DETROIT stood pat, which isn’t a bad idea for a winning hand. The Tigers lost only one regular – SS Ray Oyler – but he was expendable as lefty Tom Matchick seems to be a more suitable replacement for Tiger Stadium. Pitching is one of the Tiger strong points and manager Mayo Smith as three strong starters in Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, and Earl Wilson. Detroit has the best catcher in baseball in Bill Freehan. The outfield is young and brilliant. “It’s the best young outfield in the game,” Mayo insists. “That’s why I want to keep it intact. So Mickey Stanley will be back in center. You can forget about him playing shortstop.” Smith startled all of baseball with a huge gamble in the World Series of playing Stanley at short, with Al Kaline in right and Jim Northrup shifting to center. Willie Horton is the left fielder and was second in the AL with 39 homers and tenth in average with .280.
BALTIMORE was hit hard in the batting blight of 1968, but their pitching staff was first in the league, fractionally better than Cleveland’s super staff. The O’s replaced manager Hank Bauer with Earl Weaver in July of last season. They made a late charge at the Tigers, but lost momentum and let the cats escape. Baltimore couldn’t protect all of its stars and prospects in the expansion draft and lost pitchers Roger Nelson, Moe Drabowsky and Wally Bunker to the Royals. The loss of 3 pitchers, particularly Nelson, caused the Birds to arrange an intra-league deal for veteran southpaw Mike Cuellar for Curt Belfary. Baltimore has front-line class but the reserves are skimpy. Success can come only if the stars who won the pennant in 1966 come back to form.
BOSTON finally climb into contention in 1967. only to fall apart – largely due to injuries – last season. “If we have health, we have the finest nucleus of any team in the league,” says manager Dick Williams. The quartet of OF Tony Conigliaro, RHP Jim Lonborg and Jose Santiago, and 1B George Scott hold the key to the health problem. Conigliaro didn’t play an inning last year after sustaining an eye injury in August, 1967. Lonborg shattered his left knee in a skiing accident in Decemeber, 1967 and didn’t return to the mound until last June. This is the best hitting team in the league and should be in the pennant scrap.
CLEVELAND had the best pitching staff in the AL and got home 3rd for its highest finish in nine years. Luis Tiant (17 wins; 1.92 ERA), Sam McDowell (2.12 ERA and second in strikeouts with 302, and Stan Williams (13-6, 2.86 ERA) were the big men. The Tribe staff set a major league record for fewest hits allowed in a season, 1094 in 162 games. “Year of the Pitcher?” It certainly was along the shores of Lake Erie. Al Dark is a clever, resourceful manager but Cleveland’s lack of power negated even its pitching brilliance. Cleveland lost 75 games, 20 of them shutouts and 20 by one run. The 2 most productive batters were 1B Tom Horton (.247; 19 HR; 49 RBI) and All-Star catcher Joe Azcue, who led the team in hitting with a .285 average. It should be another year of low-scoring games with the Indians neither getting or giving much.
NEW YORK management is perhaps guilty of complacency, blinded by the previous successes. Perhaps not. They did try to make deals, but every club asked for 21 game winner, Mel Stottlemyre. So, all the Bomber bosses could do was swing minor deals. The Yanks picked up IF Nate Oliver and P Mike Kekich of the Dodgers. Among the bright spots was the development of Roy White from a confused, scatter-armed infielder to an excellent left fielder. The Yankees do have 2 young infielders back from service, Jerry Kenney returns from a Naval tour of duty, and Bobby Murcer from the Army. New York had the lowest team batting average in the league and in their own history, a meek .216. Obviously, Ralph Houk’s managing and the pitchers were the strong points which got the club to finish seventh, but still New York needs one or two more starters and relief help.
WASHINGTON does have a new look this year but it is not on the field. The team which finished tenth last year is substantially the same but the owner is new. Robert Short, of Minneapolis, bought out James Lemon and the widow of his deceased partner for $9 million in December, 1968. This spring, Short stole the headlines away from the Redskins and their new coach, Vince Lombardi, by coaxing Hall of Famer Ted Williams back into a baseball uniform to manage his club. The bright spot for Williams and the Nats is slugging Frank Howard. The 6-7, 260-pounder who led the American League with 41 home runs. It looked last spring that Washington would have more pitching, but only Camilo Pascual (9-12) and Joe Coleman (9-15) led the team in wins as no pitcher on the staff had a winning record. The infield is unsettled. Mike Epstein comes back for another try at first, Tim Cullen, a .210 hitter, and Frank Coggins (.179) will vie for second with Bernie Allen (.253). Ed Brinkman is the shortstop by virtue of his classy glove but he hit only .193 last year. Ken McMullen (.263; 21 HR; 84 RBI), a solid citizen, fills the bill at third.