Can the New York mets be stopped? Probably not. How can they lose? Well, they could hold a Picture Day every day and.... The Mets are the only team that can beat the Mets. No one else in the division has the Mets' pitching. Or their lineup. Or their depth. Or their collective ego. Vanity, thy name is Mets. But who can blame them for being cocky? Their bench and second-line pitching would probably finish fourth in the National League East.
The St. Louis Cardinals, the one team the Mets truly respect, are hurting for pitchers. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished second last year to the Mets, would have to make a quantum leap with basically the same cast of characters. The Montreal Expos would have to pull off a sneak attack. The Chicago Cubs are still in the thick of their 90-Year Plan. And the Philadelphia Phillies? Let's put it this way: If major league baseball were run like British pro soccer, in which the worst First Division teams drop down into the Second Division to make room for the best Second Division clubs, Philadelphia would be in the International League this year, and Tidewater would be in the National League.
1 NEW YORK METS
The rest of the division was momentarily buoyed when rightfielder Darryl Strawberry finally hit his cutoff man, first baseman Keith Hernandez, during the Picture Day session on March 2. But ever since Keith and Darryl literally kissed and made up, the Mets have been going about their business as professionals. "I think it had a cathartic effect," Joe McIlvaine, vice-president, baseball operations, says of the incident. Just in case the catharsis is not complete, manager Davey Johnson can always get on the dugout phone and have the Mets warm up Dr. Alan Lans, the team psychiatrist.
"If I was predicting who'd win the division," says center-fielder Mookie Wilson, "I'd be picking the Mets. But that's only on paper. We still have to play some baseball games." True enough. And to play those games, the Mets have the best pitching in baseball. Their starters are David Cone (20-3), Dwight Gooden (18-9), Ron Darling (17-9), Sid Fernandez (12-10) and Bob Ojeda (10-13, despite a 2.88 ERA). Fernandez has lost 20 pounds, and Ojeda is fine after losing the tip of one of his pitching fingers to hedge clippers last Sept. 21. Ojeda's pitches, in fact, have developed different movements because of the accident, although we would hardly recommend do-it-yourself surgery for pitchers looking for an edge. The Mets' rotation is so good that David West, a lefthander considered by some to be the best pitching prospect in the game, will have to start the season in Tidewater. The bullpen has the leftyrighty combo of Randy Myers and Roger McDowell, and. for good measure, free-agent Don Aase, who saved 34 games for the Orioles in '86 and appears to be throwing with his old zip. As if the Mets needed any help.
The lineup is also an embarrassment of riches, what with Strawberry, leftfielder Kevin McReynolds, the centerfield platoon known as Mookstra (Wilson and Lenny Dykstra). Hernandez, catcher Gary Carter, third baseman Howard Johnson and rookie sensation Gregg Jefferies. The Mets are trying Jefferies at second base, but if he doesn't cut it there, they can move him to third, give Ho Jo more playing time at short and put Keith Miller or Tim Teufel at second. Cocaptains Hernandez, 35, and Carter, 34, are coming off bad years (55 and 46 RBIs, respectively), but both have the incentive of being in the last year of their contracts.
For '89, the 20th anniversary of the Mets' incredible championship season, the club has added a new logo in the shape of the number I and a new slogan: "Excellence. Again and Again." And again.
2 PITTSBURGH PIRATES
You have to like Pittsburgh. A young club blessed with good pitching and great defense, it hung with New York most of last season, pulling to within 3½ games in the middle of August. But then the Mets ran away and hid. The Buccos were only 6-12 against New York, but they were outscored 65-46. If they could somehow reverse that record, the Pirates would be in great shape. But they did nothing in the off-season except name Larry Doughty as a replacement for the fired Syd Thrift, the general manager who engineered the Pirates' rise from last to second in two years. "We have to make up 10 games," says centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "Without any new personnel, we have to do that by being more consistent, playing good for five months instead of 3½ and by coming up with a surprise package, getting a great year from an unexpected player."
The best candidate for just such a surprise is rightfielder Glenn Wilson, who drove in 102 runs for the '85 Phillies, then inexplicably went south. In 78 games with the Mariners last year, he hit only three homers and drove in just 17 runs. The Pirates think they have discovered the flaw in his stance, and indeed Wilson hit three homers in the first six games of spring training. In the off-season, Wilson purchased an Exxon station in Montgomery, Texas, and named it the Hit and Run. This led to one of the best lines of the spring, from Wilson himself: "I went up to the plate thinking about my mechanics, but that was no good because they both want raises."
If Wilson does come up with a big year, the Pirates won't have to worry so much about the bottom of their order. At the bottom of the bottom were the Pirate shortstops, who produced only 16 RBIs last year, one less than the pitchers did. Over the winter, manager Jim Leyland pondered batting his pitchers eighth, but he perished that thought. At the top of the order Leyland has little to worry about, with leftfielder Barry Bonds (24 homers, 97 runs), Van Slyke (25 homers, 100 RBIs) and switch-hitting third baseman Bobby Bonilla (24 homers, 100 RBIs).
