackson. Infielders Harold Reynolds, Spike Owen and Rex Hudler. Pitchers John Dopson, Mark Leiter, Craig Lefferts and Bob Patterson.

* Must Have: An effective bullpen.

* Don’t Have: Another proven starter, someone such as, say, Jim Abbott.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

* 1993 finish: 68-94, seventh.

* Outlook: It says something about the quality of this division that even the Athletics believe they can win it. This is a team that finished last in 1993. Left fielder Rickey Henderson hardly is providing any reason this team will be better. He was hitting .111 the last week of spring training, and this is after batting .210 the final two months with Toronto.

Manager Tony La Russa is going to love visiting Cleveland this year. Their new ballpark features three pitching mounds in the bullpen. La Russa set an American League record with 424 pitching changes last season--and that was accomplished while warming up only two relievers at a time.

* New faces: Pitchers Steve Karsay, Carlos Reyes and Dave Righetti. Outfielders Stan Javier and Kerwin Moore.

* Must Have: Henderson pretending it’s the last year of his contract.

* Don’t Have: The clock set back to their glory days.

TEXAS RANGERS

* 1993 finish: 86-76, second.

* Outlook: The Rangers were the chic pick to win the division throughout the winter, but once folks started to catch their pitching act, they realized this team is in deep trouble. It didn’t stop General Manager Tom Grieve from guaranteeing a division championship, which has made Manager Kevin Kennedy a bit squeamish.

They not only are opening the season with Jack Armstrong as their No. 3 starter, but their three best relievers--Tom Henke, Rick Honeycutt and Jay Howell--are a combined 113 years old. They all had terrible springs.

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The Rangers will be the only major league team without a bullpen coach this season. Kennedy believes the relievers can police themselves. This could be entertaining.

* New faces: Infielders Will Clark and Greg Litton. Pitchers Jack Armstrong, Bruce Hurst, Jay Howell and Rick Honeycutt. Catcher Junior Ortiz.

* Must Have: Will Clark to prove that the last two years were an aberration.

* Don’t Have: A retractable dome to keep the Rangers from wilting during the dog days of summer.

CENTRAL DIVISION

CLEVELAND INDIANS

* 1993 Record: 76-86, sixth.

* Outlook: Suddenly serious about winning this thing, the Indians will be shelling out a franchise-record $27 million in salaries. Believing they can draw 3 million with their new stadium, they signed veteran starters Jack Morris and Dennis Martinez--who have combined to win 452 major league games--and designated hitter/first baseman Eddie Murray.

They appear to have emotionally recovered from the deaths of relief pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews last spring, but the anniversary of their deaths reminded everyone that they still have not found a replacement to be their stopper. Jerry DiPoto was supposed to fill the job, but he underwent surgery two weeks ago to remove a cancerous thyroid gland. Steve Farr will be the man for now, but his surgically repaired elbow prevents him from pitching on back-to-back days.

The biggest surprise of the spring has been the pitching of Morris, who not only earned a spot on the team, but opens the season as their No. 2 starter. The Indians hope Morris’ magic continues. Morris has been on three consecutive World Series championship teams.

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* New faces: Pitchers Dennis Martinez and Jack Morris. Infielders Eddie Murray and Omar Vizquel.

* Must Have: Confidence that the 40-year jinx is over.

* Don’t Have: Fond memories of Cleveland Stadium.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

* 1993 finish: 94-68, first.

* Outlook: Although this team still is the most talented in the Central Division, they have had this nasty habit of underachieving before last season. They also have become concerned about the aching knees of DH Julio Franco this spring. Franco underwent surgery on his left knee five months ago, and still is not recovered.

* New faces: Outfielder Darrin Jackson. Designated hitter Franco. Pitcher Scott Sanderson.

* Must have: Someone in marketing who can convince their city that the White Sox are more exciting to watch than the Cubs.

