The American League East has come to this: "Everyone's picking us," says Toronto centerfielder Lloyd Moseby, "because we have the fewest problems." Says Detroit veteran pitcher Frank Tanana, "One can probably think of a half-dozen reasons why each team in this division can't win."
To put it another way: The division has six third-place teams and one last-place team. In fairness, the three teams with the talent to run away and win easily are the Blue Jays, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Boston Red Sox. But the Red Sox have Margo and don't have Bruce Hurst; the Brewers had seven pitchers hurt by the second week of March. That leaves...the Blue Jays?
1 TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Picking the Jays requires a long, hard swallow. Remember their collapse in the '85 playoffs and in the last week of the '87 season—not to mention the way they twittered among themselves last year? But the chirping had a different sound this spring. "There's been a 180-degree turnaround," says pitching ace Jimmy Key. "Everyone showed up to work, not talk," says outfielder Jesse Barfield.
Last year, George Bell refused to be a designated hitter and said, "Either [manager] Jimy Williams has to go or I have to go." Williams didn't go. Neither did Bell. Instead, Williams went to Bell's golf tournament in the Dominican Republic in the off-season and hashed things out with his star. This spring, Williams decided that the players should adopt a kangaroo court to mete out fines for poor execution of fundamentals. The court judge is Mike Flanagan. "He's the only guy who can tell George Bell and Lloyd Moseby that they're being fined for overthrowing a cutoff man and make them laugh while doing it," says Jay coach John McLaren. Rounding out the bench are associate justices Bell and Tom Henke, the reliever whose contract problems made him another angry Jay last season.
With the law taken care of, Williams restored order and returned Bell, Barfield and Moseby to the outfield, despite hot springs from Rob Ducey and Junior Felix. Bell has been so cheery that Toronto now worries only about his chronic bad knee. And it doesn't hurt Williams that both Moseby and Barfield are in the last year of their contracts (a key phrase throughout this division). This is also the year in which multi-talented third baseman Kelly Gruber figures to reach stardom, along with slugging first baseman Fred McGriff ("He's got 'Oh my god!' power," says Phillie manager Nick Leyva.)
When Jim Clancy departed for Houston, Williams was left with four lefthanded starters—Key, Flanagan, Jeff Musselman and John Cerutti—to go with righty Dave Stieb. Key's concern is that the four lefties are too much alike: "None of us wants to be the third starter in a three-game series." But the Blue Jay brass is convinced that righthander Todd Stottlemyre is this year's David Cone. That would put Cerutti back in the bullpen with Henke and Mark Eichhorn, the 28-year-old righthander who has been the spring's biggest surprise. Next to Bell's smile, of course.
2 MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn walked into his office recently and announced that he had a plan to solve the nation's drug and deficit problems. "Everyone is limited to 5,000 dollars in cash," Trebelhorn told coach Larry Haney. "If you're caught with more than 5,000 in cash, everything over goes to the deficit fund. Then..."
"Sounds good to me," said Haney, who got up and left.
Teacher-philosopher-economist Trebelhorn has thoughts about everything. "I've never seen a guy come up with more innovative drills to eliminate the monotony of spring training." says centerfielder Robin Yount. Unfortunately. Trebelhorn hasn't yet mastered medicine. The Brewers were undone by injuries last year, and 1989 has seen more of the same. Ted Higuera underwent back surgery in January, and lefthanded starter Juan Nieves experienced pain in his shoulder. The good news is that Higuera has progressed so quickly that he may well start Milwaukee's home opener. But questions remain, such as, Are Don August and Mike Birkbeck really as good as their combined 23-15 record last year?
Still, the Brewers have a marvelous blend of good veterans and talented kids. Yount, 33, and third baseman Paul Molitor, 32, are as good as ever. Rookie shortstop Gary Sheffield has a magic bat, and Trebelhorn is assuming that catcher B.J. Surhoff's will do much better than last year's .245. If not, the manager will surely explain why.
3 BOSTON RED SOX
Before a spring workout, Wade Boggs bounded out of the clubhouse singing That's Amore. He put up a good front, but the Boggs-Mar-go Adams affair was an unwanted distraction. "The annoying thing is that this team has a chance to be great," says pitcher Mike Boddicker. Talent? Consider that 25-year-old leftfielder Mike Greenwell has averaged .326 with 104 RBIs in his two full seasons—yet it's centerfielder Ellis Burks who is considered the franchise player. Burks, 24, was hampered last season by nagging injuries but still knocked in 92 runs. "Burks, Jose Canseco and Bo Jackson are the three most talented players in the league," says one scout. "But Burks might have the best tools of all." When he signed with the Sox at age 20, Burks weighed 155 pounds. He's now 6'2", 205 with a 28-inch waist.
