Time will make the final decision, of course, but it appears likely that the Detroit Tigers will have a lot to say this year about who finishes first in the American League East, possibly baseball's toughest division.
The Tigers have jumped off to the team's fastest start since 1911 with six straight victories by midweek, and pitcher Jack Morris turned in the club's first no-hitter in 26 years by shutting out the Chicago White Sox last Saturday.
None of this should really be too surprising, considering Detroit's strong showing a year ago. While the eventual world champion Baltimore Orioles were winning 98 regular-season games, the Tigers were finishing second with 92 victories.
Six games is not much distance to make up, especially when you've added a left-handed power hitter over the winter the quality of Darrell Evans, who belted 30 homers and drove in 82 runners last year with the San Francisco Giants.
Evans has already hit two home runs for his new team and seems certain to establish a friendly relationship with Tiger Stadium's right-field stands, which are only 325 feet down the line. Not having to play 81 home games in a refrigerator like San Francisco's windy Candlestick Park may also contribute to an increase in Darrell's normally solid offensive production.
There were several major league teams who pursued Evans during his free-agent period, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. The Dodgers put themselves out of the running when they refused to offer Darrell more than a two-year contract. The Yankees dropped out of the picture when it became evident they might platoon him.
''This was no quick decision on my part,'' Evans told reporters after signing a three-year, $2.2 million contract. ''I wanted to go where I knew I would be happy. I also wanted to go with a contender, and one thing that struck me about the Tigers is that they had five players last year who scored 70 or more runs.''
Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson made an early decision to bat Evans third in the lineup, often as the club's designated hitter although he played several infield positions for the Giants. ''We think that Evans is going to do well for us,'' Anderson volunteered. ''But I think it's wrong for people to assume that he's going to hit 30 home runs again. Frankly, with the kind of lineup we have, I don't think opposing managers will want to pitch to him that much.''
The lineup that Anderson refers to also has four other power hitters in it, including catcher Lance Parrish, plus outfielders Chet Lemon, Larry Herndon, and Kirk Gibson. These players will benefit from having two super table-setters hitting ahead of them in Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. This pair always seems to be on base and scored 177 runs last season.
You won't get much of an argument from anyone if you call the shortstop-second base combination of Trammell and Whitaker the best in the American League. Last year they scooped up almost every ground ball that came their way and became the first AL combo to hit .300 since the 1949 Chicago White Sox pair of Luke Appling and Cass Michaels.
Third base on the Tigers is proably going to remain a platoon position, populated chiefly by Tom Brookens, but certain to see many guest hosts there over the course of a 162-game season.
Parrish would appear to be the team's leader. He threw out a higher percentage of would-be base stealers last season than any other major league catcher; is durable (155 starts in '83), a good handler of pitchers, an extremely tough hitter with men on base, and a King Kong at 6 ft. 3 in. and 220 lbs. when it comes to blocking runners at the plate.
Probably no American League team has a deeper bunch of starting pitchers than Baltimore, but Detroit boasts three hurlers who finished in double figures last year, including 20-game winner Morris and 19-game winner Dan Petry. With just a little more help from Milt Wilcox and Juan Berenguer, there wouldn't be much left to criticize about the Tigers' regular rotation.
What Anderson has to be concerned with is his bullpen depth. That area looked shaky until just before spring training, when Detroit obtained left-hander Willie Hernandez (9-4; 8 saves, 3.28 ERA in 1983) from the Philadelphia Phillies. Before that the Tigers' chief reliever was Aurelio Lopez , who saved 18 games last year, but none after Aug. 1.
Anderson has always maintained that it is best when everyone gets a chance to play, because it makes each man feel like he's part of something. However noble a philosophy that may be, Sparky appears to be in a situation this year where his regulars are too good to sit down for any length of time. The exceptions may be at third base and possibly right field.
Come October, look for the Tigers to be right there at the top of the Amerian League East, battling Baltimore and New York for their first playoff berth since 1972.