* Don’t have: Minnie Minoso hanging around to see if he can play with Michael Jordan.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

* 1993 finish: 84-78, third.

* Outlook: The Royals are in midst of their longest postseason drought in franchise history, last being seen in late October in 1985 when umpire Don Denkinger called Jorge Orta safe at first base, and ruined the rest of Whitey Herzog’s baseball career.

Vince Coleman is expected to lead the charge. Manager Hal McRae is convinced that Coleman will have a monster season, wanting to prove that he doesn’t belong on the most-wanted list.

The Royals, however, could have huge problems in right field. Dave Henderson is the scheduled opening day right fielder until Felix Jose returns. The Royals were being cautious with Jose, delaying his return until March 15, because they wanted him to be fully recovered from the shoulder problems that plagued him last season. So what happens? He injures his back doing situps at a health club.

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* New faces: Coleman.

* Must have: Runs. The Royals scored only 675 last season, fewest in the league.

* Don’t have: George Brett willing to come out of retirement.

MINNESOTA TWINS

* 1993 Record: 71-91, tied for fifth.

* Outlook: The Twins’ biggest nemesis this spring has been those meddling owners. . . . from the other clubs.

The Twins agreed on a deal last week that would have sent bullpen stopper Rick Aguilera to Cleveland for shortstop prospect Mark Lewis and reliever Jerry DiPoto, but the trade collapsed when Cleveland owner Richard Jacobs vetoed the deal because of Aguilera’s hefty contract. In December, the Twins agreed to a deal that would have sent center fielder Shane Mack and a reliever to Houston for Ken Caminiti and Shane Reynolds. This time, Astro owner Drayton McLane vetoed it because he did not want to pick up part of Caminiti’s salary.

If the Twins had completed both trades, their infield would be Caminiti at third base, Scott Leius at shortstop, Chuck Knoblauch at second and Kent Hrbek at first. Now, the four players who will man the Twins’ left side combined for four homers in 790 at-bats last season.

* New faces: Catcher Matt Walbeck.

* Must have: A sense of humor.

* Don’t have: Any reason to worry about printing playoff tickets.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

* 1993 Record: 69-93, seventh.

* Outlook: All you need to know about the Brewers is that Teddy Higuera is their healthiest player. Higuera, who has won four games since 1990 when he signed a four-year, $14-million contract, actually is being counted on this spring to be an integral part of their rotation.

This team has a chance to be the worst in the league. The outfield is a mess. Center fielder Darryl Hamilton not only has a bone spur in his right elbow, but a possible tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. The Brewers already have left fielder Greg Vaughn and right fielder B.J. Surhoff returning from off-season shoulder surgeries. This could leave a starting outfield of Brian Harper in left, Alex Diaz in center and Turner Ward in right. Their double-play combination also remains in disorder. Shortstop Pat Listach and second baseman Jody Reed have yet to play together.

* New faces: Second baseman Reed. Outfielders Ward and Harper. Pitcher Bob Scanlan.

* Must have: Divine intervention.

* Don’t have: Anyone dumb enough in the front office to give Higuera another multi-year contract.

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EAST DIVISION

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

* 1993 Record: 95-67, first place.

* Outlook: The Blue Jays, determining that there’s no reason to spend cash until it’s time, decided they will make do with their own kind. They’re moving rookie catcher Carlos Delgado to left field, starting 20-year-old Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, adding Domingo Cedeno as their utility infielder, and inserting Paul Spoljaric as their fifth starter. They opened the season in Class A or double-A.

It is apparent why the Blue Jays were so eager to acquire Gregg Olson during the winter. Bullpen stopper Duane Ward twice has needed to see a doctor for his sore shoulder, and will open the season on the disabled list. Considering that Danny Cox is out until mid-season, the Blue Jays’ closer will have to be Todd Stottlemyre.

* New faces: Pitcher Greg Cadaret.

* Must have: Ward staying healthy for the season.

