Circle this date on your calendar: Wednesday, Oct. 3. On that day, the last of the regular season, the Cubs will be in Philadelphia, the Mets will be in Pittsburgh, and the Cardinals will be in Montreal. The Cubs. Mets and Cards will wake up that morning tied for first place, and their opponents—the Phillies, Pirates and Expos—will be in a deadlock for last. As seen on ESPN that afternoon, the Phillies will nip the Cubs 10-9 after the umpires disallow Jerome Walton's spectacular ninth-inning catch because his glove measures 12 1/16" from heel to tip. and the Pirates will edge the Mets 5-4 when Wally Backman homers in the ninth off New York's right-handed closer. Dwight Gooden. That night on CBS. St. Louis will win the division with a 1-0 shutout by Jose DeLeon, who strikes out Delino DeShields, clear favorite for DeRookie of DeYear honors, with two down and the bases loaded.
As fanciful as that scenario sounds, the NL East could very well produce the first crackerjack. three-team division race since 1982. when the Braves. Dodgers and Giants battled for the NL West title on the final weekend. This year the NL East seems to be split right down the middle. On the right side of the tracks are the Cubs. Mets and Cards, each capable of winning 90 games. On the wrong side are the Phillies, Pirates and Expos, each capable of losing 90. Of course, last year at this time the Cubs were on the wrong side, and they ended up winning the division.
1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Every club lacks something, and the Cardinals never seem to have enough training tables or whirlpools. Particularly hard-hit last year was the pitching staff, which lost starters Danny Cox and Greg Mathews before the start of the season and bullpen ace Todd Worrell at the end, all to elbow injuries. So this spring manager Whitey Herzog wasn't quite sure of the state of his staff. "I've got 19 pitchers," he said, "and 13 question marks." Worrell won't be back until after the All-Star break, and Cox will open the season on the DL. Fortunately, in the off-season the Cardinals signed free agents Bryn Smith and John Tudor. If Tudor, who also had elbow surgery last year, can return to form, that will give St. Louis a formidable rotation of Joe Magrane (18-9, 2.91), Jose DeLeon (16-12, a league-leading 201 strikeouts). Smith (10-11, 2.84), Tudor and Mathews. To replace Worrell, Herzog will revive the bullpen-by-committee he invented almost 10 years ago. Long live Jeff Lahti!
Outfielder Vince Coleman has a chance this year to tie Maury Wills's record for most consecutive seasons leading the National League in stolen bases (six). Coleman had a particularly anemic year at the plate in '89 (.254, .316 on-base average), and despite an off-season tutorial with appropriately named batting coach Steve Braun, he might have to steal time away from the Cards' other regular outfielders—moving left to right, former MVP Willie McGee, Milt Thompson (.290, 68 RBIs, 27 stolen bases) and Tom Brunansky, who hit at least 20 homers in each of the last eight seasons. Significantly, Coleman, McGee and Brunansky can all be free agents at the end of the year. So if you believe in salary drives, you'll believe in the Cardinals.
They also have the best infield in the game: Pedro Guerrero (.311, 117 RBIs) at first, Jose Oquendo (.291) at second, Ozzie Smith (29 stolen bases, 50 RBIs) at short and Terry Pendleton (74 RBIs) at third. Playing in St. Louis has done wonders for Guerrero, who was considered a bad influence by the Dodgers. "They leave me alone here," he says. "All I have to do is hit. And catch the ball. Sometimes."
2. NEW YORK METS
"This is the sixth year in a row the Mets will be favored to win the division," says Herzog. "Even I like 'em. I would certainly like to have some of their pitching. And they made a pretty good trade with the Dodgers." That trade is the one in which the Mets acquired reliever Alejandro Pena and first baseman Mike Marshall for center-fielder Juan Samuel. The Mets also traded their left-handed closer, Randy Myers, to the Reds for their lefthanded closer, John Franco. On paper New York looks formidable. But then, the team looked that way last year too—and ended up finishing a distant second to the Cubs.
Disappointment has become old hat at Shea. The 1990 Elias Baseball Analyst points out that of the eight teams that won two thirds of their games in the last 50 years, only the 1986 Mets failed to return to the World Series within the next two seasons. "We're all still a little embarrassed by last year," says pitcher David Cone, who went from 20-3 in '88 to 14-8 last season. "There was a lot of individualism, and it seemed to pull us apart. But the consensus is that we're going to weed out that negative mentality. I really believe that we're in transition to a new club."
You may recall that on Picture Day in the spring of '89, outfielder Darryl Strawberry took a swing at first baseman Keith Hernandez. Well, at Picture Day this spring, manager Davey Johnson mockingly separated Strawberry from Gooden as if they were fighting. Everybody laughed. Meanwhile, prima donna second baseman Gregg Jefferies has made a concerted effort to be one of the guys this spring. So maybe morale won't be a problem.
