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March 31, 1998

Projected 1998 American League Standings

We guesstimate the season's winners and losers

by Baseball Prospectus

AL East | AL Central | AL West

Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' predictions for 1998. We'll go division by division and each of our staff members will tell you what they think about the races. Remember, there's a reason we don't print this stuff in the book; there is no good way we know of to predict what a team will do before the season begins. Consider these teamwide WFGs, take them with a grain of salt, and enjoy.

AL East

First
Place
Second
Place
Third
Place
Fourth
Place
Fifth
Place
Clay
Davenport
New York
Yankees
Boston
Red Sox
Baltimore
Orioles
Toronto
Blue Jays
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Gary
Huckabay
New York
Yankees
Boston
Red Sox
Toronto
Blue Jays
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Rany
Jazayerli
New York
Yankees
Toronto
Blue Jays
Boston
Red Sox
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Chris
Kahrl
New York
Yankees
Toronto
Blue Jays
Boston
Red Sox
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Keith
Law
New York
Yankees
Boston
Red Sox
Baltimore
Orioles
Toronto
Blue Jays
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Dave
Pease
New York
Yankees
Boston
Red Sox
Toronto
Blue Jays
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Steven
Rubio
New York
Yankees
Boston
Red Sox
Toronto
Blue Jays
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Joe
Sheehan
New York
Yankees
Toronto
Blue Jays
Boston
Red Sox
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays
Consensus
New York
Yankees
Boston
Red Sox
Toronto
Blue Jays
Baltimore
Orioles
Tampa Bay
Devil Rays

Clay Davenport: For the season standings, I used estimates of playing time and production, with a player's three-year average being the primary (but not only) consideration for production. Then I summed all the batters and pitchers for each team, normalized them all to league average, turned that into expected runs scored and allowed, to get a won-loss record. If last year's try was normal, then I'll get 2/3 of the teams within six games. The other ten, though, could be off by 15-20 games, like the Pirates were last year.

                        GB      Hitting Pitching
1. New York     100-62  --      2       1
2. Boston       90-72   10      4       2       **wild card**
3. Baltimore    87-75   13      6       5
4. Toronto      83-79   17      8       3
5. Tampa Bay    68-94   32      12      9

The pitching in this division is unbelievable, the counterweight to the amazingly bad Central. The Yankees are the best, though, with a solid rotation, deep and teriffic bullpen, and the best offense in the division. The Red Sox picking up Pedro Martinez nets them the wildcard; the Orioles' spending on Carter/Guillen/Charlton, and to a lesser extent Drabek, costs them same. Toronto's offense is improved, but not enough to compete with these boys. Tampa Bay is hopelessly outclassed.

Gary Huckabay: The Yankees' vicious rotation and bullpen are more than enough thanks to a team OBP in the high .360s, lots of power, and some graceful aging. Andy Pettitte will slip his annual $5000 to Richie Phillips to ignore the balk rule, a bargain compared to the $75000 Terry Mulholland pays. Ramiro Mendoza emerges as a lower-echelon Cy Candidate, and Darryl Strawberry rides the pine after about June, before being released or retiring. The Red Sox are the best team in the division late in the year, but can't make up the ground on the Yanks. Brian Rose gets hammered early and often, and Robinson Checo works his way into the #2 starter position in time for the Red Sox to get a wildcard. Mo Vaughn signs for 4 years, $43 Million, and hits 46 HR in 137 games. Toronto becomes the team people least want to play by July. Juan Guzman comes back as a league average starter, Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter both get 25-30 starts, and Pat Hentgen loses his effectiveness late in the year. Roger Clemens falls off a bit, down to only the best starter in the AL, rather than in all of baseball. Toronto falters against a steady diet of lefty starters late in the year, capped by a 3-hit shutout thrown against them by Baltimore emergency starter Doug Johns, who baffles Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado with a collection of ugly junk. Green and Delgado combine for a 2000 OPS -- against righties. Tampa Bay surprises people and wins a few games, mostly behind Tony Saunders, who still can't understand why Brian Anderson was chosen at all.

