Marge schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, set the tone for the National League West race when she flipped a coin in March to determine whether outfielder Kal Daniels would get his asking price of $325,000 this year or accept her offer of $300,000. For instance: heads, Los Angeles's Kirk Gibson's knee heals in time; tails, the Dodgers fall to their knees. Heads, Jack McKeon the general manager makes one last trade to help the San Diego Padres; tails, McKeon the manager spends the season worrying about his defense. Heads, manager Pete Rose gets the best out of outfielder Eric Davis and Daniels; tails, the Reds remain stuck in second place. The one thing that is certain about this division is that no team will run away with the title, as the Dodgers did in '88. This year the Padres, Dodgers and Reds, and possibly the San Francisco Giants, are all capable of taking the division, but none of them appears strong enough to win many more than 90 games. Heads, this will be a tight division race; tails, this will be a tight division race.
1 SAN DIEGO PADRES
The local citizenry is very excited about the acquisition of first sacker Jack Clark from the Yankees and southpaw Bruce Hurst from the Red Sox. How excited? Well. Oakland A's general manager Sandy Alderson recently received a call from a San Diego hotel, asking him if he wanted to book rooms for his team in mid-October.
The addition of Clark gives the Padres a formidable lineup: Second baseman Roberto Alomar (nine homers, 24 stolen bases) and three-time batting champion outfielder Tony Gwynn hit in front of Clark; outfielders John Kruk and Carmelo Martinez and catcher Benito Santiago hit behind him. Clark is so happy to have escaped New York that he might reward the Padres with an MVP season. Gwynn might give them one, too. He won the batting title last year with a .313 average, the lowest ever to win the National League crown, and he played most of the season with a badly injured right thumb.
The Padres' rotation is splendid, with Hurst (18-6), Eric Show (16-11), Dennis Rasmussen (16-10), Ed Whitson (13-11) and Walt Terrell, who had an undeserved 7-16 with Detroit. Lefthander Mark Davis blossomed as a bullpen stopper in '88, picking up 28 saves and 102 strikeouts in 98‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. McKeon will have to find somebody to replace Lance McCullers, the righthanded reliever sent to the Yankees for Clark. His choices at this writing were his son-in-law, Greg Booker, and Mark Grant, a one-time starter with formidable stuff.
Although McKeon says he's comfortable with a third-base platoon of Randy Ready and Tim Flannery, there are others in baseball who say Ready is more willing than able, and that Flannery will get you nowhere. Then there's the Padres' outfield. Gwynn is still uneasy in center, and he will have to do a lot of running between Martinez in left and Kruk in right. If worst comes to worst, McKeon still has Marvell Wynne, a fine centerfielder who hit 11 homers last year. Trader Jack also has a terrific bargaining chip in Sandy Alomar Jr., who could beat out at least 21 of the majors' starting catchers for a job.
Even if McKeon doesn't make a trade, he might have enough to win the division. The Padres certainly love playing for him; they went from a surly, selfish club under Larry Bowa to a fun-loving, heads-up team under McKeon. And if he does make that trade for an outfielder and/or third baseman, the Athletics should go ahead and book those rooms.
2 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
The Dodgers beat Oakland last year in one of the most stunning upsets in World Series history, thanks primarily to the heroics of Gibson and Orel Hershiser, But Gibson is still suffering from tendinitis in his right knee, and Hershiser, the Cy Young Award winner who still has his record streak of 59 scoreless innings going, says, "I'm set up for the biggest fall of my life."
How big a fall the Dodgers themselves take depends more on Gibson than on Hershiser, who should win another 20 games again. Gibson was rightfully the National League MVP because of his power (25 homers), speed (31 stolen bases) and grit (see Game 1 of the World Series highlight film), and the Dodgers would be in trouble if his playing time were reduced.
One player they shouldn't have to worry about is newcomer Eddie Murray. He'll be happy in his hometown, drive in lots of runs and give the Dodgers their best defense at first since the days of Wes Parker. The team does have a bunch of nagging questions, however. Can pitcher Fernando Valenzuela come back from his shoulder injury? Can Willie Randolph, who replaces Steve Sax at second, stay off the disabled list? Can manager Tommy Lasorda find somebody to hit second? Shortstop Alfredo Griffin (.199) doesn't make enough contact, and catcher Mike Scioscia, who does make contact (.257), can't run. In addition to those worries, the Dodgers have discovered that Ramon Martinez, the rookie they were counting on as their fifth starter, has only 1½ pitches (a fastball and half a curve).
