Once it was dubbed the American League Least, and unofficial team nicknames included the Twinkies, the Strangers and the Un-Athletics. Well, last season the Oakland Un-Athletics won 15 more games than the Eastern champ Boston Red Sox and swept them in the playoffs. Minnesota fans rued the fact that their Twinkies' 91 wins would have won the East. And in the off-season, the Texas Strangers pulled the trigger on more good deals than any other team in the league. "The division has never been deeper," says Kansas City Royals manager John Wathan. Says Oakland skipper Tony La Russa, "The personality of the division has gone from lethargic to very aggressive. The new managers—all the managers in this division—are aggressive. The fans will get their money's worth."
1 OAKLAND ATHLETICS
With the exception of Jose Canseco and his Jaguar, covering the Athletics this spring has been like covering IBM. "Last year everyone wanted to write about us," says centerfielder Dave Henderson. "Now, everything's Margo and Garvey. I'd just as soon keep out of the news these days. And we do." Says third baseman Carney Lansford, "After what happened in the World Series, we came in with a very businesslike attitude. We're also sick and tired of hearing how the Dodgers figured out what we couldn't, hit. Give us a break. We just didn't hit for a week against good pitching. I think all that stuff has motivated us."
The no-news A's are essentially the same team that won 104 games last year, but, says La Russa, "I really believe we're capable of being better." La Russa's theory is based on, first, the addition of free-agent righthander Mike Moore, who has a 92-mph fastball and gobbles up innings (237 per year over five seasons). Adding Moore to a starting rotation of Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Storm Davis and Curt Young would edge out last year's surprise, Todd Burns (8-2). Second, La Russa likes the condition of DH Dave Parker. "This is as good as I've felt in years," says Parker. "A lot of people said I'm done. They will be proven wrong."
La Russa will give Luis Polonia the leftfield job, but if Polonia doesn't hit, Felix Jose will come rushing up. Jose is the latest Oakland physical phenom, following Canseco and first baseman Mark McGwire. Jose is a switch-hitting, 6'2", 205-pound outfielder with "all the tools of greatness," says coach Merv Rettenmund. Which is nothing but bad news for the rest of the division.
2 KANSAS CITY ROYALS
A sign in the Royals spring-training clubhouse in Baseball City, Fla., reads LIP SERVICE NEVER WON A PENNANT. It might as well read FAT LIPS NEVER WON A PENNANT. Three times last season, Kansas City players got into fistfights—with each other. "It was as bad as I've ever seen it," says first baseman George Brett. "Everyone was frustrated." Says Wathan, "Now we're getting picked for fourth or fifth by a lot of people who are tagging us Team Turmoil. Those people are in for a big surprise." To bring peace, Wathan has added easygoing John Mayberry to the coaching staff as a buffer and has named Brett and second baseman Frank White the first team captains in the Royals' 20-year history. "I think things are headed in the right direction," says Brett. "And I don't think there's any question about our talent."
One question is whether centerfielder Willie Wilson still has the talent to lead off (.289 on-base percentage, 106 strikeouts last year). The other X factor is outfielder Bo Jackson. "Jackson's got the most power, the most speed and the best arm in the league," says Red Sox manager Joe Morgan. "It's scary to think what he could do someday."
After finishing 19½ games behind Oakland last year, the Royals made only one major change, signing 41-year-old free-agent catcher Bob Boone. But he may prove to be an elixir. "He makes pitching more fun and more strategic," says 20-game winner Mark Gubicza. "He thinks right along with us. He's amazing." Gubicza has taken on the mantle of ace. "He's a righthanded pitcher with lefthanded movement—he cannot throw a ball straight," says pitching coach Frank Funk. "The only thing that stands between him and Cooperstown is bases on balls." Gubicza cut his walks per nine innings from 4.5 in 1987 to 2.8 in 1988 and improved his record from 13-18 to 20-8. And he's only 26. Bret Saberhagen is only 24, and the Royals hope Boone can lead him back toward his form in the 1985 World Series, when he seemed destined for greatness. Since then, Saberhagen has been just one game over .500. The other Kansas City starters are veteran lefthanders Charlie Leibrandt and Floyd Bannister. If no one else takes the fifth spot, it will fall to rookie phenom Tom (Flash) Gordon. Wathan would like Gordon to start the season in the bullpen, where he has Steve Farr (20 saves) and little else. But if the only fighting Wathan sees is for a spot in the pen. that in itself will be sweet relief.
3 MINNESOTA TWINS
The Twins are the Hogan's Heroes of baseball. "We're different," says reliever Jeff Reardon. "Very emotional and gung ho." Indeed. In the first home exhibition of the season, third baseman Gary Gaetti, whose '88 season was cut short by a serious knee injury, sprinted on and off the field at top speed—lest anyone wonder if he was fully recovered. The rest of Gaetti also figures to be healthier: He has given up cigarettes and liquor—as well as profanity.
