Chasing The A's

IN BASEBALL'S BEST DIVISION, KANSAS CITY AND CALIFORNIA ARE STILL TRYING TO CATCH OAKLAND
April 15, 1990

A group of Scouts Gathered behind home plate before a Royals-Red Sox game this spring and determined that 1) the American League West is the best it has ever been: 2) the AL West is stronger than any division in baseball in the last 10 years; and 3) the AL West has the three best teams in baseball: Oakland. Kansas City and California.

What that means is this division already has its magic number: 100. "Our goal is 100 wins." says John Schuerholz, the Royals' general manager. "Oakland has set high-water marks in this division."

"We have to look at it like we're playing against a golf course, not against other teams." says Angel manager Doug Rader. "Unfortunately, par on this course is 100—or 62, depending on how you look at it."

1. OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Outfielder Dave Henderson was swinging an aluminum bat one day this spring. "I might hit .600 with this thing," he said. How many home runs would you hit? he was asked. "I meant homers. I might hit 600."

He probably believes it. He plays for the world-champion A's. and these guys believe they can do anything. They certainly believe they can repeat as champs: and just in case anyone was still giddy from last year, third baseman Carney Lansford distributed T-shirts to his teammates this spring that read, CONTENTMENT STINKS. STAY FOCUSED. In the off-season, the Royals and the Angels spent millions attempting to reach the Athletics' level, while Oakland lost three players to free agency. What, the A's worry? Says manager Tony La Russa, "No one, including Kansas City, will pitch better than us." Says pitcher Dave Stewart, "We're probably more hungry than last year, because the other teams are better. But we're better too."

But Stew, you guys lost Dave Parker. Storm Davis and Tony Phillips to free agency. "We lost Tony Phillips." says Stewart. After a very long pause, he adds. "We'll miss the big man [Parker] in the middle of the order against righties, but we got Rickey." But Stew. Davis won 19 last year. "We got Scott Sanderson." he says.

A few scary thoughts for the rest of the West: Oakland will have Rickey Henderson for an entire season (he didn't arrive until June 20 last year). Jose Canseco, who missed 88 games with injuries in '89. is in terrific shape after a winter of volleyball ("Bo don't know volleyball." he says). Relief ace Dennis Eckersley missed 40 games last year, shortstop Walt Weiss 65. And the A's still won 99 games, whipped a good Toronto team in the playoffs, then pulverized the Giants in a World Series sweep. (For what it's worth. 30.8% of all Series sweepers have won the Series again the next year.)

Any weaknesses? Well, without Phillips, the A's are less flexible in the infield. Not exactly an insurmountable problem. But what about other signs of trouble? After all. didn't Canseco blast general manager Sandy Alderson for threatening to use Canseco's off-field behavior as a bargaining chip during salary arbitration? Didn't starter Bob Welch have a horrible spring (21 earned runs in 10⅖ innings)? Aren't these omens of difficulty ahead? What about it. Stew? "Ninety-nine wins may not be enough," says Stewart. "We better win 100."

2. KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Before the first exhibition game this spring. G.M. John Schuerholz made a quick rundown of his roster and said. "We need a backup shortstop. But that's it." Then he went out and got one—Steve Jeltz—from the Phillies. Which must mean that the Royals now have all the necessary weapons in their obsessive quest to shoot down the A's. They even hired Oakland's assistant fitness coach and now play the same music during stretching exercises as the A's do.

In fact, though, Kansas City is still short a few bullets. The Royals don't have a lefthanded starter. They don't have a legitimate leadoff man. Mark Gubicza's right shoulder will need a close watch. Few are predicting that newly acquired Storm Davis will win even 12 games, let alone the 19 he won for Oakland in '89. And too often last season, the K.C offense shot blanks: The Royals were shut out 18 times. the most in the AL since the '81 Blue Jays.

Still, the Royals are loaded. They have both reigning Cy Young winners: their own Bret Saberhagen and now Mark Davis, who, for $13 million, brought his plaque with him from San Diego. They added underrated Gerald Perry as a DH-first baseman. They have Bo Jackson, whose batting average, homers and RBIs have increased in each of the last three seasons. And they have a determined George Brett celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his .390 season, during which a flock of reporters trailed him over the final two months. 'The way things have gone for me the last couple of years," Brett says, "people might start following me again if I threaten to hit .290."

Manager John Wathan says he sent a letter to every Royal last winter, "telling them not to get all caught up in the press clippings. We still have to do it on the field." Most of the clips were about Mark Davis: he was overpowering in '89—44 saves in 48 tries—but did the Royals need him that badly? The K.C. pen had a 3.06 ERA last season, and Jeff Montgomery and Steve Farr became the first teammates in AL history to save 18 games each in the same season. But, says Schuerholz, the Royals had to do something major to compete with the mighty A's. They did, and they will.

"Sure they're good," Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog says of Kansas City, where he once managed. "They spent $19 million this winter. They better be good."