No team has repeated as the winner in this division since the Dodgers did it in 1977 and '78. This year's Dodgers seem to have too many holes to change that pattern. But that's what everybody said at the start of last year's playoffs, too.
3 CINCINNATI REDS
If the Reds had a little bit more of the Dodgers' heart, they would be the clear favorite in the division. Four straight second-place finishes under Rose, and one begins to wonder. When Rose was asked this spring if he still had the bridal veil Schott gave him on Opening Day last year, he gruffly responded, "It's there somewhere." His players don't want any more reminders of '88, either. "I'm tired of making that last gallant effort and coming up short." says Davis.
The Reds do have a lot of things going for them. Davis and Daniels being the biggest two. "I feel more at ease this year." says Davis, and his exuberance suggests that maybe all that talent took some getting used to. Not that Davis was any slouch last year: He won a Gold Glove in center, stole 35 bases, hit 26 homers and drove in 93 runs, 21 of them game-winners. Daniels, who won his coin toss with Schott, is also eager to prove he's more than a potential star. "If I stay healthy." he says, "I expect big things, which I won't reveal. I'm mysterious."
Cincinnati's pitching is good, if a little shallow. The Reds have four starters: 23-game winner Danny Jackson: 18-game winner and perfect-game spinner Tom Browning: fireballing Jose Rijo (160 strikeouts in 162 innings); and spongeballing Rick Mahler (279 hits in 249 innings). They also have the best lefthanded reliever in the game, John Franco (39 saves. 1.57 ERA). Says Franco, who hails from Brooklyn, "Sometimes I feel as though I'm living the moonstruck life." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the staff.
If the Reds fail to take first this year, Schott may not be content to give Rose another white veil. He may get a pink slip.
4 SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Manager Roger Craig, a lover of Western lore, has a painting entitled Trail Boss on a wall at home, and like many of us, he stayed glued to the set watching Lonesome Dove in February. Naturally, he identifies with Woodrow Call, the trail boss who kept losing his cowhands along the way. "I knew exactly how he felt," says Craig, who lost many a player along the way in '88. Ten Giants went on the disabled list, seven had surgery, and every starting pitcher except Rick Reuschel missed at least one turn.
Craig's likely to get more of the same this year. The average age of his five starters at the All-Star break will be 34. Reuschel, the best (19-11), is also the oldest; he'll be 40 on May 16, but, despite his Willard Scott physique, he has one of the lowest body-fat ratios on the team. But the health of the Giants' pitching staff is not Craig's only concern. His bullpen stopper is Scott Garrelts, who has converted only 48 of his 88 career-save opportunities. The Giants have been working hard to bolster Garrelts' confidence and, to that end, decided not to put him through a possibly demoralizing arbitration. Has it worked? Well, in a game against the A's on March 12, Garrelts took a 7-6 lead into the ninth, faced six batters, and allowed four hits and two walks as Oakland went on to win 20-7. What hurts even more is that in the last two years the Giants have traded away Mark Davis and Pittsburgh's stopper Jim Gott.
The Giants' other big question marks are rightfielder Candy Maldonado, who slipped from 20 homers and 85 RBIs in '87 to 12 homers and 68 RBIs in '88, and third baseman Matt Williams, who has to prove he can hit a major league breaking ball. The Giants are hoping that new outfielder Tracy Jones will push Maldonado, either to better numbers or to the bench.
San Francisco's two major assets on offense are centerfielder Brett Butler batting leadoff (.287 with 97 walks and 43 stolen bases) and first baseman Will Clark batting cleanup (29 homers. 109 RBIs). At times, though, the two have felt as if they were doing it all alone. Robby Thompson, the second baseman who bats number 2, struck out 111 times. And Clark had so little protection from the batters behind him that he led the National League in intentional walks with 27.
So a lot has to happen for the Giants to regain the title they won in '87. The franchise slogan this year is I Feel Good. It should be We Feel Better.
5 HOUSTON ASTROS
The Astros were 10th in the league in hitting and eighth in runs scored last year. With starting pitchers like Mike Scott, Bob Knepper and Jim Deshaies, and a reliever like Dave Smith, it was pretty obvious what the Astros needed. But for some reason they decided to go out and get more pitching, signing free agent Jim Clancy and trading with the Yankees for Rick Rhoden. Granted, Nolan Ryan opted to sign with the other team in Texas, but Houston's crying need was offensive. To manage this club, the Astros chose the aptly named Art Howe. How are they going to score enough runs?