For manager Joe Morgan, the best news out of Winter Haven, Fla., may be that designated hitter Jim Rice—yes, he's on the last year of his contract, too—has had a huge spring. "I got into bad habits two years ago trying to protect my lifetime .300 average," says Rice, who has trimmed down by 15 pounds. To complicate matters, designated hitter Sam Horn lost 17 pounds and has hit well in camp, as has rookie outfielder Carlos Quintana.
In the absence of Hurst. Morgan will lean heavily on Boddicker to back up Roger Clemens. But Hurst's 217 innings will be sorely missed. Oh well, Boston made up for the loss of Hurst by giving guaranteed contracts to Rick Cerone. Danny Heep, Dennis Lamp and Luis Rivera. Common sense has never been an integral part of the Red Sox program.
4 DETROIT TIGERS
When general manager Bill Lajoie sat down with shortstop Alan Trammell to discuss an extension of his contract, the conversation went like this:
Lajoie: "What are you looking for?"
Trammell: "Six and a half million over three years."
Lajoie: "O.K." They shook hands.
"We are different," says Tanana. Says pitcher Jack Morris, "Every year we're supposed to be too old and we're picked for fifth or sixth, and every year we're in the race to the end. As long as Trammell and Tom Brookens are Tigers, the Tigers will be something special."
And indeed, third baseman Tom Brookens is the embodiment of the team. "Ten years ago I came up, and they said I'd be a decent utilityman if I worked hard," he says. "Every year, they tell me the same thing. Thirty-some third basemen later, I end up playing." This year, Brookens's replacement is Chris Brown, the talented but oh-so-fragile ex-Padre-ex-Giant. "People are wrong about this guy," says manager Sparky Anderson. "He's a great kid. He loves sports. You wait and see." Brown was so excited about playing for Sparky that he showed up 30 pounds overweight. There is a pool amongst players and reporters to pick the date when Brookens gets his job back. No one has picked later than May 17.
Don't underestimate the Tigers. "We have more depth than any team I've managed here," says Anderson. And most every player—here's that magic phrase again—is in the last year of his contract. Outfielder Fred Lynn, 37, who arrived late last year, is a perfect fit for this team—and a reminder that there are going to be days when the Tigers don't have anyone on the field under 30. "When you have the right people, age doesn't matter," says Morris. 33.
Behind Morris, who has led the Tigers in wins and innings every year in this decade, Anderson has Tanana and Doyle Alexander, who are 35 and 38, respectively. If Jeff Robinson and Eric King can win 30 games between them, someone will have to step over the pitiful old Tigers to finish first.
5 CLEVELAND INDIANS
"No covers, no promises," says Cleveland outfielder Joe Carter. "We'll sneak up on people." To hear the Indians brass talk, they've already sneaked into contention. "We got a lot of the things we needed this winter," says manager Doc Edwards. They needed a leadoff hitter and a strong lefthanded bat, so G.M. Hank Peters traded second baseman Julio Franco to Texas for leftfielder Oddibe McDowell (the leadoff hitter) and first baseman Pete O'Brien (the lefthanded bat). McDowell never fulfilled his promise in Texas. "I hit 18 homers my rookie year. I was called a superstar and probably tried to be something I wasn't," he says. Gone is the number 0 from his back. McDowell now wears 20. But is he a different player? "They've told me to slap the ball around, bunt, get on base and run," he says. "That's what I'll try to do." But, "That's what we pleaded with him to do with the Rangers and he wouldn't," says Astro manager Art Howe, who coached McDowell at Texas.
"The average person thinks of the Indians and says, They're short on pitching,' " says Edwards. "Not so." In fact, Cleveland's starting rotation boasts three arms—Greg Swindell, John Farrell and Tom Candiotti—any one of whom would be the ace on the Yankees' staff. The Indians also have Doug Jones, who had 37 saves with his power changeup. Offensively, Carter is the Indians' franchise player—averaging 29 homers, 108 RBIs and 29 steals each of the last three seasons—and O'Brien's consistent bat between Carter and Cory Snyder gives the Indians a meaty middle. So things are great, right? Alas, things never seem to go quite right for this team. Catcher Andy Allanson broke his cheekbone in spring training; then Farrell developed arm problems. And the middle infield...suffice it to say that shortstop will fall to 30-year-old Paul Zuvella, who has 14 career RBIs. Of course, he could sneak up on people.
6 NEW YORK YANKEES
In the first week of Stalag 17—Dallas Green is George Steinbrenner's 17th manager in 17 years—Green introduced the Yankees to eight-hour workdays and banned the media from the grass on the field. "Dallas has the right ideas," says first baseman Don Mattingly. Alas, Green doesn't have enough right arms. Or left arms. Two telling points: 45-year-old Tommy John has made a serious bid to make the rotation, and 44-year-old Steve Carlton was working out in the Yankees' minor league complex in Tampa. Still, one Yankee official argues that the team can and will win. "We were only 3½ back last year," he says, "and the starting pitching was the worst in baseball the last three months." Newcomers Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint and Jimmy Jones notwithstanding, it probably still is.
