The subject was the importance of a fast start. The expert was Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who is a coach for the Tigers in spring training and broadcasts their games during the season. "If you get off to a fast start in this division, there's no telling what might happen," he said. "The AL East is so weak that four teams in the West might have a better record than the team that wins the East."
This is an article from the April 16, 1990 issue
Baseball's best division at the beginning of the 1980s is an ordinary one as the '90s roll in. "The power has shifted to the West," says Yankee catcher Rick Cerone. "And mostly because of the pitching." The Orioles were the division's only team that didn't spend a day in last place in 1989. None of the clubs made any major off-season improvements, while two of the division's better players, Joe Carter and Nick Esasky, went to the National League. In the most wide-open division in baseball, you could make an argument for any of the teams to win it. Well, any except the Tigers.
1. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
"It's funny-well, it's not funny—it's ironic: My mother just had rotator cuff surgery," says Toronto lefthander Mike Flanagan. "She beat me to it." Lorraine Flanagan, 64, is recovering nicely. Her son, meanwhile, is healthy and throwing well, as are a dozen Toronto pitchers. It's the deep, balanced pitching that sets this team apart in a weak-armed division.
The starting rotation isn't overpowering, but Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, Dave Stieb, John Cerutti and Flanagan all had ERAs under 4.00 last season—no other team in the league can say that. "And look who we've got coming in [from the bullpen]," says Flanagan. "When Tom Henke got hot last year, it was a big deal when anybody just fouled one off against him." Henke got hot (1.14 ERA) after Cito Gaston replaced Jimy Williams as manager on May 15. The relaxed Jays went 77-49 for Gaston, who says, "I'll do the same thing this year—just let 'em play."
He might change his tune when he sees 'em play in the outfield, where the defense is very shaky—a real liability in the spacious SkyDome. Gaston also lacks an experienced catcher (Pat Borders and Greg Myers platoon) and could use another righthanded hitter (the most impressive new bat belongs to rookie DH John Olerud, who hits lefty). Still, no one in the East can match the Blue Jays' pitching. "They should win it," says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. "They're clearly the best in our division." Such as it is.
2. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Maybe you've heard: The Brewers had a lot of injuries this spring. Surprise, surprise. General manager Harry Dalton's so-called "All-Scar infield" (the Brewers started eight different players at second base last year) has been renamed this spring; Dalton now calls it his "Venus de Milo infield." If the Brewers are healthy, they can win; but every year they're ravaged by injuries. So where do you pick them this year? "Second," says Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly. "For two reasons—Don Baylor and Dave Parker. They're leaders."
Baylor is the new hitting coach, and Parker is the new DH. Neither, however, is an orthopedist. And neither plays in the field, so they can't help with a defense that finished in a three-way tie for last in the majors in '89. Parker, 38, a leader with the A's the last two seasons, was brought in to fill the same role for the Brewers. "Every day Parker walks in the door of the clubhouse," says Baylor, "he's nonstop enthusiasm. That type of attitude is contagious." Says Parker, "I'm just going to be me, a jubilant guy who likes to have fun." And we all know how division titles follow Baylor around.
Together, these two might get the most out of multitalented infielder Gary Sheffield, who brooded much of last season. And maybe they can bring this team a little closer in the clubhouse. "I don't think we had everyone pulling together last year," says third baseman Paul Molitor, who—surprise again—opened the season on the DL with a broken right thumb. "Championship teams have a better chemistry than we had." But even good chemistry won't help bad physiology. Bad shoulders put shortstop Billy Spiers and pitcher Juan Nieves on the DL; Sheffield has had problems with his right wrist.
Better news: Ace pitcher Teddy Higuera (9-6 in just 135 innings, with a variety of ailments last year) is throwing well again. Rookie outfielder Greg Vaughn won't help the Milwaukee defense, but he can hit. He can also run, and should help the Brewers lead the league in steals for the fourth straight year. Vaughn would be better off as the DH, but that's Parker's job.
Perhaps the biggest boon for this team is the 27-man roster. "Yeah," says Dalton, "it will allow us to carry three more doctors."
3. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
In 1989 they asked only for improvement; they got a miracle. The O's zoomed from 54 wins to 87, using magic, mirrors, superb defense and remarkable performances from unlikely players. They played harder and hungrier than anyone, and finished two games out of first. But now comes the hard part: the encore season. "Everyone knows us now; they'll make adjustments," says leftfielder Phil Bradley. "We'll hear it all this year: sophomore jinx, flop, flash in the pan. But we worked very hard last year to put ourselves in position to win." Says manager Frank Robinson, "What I don't like is when people say we snuck up on teams last year. How do you sneak up on someone in September?"
There are other questions Robinson might ask. Is catcher Mickey Tettleton (26 homers in '89—14 more than in any of his eight previous pro seasons) that good? Can Jeff Ballard (18-8) repeat his career year after elbow surgery? Can Rookie of the Year reliever Gregg Olson (no runs allowed after July) match his wondrous '89? The Orioles did virtually nothing to better themselves in the off-season. "Everyone wanted our good young kids, but trading them would be counterproductive," says Robinson. The O's feel they have enough talent now. Says reliever Kevin Hickey, "We're like Bum Phillips said about his Houston Oilers. Last year we knocked on the door. This year we're going to kick the damn thing down."
4. NEW YORK YANKEES
Not long after the U.S. invasion of Panama, Roberto Kelly, a Panamanian, was stopped in his homeland by three Noriega supporters. They put a gun to his head, but then recognized him as the centerfielder for the Yankees and sent him on his way. Now, that's respect, something his team got none of in 1989—deservedly so. The Yanks lost 87 games, used 49 players and started 16 different pitchers. Trashing New York became cool. "People enjoy taking shots at the Yankees," says catcher Rick Cerone. "They don't think we'll be in contention. But they're all going to be wrong."
If Cerone is right, a key reason will be left-fielder Dave Winfield, who sat out 1989 with a back injury. "He's mammoth, not just in size, but in presence," says Mattingly. Even without Winfield, the Yankees finished fourth in the league in hitting last season. And rookie third baseman Mike Blowers should improve on the stats of the seven who manned the position last year: .227, 33 errors, 48 RBIs.
Yankee manager Bucky Dent's job security—is that an oxymoron?—rests mainly with the starting pitching, and most precariously on free-agent acquisition Pascual Perez. But Perez's ERA over the last three years averages out to 2.80, and he struck out 152 batters in '89 with Montreal—54 more than any Yankee. Perez and fellow newcomer Tim Leary (8-14, with only 2.81 runs of support per start with the Dodgers) will be aided by a deep bullpen.
Nevertheless, one American League manager, when told that the Yankees didn't look too bad. said, "What have you been doing, watching old highlight films?" No respect.
5. BOSTON RED SOX
Hey, what's so bad about having two closers in the same bullpen? Even if both are used to being the guy? Jeff Reardon had the most saves in the majors in the '80s; Lee Smith was third. "People ask me if it will work," says Reardon. smiling. "Hell, I don't know."
That, however, is not the most pressing issue for the Red Sox. For example, who is their regular first baseman, with Nick Esasky (30 homers) gone to Atlanta? Bill Buckner is 40; Carlos Quintana, 24, is horrendous defensively: and Billy Jo Robidoux, 26, is a career .212 hitter. Whoever plays first had better supply power: The most potent starting lineup the Red Sox can put together accounted for just 63 homers last season.
Pitching? Sure, Roger Clemens is great and Mike Boddicker is solid, but where from there? John Dopson is a questionable number 3. And number 4 is 27-year-old rookie Mike Rochford. But remember which division we're in here: If the Red Sox can deal Smith for a top-notch starter, they can win. If not, well...more than one writer has predicted that Boston's Joe Morgan will be the first manager fired this season. To which Morgan merely smiles and says, "Yeah, who's second on that list?"
6. CLEVELAND INDIANS
On Aug 4 1989, the Indians pulled within 1½ games of first place. Club president Hank Peters remembers thinking, "Now we'll find out what kind of manager and players we have." On Sept. 12, manager Doc Edwards was fired. The players wound up 16 games out—the 29th straight year Cleveland has failed to finish within 10 games of first in a full season.
After the season, Peters determined that few of his players had ever been on a winning team. So he went looking for winners and acquired first baseman Keith Hernandez of the '86 champion Mets and hired John McNamara, who managed Boston in '86 against those Mets. "We didn't have people who knew how to cope with pressure," says Peters. "Now we do."