3. CALIFORNIA ANGELS

The Senior Professional Baseball Association called Doug Rader last fall to ask if he would be interested in playing. "At the time," says the Angel manager. "I was playing in an over-40 slo-pitch softball league, and those guys were blowing the ball right by me. How could I hit guys throwing even harder?"

Some of California's opponents looked equally overmatched last season facing Rader's fast-pitch staff. The Angels tossed 20 shutouts (which is the most in the AL since '72), finished second in the league in ERA and became the first AL team in the DH era to have three pitchers (162-plus innings) with an ERA under 3.00. In the off-season, they signed Mark Langston for $16 million, giving Rader six starters, which some say is too many. "How do you get it right?" Rader asks. "When you have a duplicity of roles, they say it's unfair. You trade one, they say you don't have enough depth. How can too much pitchingjeopardize you?"

It can't. As one member of the Royals whispered, "If I had to pick, I'd have to go with the Angels, with us and the A's chasing them." California DH Brian Downing certainly hopes so: He is one of two major leaguers (Frank Tanana is the other) who have played in parts of 18 seasons and never made an appearance in the World Series.

A lot depends on Langston. Last year, in the only pennant race of his career, Langston went 3-6 the last two months, as the Expos crumbled. Rader decided against making Langston his Opening Day pitcher to alleviate some of the pressure on him—but, really, shouldn't a $16 million price tag come with a little pressure? Langston gets help from sub-3.00 boys Bert Blyleven, Chuck Finley and Kirk McCaskill, plus lefthander Jim Abbott. And look for Mike Witt, the sixth starter now relegated to the bullpen, to be traded when the right deal comes along.

It's not pitching that will keep the Angels from winning the race, but lack of depth—both infield and outfield—and consistent offense. The Angels led the league in home runs in '89, but were 11th in hitting and 13th in on-base average. Without more ways to score, Rader's going to find it tough to break 100 on this course.

4. TEXAS RANGERS

A scene from spring: Rangers shortstop Jeff Kunkel makes sensational plays in the third and sixth innings, but in the ninth, in a tight game, he boots a simple grounder. That's the Rangers. Terrifically talented, excruciatingly sloppy. Their clubhouse is filled with good players: dominating starters like Nolan Ryan, a top closer in Jeff Russell. .300 hitters like Julio Franco, a budding superstar in Ruben Sierra and bright young talent like right-handed starter Kevin Brown. "Player for player, pitcher for pitcher, we're as good as anyone," says pitching coach Tom House. Game for game, they're not. Texas pitchers have led the league in walks four straight years. The catchers have led the AL in passed balls six years in a row (tying a major league record). The Rangers were second in the league in unearned runs allowed in '89.

With a starting staff that includes Ryan (2,540 career walks), Bobby Witt (6.69 walks per nine innings in his career, second-highest rate in history) and knuckleballer Charlie Hough, walks are expected. But walks don't kill if your team catches the ball, which the Rangers don't. That's a reason why, in '89, Texas pitchers allowed the same batting average as Oakland pitchers, but gave up 138 more runs. The Rangers did sign free-agent center-fielder Gary Pettis, who defensively is without peer. But the infield still features Kunkel, who had the lowest fielding average of any shortstop (minimum 50 games) last year; second baseman Franco's range has decreased dramatically; and Rangers catchers had nearly as many passed balls (42) as RBIs last year (51) and hit .221. Management remains stubbornly hopeful: "There aren't many shortstops in baseball who have the physical ability of Kunkel," says G.M. Tom Grieve, "and there aren't many pitchers who have Witt's ability." But until the Rangers stop self-destructing, they won't crack the Big Three.

5. SEATTLE MARINERS

A few years ago, second baseman Harold Reynolds was walking the streets of Seattle wearing a T-shirt with MARINERS emblazoned across the front. An elderly woman said to him, "Oh, you're in the Marines." "No, ma'am," Reynolds said politely. "I play for the Mariners." "The who?" she said.

Well, things are changing in Seattle. The originally scheduled opener was virtually sold out a month in advance. Ticket prices were lowered, as were prices for hot dogs, soft drinks and beer at the Kingdome. New Mariners chairman Jeff Smulyan went on a number of promotional caravans. People in Seattle are getting interested. "I feel like I've been traded," says Reynolds.

The Mariners are beginning their 14th year and have never had a winning season. But this might be the year they reach .500. which, in this division, would be a major step. "Five hundred?" says Reynolds. "So what? If we finish .500, we'll finish sixth. We have to shoot for the crown." That is totally unrealistic, but there are reasons to believe: Last year, the Mariners had both the youngest hitters (27.1 years old) and the youngest pitchers (26.7) in the league. Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., 20. grew an inch and gained 20 pounds in the off-season. "Genetics," says manager Jim Lefebvre. Says one scout, "Griffey will be the best player in the league in a couple of years."

Kids also populate the starting rotation, including Randy Johnson, 26; Brian Holman, 25; and Erik Hanson, 24—who together have 34 big league victories. The Mariners, and their fans, will still have to practice patience. Johnson, who is 6'10", has encountered more than the usual problems of inexperience: In a game this spring, catcher Dave Valle fired a pickoff throw to second; Johnson reached out and caught it.

