What we have here is a whole new ball game. In the off-season, the NL West opened its arms to refugees from Tokyo to Montreal. The Reds got a new manager, Lou Piniella, who was fleeing persecution in the Bronx. The Padres got a centerfielder, Joe Carter, from exotic Cleveland. The Astros got pitcher Bill-san Gullickson, late of the Yomiuri Giants. The Dodgers got two starting outfielders, Juan Samuel from the Mets and Hubie Brooks from the Expos. A person could get a headache trying to figure out what's going to happen in this division.
This is an article from the April 16, 1990 issue
This much is certain: The Giants will have a hard time defending their National League title. Who'll be on top of the pile on Oct. 5? Well, after weeks of research, we have concluded that the winner will be—eeny, meeny, miney, mo—the Padres.
1. SAN DIEGO PADRES
The Padres have one of the most impressive lineups in baseball: Bip Roberts 3b, Roberto Alomar 2b, Tony Gwynn rf, Jack Clark 1b, Joe Carter cf, Benito Santiago c, Fred Lynn If, Garry Templeton ss. This is a decided improvement even on last year's team, which tied Oakland for the best second-half record (47-27).
Carter, who had 35 homers and 105 RBIs last year, is the best player in the game never to have been named to an All-Star team. On the first day of spring training, he hit a 450-foot shot that damaged a car owned by backup first baseman Rob Nelson, whose license plate reads HIT 1 DEP. Carter's presence is also cheering up his good friend Gwynn, who is feeling a little put-upon, seeing how he's only the seventh-highest paid Padre and the club has refused to renegotiate. Owner Joan Kroc is selling the club to a group headed by television producer Tom Werner, however, and the new owners might reopen talks with Gwynn, who has a chance to become the first player since Rogers Hornsby to lead the league in hitting four years in a row.
San Diego's biggest concern is replacing Cy Young Award winner Mark Davis, who signed with Kansas City as a free agent. The Padres acquired another lefthanded closer. Craig Lefferts, and while he may not be Cy Young material, he and righthanded closer Greg Harris should pick up most of the slack. The rotation is fairly solid, with Bruce Hurst (15-11 with a 1.29 ERA in seven no-decisions), Ed Whit-son (16-11, 2.66), rookie Andy Benes (66 strikeouts in 56⅖ innings) and Eric Show (8-6 before missing the second half with a back ailment). When Show, the iconoclastic, nonnewspaper-reading righthander, showed up this spring, he asked the beat writers, "Whatever happened to Pete Rose, anyway?"
2. CINCINNATI REDS
Rose is gone from baseball, which means, of course, that he is no longer managing the Reds. His place has been taken by Lou Piniella, who finally escaped the grasp of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Joining the Reds has been something of a homecoming for Piniella, who grew up in Tampa, where Cincinnati once trained. "I used to retrieve baseballs that went over the fence, then sell them to get into the park," says Piniella. "I remember guys like Johnny Temple, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Ted Kluszewski."
The 1990 Reds don't have a Klu, although they do have Todd Benzinger (.245, 76 RBIs) at first. The rest of the division doesn't have a clue as to how strong these Rose-less Reds will be. Injuries to shortstop Barry Larkin, pitcher Danny Jackson and third baseman Chris Sabo are what undid the Reds last year, but all three appear to be healthy again. The Reds would also like to get a few extra games out of the most gifted player in baseball, centerfielder Eric Davis (34 homers, 101 RBIs, 21 steals), who has never played more than 135 in a season.
Cincinnati's pitching is threadbare beyond Tom Browning (15-12), Jose Rijo and Jackson. But in the late innings, Piniella can turn the heat on, with Norm Charlton (98 strikeouts in 95‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings), Tim Birtsas (57 in 69⅖), Randy Myers (88 in 84‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®) and Rob Dibble (141 in 99). Neither Dibble nor Myers is of this world: This spring they posed together for a picture in The Tampa Tribune-Times holding a water moccasin caught in the pond next to Cincinnati's training facility in Plant City. If the Reds aren't snakebit this year, they should be contenders.