* Don’t have: Enough room in their trophy case.

BOSTON RED SOX

* 1993 Record: 80-82, fifth.

* Outlook: The Red Sox, who traditionally overbid in the free agent market, appear to have picked up their best acquisition in years in General Manager Dan Duquette. The Red Sox paid the Montreal Expos $500,000 to release him from his contract, promised not to raid any employees for two years, nor take a player in the Rule 5 draft for a year.

Duquette, tranforming the Red Sox from a bunch of plodders into a track team, has decided to utilize speed. They picked up free-agent center fielder Otis Nixon in the off-season--whose 47 stolen bases were more than half of the Red Sox’s entire team total last season--and are trying to pick up even more speed. Duquette is trying to trade for Brian Jordan of the Cardinals to play right field, and he has made a three-year contract offer to Ron Gant to be his left fielder.

Manager Butch Hobson, whose job is in jeopardy, appears to be calm. He even abolished the one-year ban of alcohol on team flights. Having Roger Clemens regain his Cy Young form this spring has a tendency of relaxing everyone in Boston.

* New faces: Outfielders Nixon and Lee Tinsley. Catchers Damon Berryhill and Dave Valle.

* Must have: Andre Dawson’s knees staying intact.

* Don’t have: Patience for a slow start.

NEW YORK YANKEES

* 1993 record: 88-74, second.

* Outlook: The Yankees, who have a funny habit of making their players’ lives miserable, pulled a fast one on reliever Paul Assenmacher during the spring. Assenmacher, who was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Yankees last year, had just sold his home in Skokie, Ill., when he got the news. He was going back to Chicago. And house-hunting again.

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The Yankees have come up empty finding anyone to close games, going from Xavier Hernandez to Jeff Reardon to Bob Wickman in the course of a few weeks. Who’s the leading candidate now?

Yep, Steve Howe.

* New faces: Pitchers Hernandez, Reardon, Terry Mulholland and Bob Ojeda. Outfielder Luis Polonia.

* Must have: Someone to persuade starter Jim Abbott to stay instead of leaving after the season for Detroit as a free agent.

* Don’t have: A commissioner to suspend George Steinbrenner.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

* 1993 record: 85-77, tied for third.

* Outlook: Shelling out $42.85 million this winter in their free-agent spending spree, owner Peter Angelos believes his team will win about 140 games this year, give or take 20 victories.

Angelos has the city convinced that the Orioles will win the World Series, and if they don’t, guess who’s taking the fall? Manager Johnny Oates, who is fidgety by nature anyway, already is acting as if he’s on trial.

Oates already has changed his mind twice on his outfield alignment, now moving Mike Devereaux to center, Brady Anderson to left and Jeffrey Hammonds to right. He blamed beat writers for his original statements. If they hadn’t pressed him in the first place, he said, he never would have lied.

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* New faces: Pitchers Sid Fernandez, Lee Smith and Mark Eichhorn. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro and third baseman Chris Sabo.

* Must have: Lee Smith making everyone forget about Gregg Olson.

* Don’t have: An owner who will tolerate anything less than a championship.

DETROIT TIGERS

* 1993 record: 85-77, tied for third.

* Outlook: This team is not going anywhere in the standings, but it could be leaving Tiger Stadium. They keep issuing veiled threats to move to suburban Detroit if they do not get more cooperation from the city.

The controversy has come at a good time, considering the Tigers look to be in for another dismal year. “There’s no way for us to beat those three clubs (Toronto, Baltimore and New York) unless we do some things,” Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If we allow ourselves to sit back, we’re dead. It’s that simple.”

* New faces: Pitcher Tim Belcher. Infielder Juan Samuel. Outfielder Junior Felix.

* Must have: Cecil Fielder eclipse Roger Maris’ home run record to compensate for pitching staff’s ineptness.

* Don’t have: A fountain of youth for Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Eric Davis.

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