Rany Jazayerli: The Knoblauch trade put the Yankees over the top, not just in the East but in the entire American League. Knoblauch and Jeter make up one of the best middle infields in recent memory, and an aging-but-still-productive core of hitters in Williams, O'Neill, Chili Davis, Martinez, and the troika in left field give the Yankees an impressive offense. Toss in a very good rotation - especially if Ramiro Mendoza breaks out - and possibly the deepest bullpen in the league, and 100 wins is not out of the question.

The Blue Jays don't seem to have a handle on what they need to improve, but they might do so anyway. Randy Myers gives the Jays the closer they didn't need, but moves Escobar into a setup role and gives the bullpen impressive depth. If Clemens stays dominant (he should) and Hentgen and Guzman stay healthy (don't bet on it), their pitching could be better than last year's. But offensively, the outfield of Stewart, Cruz Jr., and Green could be baseball's best in two years, and is one of the best today. Alex Gonzalez should continue to improve, and the defection of Joe Carter is a tremendous addition by subtraction. If Delgado comes back soon, the Jays could put up a lot more runs than last year, and squeak into the wild-card spot with 89-91 wins.

The Red Sox should have a much-improved rotation with the acquisition of Pedro Martinez, but the bullpen is still in a lot of flux. They have three great players in Vaughn, Garciaparra, and Valentin, but they refuse to give the second-base job to Arquimedez Pozo, their catching situation needs to work itself out, and their outfield is a joke. Everyone seems to think they'll contend this year, but until they stop diddling with the waiver wire and sign real hitters to play the corners, and until they figure out who in that bullpen is for real and who isn't, they're unlikely to win more than 80-82 games this year.

The Orioles are into masochism this year. You know they've signed Carter, Drabek, Charlton, Guillen, and John Lowenstein this off-season. Their rotation, which after Mussina won with mirrors last season, can't hold up; one of Key or Erickson will likely collapse, Kamieniecki should fall back a bit, and Drabek...let's just say the O's may regret waiving Rick Krivda two months from now. The offense, which may see a bit of a resurgence from Palmeiro, Hoiles, Ripken, and Bordick (can he possibly be worse?), should keep the team from falling completely apart, but expecting more than 85 wins may be impossibly optimistic.

Tampa Bay does not have the worst pitching in the AL. But the offense will be putrid. A lineup featuring Quinton McCracken, Miguel Cairo, and John Flaherty needs a few bombers to compensate, and the Devil Rays' best hitter is who? Bubba Trammell? Wilson Alvarez could go 8-15 with a 3.50 ERA on this team, easily. For all the hulabaloo about how good these expansion teams are, expect 65-70 wins for this crew, tops.

Chris Kahrl: The Yankees should steamroll the competition handily, even with Cone's usual arm woes, Wells' strange travails, a messy left field situation that will have four different people claiming promises were broken, the soon-to-be-regretted, infamous topless bar brawl between Luis Sojo and Dale Sveum, and charges that Hideki Irabu eats kittens. The only real controversies over the season will be Lowell vs. Brosius at third, Posada vs. Girardi at catcher, and Ledee vs. the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in left. The Blue Jays will be greatly improved, and significantly behind the Yankees, as Tim Johnson slowly weeds out the last of the Gastonians over the course of the season. Still, rebuilding a Mo-less `95 Red Sox team won't catch the pinstriped powerhouse. The Red Sox will disappoint, given their pathetic outfield and Lemming problem, leading to a media frenzy about how Dan Duquette is evil for having caved into them last year, and needs to be fired for it. For Baltimore, Ray Miller is a great improvement on Phil Regan, and Joe Carter is certain to be more useful than Kevin Bass, and... whoops, what happened in `96 and `97, anyways? The Devil Rays will be badness in a can, and may be hard-pressed to score 600 runs in the American League.

