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Expect the usual _ or maybe not

The 1997 American League playoff field could look exactly like last season's. New York and Baltimore are again strong in the East. Cleveland is a favorite in the Central. And Texas made a strong commitment to rule the West again.

Or it could look nothing like last season. Toronto made great strides in the East. Chicago brought in Albert Belle in an attempt to win the Central, where there are also whispers of a playoff berth for Minnesota. And Seattle is considered by many the best of the West.

The bottom line: These races could be all-American.

"There's a lot more parity throughout the league this year than in the past," said Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs.

Start in the East.

The Yankees won the World Series, they lost more then they added, and they might still be the team to beat. A rotation of David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Dwight Gooden, David Wells and Kenny Rogers can give you that feeling of confidence.

"They are all pitching good," manager Joe Torre said. "You can reach into a bag and take any one of them out. Hopefully it stays that way."

The Orioles, who played into the AL Championship Series last season, look as if they could be as good this season. They are still short some pitching but upgraded what they have. Manager Davey Johnson doesn't mind ruffling a few feathers, and theoretically the Orioles are used to it by now.

The most improved team in the division is Toronto, which brought in pitching and offense. The question mark surrounding the Jays, however, is their bullpen, especially with Tim Crabtree and Bill Risley both hurt and Paul Spoljaric in question.

"Our bullpen is going to be under a lot of pressure," manager Cito Gaston said. "This team doesn't figure to score a lot of runs. I still think we'll score more than people think, but I'd be dreaming if I thought we'd win a lot of laughers."

The Central Division race figured to be a matchup between Albert Belle's old team (the Indians) and his new one (the White Sox). But 3B Robin Ventura's broken ankle may hurt the White Sox more than they think.

Even without Belle, the Indians have more balance than the White Sox, especially after acquiring Marquis Grissom and David Justice from Atlanta on Tuesday. And, apparently, they have some money to spend if they need to add a pitcher or a replacement for SS Omar Vizquel should he not be healthy.

The West may have the best race of all. The Mariners appear loaded: an overpowering offense, led by Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner; supreme starting pitching, anchored by an apparently healthy Randy Johnson and newly acquired Jeff Fassero; and a seasoned manager in Lou Piniella.

But the Rangers aren't far behind. If AL MVP Juan Gonzalez returns to form quickly from injury, Texas should stay in the race. The Rangers' biggest weakness last season was the bullpen, and they paid John Wetteland plenty to bring some relief.

The wildest race could be for the AL wild card. It would seem likely to come from the East, where the powerhouses reside. But there's enough competition in the West and the Central that a number of teams could sneak in.