Few teams can match the Pirates' defense up the middle, with Van Slyke, second baseman Jose Lind, shortstop Rafael Belliard and catcher Mike LaValliere. "Lind and Belliard are as good as Tommy Herr and Ozzie Smith were when I played with the Cardinals, and LaValliere is the best catcher in the game, if not the best-looking," says Van Slyke, with LaValliere in earshot. "Look at him. You'd think he was a cook in a White Castle."
Doug Drabek, Mike Dunne, John Smiley, Bob Walk and Brian Fisher give the Pirates a solid rotation, and the bullpen has Jim Gott (34 saves) and Jeff Robinson (9 saves and a major league-leading 124⅖ relief innings). Perhaps the best thing about this team is that of the aforementioned players, only Walk is over 30. And now that Wilson owns a filling station, maybe the Pirates won't run out of gas in September.
3 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
When the Cardinals announced recently that starting pitcher Danny Cox would be lost for the season because of elbow surgery, every club in the division but the Mets must have cringed. For the Cardinals are the one team in the National League East that has proved it can beat the Mets head-to-head. Cox's injury isn't the only one the Cards have to worry about. Third baseman Terry Pendleton may not be ready for Opening Day because of a cartilage operation on his left knee. Starter Greg Mathews has a tender left arm. Even when he goes home, manager Whitey Herzog is reminded of the injuries: His wife, Mary Lou, has her broken leg in a cast, the result of a skiing accident.
If Pendleton is able to play, the Cardinals will have, in the words of shortstop Ozzie Smith, a seven-year veteran of the club, "the best offense we've had since I've been here." Leftfielder Vince Coleman, Smith, centerfielder Willie McGee, first baseman Pedro Guerrero, rightfielder Tom Brunansky, Pendleton, catcher Tony Pena and second baseman Jose Oquendo are indeed a batting order to be reckoned with. McGee worked out in the off-season with strength guru Mackie Shilstone, so he may get back up to his 100-RBI level. Guerrero is happy to be a Cardinal, and his teammates can't believe the bad things the Dodgers said about him. And Brunansky (22 homers, 79 RBIs) should be better now that he doesn't have to carry the power load alone.
With Cox down, the Cardinal starters will be Jose DeLeon, Joe Magrane, Scott Terry, rookie Cris Carpenter and Mathews; none has ever won more than 13 games in a season. At least the bullpen is in good shape, with Todd Worrell, Ken Dayley, Frank DiPino and Dan Quisenberry. "When we heard about Cox, what could we do but breathe a sigh and say 'Life goes on'?" says Smith. "We still want very much to be thought of as the team of the '80s. And we would be, with World Series appearances in '82, '85, '87 and '89." Nice thought, Ozzie. but don't count on it.
4 MONTREAL EXPOS
Pitching is Montreal's problem, too. With Pascual Perez out indefinitely because of drug problems, manager Buck Rodgers will have to rely on Dennis Martinez (15-13), Kevin Gross (60-66 lifetime), journeyman Bryn Smith, untested Brian Holman and 6'10" rookie Randy Johnson. The bullpen isn't particularly deep, either; the Expos had to give up setup man Jeff Parrett to get Gross from the Phillies.
If the Expos are to stay in contention, they need comeback years from both leftfielder Tim Raines and third baseman Tim Wallach. In the off-season, Montreal picked up a reliable shortstop. Spike Owen, from Boston and a much-needed left-handed batter, Mike Aldrete, from San Francisco. But they still have to settle on a centerfielder, Dave Martinez or Otis Nixon. At second, the Expos are planning to platoon Tom Foley and Rex Hudler. Nixon and Hudler were called up from Indianapolis last year and had much to do with the Expos' second-half surge. Hudler, who is something of a liability at second, is, according to Raines, "the fastest white man I have ever seen."
With rightfielder Hubie Brooks (90 RBIs) and first baseman Andres Galarraga (92 RBIs) anchoring the middle of the lineup, the Expos should have no problem scoring runs. Their big worry will be keeping other teams from scoring.
5 CHICAGO CUBS
There was an interesting sight in Mesa, Ariz., one morning this spring. In leftfield at HoHo-Kam Park stood a round, gerbil-cheeked older man talking to a thin, graceful-looking young man. They were manager Don Zimmer and rookie centerfielder Jerome Walton, two Cubs whose fortunes are entwined. Zimmer will determine if Walton is ready for the majors, and Walton will determine how good—or bad—the Cubs are this year. "I just told him not to worry or press," said Zimmer. "I told him that even if he's not in the lineup on Opening Day, he'll be in the major leagues soon enough. This guy is going to be a good player."