Keith Law: The haves, the wannabes, and the have-nots (aka the Devil Rays). The Yanks would probably have been the favorites without the Knoblauch acquisition on the strength of their pitching staff, but the addition of a .400-OBA leadoff hitter and the related banishment of Luis Sojo from the starting lineup makes this the strongest team in the division on both sides of the ball. With the Braves, the Yanks are the only team with a legitimate shot at 100 victories, although I doubt the Yanks will stay healthy enough to get there.

The Red Sox' starting rotation is hardly as bad as the press makes it out to be; remember that many would-be prognosticators will dismiss any player of whom they've never heard (e.g., the '97 Pirate rotation). Butch Henry, Bret Saberhagen, and Derek Lowe are all capable of putting together solid enough seasons to support the generally strong offense, but the lack of a serious power-hitter among the three outfield positions will hurt the Sox.

The O's and J's are a toss-up - the old hitting and teetering pitching of the O's vs. the anemic offense and Clemens/Hentgen-dependent pitching of the Jays. Ray Miller is certainly threatening to dismantle anything good Davey Johnson did for Baltimore, what with his Veterans Import Program and the threat of injury to his workhorse starters. The Jays have improved their offense by substituting Jose Cruz for Joe Carter and Tony Fernandez for Carlos Garcia, and while that may put them ahead of Baltimore, it leaves them well behind Boston if you assume that Roger Clemens will return some of the way to Earth.

The Devil Rays will struggle to score 650 runs, unless Tropicana Field turns out to be the AL's answer to Coors.

Dave Pease: The New York Yankees clout the rest of the AL East, and it isn't close. Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and newcomer Chuq Knoblauch all have good years. The pitching staff is deep, David Cone stays healthy and David Wells hangs on for one more season. Both Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry are above-average in LF.

Boston will settle for second but has a shot at the wildcard. Nomar Garciaparra predictably suffers a bit of a sophmore slump but is still one of the top three shortstops in the AL. Pedro Martinez is successful, as is Butch Henry when he's healthy, but Brett Saberhagen fails in his comeback bid. Look for Tom Gordon to be returned to the rotation when injuries hit.

Toronto is improved, even though Roger Clemens doesn't repeat last year's pitching heroics. Shawn Green breaks out in a big way, as do Shannon Stewart and Alex Gonzalez to a lesser degree to lead the resurgent Jays offense. Hentgen is solid, and Erik Hanson makes a comeback, but Juan Guzman is lost on the mound. Randy Myers isn't worth his salary but is solid as the stopper.

Pat Gillick did just about everything he could to sabatoge Baltimore baseball this offseason, and his hard work pays off in spades as the O's implode. In a grisly gameday incident, Jimmy Key's arm falls off on the mound. Joe Carter is obviously going to blow chunks, and the left side of the IF is a joke.

Even so, the Devil Rays can't compete. The team is legitimately awful, with dubious major leaguers sprinkled all over the field. Quentin McCracken is dismal outside of Coors Field, Wade Boggs plays like an old man, and even Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez have off years. The Rays will be the worst team in baseball in 1998.

Steven Rubio: Pedro will be enough to win Boston the wild card spot. Baltimore is really going to be awful. Toronto will win the "most surprising AL team" award in their first full season without Cito Gaston, as Shawn Green, Shannon Stewart and others blossom without the fossil in the dugout.

Joe Sheehan: I really want to pick the Jays, but they've made the wrong choices at second base (not using Jeff Patzke) and third base (Ed Sprague over Tom Evans), and that's enough to cause me to shy away. The Yankees are a pretty old team, but the addition of Knoblauch should offset the expected declines from Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill and others. The Red Sox actually have a better pitching staff than offense this year, thanks to a horrific outfield/second base group. The addition of one hitter midseason would make them a wild card threat. The Oriole situation has been well-documented; having Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy throw out the first ball at the home opener is a nice touch, though. The Devil Rays are a bad baseball team.