That doesn't mean the Mets don't have any concerns. The new centerfielder, Keith Miller, is untested. The platoon of Barry Lyons and Mackey Sasser at catcher leaves the Mets the weakest they have been at that position since the days of Choo Choo Coleman. And if third baseman Howard Johnson can't repeat his MVP-like season (36 homers, 101 RBIs, 41 steals), then Strawberry (.225, 29 homers, 77 RBIs) or leftfielder Kevin McReynolds (22 homers. 85 RBIs) will have to pick up the slack.
But, oh, the pitching. If you were to take the better of the past two seasons for each of the six starters—Gooden, Cone, Frank Viola, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Bob Ojeda—they would have a combined record of 106-44, and the two relievers—Franco and Pena—would have a total of 51 saves. This may be the best staff assembled since that of the '71 Orioles, who had four 20-game winners. To avoid giving his starters six days' rest, manager Davey Johnson has demoted Ojeda to the bullpen for the moment. Like everyone else, Ojeda must be wondering why one of the Mets' aces wasn't traded long ago for a catcher or a centerfielder.
3. CHICAGO CUBS
"Last year we seemed to have to make excuses for winning," says Cub first baseman Mark Grace. "It was either our chemistry, or we were getting the breaks, or something else. Finally, toward the end of the year, I said, 'You know why we're winning? Because we're a good team.' " And they still are. Any team with Grace (.314, 79 RBIs), second baseman Ryne Sandberg (.290, 30 homers, 76 RBIs), shortstop Shawon Dunston (19 steals, 60 RBIs) and former MVP Andre Dawson would have to be considered a contender. Of course, the same could have been said last spring, when nobody, including SI, gave the Cubs a chance.
The two biggest factors in the Cubs' surprising turnaround last year were rookie outfielders Jerome Walton (.293, 24 steals) and Dwight Smith (52 RBIs in 343 at bats), the first position players from the same team to finish 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year voting since Fred Lynn and Jim Rice did it for the 1975 pennant-winning Red Sox. However, if there is any truth to the theory of the Sophomore Slump, the Cubs may be in trouble. The '76 Red Sox, after all, finished third.
And that's not all that Chicago has to worry about. Dawson has still not recovered from knee surgery. Catcher Damon Berry-hill won't be able to play until May because of a shoulder injury, and the Cubs were only 39-39 last year in games he didn't catch. Luis Salazar is a nice player to have on your bench, but do you want him as your starting third baseman?
Manager Don Zimmer can still list Greg Maddux (19-12) and Mike Bielecki (18-7) as probable pitchers, but after them he doesn't know what to expect, especially now that Rick Sutcliffe (16-11) is on the DL. Zimmer also doesn't know what to expect from closer Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams, who saved 36 games but blew another 11 opportunities. Nevertheless, general manager Jim Frey is optimistic. "I'll admit, we got some breaks last year." he says. "But my father used to say to me. 'Who deserves good luck any more than us?' I can't think of anyone. Can you?" Nope. After all, the Cubs haven't won a world championship since 1908.
4. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Last year at this time the young Pirates were considered contenders. But then in one fell swoop they lost closer Jim Gott (elbow injury), first baseman Sid Bream (knee), centerfielder Andy Van Slyke (rib cage) and catcher Mike LaValliere (knee) for all or a big chunk of the season. To strengthen their roster, the Pirates picked up catcher Don Slaught, infielder Wally Backman and pitchers Ted Power and Walt Terrell. However, as one National League scout put it, "They needed some cement, but all they got was spackle."
Pittsburgh is also making one position change, moving Bobby Bonilla to rightfield from third base, where he was either going to kill himself or some of the people sitting behind first base. What does having the 6'3", 230-pound Bonilla in right mean? "It means I'm going to think twice about racing after a line drive in the gap," says Van Slyke. "I don't want to find out the physics of running into a 230-pound moving object at 22 miles an hour." Actually, it means the Pirates have one of the better outfields in baseball, with Bonilla (.281, 24 homers), Van Slyke (.288, 100 RBIs in '88) and Barry Bonds (19 homers, 32 stolen bases).
The pitching is good news and bad news. John Smiley (12-8, 2.81) and Doug Drabek (14-12, 2.80) make a good lefty-righty combination, but after that the Pirates have Bob Walk (13-10, 4.41), Neal Heaton (6-7, 3.05) and Terrell (11-18, 4.49). The Pirates' closer is Bill Landrum. who came out of nowhere—sorry, Buffalo—to save 26 games for the Bucs last year. But the bullpen has very little depth. How little? Well, if you scan the Pirates' Opening Day roster, you will find the answer to the trivia question. Whatever happened to Doug Bair?
5. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
This is a much different team from the one that left Clearwater a year ago. Owner Bill Giles says he will be disappointed if the Phillies don't finish at .500, and although that's asking a lot, keep in mind that they were only eight games under .500 after June 20. If the Phillies are somehow in the hunt as the division race turns for home, look out.
That said, the future is, well, Hayes-y. The Phils have Von Hayes (26 homers, 28 stolen bases) in right, but he is their most marketable commodity, and if he can bring the Phillies a frontline starting pitcher and a regular, he's gone. They also have Charlie Hayes at third, which doesn't thrill people accustomed to Mike Schmidt. As manager Nick Leyva pointed out before the shortened spring training, "This may benefit Charlie. He won't have time to lose his job."