3. ATLANTA BRAVES
The bad news is that the Braves batted .234 last year, lowest in the majors. The good news is that the '85 Giants, the '86 Cardinals and the '87 Dodgers all finished last in the league in hitting, and within two years, each was a division winner. Not surprisingly, Atlanta finished last in hitting at four positions in '89: catcher (.191), first base (.230), third base (.213) and shortstop (.222). So general manager Bobby Cox did a very sensible thing: He acquired a catcher (Ernie Whitt), a first baseman (Nick Esasky) and a third baseman (Jim Presley) and moved Jeff Blauser third to short, his natural position. Those changes, coupled with the maturation of a talented pitching staff, have Atlanta unusually optimistic. 'This year [manager] Russ Nixon told us in spring training that we had a chance to be contenders." says Blauser. "Actually, he told us pretty much the same thing last year. Except this year, I believe him."
Nixon's credibility is helped by the arrival of the aforementioned newcomers. Presley will try to reverse the trend in his home run output, which has declined steadily from 28 in 1985 to 12 last season. Esasky has a history of hitting well in Atlanta from his days with the Reds. His 14 home runs in 112 at bats there project to about 30 for a full season, and that's just at home. Whitt, who was acquired as much for his handling of pitchers as for his bat, is one of the few catchers in the league capable of hitting 10 homers and driving in 50 runs.
The Braves have a nice rotation, led by Tom Glavine (14-8, 3.68 in '89) and John Smoltz (12-11, 2.94), and it will be even nicer when lefthander Steve Avery, the best pitching prospect in the game, comes up in mid-season. The bullpen, which lost 35 games last year, is still in a state of flux. That's why Cox continues to talk to the Red Sox about Lee Smith. If the Braves can't import a stopper, they'll go with rookie lefthander Mike Stanton, who looked brilliant in a brief audition last September.
4. HOUSTON ASTROS
The Astros chances depend not so much on newcomers but on two holdovers who had less than sterling years in '89: second baseman Bill Doran and centerfielder Gerald Young. "Nobody in America did their job as badly as I did mine last year," says Doran, who hit .266 with 49 RBIs before the All-Star break and .131 with nine RBIs after it. "I just stunk." As for Young, he hit .233 and stole 34 bases, which (for him) was disappointing because of his extraordinary speed. The club hopes that Young's impending eligibility for salary arbitration will be an incentive for him to improve his baserunning and bunting. Oddly, it was a catcher, Craig Biggio, who was the Astros' star on the base paths. He stole 21 bases in 24 attempts, a remarkable 88% success rate. Unfortunately, those who ran on him succeeded 83% of the time.
Last year the rotation was nicknamed Scott and Deshaies and Pray for Three Days. Houston was 45-22 in games that Mike Scott or Jim Deshaies started, and 41-54 in the rest. That record would have been even worse if Mark Portugal hadn't gone 7-0 after midseason. Portugal is back, but so is Jim Clancy, who finished just one of his 26 starts. Bill Gullickson is also in the rotation, though his junkball repertoire is not quite what the Astros had in mind. His last major league assignment was with the Yankees in '87, and he already senses that the Astros are closer in temperament to the Japanese than to the Yankees. "You could put the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in New York," he says, "and there'd be personality conflicts."
5. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Speaking of New York, the Dodgers are beginning to look like Yankees West. The current team might have won 125 games four years ago. Back then. Kirk Gibson, Eddie Murray, Hubie Brooks, Willie Randolph, Juan Samuel. Alfredo Griffin, Kal Daniels and Jim Gott were young, spry, eager—and with other teams. But now the Dodgers, whose organization once basked in the future, seem hopelessly intent on recapturing the past. Only two regulars, catcher Mike Scioscia and third baseman Jeff Hamilton, came up through the ranks, and Scioscia has been around since 1980. "It's hard to believe the two teams [the '88 world champions and the '90 Dodgers] existed in this same locker room," says pitcher Orel Hershiser. "The names have changed so much. There are personalities that have yet to mingle."
Gibson may have given the Dodgers more than just the '88 World Series; he may have given them his career. The left hamstring he injured in the playoffs that year has turned out to be a more serious ailment than expected, and his legs are so bad that he was taking batting practice on his knees this spring. Los Angeles keeps talking about Gibson's coming back, but nobody is counting on him. The other leftfielder, Kal Daniels, is coming off his fifth knee operation and can't go full tilt. With former second baseman Samuel in center, former shortstop Brooks in right and somebody limping in left, a fly ball to the Dodger outfield may be a bigger amusement than Space Mountain.