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AL Central

First
Place
Second
Place
Third
Place
Fourth
Place
Fifth
Place
Clay
Davenport
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Minnesota
Twins
Detroit
Tigers
Kansas City
Royals
Gary
Huckabay
Chicago
White Sox
Cleveland
Indians
Detroit
Tigers
Kansas City
Royals
Minnesota
Twins
Rany
Jazayerli
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Detroit
Tigers
Minnesota
Twins
Kansas City
Royals
Chris
Kahrl
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Minnesota
Twins
Detroit
Tigers
Kansas City
Royals
Keith
Law
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Detroit
Tigers
Minnesota
Twins
Kansas City
Royals
Dave
Pease
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Detroit
Tigers
Kansas City
Royals
Minnesota
Twins
Steven
Rubio
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Detroit
Tigers
Kansas City
Royals
Minnesota
Twins
Joe
Sheehan
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Detroit
Tigers
Minnesota
Twins
Kansas City
Royals
Consensus
Cleveland
Indians
Chicago
White Sox
Detroit
Tigers
Minnesota
Twins
Kansas City
Royals

Clay Davenport:

                        GB      Hitting Pitching
1. Cleveland    103-59  --      1       6
2. Chicago      74-88   29      5       14
3. Minnesota    70-92   33      11      10
4. Detroit      67-95   36      12      10
5. Kansas City  63-99   40      14      13

Pitchers to warm the heart of Curtis LeMay, an incendiary aerial bombardment raging throughout the heartland. Cleveland's offensive rank of "first" is deceiving; they're poised to be one of the best-hitting teams of all time if they can avoid injury. Their pitching is nowhere near as good, but is so much better than anything else in this division (especially their bullpen). Chicago's is the worst of the lot, and will be too much for even Frank Thomas to overcome. There's just nothing to say about the other three teams, without an offense, without a defense, bewildered and lost, refugees from a war zone; look for a set of Sally Struthers commercials in August, begging you to sponsor a poor third baseman, because they really need your help...

Gary Huckabay: Laugh if you must. No one loves a bomber offense more than I do, but I just don't see how the Indians can win more than about 85 games. Yes, they've got a vicious offense, but it's not going to be as great as many think, and I'm not sure I'd take their pitching rotation over Minnesota's or Oakland's. Sandy Alomar and David Justice should regress significantly, and as good as the hitters are, I'm not betting on Karsay and Wright to combine for more than 250 league average innings. The White Sox? Yep, I'm betting on them. Ventura's healthy, Guillen's gone, Cameron's a potential monster, Durham should step up, and this team has pitching depth. Any team that can fall back on Keith Foulke as a long man or sixth starter's going to post a decent ERA. White Sox in a close race, won by better years from Durham and Belle. Detroit won't match last year's total of 79 wins, despite stocking up on members of the early 90's Padre dynasties. Tony Muser scrapes to win 72, which is more than enough to easily outdistance the wheezing Minnesota Twins, despite the rebirth of Todd Walker and Frankie Rodriguez. Most improved in the division, individually: Tony Muser, who despite mouthing homilies, manages to make good moves. Of course, with Herk Robinson calling the shots in terms of personnel, those moves could include deciding to bench U.L. Washington against righties, or shuffle Bud Black in and out of the bullpen.

Rany Jazayerli: The Indians have trouble in their rotation. But in this suddenly-terrible division, they could win with Jaret Wright and the St. Paul Saints' starting rotation this year. The bullpen is overflowing with live arms, and the lineup, save for the scar that is 2nd base (why isn't Enrique Wilson starting?), should put a serious hurtin' on some people. Manny Ramirez is the most underrated superstar in the game, and Jim Thome isn't far behind. They could win only 90 games and clinch the division by Labor Day.

The White Sox actually have one of the league's better offenses, especially if Mike Cameron breaks out and Magglio Ordonez has a good rookie season. But their catchers are old and can't hit, and expecting Mike Caruso to do much of anything this year is unrealistic and unfair to the kid. And that rotation...quick, name the White Sox' 3-4-5 starters? Don't have a clue? Neither do I. Their bullpen is weak; does anyone on that pitching staff inspire fear in opposing hitters? A .500 season isn't a lock; 82-84 wins sounds about right.

