Toronto blue jay general manager Pat Gillick remembers his preseason prediction for the American League East race: "I figured it would be us and Milwaukee, and I gave Baltimore a shot." He figured wrong. But then most baseball prognosticators guessed wrong this season—about every division.
Who could have figured that the Chicago White Sox would be resurgent in their last season at Comiskey Park? Or that the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be fighting for last place in the National League East? Or that the Kansas City Royals would collapse after spending $19 million on free agents in the off-season? Or that the Cincinnati Reds would dominate the National League West? Or that the Boston Red Sox, never as many as five games above .500 last year, would be 10 games over at the All-Star break?
But if the first half was flabbergasting, the second half looks frighteningly predictable. Maybe.
July 15, 1990
This is a two-team race: the Blue Jays versus the Red Sox. At the break, Toronto had scored 79 more runs and hit 59 more homers than Boston, yet they trailed the Red Sox by a half game. Led by third baseman Kelly Gruber, arguably the league's first-half MVP, the Jays clearly have the most talent in the division. But, says Gillick, "if we're going to give Boston trouble, we can't blow hot and cold as we have." The Blue Jays need to find another starter if they are to become more consistent.
The Red Sox were last in the league in steals and next to last in home runs, and Mike Greenwell hasn't hit much at all. Still, Boston was in first place because of surprising performances from unheralded pitchers Greg Harris, Dana Kiecker and Wes Gardner.
Cy Young-in-waiting Roger Clemens (12-4) doesn't figure to falter. However, the Sox had better keep their fingers crossed with Mike Boddicker (11-4), who has a history of tiring in the second half. But the Red Sox will be in the race until the end. Boston is a good defensive team that rarely beats itself. And catcher Tony Pena's enthusiasm has helped turn a once surly clubhouse into what Harris calls "a real fun place to be."
It's a miracle that the Cleveland Indians were only six games out at the break. Pitchers Greg Swindell and John Farrell and free-agent first baseman Keith Hernandez have all been major disappointments. But the Indians are nonetheless in position to finish a full season within 10 games of first place for the first since 1959, largely because of performances of closer Doug Jones (4-2, with 23 saves); Comeback Player of the Year candidate Candy Maldonado (13 homers and 44 RBIs); and the Rookie of the Year favorite, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. (.294).
The Baltimore Orioles have yet to reproduce the magic, emotion, pitching and defense that levitated them into first place at this time last year. "Last season we felt we were going to win most close games," says manager Frank Robinson. "Now, we hope to win." The Orioles also hope that their best pitcher, Jeff Ballard, rebounds from a 1-9 first half.
The Detroit Tigers had 10 more wins than at the same time last year, thanks to a full-sized Japanese import, Cecil Fielder (major league-leading 28 homers and 75 RBIs); a healthy Alan Trammell (.294); and a fine, though faceless, bullpen led by the revived Mike Henneman (17 saves). There's no reason they can't finish at .500, unless pitcher Jack Morris is traded to a contender down the stretch.
What more could possibly happen to the Milwaukee Brewers? A season that started with such hope (22-14) turned to disaster because of injuries. What's left is a dreadful pitching staff, complemented by the league's worst defense.
All you need to know about where the New York Yankees have been and where they are headed is that they lost a no-hitter by four runs on July 1 in Chicago. Look for attempts to deal veteran outfielders Mel Hall and Claudell Washington. But, then, who would want them?
This will also be a two-team race unless the Oakland A's get angry and tear it wide open. Their air of invincibility was punctured slightly by those pesky White Sox, who rankled the champs with a three-game sweep late in June. And these A's have not hit as well as last year's team, having scored fewer than four runs 35 times. But Oakland unquestionably remains the league's premier team.
That is not to say that Chicago isn't for real. The Sox will annoy Oakland the rest of the way because they have a fabulous bullpen (20 wins) and a spectacular defense. But like last year's upstart Orioles, the White Sox have a weak offense. Baltimore stopped hitting down the stretch and fell short, and the same could happen to the White Sox, who are 13th in the league in runs. Chicago needs a trade for a big bopper to oust the A's.