The Dodgers should score more than last year, when the entire offense went on the Slim-Fast program. L.A. finished last in the league in seven offensive categories, while its pitchers wound up first in five categories. No wonder the Dodgers became the first team since the 1972 Indians to have a staff ERA under 3.00 and finish under .500.
The mound personnel is little changed from a year ago. Gott, when healthy, will take the place of setup man Alejandro Pena, who was traded to the Mets with Mike Marshall for Samuel. Look for John Wetteland (96 K's in 102⅖ innings) to blossom in a rotation that already includes Hershiser (15-15, 2.31), Tim Belcher (15-12, 2.82), Ramon Martinez and Fernando Valenzuela. Besides having a mean fastball, Wetteland, also plays a mean saxophone. That skill may come in handy for a reprise of the Dodger Blues.
6. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Forget the sweep in the World Series by Oakland. That the Giants won the division by three games last year is extraordinary, considering that seven of their pitchers went on the disabled list and that their rightfielders hit an aggregate .224. Much of San Francisco's success was due, of course, to Will Clark (.333, 23 homers, 111 RBIs) and Kevin Mitchell (.291, 47 homers, 125 RBIs). How good was Clark? He batted .431 against the pitchers with the league's 10 lowest ERAs. How good was Mitchell? The Elias 1990 Baseball Analyst points out that he is one of only eight players ever to have led his league in all five power categories: homers, RBIs, slugging percentage (.635), total bases (345) and extra-base hits (87). The book also points out that 12 men have walked on the moon.
To fill the hole in right, the Giants picked up former Astro Kevin Bass as a free agent. The top of their lineup looks pretty formidable, with Brett Butler (.283, 31 steals), Bass (.300), Clark, Mitchell and Matt Williams (18 homers, 50 RBIs in 84 games). But after that, San Francisco will bat one of two washed-up catchers. Terry Kennedy or Gary Carter, second baseman Robby Thompson (133 strikeouts) and Jose Uribe (.221).
Already this spring, the Giants have placed four players on the disabled list, and manager Roger Craig must be thinking, oh, no, not again. With Don Robinson down until June with a knee injury and Kelly Downs a regular on the DL, Craig will rely heavily on Rick Reuschel (17-8, 2.94), who turns 41 in May, and nonroster lefthander Russ Swan, who has a total of 16 games of major league and Triple A experience. The phone will be ringing in the bullpen early and often. Fortunately for the Giants, they signed Dan Quisenberry over the winter to provide relief, comic and otherwise.
READING THE SIGNS
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Big gun in the outfield. In '89, Joe Carter was baseball's second-toughest centerfielder to run on, allowing only 46.3% to take an extra base.
Popguns in the pen. Without closer Mark Davis, the Padres will have a hard time repeating their 30-18 record in one-run games last season.
Luck can't get worse. The Reds were hit harder by injuries than any other team in '89: Their subs got 43% of the playing time. That won't happen again.
Luck can't get better. Last year Eric Davis had only 12 line-drive outs. With normal luck, his batting average (.281) should decline 20 to 30 points.
A sure-handed infield. In '89, Atlanta infielders made one error every 14 innings. But this year's starters flubbed only one every 28.
Fickle youth. Derek Lilliquist and Pete Smith had quality starts in 40% and 44.4% of their outings, respectively--the two worst records in the NL.
Hot-corner defense. Last year, Ken Caminiti had a .904 zone rating (outs per ground ball in his area), the highest in the NL for a third baseman.
Cool offense. The Astros defied all wisdom in '89 by finishing 10 games over .500 while scoring fewer runs (647) than they allowed (669).
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Juan Samuel in center. Last year the Dodgers' centerfielders hit a combined .207. If nothing else, Samuel (.260 career) should improve that number.
Samuel leading off. In '89. his leadoff on-base average was .287, six points lower than the Dodgers' leadoff batters' combined total.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The elusive Kevin Mitchell. Last year, he batted .310 against the NL's top 10 ERA pitchers, with eight home runs, 16 RBIs and an .828 slugging average.
The elusive starting rotation. Riddled by injuries, the Giants' starters pitched only 954⅖ innings last year, the NL's second-lowest total.