Of all the divisions, the American League East is the best and the most complex.
Where else can you find six winning teams?
Still residing at the top are two classy but aging ballclubs, both in danger of slippage, the Yankees and Orioles. Both have lame-duck managers. Both, despite being built on pitching, worry about old or injured starters. And both, at considerable risk, have transformed their lineups, the Yankees sacrificing power for speed, while the Orioles added power at the cost of sound fundamentals.
Near the peak of the elite East are two potentially glamorous teams, the Brewers and Tigers. Both have stylish young stars, plus a whiff of pennant-race success from last season. But both have large, probably uncorrectable, flaws. Milwaukee's team ERA, aside from that of Rollie Fingers, was the second worst in baseball last year. The Tigers paid too much offseason attention to adding frilly speed, while ignoring basic needs: power and a fourth starter.
On the next rung, caught on a knife's edge, are two teams that might be in a pennant race or might collapse completely, the Red Sox and Indians. Both may be overrated, and burdened by unfair expectations, after their short-season successes of 1981. Boston's starting pitching is close to pathetic while the whole Cleveland team might not hit 60 homers in '82.
Finally, at the bottom, is Toronto, just so everybody has somebody to mug.
This season, the AL East will also be baseball's most surprising division because the Yankees, winners five of the last six years, won't repeat.
Las Vegas makes the Yankees the favorites to be world champion.
Nonsense. This is a team that's up to its pin stripes in peril.
Fresh from a winter of front-office stupidity, the Yankees shouldn't even be favorites in their division. The Reggie-Billy-George era is over. Only George, who thought himself the most important of the trio, remains.
The Yankees ended the World Series with three problems: a lousy offense (11th in the AL in runs), a poor manager, a thin starting rotation.
So, what did George III do?
He let his two best offensive men, Reggie Jackson and Coach Charlie Lau, be lured away by cash. Dumb.
Then, he spent gillions to construct an all-speed lineup. Doubly dumb. Yankee Stadium eats up built-for-turf, go-go teams. Only if Royals Stadium can be reassembled in the Bronx by opening day, is the Yankees' new lineup wise.
Next, the lovable Lemon was rehired. On his usual hour-to-hour basis.
Finally, Rick Reuschel and Doyle Alexander, two adequate pitchers past their primes, were deemed the answer to mound needs.
Yankee weaknesses remain. And gone is Jackson, who was the competitive heart of the team. Poor Dave Winfield. He thought he felt pressure last year.
The Orioles need the same good luck as the Yankees. They, too, hope for health from suspect starters: fallen-from-grace Cy Youngs Jim Palmer, Steve Stone and Mike Flanagan. They also are rolling the dice on a new lineup chemistry with Dan Ford, Cal Ripken and Lenn Sakata, who will add punch at bat and, perhaps, a touch of comic instability afield and on the bases.
Even spring training has told little about the Orioles. In Florida, Palmer and Flanagan showed the stuff of which 4.00 ERAs are made. Reliever Sammy Stewart might be a staff-saver as a starter, but only if Manager Earl Weaver can get over his loyalty to Palmer and give the ball to the Throwin' Swannanoan.
On the other hand, Ford seems a brilliant mix at the heart of the order with Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray. Ripken will be rookie of the year.
This team, written off by many, could be a wonderfully romantic champion. After all, the 1980 Phillies and '81 Dodgers won the Series just as pundits thought them ready to fade. The team that knows it may only have one more chance before it is too late is extremely dangerous.
However, the Orioles are no longer above bad luck.
In some ways, this is the division of self-delusion. The Yankees think they can win without Reggie. The Orioles think their pitchers can't get old.
The Brewers mistakenly believe their pitching has to get better. If Fingers (1.04 ERA) and mean Pete Vuckovich (14-4) come back to earth, it could get worse. When mediocrities like Mike Caldwell and Moose Haas are your second and third starters, you're vulnerable, despite the best everyday lineup in the league.
The Tigers, despite mighty Kirk Gibson, moody Chet Lemon, graceful Alan Trammell and ready-to-win-20 Jack Morris, are a team without an identity. Like the Yankees, the Bengals plan to play turf speedball in a grassy, home-run hitters' paradise. It doesn't make sense, Sparky.
If the Red Sox had the Indians' wealth of starting pitchers, they might waltz to a flag. If the Indians had the Red Sox hitters (No. 1 in baseball in scoring last season) and their decent, deep bullpen, they'd be terrors, too. But, unfortunately, Boston's "ace" may be left-handed second-year man Bobby Ojeda. And Cleveland's murderers' row is led by Toby Harrah. Forget 'em.
Best bet is that the East race will come down to the final three-day series of the season in Baltimore, between the Brewers and Orioles