The snow out back may be piled eight feet high and the Winter Olympics may just be getting under way, but take heart. This is the week we hear that magic phrase "pitchers and catchers report." As the 26 clubs prepare for Grapefruit and Cactus League action, here are some things fans will want to watch for during spring training:
1. JUDGMENT DAY. Will arbitrator George Nicolau find the owners guilty of collusion in their dealings—or non-dealings—with the 1986 free-agent class (Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Jack Morris, Rich Gedman, Doyle Alexander, Lance Parrish et al.) and declare the entire group free sometime between March 15 and the start of the season? It seems likely. At greatest risk are the Tigers, who have lost Parrish and Kirk Gibson and will be faced with trying to re-sign Morris and Alexander.
2. ROOKIE ROUNDUP. How will these newcomers do in spring training, because their performances could tell a lot about their team's prospects for the season? The Mets and Athletics are counting heavily on shortstops Kevin Elster and Walter Weiss, respectively. Lefthander Al Leiter and fleet centerfielder Roberto Kelly are keys to the Yankees' hopes. Righthander Mike Campbell and reliever Mike Schooler could strengthen the Seattle pitching staff enough to make the Mariners serious contenders. Brewers DH Joey Meyer could become a 40-homer slugger if he can keep his weight closer to 250 pounds than 290. Jeff Treadway must play well at second base for the Reds, who released Ron Oester to the minors after his knee surgery. The White Sox are calling on righthander Jack McDowell, who's nine months out of Stanford, to be their ace. The Blue Jays expect big things from lefthanded reliever David Wells and second baseman Nelson Liriano, both of whom shone during big league stints last September. Finally, former softball pro Bryan Harvey may be the bullpen closer the Angels desperately need.
3. THE PHENOM PEN. Will these young players—none is older than 24—start the season in the minors, as their teams project, or will their spring efforts force their clubs to change plans: infielder Gregg Jefferies, the Mets' answer to Pete Rose; Brewers infielder Gary Sheffield; Cardinals righthanded reliever Cris Carpenter; Blue Jays righthander Todd Stottlemyre; Expos 6'10" lefthander Randy Johnson; Padres shortstop Roberto Alomar; Astros rightfielder Cameron Drew; Yankees third baseman Hensley (Bam Bam) Meulens; Twins righthander Steve Gasser (a fastballer, natch)?
February 22, 1988
4. COMEBACKS. Will John Tudor's surgically repaired right knee and troublesome left shoulder pass the springtime test? They must if the Cardinals are to repeat in the National League East. Can the Red Sox rely on Oil Can Boyd for the 214 innings and 16 wins he gave them in 1986, not the 36 innings he pitched last year because of a ligament tear. And how about other pitchers who will test arms injured in 1987: Bob Ojeda, Mets; Jay Howell, Dodgers; Curt Young, Athletics; Jim Deshaies, Astros; Kirk McCaskill, Angels; Scott Bank-head, Mariners; Greg Swindell, Indians; Ron Guidry, Yankees; Ron Robinson, Reds? After two years of shoulder injuries, will Mario Soto and Joe Hesketh be able to come back with the Reds and Expos, respectively?
5. THE ARTFUL DODGERS. Who will manager Tommy Lasorda play at third base? The leading candidates are Steve Sax and Mike Marshall, but compared with them rookie Jeff Hamilton will look like Brooks Robinson, so bet on Hamilton to get the job. Pedro Guerrero, meanwhile, will move either to first base or to another city. He's prime bait for a starting pitcher or two. The bad news for L.A. is that Alfredo Griffin, the new shortstop, is still hurting from a September thumb injury.
6. MOVE IT OR LOSE IT. Will the White Sox succeed in converting centerfielder Kenny Williams into a third baseman to make room in the lineup for leadoff hitter Lance Johnson? Other shifts in the works: Hubie Brooks, Expos, from shortstop to rightfield; Johnny Ray, Angels, from second base to leftfield; Darnell Coles, Pirates, from third to right.