The Indians are placing great faith in Hernandez, 36, who taught the Mets how to win in the '80s. Trouble is, Hernandez isn't the same player he was five years ago. He has played a total of 170 games in the last two years, batting .259. "Keith is a great leader," says a former teammate, "but only when things are going well for him."
The Indians finished last in the league in runs scored in 1989, then dealt Joe Carter, their best player. But before burying this team, consider the pitching. Cleveland has four solid starters in Greg Swindell, John Farrell, Tom Candiotti and Bud Black. And watch for rookie lefthander Kevin Bearse. With Doug Jones as the closer, Cleveland has the best pitching in the division after Toronto. "That's the reason I chose this club," says Hernandez.
7. DETROIT TIGERS
Last August, Sparky Anderson looked at his lineup before a home game against Oakland and said to himself, "Why are we even playing this game? Why not just give 'em the win and get 'em out of here. We have no chance."
How bad was it? Detroit lost 103 games, used 46 players, was last in the league in ERA and batting and gave up the most unearned runs (97) in the majors. Credit the Tigers with trying to improve themselves in the off-season, but how much help did they really get? They added first baseman-DH Cecil Fielder, who hit 38 home runs last year—for the Hanshin Tigers. The new centerfielder is Lloyd Moseby, who batted a career-low .221 last season and was gladly let go by Toronto. From Baltimore, Detroit got unwanted DH Larry Sheets, who has struggled for two years. The Tigers doubled what the A's were willing to pay Tony Phillips, their new third baseman and leadoff hitter.
"Look," says Anderson, "before we even start, we're better than we were, that's a cinch. To say we have a chance to win it, that's tough. But we could do what Baltimore did last year." For Detroit to have any chance at that, it desperately needs comeback years from pitcher Jack Morris, who hurt his elbow last year and fell to 6-14, and shortstop Alan Trammell, who suffered a variety of injuries, dropping his average 68 points. A return to '88 form by pitcher Jeff Robinson would also aid Anderson's cause.
"We'll be presentable," says Anderson. "I don't think we're as ugly as they're painting us to be." Alas, the cellar is always ugly.
READING THE SIGNS
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
A full year in the SkyDome. The Jays got off to a dismal. 12-14 start at Exhibition Stadium in '89. But they went 34-21 in the Dome after moving there on June 5.
A full year of Mookie Wilson"s arm. Last year, on hits to Wilson in center, runners took an extra base 62.8% of the time-the fifth worst record in the majors.
A new DH. Dave Parker (.264,22 homers, 97 RBIs) should be a big improvement over last year's DHs (.238, 10 homers, 67 RBIs).
An old story. In '88 and '89 Paul Mohtor played 150-plus games for only the third and fourth times in his injury-plagued career. He opened the season on the DL.
Patience at the plate. The O's had the waitingest hitters in the majors (3.78 pitches per plate appearance), and Randy Milligan looked longest of all (4.23).
Reality at the plate. Mickey Tettleton's weak second half (six homers, 14 RBIs) bodes a return to pre-Froot Loops form--less than seven homers, 31 RBIs a year.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Late-innings magic. Pascual Perez and Tim Leary fade early, but don't fret. In '89 the top five relievers had a 3.35 ERA (compared with the top starters' 4.23).
A lopsided lineup. The Yanks were 44-59 and batted .255 against righties last year. They could use some strong lefthanded hitters besides Don Mattingly.
BOSTON RED SOX
A real catcher. In the last three years, the Cards' ERA was 0.60 lower with Tony Pena behind the plate. He's not bad at the plate, either (.274 career).
The curse of spring. Newly acquired reliever Jeff Reardon is a notoriously slow starter--2-7,4.98 ERA in April and May over the last three seasons.
The flowering of Chris James. His batting average went from .201 in the first half of '89 to .282--the fifth-biggest jump in the majors. Is he on his way?
The wilting of Cory Snyder. At 27, he should be at his peak, but in '89 he hit .215 and had the lowest on-base average in the AL (.251).
The law of averages. Alan Trammell will be back after hitting .243 in '89, the biggest drop-off in the AL. Remember: He has hit over .310 four times since '83.
The law of averages. The Tigers' bench was the worst in the majors last year in batting average (.222), on-base average (.283) and slugging percentage (.319).