On this team, it's personalities, yes; egos, no. " 'No superstars' is one of my sayings," says manager Tom Kelly. O.K., but if centerfielder Kirby Puckett isn't a superstar, what is he? Puckett's .356 average last year was the best by a righthanded American League batter since Joe DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941. "I have no problem saying that Puckett is the best player in baseball," says Gaetti. As for nonsuperstar Frank Viola, last year he merely had a 24-7 record, won the Cy Young Award—and taught his circle changeup to lefthander Allan Anderson. The same pitch that turned Viola from good to great helped Anderson vault to 16-9 and 2.45, the league's best ERA last season. Viola may need to teach a few more lessons. The third and fourth starters for the Royals are Shane Rawley (8-21 for the Phillies since Sept. 1, 1987) and Fred Tolliver (8-13 lifetime). "We'll make do," says Kelly. "And we'll have fun doing it."
4 TEXAS RANGERS
After the Rangers signed Nolan Ryan last December, the Texas box office averaged 150 ticket-request calls per hour for the next few hours. But the 42-year-old Ryan means more to Texas than tickets, and he may mean the most to 24-year-old righthander Bobby Witt, a fastballer who has been billed as "the Ryan of the '90s." "Having Nolan here takes the pressure off me," says Witt. "As a kid I used to pretend I was Nolan Ryan. He's the guy everyone watches."
The addition of Ryan also gives the Rangers what may be the most bewildering rotation in the league. Consider what an opponent might face in a four-game series: first, Witt and his 94-mph fastball; the next night, Charlie Hough, who throws 73-mph knucklers; the next night, it's the Ryan Express; and finally, lefthander Jamie Moyer checks in with his dead-fish changeup. "When you get extreme contrasts like that, it's very difficult for hitters to adjust," says manager Bobby Valentine.
Valentine and general manager Tom Grieve have gambled that having traded reliever Mitch Williams to the Cubs for first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and Moyer, they can build a bullpen. The likely candidate for stopper is Jeff Russell, even if Williams has said, "He'll never make it as a closer—he doesn't have any guts." Valentine and Grieve showed some guts at the winter trading table: From Dec. 5 to 7, they traded nine players to get Palmeiro and second baseman Julio Franco. Now they wait for outfielders Ruben Sierra and Pete Incaviglia to blossom. The 23-year-old Sierra has at least beefed up; he added 23 pounds of muscle over the winter and vows, "This season's going to be different." Incaviglia has shortened his stride by over a foot to try to cut his 153 strikeouts. But it remains to be seen how this team fits together. Problems: Either Jeff Kunkel or Cecil Espy must play centerfield, and rookie Chad Krueter may inherit the catching. Those aren't the kinds of names that keep the phones ringing in the box office.
5 SEATTLE MARINERS
Every morning this spring, new manager Jim Lefebvre gathered his team and gave a motivational speech. One morning, he quoted Admiral Halsey. The next, he quoted the Bible. "I had 90 quotations prepared before we opened camp," he says. Lefebvre once coached for the Dodgers, but his stock fell when he and Tom Lasorda had a fistfight in a television studio. "That happened because they're just alike," says a member of the Dodger organization. "Some call them motivators, others call them con men, but they can talk players into performing."
Lefebvre has some serious talking to do in Seattle. First, he must persuade the Mariners they can win. This team has never had a .500 season. Then he has to convince himself that ultratalented 19-year-old centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. is ready for the majors. "It's a tough call," says Lefebvre. "When Ken takes over, he'll be in Seattle for 20 years. And he might be ready now, but it's where we are three years from now that will count, and Griffey will be the cornerstone."
If Griffey is ready, the Mariners could be dangerous. Darnell Coles might be a 90-RBI rightfielder; first baseman Alvin Davis had 18 homers and hit .295; Harold Reynolds is a two-time All-Star second baseman. As starters—besides the ace and everybody's favorite trade subject, Mark Langston—Lefebvre has Erik Hanson, who showed flashes of brilliance last September, and Scott Bankhead, who has recovered from arm surgery. "For years they've said the Mariners had better talent than they showed," says catcher Scott Bradley. "Now Jim's trying to make us believe it." In Arizona, Lefebvre had free-agent acquisition Jeffrey (Penitentiary Face) Leonard watching inspirational slides of great hitters. That's convincing.