In Detroit, the fans are smelling a contender, as if the Tigers are likely to improve by another 26 games this year. But unless I'm illiterate and their #3 starter isn't Brian Moehler, their pitching staff is still too weak behind Justin Thompson to keep up with the first division clubs. Help is on the way - just not in time to contend this year. Expect a repeat of last year, with 77-81 wins and hope for 1999 with youngsters like Mike Drumright, Seth Greisinger, and Clayton Bruner possibly in the rotation.

In a pathetic battle between two of the worst-run clubs in baseball, the Twins narrowly edge the Royals for 4th place again. This despite going into heavy rebuilding mode with the still-wet-behind-the-ears Otis Nixon in center and Orlando Merced at first base. Hello? Tom Kelly, maybe we misjudged you after all. 72 wins, tops.

The Royals bring up the rear, as the injury to Kevin Appier is the anvil that broke the camel's back. If there's any hope for the Royals, it's that Herk Robinson is hearing the catcalls from everywhere now after the Nunnally-Stynes fiasco, and they don't have to worry about a low draft position until the next millenium. The Royals can't really expect to win more than the 67 games they won last year - and if Belcher collapses, Pat Rapp and Felix Martinez play all year long, and Jeff Montgomery shows his age, this could be a really, really bad team - 1988 Orioles bad.

Chris Kahrl: The catch here is waiting for the other shoe to drop: which starting pitcher or pitchers will Hart get to end the Gooden-Karsay-Colon madness? In the unlikely event that he does not, and they don't simply hand a spot to Rick Krivda by the All-Star break, the Sox could stay somewhere around five games behind them all season, because this Tribe team won't win many more than 90 games. The Sox will surprise some people with 85 wins, and while the Tribe can expect some pretty fierce hangovers from Dave Justice and Sandy Alomar, the Sox can look forward to full seasons from Cameron, Ordonez, and Ventura, and no Terry Bevington. The Twins will make Don Beaver a happily overconfident investor, piddling along with an adequate rotation and a haphazard collection of going-nowhere vets and young players a year or two away from being famous; if anything, this team is well-put together to be shopped before the trade deadlines for contenders to snag a Tewksbury or a Merced to ice their frazzled nerves. The Tigers will shock and disappoint, as carpet-bagger Randy Smith finally takes the blame for his grisly veteran acquisitions and unfortunate commitments. The Royals will be epically bad, probably worse than the Devil Rays. The only hope is that Tony Muser lets the players who will matter (Damon, Sweeney, Jeremy Giambi, Jose Rosado) play so that they're ready to be part of some sort of Hal Morris-free future.

Keith Law: The top two teams will probably sprint out to early leads and spend the summer locked in a tight battle for first, with the loser in good position for a wild card spot. The Indians have the offense and the bullpen, but their rotation is about as sound as any Italian government, which is in turn more sound than Shawon Dunston's defense. Their rotation is about one trade and a little luck away from adequacy, and Enrique Wilson awaits Dunston's inevitable departure, so they're still my pick for the division.

The White Sox could potentially field an offense to compare favorably with the Tribe's, but have to stop screwing around with Ruben Sierra et al first. Their fate depends on Jerry Manuel's success with James Baldwin and Jason Bere, or on the readiness of Tom Fordham to step into any rotation vacancy. Both teams look like they're on track for 87-90 wins.

The Tigers may flirt with .500 long enough to believe they're in the wild card race, in which case I hope they trade Frank Catalanotto for some Proven Hitter (tm) or Bullpen Help (tm) in July. However, they have no chance at this division title, and will only look respectable next to the 90-loss Twins and 100-loss Royals rotting behind them.

Dave Pease: Man, is this ever an ugly division.

