The American League East, baseball's deepest and best-balanced division, is still divided into three parts. Milwaukee, Baltimore and New York know that, with a break, they can win. Detroit, Boston and Cleveland keep telling themselves they can contend. And Toronto keeps improving but finishing last. This '80s pattern should continue.

As usual, the Brewers will hit 200 home runs and scare/thrill everybody. But, again, they will only go as far as their precarious pitching staff can take them. The AL champs have a slightly haunted look this spring. Their near collapse to Baltimore in the final week of the pennant race, their losses in the final two World Series games and their dismal spring medical reports on Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers make them a shaky bet to repeat.

As usual, the Orioles will be picked for third to fifth place by pundits, who, though they should know better, still can't fathom what makes this team excellent. Again, the Orioles should finish no worse than their favorite nesting place: second. Also as usual, George Steinbrenner's Yankees will be less than the sum of their expensive parts. The pinstripers will probably find a way, for the fifth straight year, to disappoint their owner. Seldom has a team with so much rich talent had so many weaknesses.

In this division of historic races--Red Sox and Yankees ('78), Yankees and Orioles ('80), Orioles and Brewers ('82)--one team usually starts red hot, another chases.

This year's pick as a sprint team is--surprise--the Orioles, a club known for bad starts. If the Orioles don't lead the league after a third of the season, they're in trouble. While the Brewers face two months without Vuckovich and an unguessable period without an effective Fingers, the Orioles play just 17 of their first 54 games against teams that had winning records in '82.

The Orioles' deweaverization should be fascinating. Earl Weaver, a stat master, built platoon lineups to attack pitchers and matched his starters against their favorite pigeon teams; Joe Altobelli hardly seems to know that these areas of the game exist. Weaver was also a tongue lasher of players, an umpire baiter and a fine late-inning manipulator of personnel; Altobelli is none of these.

On the other hand, if the Orioles' pitching, second in the AL in runs-per-game in '82, has an even better year, lay credit at Altobelli's door.

If the Orioles are complex, the Brewers are elementary. Milwaukee will field the same lineup that, thanks to several peak seasons, scored the most runs in baseball since '53. The Brewers can't hit better, might hit less. If they get relief, they can win 95 again, despite a thin rotation.

The Yankees are the league's mystery. Are they the Series club of '81 or the quitters of '82? Two issues are at the core of the Yankees. Will the 3-4-5 chemistry of Steve Kemp, Dave Winfield and Don Baylor turn the lackluster Yankee offense--eighth in the AL in scoring in '82--into one of the AL's best? And can Billy Martin concoct a solid rotation out of a cast that, after Ron Guidry, is full of question marks? Unless the Yankees can alchemically transform surplus outfielders into golden pitchers, they'll have trouble.

The Yankees tend to believe their own inflated publicity. They still don't recognize that weak-stick Rick Cerone is a problem, not a solution; that Andre Robertson is a AAA shortstop; that they have no first baseman with power; that Doyle Alexander, Roger Erickson, Jay Howell and Bob Shirley all look like .500 pitchers, at best.

In sum, Martin's fire, his judgment of talent and his willingness to jeopardize arms for instant success may combine with a new batting order chemistry to make the Yankees a power again. But it's the diciest of bets.

Detroit has a great catcher (Lance Parrish), two excellent starting pitchers (Jack Morris and Dan Petry), and solid pros at a half-dozen other spots. Unfortunately, many a Tiger is not half as superb as Manager Sparky Anderson has led himself to believe. Except for Parrish, this club has no player who'll make the Hall of Fame ballot. The Brewers have six or seven such charismatic creatures. Factor in the Tigers' poor bullpen, their overrated offense and their front office's cheapness and you have a respectable club that can't win.

When the Red Sox and Indians meet, t'will be a cruel joke on their fans. The Indians have the starting pitching for which Red Sox fans would die, while Boston has a power-hitting outfield that exposes the abysmal state of Cleveland's crew.

The Boston starting staff has reached such a state that neither a strong offense, nor a near-great bullpen, will be able to keep Ralph Houk's cheery overachievers more than a hair above .500.

Cleveland must drool when it compares the Boston outfield of Jim Rice, Tony Armas and Dwight Evans with its own catastrophe: Rick Manning, Bake McBride and George Vukovich, who, among them, hit 14 homers in 302 games last year.

Toronto has quality starters, but the worst 3-4-5 hitters in baseball. Forget 'em.