What's worse, Dave Winfield has been sidelined with a bad back that may need surgery, and the battle for centerfield was so unimpressive that Bob Brower may open the season where Joe D once stood and Rafael Santana may remain where Phil Rizzuto once roamed. "Usually we start off really well, then things happen," says third baseman Mike Pagliarulo. "Maybe it'll be the reverse this year."
On the brighter side, the front part of the order should score bunches of runs. Second baseman Steve Sax's hitting behind leftfielder Rickey Henderson gives the Yankees two igniters in front of Mattingly, who in turn thinks he's ready for another run at 150 RBIs. But if Win-field's back injury proves serious, all that stands behind Mattingly is DH Ken Phelps. Greg Luzinski might be over in Tampa working out with Carlton by the time you read this.
7 BALTIMORE ORIOLES
How bad is it? A newspaper clipping posted in the Oriole clubhouse predicted that Roger Clemens would no-hit the O's on Opening Day. At the bottom, a player had anonymously scribbled. "Only if he has his good stuff."
But, says general manager Roland Hemond, "We're heading in the right direction. We're building with kids." That was the understatement of the spring. Outfield prospects include rookie Steve Finley, 23, Brady Anderson, 25, and Dodger refugee Mike Devereaux, 25. On the mound, the Orioles are excited about Gregg Olson, 22, their first draft choice last year; Chris Myers, 19, their first pick in 1987; and Pete Harnisch, 22, who opened some eyes last September. Unfortunately, the organization feels that Olson, Meyers and Harnisch all need another year in the minors. Bob Milacki, 24, who won 15 games in the minors last year, could be the Orioles' best starter this season.
It's a season that may seem to last forever to shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., the Orioles' one and only star. Outfielder Phil Bradley, acquired from the Phillies, will hit in front of Ripken. That leaves a choice of rookie third baseman Craig Worthington, DH Larry Sheets, or first basemen Jim Traber and Randy Milligan to protect Ripken from behind. "The 3-1 pitch to Ripken is a breaking ball down and away...."
KEY WEAKNESS IN '88
WHAT'S NEEDED '89
CHANCE OF IMPROVEMENT
Boston Red Sox
Lack of power. The Red Sox hit only 124 HRs, 11th in the league, despite playing in cozy Fenway Park.
If the Sox hit the league's average number of HRs (136), they would get two more wins.
50%. New 1B Nick Esasky (37 HRs in his last 737 at bats) could make the difference.
Detroit Tigers (1)
The Tigers' regular starting nine had fewer at bats (3.620) than any other nine in the league.
A full season from SS Alan Trammell, among others. In '88, Detroit was .563 with Trammell, .471 without him.
25%. Like everyone else, ballplayers become more injury-prone with age.
Milwaukee Brewers (2)
The Brewers had the league's lowest slugging averages at 1B (.353) and LF (.350).
Normal AL slugging averages at 1B (.431) and LF (.404) would give the Brewers five more wins.
65%. 1B Greg Brock (.310) will improve; LF Glenn Braggs (.423) should outslug departed Jeffrey Leonard (.352).
Toronto Blue Jays (2)
Toronto's pitchers allowed 51 HRs to batters leading off an inning—by far the most in the league.
Pitchers Mike Flanagan (13 leadoff HRs), Dave Stieb (6) and Todd Stottlemyre (6) must be less generous.
80%. With Jim Clancy (10) gone and Stottlemyre more experienced, the leadoff HR total should drop.
New York Yankees (3½)
Weak hitting at the bottom of the order. The Yankees' hitting was among AL's worst at the No. 6, 7 and 9 spots.
More life from Gary Ward (.182 at No. 6), Mike Pagliarulo(.191 at 6 and 7) and Rafael Santana (.231 at 9).
50%. Pagliarulo (.233 career) should improve, but Santana and Ward are still iffy.
Cleveland Indians (11)
Bad fielding. The Indians had the league's second-worst average for turning hit balls into outs (.683).
Improve at SS and LF. SS Ron Washington made 16 errors in 54 games; LF Mel Hall had a .967 fielding average.
25%. LF Oddibe McDowell (.989 FA) will help. SS can't get worse, but 2B Jerry Browne (.958) is no Julio Franco (.982).
Baltimore Orioles (34½)
Poor outfield hitting, among other glaring weaknesses. The Orioles' outfield hit for a combined .235.
If the outfield hits the league average (.265), the O's would pick up six more wins.
75%. OFs Phil Bradley and Joe Orsulak had hot second halves, hitting .298 and .301. respectively, after July 1.