The Indians are the clear class of the bunch; I don't like their team as much as any of the other teams likely to blow their divisions away (New York, Seattle, Atlanta), but they should overcome some very shaky pitching with that excellent offense. With the wealth of position prospects in the minors, look for Hart to trade for some pitching help if things get truly terrible.

The Sox have some pitching depth, but they don't have a staff that's a lock to be good. That'd be OK, except they don't have the Indians offense, either. Look for Ray Durham to hit with power and patience and blossom into a top three AL second baseman, and for Albert Belle to rebound from last year. Of course, there's always Frank Thomas; Robin Ventura isn't as productive as he once was, though, and is traded, ending the Sox' quest for a wildcard spot.

Detroit isn't a powerhouse, but the pitching staff is slowly becoming respectable. They lost Willie "Air" Blair to free agency, but Justin Thompson is a legit ace when healthy and many of the former Padres that Randy Smith has imported (Scott Sanders, Tim Worrell, Doug Bochtler, Sean Runyan) have intriguing upsides. Opposing pitchers exploit Tony Clark's strike zone with extreme prejudice, and Damion Easley isn't for real, though, as the Tigers aren't close to the top of the division.

After these three, you've got better things to do with your time. Both the Royals and the Twins will be absolutely terrible, and both organizations seem to have no idea what they are doing. These two teams don't need players like Hal Morris, Otis Nixon, Jeff Conine, and Orlando Merced (recent pickups all); they need a front-office cleansing and someone who knows what they are doing to come pick up the pieces. If you are a fan of either organization, please accept my heartfelt condolances.

Steven Rubio: What is it about the Central divisions that makes them bad? Cleveland is going to be terrific; people think they were good last year and they only won 86 games, so when they win more than 90 this year folks will really get on the bandwagon. No one else in this division will finish over .500.

AL Champs: Cleveland.

Joe Sheehan: If you're wondering why John Hart doesn't look nervous in light of the possibility of Rich Yett and Brian Oelkers combining for 20 starts, check out the competition. I'm not sure a "best-of" collection from those four teams could beat out the Indians. I'm certain the four shortstops wouldn't combine for 100 walks or extra-base hits. If everything breaks right for the White Sox, they could win 85 games and be in the wild card mix. Detroit will demonstrate the Plexiglass Principle, while the Twins and Royals will... um... will...

Does anybody really care?

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AL West

First
Place
Second
Place
Third
Place
Fourth
Place
Clay
Davenport
Seattle
Mariners
Anaheim
Angels
Texas
Rangers
Oakland
Athletics
Gary
Huckabay
Seattle
Mariners
Oakland
Athletics
Anaheim
Angels
Texas
Rangers
Rany
Jazayerli
Seattle
Mariners
Texas
Rangers
Anaheim
Angels
Oakland
Athletics
Chris
Kahrl
Seattle
Mariners
Texas
Rangers
Oakland
Athletics
Anaheim
Angels
Keith
Law
Seattle
Mariners
Texas
Rangers
Oakland
Athletics
Anaheim
Angels
Dave
Pease
Seattle
Mariners
Anaheim
Angels
Texas
Rangers
Oakland
Athletics
Steven
Rubio
Seattle
Mariners
Texas
Rangers
Anaheim
Angels
Oakland
Athletics
Joe
Sheehan
Seattle
Mariners
Oakland
Athletics
Anaheim
Angels
Texas
Rangers
Consensus
Seattle
Mariners
Texas
Rangers
Anaheim
Angels
Oakland
Athletics

Clay Davenport:

                        GB      Hitting Pitching
Seattle         93-69   --      3       7
Anaheim         82-80   11      9       4
Texas           82-80   11      7       8
Oakland         72-90   21      9       12

Baseball's shortest division, and I don't see a better race here than anywhere else. Seattle's offense will be enough to overpower their rivals, although that's a lot more certain if Randy Johnson stays put (and pout-free while pitching). The Angels are wedded to Garret Anderson and Cecil Fielder as keys to their offense, which means they'll spend a lot of time banging on the door and not getting in; even to do this well relies on Jack McDowell returning to a semblance of his former self. Texas will get too little production from their infield to contend. I see Oakland as learning on the job, full of players with great potential who need another year or three to realize it. Besides which, their starting pitching belongs in the Central divison.

