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AL EAST PREVIEWS

AL EAST PREVIEWS

1. NEW YORK YANKEES

MANAGER: Joe Torre, 2nd year (986-1,073 overall).

1996 FINISH: 92-70, 1st place, World Series champions.

WHAT'S NEW: Given the potential for trouble, not all that much. LHP David Wells replaces Jimmy Key in the rotation and Mariano Rivera steps into the closer's role vacated by John Wetteland.

WHAT ELSE: The core of last year's team returns intact and, in theory, aware of how beneficial the team-first mentality was. Torre did a masterful job with the players last season and will have to deliver again.

WHO'S KEY: Rivera and the rest of the restructured bullpen must get the job done.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: The starting staff of David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Dwight Gooden, David Wells and Kenny Rogers pitches up to potential. SS Derek Jeter and CF Bernie Williams continue on the path to superstardom.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Some of the veterans such as 3B Wade Boggs and RF Paul O'Neill may start to show their age. The malcontents could start to make noise.

2. BALTIMORE ORIOLES

MANAGER: Davey Johnson, 2nd year (887-663 overall).

1996 FINISH: 88-74, 2nd, 4 GB, won AL wild card.

WHAT'S NEW: Cal Ripken has a new home at 3rd base, replaced at SS by Mike Bordick. Talk about pressure: Jimmy Key joins the rotation, which once again seems a pitcher or two short.

WHAT ELSE: The clubhouse, if nothing else, may be a friendlier place with Bobby Bonilla and Eddie Murray gone. Eric Davis rejuvenated his career last season, but the Orioles may be expecting too much.

WHO'S KEY: Well, Key. O's come out ahead in this "swap" for David Wells, but he may need to win 20 to help them get to the post-season.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: The O's continue to dominate offensively (though another 50 home runs from Brady Anderson would probably be asking too much), but mix in enough improved pitching and defense to reach the post-season again.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: The selfishness and back-biting that surfaced last season, along with the meddling by owner Peter Angelos, becomes an issue again. With a slow start, Johnson could be an early candidate for the Devil Rays manager job.

3. TORONTO BLUE JAYS

MANAGER: Cito Gaston, 8th year (630-565 overall).

1996 FINISH: 74-88, 4th, 18 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: Just RHP Roger Clemens, 2B Carlos Garcia, OF Orlando Merced, C Benito Santiago and LHP Dan Plesac, plus a move to 1B/DH for Joe Carter.

WHAT ELSE: After a few seasons of mediocrity (and a dwindling fan base), Jays made a commitment to return to contention and spent the money to get there.

WHO'S KEY: Closer Mike Timlin needs to produce in a role that has haunted the Jays previously.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: The big three starters of Clemens, Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen and ERA leader Jose Guzman win 55 games and dominate along the way.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Carter, 3B Ed Sprague and 1B/DH Carlos Delgado are the only sluggers in the lineup, so the Jays may have to keep their offense in motion.

4. BOSTON RED SOX

MANAGER: Jimy Williams, 1st year (281-241 overall).

1996 FINISH: 85-77, 3rd, 7 GB

WHAT'S NEW: Not enough. Sox parted ways with Clemens and OF/DH Jose Canseco, and made no major acquisitions, unless you count LHP Steve Avery. Rookie SS Nomar Garciaparra was impressive enough to force John Valentin to move _ unhappily _ to second base.

WHAT ELSE: Williams is upbeat, but may be challenged in shooing away the negative cloud over this franchise. GM Dan Duquette has alienated a number of players, media and fans.

WHO'S KEY: Mo Vaughn is the franchise right now, and occasionally he has been vocal in his criticism. If he doesn't produce, the rest of the team won't either.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Williams' work ethic and team-first approach catch on, helped by a fast start and some extraordinary pitching from a mediocre staff.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Williams' work ethic and team-first approach don't catch on, further sunk by another slow start and some extraordinarily mediocre pitching from a mediocre staff.

5. DETROIT TIGERS

MANAGER: Buddy Bell, 2nd year (53-109 overall).

1996 FINISH: 53-109, 5th place, 39 GB

WHAT'S NEW: OF Brian Hunter, C Brian Johnson, RHP Todd Jones and SS Orlando Miller are the latest additions as the Tigers try to improve and rebuild at the same time.

WHAT ELSE: The real goal is to be good when the new Tiger Stadium is ready in 1999 or 2000, but GM Randy Smith is willing to keep tinkering to get there in small steps.

WHO'S KEY: 1B Tony Clark, who emerged last season with 27 HR and 72 RBI in 100 games, can prove he is a legitimate piece of the future with another strong season.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: After last season, anything would be an improvement. The Tigers should be better, but the pitching is still well shy of where it needs to be.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Unfortunately for Tigers fans, even if not much goes wrong it will be a long year. An injury to Clark or 3B Travis Fryman would reduce what little star power they have.

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