6. MINNESOTA TWINS

On the first day of spring training at Tinker Field in Orlando, the Twins had no hot water. The morning of their first exhibition game, they had no water, period. In that game, the Twins led the Dodgers 6-5 entering the eighth. Against two young Minnesota pitchers. Los Angeles scored seven runs on three hits, two walks, two errors and a hit batsman. Minnesota lost 13-6.

The Twins will have hot water in the Metrodome, which is good, because there may be a lot of early showers. And their fans had better get used to the trials of young pitchers. Manager Tom Kelly is searching for a rotation behind Allan Anderson and Roy Smith. Unprovens Kevin Tapani and David West won jobs mainly because Mike Dyer and Mark Guthrie didn't. Says pitching coach Dick Such. "All that potential that we talk about, well, they're going to have to live up to it early."

It isn't of much comfort that the Twins' new closer, converted starter Rick Aguilera, has a grand total of seven major league saves. And his personality doesn't exactly fit the role of wild-eyed stopper: "I'm pretty level-headed," he says, ''but maybe I'll have to act crazy." Maybe he should just concentrate on pitching: His spring ERA. which wasn't helped by a hamstring injury, was 17.55. The Twins offense is as formidable as any in baseball and figures to get a boost from third baseman Gary Gaetti, who hit .419 with three homers this spring and appears determined to atone for last year's .251 performance. But these Twins will lose too many 12-11 games to move up in this crowd.

7. CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Their best player, Carlton Fisk, is 42. Their local TV affiliate dropped them. No one outside Chicago can name their top three starters—which partly explains why they set an AL record last year for fewest complete games (nine). They were the only team without a 20-home run hitter. They were last in the AL in attendance. If there's a team no one knows about or cares about, it's the White Sox. And they're stuck in the AL West.

"We've made big strides, but we could win 80 games and still finish 20 games out," says manager Jeff Torborg. There are hopeful signs in this, their 81st and last season at Comiskey Park (a new stadium will be ready in '91). Young players like outfielder Sammy Sosa and first baseman Carlos Martinez had impressive springs. And the Sox hope that rookie Robin Ventura will end the recent parade of third basemen (15 in four years).

Teams continue to inquire about closer Bobby Thigpen, one of Chicago's few tradable commodities. The White Sox' decision to deal him may be affected by 22-year-old lefthander Scott Radinsky, who saved 31 games last year in Class A and looked great this spring. "That's the kind of stuff that excites me." says pitching coach Sammy Ellis. For the time being, that's about as exciting as it will get.

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TWO PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONThe Royals hope that a double dip of Davis—Storm (left) and Mark—will prove sweet. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONThe fleet Pettis should help Texas's defense.

READING THE SIGNS

Plus

Minus

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Shades of Babe Ruth. DH Ken Phelps has hit one homer every 12.8 at bats against righties since '84. Ruth hit one per 11.8 at bats against all pitchers.

Shades of Rube Walker. Is Terry Steinbach slipping? His batting average fell 84 points in the second half of'89, the fifth-biggest drop in the majors.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

No Flash in the pan. Now that K.C. has better pitching, look for more consistency from Tom Gordon. In '89, his ERA with only three days' rest was 10.59.

Storm warnings. Last year. Storm Davis was 19-7, but the A's scored 6.48 runs per game when he was pitching-the second-highest total given any AL starter.

CALIFORNIA ANGELS

The real Jim Abbott. In '89, he got the worst relief in the majors. If relievers had stranded all of his runners, his ERA would have been 3.18 instead of 3.92.

The real Bert BIyleven and Willie Eraser. Last year, their ERAs dropped 2.70 and 2.17, respectively. Can they keep their numbers that low? It's doubtful.

TEXAS RANGERS

Rafael Palmeiro's clutch RBIs. He had only 64 RBIs in '89, but 40.6% of them put the Rangers ahead-the highest percentage in the majors.

Double whammy. In '89,2B Julio Franco hit into more double plays than anyone else (27). He also had the worst rate of turning DPs for his position (47.1%).

SEATTLE MARINERS

Hot hand. Last year. Pete O'Brien got off to a fast start, hitting .400 in the first month. Don't be surprised if he performs an encore this season.

Cold feet. In '89, Alvin Davis was the least aggressive base runner in the majors. On 62 outfield hits, he took an extra base only 21% of the time.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Twin-barreled attack. In '89, the starting nine had the second-highest average in the majors (.287), even with Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti out part of the season.

Doomed in the Dome. Last year, Allan Anderson's ERA in the Metrodome was 6.47, which was 4.23 higher than his ERA on the road.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

A healthy Ron Kittle. In '89, he had the AL's highest slugging percentage in the cleanup spot (.627), but he got only 169 at bats because of a back injury.

Leadoff in limbo. Last year, the Sox were outscored 97-80 in the first inning, largely because their leadoff hitters had a low combined on-base average (.306).

Statistics compiled by Bob Mecca/Stats, Inc.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)