6 CALIFORNIA ANGELS
There were two principal topics of interest at the Angel spring-training camp: pitcher Jim Abbott's future and manager Doug Rader's past. Abbott—the one-handed rookie, Olympic star, No. 1 draft pick and the spring's most coveted interview—threw so well he convinced pitching coach Marcel Lachemann that he will be in Anaheim this season, be it in April, May or July. "He's got a slider similar to the one Steve Carlton used to throw," says Lachemann. "Now he's come up with a curveball to give him an offspeed look. He's remarkable. After watching what he's been through this spring, I don't worry about his handling any pressure."
But what about Rader, the Angels' new manager? "I knew when I took this job that I faced a barrage of questions about the way I managed in Texas," says Rader. "I made mistakes, and I know it." Rader was colorful but tyrannical during his two years with the Rangers, and he alienated his players. But he also has what La Russa calls "one of the best minds for the game I've ever encountered." Says Rader, "I'm just glad I got another chance. Some managers don't after a first disaster."
He has his work cut out for him if he's going to stave off another one. California finished 75-87 last year and added only three players of note over the winter: catcher Lance Parrish, outfielder Claudell Washington and pitcher Bert Blyleven—ages 32.34 and 37, respectively. But, says Parrish, "This is a better team than people think. Rader has been terrific. Because of what's happened here before, people are expecting the worst. But we'll be pretty good."
7 CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Chicago general manager Larry Himes predicts that the White Sox will win 87 games this year, which they probably won't. They will, however, be neat and clean, and they will wear their uniform socks just so. Himes has ruffled many a feather with his military-academy regulations, rules that new manager Jeff Torborg has promised to enforce.
But the 7 a.m. sounds from the Sarasota, Fla., batting cages told another story: The real rule of conduct for this team may be the work ethic established by new hitting coach Walter Hriniak. "The workaholic stuff pays off," says DH Harold Baines. Hriniak has spent hours with shortstop Ozzie Guillen, trying to get him to keep the ball on the ground; and he thinks fleet centerfielder Lance Johnson can hit .300 and steal 60 bases. But Hriniak can't fix the pitching. The White Sox have some impressive arms—Jack McDowell, Melido Perez and reliever Bobby Thigpen, in particular—but their biggest winner last year was Jerry Reuss (13-9), who will be 40 in June. Reuss has more years in the major leagues than the rest of the staff combined. The state of the team was perhaps best summed up in the off-season when WFLD, the White Sox TV station, filed suit to get out of the final three years of its contract with the team, claiming, in part, that the Sox are "not desirable to watch."
KEY WEAKNESS IN '88
WHAT'S NEEDED IN '89
CHANCE OF IMPROVEMENT
Oakland's cleanup hitters, primarily Dave Parker and Mark McGwire, hit .238 with a .397 slugging average.
A cleanup hitter with a league average (.267 with a .441 SA) would give the A's two more wins.
65%. The numbers should improve if McGwire bats cleanup full time.
Minnesota Twins (13)
Lefthanded batters hit .282 with power against the Twins, while righties batted .255 (second lowest in AL).
If the Twins pitched as well against lefties as they do against righties, they would win nine more games.
10%. LHP Shane Rawley won't help that much vs. lefties, and righties hit .292 against him in "88.
Kansas City Royals (19½)
Dismal second half from key offensive players such as George Brett (.248 after July 31) and Frank White (.169).
If Brett (.337 through July 31) and White (.272) could stay sharp all year, the Royals would pick up four more wins.
25%. The bench is still weak, but exercise nut Bob Boone (.317 after July 31) could inspire his new teammates.
California Angels (29)
No big bats. DH Tony Armas's .443 slugging average was the lowest in the AL for a team leader.
More slugging—notably from Wally Joyner, who went from 34 HRs in '87 to 13 in '88— would create five more wins.
60%. Joyner will rebound, and Claudell Washington (11 HRs) and Lance Parrish (15) should provide added clout.
Chicago White Sox (32½)
Getting on base. Chicago had the league's worst on-base average (.303).
Someone like Wade Boggs. If the White Sox could combine an on-base average of .324, they would win five more.
10%. In the past five years, the White Sox have had the AL's lowest or next-to-lowest on-base average.
Texas Rangers (33½)
The Rangers' designated hitters batted a puny .195 with only 14 HRs.
An average DH (.252, 19 HRs) would generate four more wins; a Ken Phelps (.263, 24 HRs). eight more.
25%. New DH Buddy Bell (.241, 7 HRs) should help, but he probably won't even hit the league average.
Seattle Mariners (35½)
Mark Langston (15-11) couldn't pitch every day. The Mariners got only 53 wins from the rest of their staff.
An injury-free Scott Bankhead (7-9) and big strides by Mike Campbell (6-10) and Bill Swift (8-12) could turn it around.
5%. Three long-shot starters and the loss of RHP Mike Moore to Oakland could make for a trying season.