I switched to coins to choose the AL playoff winners, and heads came up for Cleveland (over Boston) and for the Yankees over Seattle. The nickel came up heads a third straight time for the Indians over the Yankees.

Gary Huckabay: Seattle easily outdistances everyone in the division, fleecing some poor impatient GM out of a #1 starter and a A+ prospect (Valdes and Beltre?) for the bleaching remains of Randy Johnson after 14 starts and 2053 pitches. Ken Cloude is the staff ace by year's end, posting a 4.34 ERA for the year, 3.02 in the second half. Griffey suffers through a three week slump, keeping him just shy of 60 HR for the year, just behind Jim Thome. Oakland's the best team in the division after August 1st, but has too big of a hole for new manager Gary Jones to dig out of. Howe's fired at the All-Star break, and the A's win 44 games after it to finish just below .500, mostly on the strength of a truly terrifying offense and Jimmy Haynes. Anaheim can't put together a healthy rotation for more than about three weeks throughout the season, and sputters to a 78-84 record with Erstad and Hasegawa as the biggest bright spots, Edmonds and Dickson as the biggest question marks. Rick Helling's emergence as a #2 starter and a solid rotation aren't enough to overcome mild declines from Rusty Greer and Ivan Rodriguez, and an undistinguished and injured infield. Cesar King gets moved in a late season deal for a starting pitcher. Only Burkett and Helling remain in the rotation for the whole year, and Wetteland disappoints.

Rany Jazayerli: The Mariners, as most of you know, have a great offense (though it would be that much sicker with Jose Cruz around), a really tall and effective ace starter, and a bullpen with more holes than Ted Kennedy's liver. Expect A-Rod to reassert himself over Garciaparra as the game's best shortstop, and for young Kenny Cloude to win 15 games with this offense, 18 if he actually pitches well. As a team, expect 91-93 wins.

The Rangers have some great talents, but as long as they think they can win with 5 #3 starters and Tom Goodwin playing centerfield, they're destined to be a second-place team. Their bullpen is awful, which doesn't excuse trading Kevin L. Brown for Tim Crabtree. Will Clark may show his age, which could cancel out a banner season by Juan Gonzalez. Give them 85 wins, 50 of which will be saved by John Wetteland.

Everyone thinks that Disney can turn the Angels into contenders overnight, but unless Michael Eisner throws a mean splitter, or he can be a better shortstop than Gary DiSarcina (heck, he might), they haven't done nearly enough for this team yet. The rotation is overrated - Jason Dickson, this is what the abyss looks like - and the combination of DiSarcina and Garret Anderson will continue to suck runs out of that offense like a runaway Hoover. This is what a .500 team looks like.

Oakland may be the worst team in this division, but they might be the most enjoyable team to watch in all of baseball this year. The rookies, Hinch and Grieve, with possibly Ryan Christenson and Eric Chavez soon to follow, the slow-pitch softball duo of Stairs and Giambi, and the return of Rickey Henderson could form a better offense than anyone expects. Of course, unless Art Howe brainstorms and decides to start Tom Candiotti on two days' rest all year - hey, it worked for Wilbur Wood - the A's are going to lose an awful lot of 15-12 contest this year. 72-75 wins and a cult following by mid-season.

Chris Kahrl: The Mariners look like the class of the division, but not by as much as some think. This is the year that Piniella's rotation sags as all rotations that have to answer to him sag (notably the `88 Yankees and the `91 Reds), and the question is whether or not it's bad enough to embarass a great offense enough to put Texas in the running. Picking the Rangers second isn't a comfortable pick, being more of a default choice because of a rotation that's mediocre top-to-bottom and Greer, Gonzalez, and Pudge; the Angels could wind up having an adequate rotation that survives another year of Terry Collins' rough use, but then they also have to get past a lineup chock full o'stiffs like Fielder, DiSarcina, Anderson, and Hollins. If the situation is as fluid as it could be, the A's could wind up sneaking up on the rest of the division, but part of that is contingent on Kenny Rogers and Tom Candiotti being what the A's hope they will be, and getting useful full seasons from Jimmy Haynes and Brad Rigby. That crew can look forward to an entertaining blend of offensive support from the now-recognized young talent, patient hard-pounding veterans, and the always execrable Mike Blowers.