If Walton, who hit .331 and stole 42 bases for Double A Pittsfield last year, can crack the lineup, the Cubs will have the leadoff hitter they desperately need and a centerfielder coach Jimmy Piersall says is already the best in the league. "What I really want to find out," said Zimmer, "is if he's ready mentally for the majors. I don't believe in that 'don't rush him' stuff. When I was managing the Padres, I broke in two guys without minor league experience—Dave Winfield and Dave Roberts." One of those guys, at least, worked out pretty well.
Even with Walton, the Cubs' lineup will be uncharacteristically short on power. Rightfielder Andre Dawson is the only real home run threat; first baseman Mark Grace, second baseman Ryne Sandberg, shortstop Shawon Dunston and third baseman Vance Law are basically line drive hitters. So the ivy will get a break this year. As for the pitching, the rotation looks to be Rick Sutcliffe, Greg Maddux, Paul Kilgus, rookie Mike Harkey and Mike Bielecki. Sutcliffe has lost a lot of weight and looks better, but he is perpetual trade bait. Maddux was 15-3 at the All-Star break, but 3-5 thereafter. Kilgus was 12-15 with the Rangers last year, but especially intriguing for the Cubs, who will be playing only 16 times at night, he was 5-2 in day games. The Cubs also acquired lefthander Mitch Williams from Texas to be their bullpen stopper. Williams has a reputed fastball and a reputation for being a screwball. Says fellow Cub pitcher Al Nipper, "If you put his [Williams's] brain in a blue jay, it would fly backward."
The Cubs, who haven't won a world championship since 1908, have had only one winning season since 1972. You can be certain this will not be their second.
6 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Pity the Phillies' new manager, Nick Leyva. His rotation had a grand total of 19 major league wins in '88. His double play combination, second baseman Tommy Herr and shortstop Dickie Thon, has no range. Third baseman Mike Schmidt can't throw very well after shoulder surgery, and there are even doubts that he can hit. And the new centerfielder, former second baseman Juan Samuel, is a little shaky out there. At one point this spring, Samuel asked Peter Pascarelli of The Philadelphia Inquirer how he looked.
"You look like Willie Mays," replied Pascarelli.
"Really?" said Samuel, falling into the trap.
"Yes," said Pascarelli. "But remember, Willie Mays is 59 years old."
Samuel laughed, at least, and humor will be a good thing for the Phils to have this season. As if to prove how bad they will be, the Phillies were 4-10-1 halfway through spring training, having been outscored 89-45.
The Phillies do have a good bullpen, with Steve Bedrosian, Greg Harris and Parrett. But they might as well trade Bedrosian, because there won't be many games to save. The one team these Phillies will have to be cognizant of is the '41 gang. The so-called Phutile Phillies lost 111 games.
KEY WEAKNESS IN '88
WHAT'S NEEDED IN '89
CHANCE OF IMPROVEMENT
New York Mets
New York had the league's worst hitting with runners in scoring position (.243).
Not to worry. The Mets put so many runners on base last year, they led the NL in runs with 703.
80%. Strawberry will definitely better his .196 average with runners in scoring position.
Pittsburgh Pirates (15)
The Pirates had the least productive 2B-SS combo in the NL: 195 runs produced.
NL average (260) would give Pittsburgh four more wins.
10%. 2B Jose Lind (129) will score runs batting number 2, but what to do with SS Rafael Belliard (39)?
Montreal Expos (20)
Big drop-offs by OF Tim Raines (.270, 33 SBs) and 3B TimWallach (12HRs, 69 RBIs).
Return to career form by Raines (.305. 68 SBs) and Wallach (20 HRs. 85 RBIs) would create five to eight wins.
50%. Bet on a comeback by Raines. Wallach's 123 RBI blitz in '87, however, might have been a fluke.
Chicago Cubs (24)
Worst relief pitching in baseball: 29 saves in 55 opportunities and a 4.40 ERA.
Converting 72% of opportunities (the NL average) instead of 53% would mean seven to nine more wins.
65%. Mitch Williams (69%) should help, but did the Cubs give up too much to get him from the Rangers?
St. Louis Cardinals (25)
Pitchers were worst in the league by day (giving up a .276 BA), though one of the best staffs by night (.240).
If the Cards could be as good during day games as they were at night, they would win seven more games.
15%. St. Louis traded one of its best daytime pitchers: John Tudor (.266 day, .253 night).
Philadelphia Phillies (35½)
Major control problems. The Phils gave up the most walks in the NL (628)—104 more than next-to-worst Atlanta.
By giving up the league average (483), the Phils would win seven more games.
75%. Losing Kevin Gross, the NL leader with 89 walks, and Shane Rawley (78) should cut down the free passes.