Athletic Supporter Jr. Circuit Weak without Jr. Griffey

By Sean Gormley Hoya Staff Writer

It is getting to be that time of year again, when the grass is turning green, shorts are becoming the clothing of choice and baseball starts. Spring training is a sign that baseball is on the way, but the start of the regular season is the real start of spring, only a week away.

I will preview each of the two leagues in my next two columns, starting with the junior circuit in this column, the designated-hitter laden American League. Some claim that baseball with a DH isn’t real baseball, but having spent my entire life near one of two AL cities (Baltimore and Boston), I think of the DH as a way of life in baseball.

This year’s AL looks to be interesting, and spring training has already shown glimpses, with the anemic Minnesota Twins having the second best preseason record while the defending world champion New York Yankees have the second worse. Don’t be fooled by this, however, because by the end of September the Twins will be fighting for win number 60 while the Yankees are striding towards win 100.

The East should be the most interesting division in the AL with a potentially great stretch race between the Yanks and BoSox. The cellar of the East will be occupied by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, one of those expansion teams that snuck up on you if you haven’t been following baseball for a few years. The D-Rays sport one of the best power lineups in the league, with four 30 home-run hitters from last season: Jose Canseco, Fred McGriff, Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla. This quartet can put up numbers with anyone, but the only problem is that the rest of their lineup is pretty bad, and their pitching is even worse.

The Blue Jays will finish just above Tampa, due to their dumping of Shawn Green and Pat Hentgen over the winter. The Jays have a lot of young, talented pitchers and hitters and could surprise some people, but unless they do, veterans like David Wells will probably be dumped midseason to save money.

The Baltimore Orioles will finish in the middle of this division, lowered expectations from previous seasons in which the O’s underachieved as well as anyone in baseball. This team is extremely old, with half their lineup eligible for senior discounts in the next couple of years, so unless these guys go out in a blaze of glory, there won’t be much noise coming out of Camden Yards. Cal Ripken is still a solid player, Charles Johnson is a great defensive catcher and Albert Belle is a talented but somewhat psycho player, however there are simply too many question marks on this team.

Looking solid, but not unbeatable, are the Red Sox, a team that surprised many people last season, but will not be afforded that luxury in this year’s campaign. The Sox sport the far and away best pitcher in baseball, Pedro Martinez, who is coming off the pitcher’s triple crown: 23-4 record, 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts, and was unanimously selected by 12 ESPN analysts as the AL Cy Young favorite. Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra is the defending batting champ and a legitimate MVP candidate, but after Pedro, the Sox don’t have much strength in their pitching staff. Pedro will carry the Sox to the wild card, but he won’t quite be enough to bring the division home.

The New York Yankees will again win the AL East with the BoSox breathing down their necks. This team is still loaded, both their pitching staff and lineup. Their top four starters are probably the best in baseball, while their lineup features Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Chuck Knoblauch and Tino Martinez. It won’t be a cakewalk to the title for the defending champs, but they will be in the thick of things come October.

The AL Central is a wasteland where bad baseball teams go to die, and this season doesn’t look to change that trend. Other than the Cleveland Indians, nothing good has come out of this division since the Twins’ worst-to-first miracle run in 1991. Whereas the NL central has Griffey, McGwire, Sosa and Bagwell, the AL has the Twins, Royals, Tigers and White Sox.

Those Twins will be pulling up the rear much like they did last season, with anemic offense and poor pitching. The fact that their projected second and third hitters in their lineup hit a combined seven home runs last season sums up the way things are going to go in the homer dome this season: lots of homers are going to be flying out of the park, but most are going to be coming off of opponents’ bats.

The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals will fight it out for third in the division, with the Royals looking to eke it out by a hair. Both teams have pretty bad pitching, and although the Tigers added Juan Gonzalez in the offseason, they really don’t have much else. That’s all that needs to be said about either of these clubs, because if you really care about either of them, you need to get a life.

Next up are the Chicago White Sox, a team that could greatly improve solely due to improved production from struggling slugger Frank Thomas. The ChiSox have a young but talented pitching staff that could very well take the Sox on a surprising run, despite not having a single big-name starter. The only thing keeping this team down is the fact that they play in Comiskey Park, by far the worst baseball stadium built in the ’90s, and in fact one of the worst ever.

That leaves the Cleveland Indians to cruise into first place in the junior circuit’s weakest division. The Indians feature a decent pitching staff whose shortcomings are covered up by the most potent lineup in baseball. The Indians are solid from top to bottom, from speedster Kenny Lofton leading off once he returns from injury, to VP candidate Manny Ramirez hitting cleanup to .300 hitter Sandy Alomar batting ninth, the Tribe will match any team run for run.

In a division without a star team, it is difficult to say whom will rise to the top, and such is the case with the 2000 AL West. Just about the only guarantee in this division is that the Anaheim Angles will be in dead last. The Angels solidified their pitching staff by trading away outfielder Darrin Erstad to St. Louis for pitcher Ken Bottenfield, only problem is they weakened their already weak lineup in the process. The problem is, when your pitching and hitting are equally terrible, trades can only help you so much.

The Mariners will finish one step up from the cellar in the new season, largely because they traded away the best player in the game and are replacing him with Mike Cameron. Alex Rodriguez had a great season once he returned from injury last year, but it will be no cakewalk to duplicate those numbers without Griffey Jr. protecting his behind. Despite improved pitching over past seasons, the slightest dropoff in production from A-Rod will prove to be too much to overcome.

The Texas Rangers had the Oakland Athletics breathing down their necks for most of last season until they were able to pull away in September, but this year will not prove to be as kind. The loss of hitting machine Juan Gonzalez and ace Aaron Sele, leaving the Rangers with an especially suspect pitching staff. Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers will have to try and lead a young staff that will struggle early and often.

The surprise team of ’99 won’t be pulling a surprise when they win the AL West in 2000. The A’s have a loaded lineup and a manageable staff that should allow them to slip into the playoffs. Pitcher Kevin Appier could be the make-or-break player for this team after a pair of injury-riddled seasons, potentially complementing the best lineup you have never heard of. Featuring a pair of .300 hitters and a trio of 30 homer/100 RBI guys, the Athletics will score runs in droves, with only a potential trip-up by the pitching staff keeping them from the postseason.

So, of the four playoff teams, who’s it going to be winning the pennant and heading to the World Series? I like the Red Sox, who should have a healthy three-man rotation of Pedro and Ramon artinez and Bret Saberhagen by then, to match their improved lineup.

Is this the end of the curse for the BoSox? Of course not. I am simply a man, and no mere mortal can break the curse of 82 years. A Pedro, however.

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