The Phillie catchers—Darren Daulton, Steve Lake and Tom Nieto—combined for a dismal .211 average last year, with 10 homers and 58 RBIs, but the rest of the lineup is solid. In fact, centerfielder Lenny Dykstra is as solid as a rock after a conditioning program that left him looking, in one teammate's words, like "Lenny Canseco."
Unfortunately, the Phillies' pitching staff is not as strong. The number 1 starter, Ken Howell (12-12, 3.44), had only four major league starts before last year; the number 2 starter, Pat Combs, has six major league appearances; and the number 3 starter. Bruce Ruffin, had to go to the minors last year to battle back from Steve Blass Disease. Howell isn't exactly a master of control, either. He had 21 wild pitches last year, the most by any National League pitcher since Tony Cloninger threw 27 away in 1966. But you have to like Howell's attitude. He said this spring that he had his sights set on the National League record of 30, set by Red Ames in 1905.
If the Phillies go into the late innings with a lead, they won't have to worry. Jeff Parrett (12-6, 2.98) may be the best setup man in baseball, and Roger McDowell had 19 saves and a 1.11 ERA after moving over from the Mets last June. The Phillies had better go into the ninth inning ahead, though; they haven't won a home game in which they trailed in their last at bat since 1987.
6. MONTREAL EXPOS
Gone from a team that finished .500 last year are rightfielder Hubie Brooks and pitchers Bryn Smith. Pascual Perez and Mark Langston, all of whom opted for more money Stateside. The one premier pitcher who remained, Dennis Martinez, is unhappy with his contract and threatened his own personal "lockout" this spring. Third baseman Tim Wallach, a four-time All-Star, is also making noises about leaving. And club owner Charles Bronfman informed reporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., that les Expos were on the block.
For sale: baseball team with tricolored uniforms and history of unfulfilled expectations; a few stars left; outstanding farm system; unappealing stadium not included; $90 million U.S.
"Sometimes you have to take chances," says general manager Dave Dombrowski, who traded three of his best young pitchers to Seattle in '89, betting that Langston could pitch the Expos to the division title. "I think I would have felt worse if we had finished a game or two out. That way I would have wondered what else we could have done."
To make up for the exodus of their pitchers, the Expos signed free agents Oil Can Boyd, Dave Schmidt and Joaquin Andujar. Said Andujar to Dombrowski, "Don't pay me until after I win 20." Andujar's fastball did not match his bravado, however, and he was released last week. Boyd looked pretty good this spring, though. Besides Oil Can and Martinez, the rotation will include Zane Smith, Kevin Gross and Mark Gardner. Between them and closer Tim Burke, there is virtually nothing.
The Expos are hoping that young outfielders Larry Walker, the fifth native Canadian to play for Montreal, and Marquis Grissom, a speedster who's already being compared with Andre Dawson, will do for them what Walton and Dwight Smith did for the Cubs last year. The competition at second base is heavy, but the aforementioned Delino DeShields may yet win the job. The bottom line is that this is going to be a rebuilding year for the Expos. As they say on the streets of Montreal, Attendez I'annèe prochaine.
READING THE SIGNS
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Pedro Guerrero at bat with runners on base. Last year he led the majors in go-ahead RBIs (40) and in knocking in runners in scoring position (35.9%).
Guerrero at first. In '89, his zone rating as a first baseman was .745--the lowest of any fielder in the majors.
NEW YORK METS
Gregg Jefferies's hidden stats. He led the majors last year in line-drive outs with 55 and had the NL's third-highest on-base average at leadoff (.380).
Darryl Strawberry's hidden stats. He had the NL's lowest average in '89 against the top 15 pitchers (.162) and the third-lowest in the late innings of close games (.134).
Aggressive base running. Last year the young Cubs took an extra base 46.9% of the time--the second-highest percentage in the majors.
Blue Berryhill. Catcher Damon Berryhill is on the DL again, and that's not good. In '89 Chicago's ERA was 2.88 with him behind the plate and 4.01 without him.
A healthy Andy Van Slyke. In '89 Van Slyke's zone rating fell to .776, the lowest in the majors for a centerfielder. Now he's back in Gold Glove form.
Starters without much staying power. Last year, Bob Walk's and Walt Terrell's ERAs rose by 3.08 and 3.04, respectively, after the sixth inning.
Hot middle infielders. Last year the Phillies' middle men, led by SS Dickie Thon and 2B Tommy Herr, had the NL's second highest on-base average (.343).
Steve Blass Disease. In '89 the Phillies' staff led the NL in walks for the second straight season, with 613, and tied the league record for wild pitches (91).
Le Grand Trio—Tim Raines, Tim Wallach and Andres Galarraga. In '87 the Expos were supposed to flop, but these three kept them in the race.
Le Petit Trio—Dennis Boyd, Zane Smith and Kevin Gross. They need a miracle to match Mark Langston, Pascual Perez and Bryn Smith's combined ERA (2.87).