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The subject was the importance of a fast start. The expert was Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who is a coach for the Tigers in spring training and broadcasts their games during the season. "If you get off to a fast start in this division, there's no telling what might happen," he said. "The AL East is so weak that four teams in the West might have a better record than the team that wins the East."
Baseball's best division at the beginning of the 1980s is an ordinary one as the '90s roll in. "The power has shifted to the West," says Yankee catcher Rick Cerone. "And mostly because of the pitching." The Orioles were the division's only team that didn't spend a day in last place in 1989. None of the clubs made any major off-season improvements, while two of the division's better players, Joe Carter and Nick Esasky, went to the National League. In the most wide-open division in baseball, you could make an argument for any of the teams to win it. Well, any except the Tigers.
1. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
"It's funny-well, it's not funny—it's ironic: My mother just had rotator cuff surgery," says Toronto lefthander Mike Flanagan. "She beat me to it." Lorraine Flanagan, 64, is recovering nicely. Her son, meanwhile, is healthy and throwing well, as are a dozen Toronto pitchers. It's the deep, balanced pitching that sets this team apart in a weak-armed division.
The starting rotation isn't overpowering, but Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, Dave Stieb, John Cerutti and Flanagan all had ERAs under 4.00 last season—no other team in the league can say that. "And look who we've got coming in [from the bullpen]," says Flanagan. "When Tom Henke got hot last year, it was a big deal when anybody just fouled one off against him." Henke got hot (1.14 ERA) after Cito Gaston replaced Jimy Williams as manager on May 15. The relaxed Jays went 77-49 for Gaston, who says, "I'll do the same thing this year—just let 'em play."
He might change his tune when he sees 'em play in the outfield, where the defense is very shaky—a real liability in the spacious SkyDome. Gaston also lacks an experienced catcher (Pat Borders and Greg Myers platoon) and could use another righthanded hitter (the most impressive new bat belongs to rookie DH John Olerud, who hits lefty). Still, no one in the East can match the Blue Jays' pitching. "They should win it," says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. "They're clearly the best in our division." Such as it is.
2. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Maybe you've heard: The Brewers had a lot of injuries this spring. Surprise, surprise. General manager Harry Dalton's so-called "All-Scar infield" (the Brewers started eight different players at second base last year) has been renamed this spring; Dalton now calls it his "Venus de Milo infield." If the Brewers are healthy, they can win; but every year they're ravaged by injuries. So where do you pick them this year? "Second," says Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly. "For two reasons—Don Baylor and Dave Parker. They're leaders."
Baylor is the new hitting coach, and Parker is the new DH. Neither, however, is an orthopedist. And neither plays in the field, so they can't help with a defense that finished in a three-way tie for last in the majors in '89. Parker, 38, a leader with the A's the last two seasons, was brought in to fill the same role for the Brewers. "Every day Parker walks in the door of the clubhouse," says Baylor, "he's nonstop enthusiasm. That type of attitude is contagious." Says Parker, "I'm just going to be me, a jubilant guy who likes to have fun." And we all know how division titles follow Baylor around.
Together, these two might get the most out of multitalented infielder Gary Sheffield, who brooded much of last season. And maybe they can bring this team a little closer in the clubhouse. "I don't think we had everyone pulling together last year," says third baseman Paul Molitor, who—surprise again—opened the season on the DL with a broken right thumb. "Championship teams have a better chemistry than we had." But even good chemistry won't help bad physiology. Bad shoulders put shortstop Billy Spiers and pitcher Juan Nieves on the DL; Sheffield has had problems with his right wrist.