"We don't have the power, so we have to manufacture runs with raw speed and hitting ability," says outfielder Kevin Bass, whose 14 homers and 72 RBIs were both second on the team to first baseman Glenn Davis's 30 homers and 99 RBIs. Davis's numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that nobody behind him in the order had more than seven homers. As for the speed, the Astros did have plenty, with outfielder Gerald Young (65 stolen bases), outfielder Billy Hatcher (32) and Bass (31). And Young, who didn't bunt for any base hits last year, took hitting lessons from Rod Carew over the winter. But going back to school won't be enough. What this team needs is someone like a Cesar Cedeno in his prime. What's that you say? Cedeno was in the Astros' camp and he looked great? Fine. He's 38, and he has been out of baseball for two years. If nothing else, the fact that the Astros invited him to camp indicates that they're in deep trouble.
6 ATLANTA BRAVES
The Braves lost 106 games last year, their worst season since 1935, and they were 11th in the league in hitting and pitching. They were so bad, in fact, that it even rubbed off on outfielder Dale Murphy, who batted .226. Murphy spent the winter wondering where he was going to play, but the Braves weren't able to make a trade, and Murphy says he's happy to spend another season in Atlanta. "We won't be too bad," he says. "I've never seen so many good young arms. And I can't be as bad as I was last year."
Atlanta does have lots of good young arms: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Derek Lilliquist and Zane and Pete Smith. There are many more in the minors, and general manager Bobby Cox's plan is to trade some of them for position players. Until then, he has filled the roster with veterans like Darrell Evans and Lonnie Smith.
Besides Murphy, the Braves' only real offensive threats are Gerald Perry and Ron Gant. Perry continued to blossom into an all-around star at first, hitting .300, with 74 RBIs and 29 steals, and Gant revealed tremendous potential, with 19 homers and 60 RBIs. He also revealed he couldn't play second, so manager Russ Nixon is moving him to third. (Ironically. Gant means "glove" in French; perhaps he should be named Baton, French for "bat.") But the Braves can't afford to be too picky. They're not even sure who'll play second, catcher, leftfield or rightfield.
There are some hopeful signs. Fifty-two of the Braves" losses in '88 were by one or two runs. Reliever Bruce Sutter is healthy again and should save a few of those games. And many of the young players improved during their baptism by fire last year. "I'm not sure I'd want my own sons to go through that," says Evans. "But they'll be better players for it."
Do the Braves have any chance to escape the cellar? They'll be better, and they may even nip at the Astros' heels, but not even the front office expects much improvement. The Braves won't even bother to send out an advance scout this year to study opponents. No advance scout, no advance.
KEY WEAKNESS IN '88
WHAT'S NEEDED IN '89
CHANCE OF IMPROVEMENT
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers' leadoffand number 2 hitters had the worst combined on-base average in the majors: .303.
NL average OBA (.328) would add runners for Kirk Gibson and Eddie Murray to drive in, and give L.A. five wins.
65%. Leading off with Willie Randolph (.373 career OBA) might help, but the number 2 spot remains a mystery.
Cincinnati Reds (7)
Lefthanded hitters (.263) hit much better against the Reds than righties (.225) did.
Improvement by pitchers Ron Robinson (.331 vs. LHBs), Tom Browning (.277) and Danny Jackson (.255).
65%. Such a lopsided split is unlikely to continue.
San Diego Padres (11)
The Padres' slugging average was the lowest in the NL (.351); their cleanup hitter was even worse (.349).
Someone to drive in Tony Gwynn and supplant him as the team's main RBI threat. He had 70 RBIs in '88.
95%. Jack Clark (.433 SA) at cleanup for 120 games will be better than Keith Moreland (.331) for 162.
San Francisco Giants (11½)
The Giants' extra-innings won-lost record was 6-12. Reliever Joe Price was 1-4.
A closer to replace reliever turned starter Don Robinson. In the last three years, he was 5-1 in extra innings.
80%. The Giants' luck should change this year. Their extra-. innings record for"^86 and '87 was 24-21.
Batters who led off the inning hit .267 vs. Astros. In the league, only the Phillies (.281) did worse.
An NL average (.251) vs. leadoff hitters would add two Astro wins. In the Astrodome they should be above average.
60%. The Astros should improve, but why did they sign Jim Clancy? (See Toronto.)
Atlanta Braves (39½)
The Braves gave up the highest batting average in the majors with runners in scoring position (.291).
If Zane Smith (.311) improved and the staff lowered its mark to the NL average (.257), the Braves would win seven more.
80%. Getting rid of Rick Mahler (.307) was a good move, but the Braves' staff is still unpredictable.