Keith Law: Kind of like playing Boggle; just shake the teams up and accept whatever order they land in. This is the division most likely to end up with just a 10-game span between first and last place. The Mariners are the favorites as long as Randy Johnson is healthy and Jeff Fassero's injury is truly minor. If Bill Swift and Jim Bullinger each log 150 innings this year, I'm picking Oakland. Yes, the A's rotation is hardly awe-inspiring, but the offense may boast above-average performers at all positions but second and third and could produce a team OBA above .360. The bullpen is also a strength, with Mathews, Fetters, Taylor, and eventually Witasick all among the AL's better short relievers.

Although the Rangers are probably a consensus last-place pick, their rotation has a ton of potential (especially Sele and Helling), and they've made some improvements with Fernando Tatis's glove and Kevin Elster's bat (when compared to Benji Gil's). If things go right with the pitching staff - and so far they haven't, with Danny Patterson and Mark Brandenburg on the DL already - the team should be in the thick of the race. It's also hard to count a team with Gonzalez/Greer/Rodriguez out in this division.

It's even harder to put a team with Garrett Anderson in the 5-hole anywhere but last. The Angels will face offensive problems at second, short, left field, and catcher (until Greene returns), and their rotation is hardly the stuff needed to support an offense that weak.

Dave Pease: Seattle takes the division in a walk here, even though their pitching is as shaky as ever. The bullpen improves (it'd be hard not to), but the rotation takes a step back as Johnson, Fassero, and Moyer all lose something from their performances last year. The offense remains the best in baseball. Ken Griffey Jr. repeats as AL MVP, and Johnson stays with the team all year.

It gets tough to tell after this. Anaheim has all sorts of nagging problems, such as Garret Anderson and a staff fraught with injury risk. They'll need good years from Erstad, Salmon, Edmonds, and Cecil Fielder to place this high, but hey--it could happen.

Texas' staff remains relatively healthy, but underperforms. When your ace is John Burkett, you are going to need some offense. While the Rangers have a few good hitters, they also have unproven Fernando Tatis playing 3B and Tom Goodwin leading off. Subpar years from Will Clark and Lee Stevens seal this team's fate.

Oakland's staff doesn't underperform; it pitches just like any reasonable person could expect, making it terrible, but not disappointing. The additions of hotshot youngsters Ben Grieve, A.J. Hinch, and Ryan Christenson do wonders for an offense that lost Mark McGwire, but that's some horrid pitching. A bright future, but not much hope for contention this year.

Steven Rubio: Again the AL mirrors the NL, in that this division is better than its current reputation. Oakland will contend in 1999; this year, they'll be the only team in the division with a sub-.500 record.

Joe Sheehan: Pretty much the same cast back for the Mariners, whose hopes hinge on Randy Johnson either staying healthy or bringing Ismael Valdes in a trade. The rotation is actually deep, and the bullpen is better than you think. While most mainstream analysts think Oakland is a wasteland, they have an 850-run offense and a vastly improved bullpen. I like them for the wild card, barring an outbreak of Tom Evans in Toronto. Anaheim will try to make do with their usual group of #3 starters; a healthy Todd Greene and Randy Velarde will be necessary, however, because their backups are enough to kill an offense that already teeters, thanks to the presence of Gary Disarcina, Garret Anderson and Cecil Fielder. The Rangers have the widest variance in the league: they could win 72 games and get Johnny Oates fired, or win 95 and play deep into October. Bet towards the lower number.

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