7. THE RUBBER OR THE ROAD? Is this the last spring training for noted pitchers like the Braves' Bruce Sutter, the Royals' Dan Quisenberry, the Twins' Steve Carlton, the Dodgers' Don Sutton and the Orioles' Scott McGregor?
8. THE DEAL WATCH. Will the Dodgers find a pitcher in a trade for Guerrero? Can the Blue Jays find a third baseman or righthanded-hitting catcher for pitcher Dave Stieb? Can the Cubs deal Leon Durham to make room for rookie first baseman Mark Grace?
9. THE HIGH STRIKE. If the new higher strike zone—from the belt to the letters—is enforced, games will be shorter because hitters will swing more often. But, the high strike might curtail the productivity of low-ball sluggers like the A's Mark McGwire and the White Sox' Greg Walker. High-ball hitters like the Blue Jays' George Bell and the White Sox' Ivan Calderon will thrive.
10. MANAGERS ON THE SPOT. Davey Johnson, who has the best winning percentage in the 1980s, has already said this season will be his last with the Mets. The question is: Will he last the season? So wide is the rift between him and the front office that Tidewater manager Mike Cubbage, Johnson's heir apparent, will be scrutinized in Florida. Dick Williams is a lame duck facing similar circumstances in Seattle. The Red Sox' ownership has made it clear that John McNamara had better get off to a good start. And the Braves' Chuck Tanner, whose teams have finished last in three of the past four years, is already hearing that either Blue Jays coach Cito Gaston or Braves minor league coordinator Bobby Dews could replace him.
11. STARS ON THE SPOT. By the end of last season, fans in Baltimore and Boston had had enough of big contract sluggers Eddie Murray and Jim Rice, respectively. Will Murray live up to his pledge that he'll again be a hustling team leader? Is Rice whistling in the dark when he says that a post-knee operation rehab program has made him fitter than he has been in years? According to a Baseball America study, the only cleanup hitter in the majors who was less productive than Murray and Rice in 1987 was the Pirates' Sid Bream.
12. NOT A FULL DECK. The Cards need several affirmative answers if they expect to come close to replacing Jack Clark. Can Bob Horner get himself into shape to play 130 games? Will Tony Pena show his old power this spring and prove that last year's .214 average was the result of an early-season broken right thumb? Is rightfielder Jim Lindeman's power going to emerge now that his back no longer bothers him?
13. REDS RESCUER. With a change of scenery and the revival of his changeup, which he shelved last year in K.C., will Danny Jackson be the stopper Cincinnati needs if it hopes to unseat San Francisco in the National League West? And keep an eye on another Reds lefthander, rookie Norm Charlton, who came back from shoulder problems to have a big winter in Venezuela.
14. TOO MANY INDIANS? Will Cleveland find quality in quantity? The Indians invited 25 pitchers to spring training—none of whom won eight major league games last season.
15. BABY BIRDS. Can the Orioles finally begin to rebuild their staff with the highly touted young arms of Jose Mesa, Jose Bautista and Oswald Peraza?
16. MISSING SOX. Last year the White Sox had only three pitchers—Richard Dotson, Floyd Bannister and Jose Deleon—who reached double figures in wins and/or worked more than 200 innings. So, of course, Chicago traded all three. Can it build a whole new starting staff in Sarasota? Watch Dave LaPoint, who pitched more innings for Louisville than for Chicago last season; McDowell, who pitched more innings for Stanford than in the pros; and Melido Perez, younger brother of Montreal's Pascual.
17. EXTRA SOX. How will Boston's McNamara fit Rice, Dwight Evans, Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn, Todd Benzinger and rookie Brady Anderson into five positions and not create ego cross fire? And how will McNamara handle all the questions about his new reliever, Lee Smith, who like most power pitchers is a notoriously poor spring training performer?
18. THE A'S HAVE IT. Oakland has lots of new blood in pitchers Bob Welch and Matt Young and in hitters Dave Parker, Don Baylor and Ron Hassey. But the Athletics have two vital questions to answer: Can Stan Javier bat well enough to give them the defense they need in center, and can Eric Plunk be their closer?
While we await answers, we already know one thing for sure. Baseball won't be the same without Reggie Jackson.