"There's nothing magical we can do," says John Schuerholz, general manager of the disappointing Kansas City Royals. "We'll keep trying to make a deal. We'll try to convince our players to play harder. We hope to start the second half on the right foot and be one of those miracle teams they talk about."
There will be no miracles, but the Royals may have one big surge in them. And rather than make a bad trade, says Schuerholz, "it might be better to finish the season, come in next year having guys more comfortable and get off to a good start."
The California Angels were last in the league in hitting and 13th in fielding at the break. The missing ingredient: an infield. Manager Doug Rader hasn't been able to find an every-day second baseman, shortstop or third baseman. Centerfielder Devon White is quality trade bait despite having been sent to Triple A Edmonton on July 6, but the Angels will need great pitching even to reach .500.
The Seattle Mariners, who have never ended as high as .500, could pull off that feat this year. They were .512 at the break despite injuries to outfielder Jay Buhner, first baseman Pete O'Brien and pitcher Scott Bankhead. With three solid young starters (Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Erik Hanson, who were a combined 26-16) and a good lineup, things are finally looking up in Seattle.
The same cannot be said for the Texas Rangers. With closer Jeff Russell out until September with an elbow injury, their bullpen is perhaps the league's worst. They won't trade their top prospects, so all they can do now is deal a veteran (Harold Baines?) for pitching. The only second-half drama in Texas will be waiting for Nolan Ryan to win his 300th game.
As for the Minnesota Twins, a horrendous June (7-21), coming after a terrific May (21-7), is a warning to Twins fans to be patient with the team's young pitchers.
The Cincinnati Reds have been in first place or tied for first every day this season, and they led by eight games at the break. There's no reason to believe this will change. "We don't foresee any extended losing streaks, because of our bullpen," says general manager Bob Quinn. The Nasty Boys—Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton—all had at least 51 strikeouts. The only other National League relievers with 50 were the San Diego Padres' Greg Harris and the Cardinals' Lee Smith.
The Reds' fast start has also come without the full services of outfielder Eric Davis, who missed three weeks in April and May with a knee injury and hit only .233 in the first half. Al Rosen, general manager of the San Francisco Giants, says, "I don't see the Reds collapsing. When you lose a player like Davis and don't feel it, you're some kind of club."
Rosen, however, is not conceding the division title, which the Giants won last year. "I think we can win it, but it will be very difficult," he says. "We can't lose two or three in a row." Budding superstar Matt Williams (.297, 17 homers and 69 RBIs) will do his part, but with pitcher Rick Reuschel out for the season, the Giants are probably out of the race.
Watch for the Padres to play very well, as usual, in the second half and, as usual, trick everybody into thinking they are contenders. We won't be fooled again. San Diego has nice players, but where were they in June when the Reds slumped and could have been seriously challenged? It seems that the laid-back atmosphere in sunny San Diego has spread into the Padres clubhouse.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were done when their bulldog, Orel Hershiser, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on April 25 and was replaced in the rotation by John Wetteland. But at least the Dodgers have found a star in second-year pitcher Ramon Martinez, the National League strikeout leader. Youth shall be further served with the arrival of a Triple A sensation, shortstop Jose Offerman.
The Atlanta Braves were done two weeks into the season, but their future is exciting because of young pitchers Steve Avery and Kent Mercker. The Braves can use the second half to develop or trade for a bullpen stopper. And a couple of middle relievers. And a setup man.
The Houston Astros also need a facelift, which should start with the release of veteran pitcher Jim Clancy (2-8). The Astros' minor league system is well stocked, so trading pitcher Mike Scott, who would have big-time value for a contender, is still a possibility. Second baseman Bill Doran is available. And as long as Houston is cleaning house, shortstop Rafael Ramirez should also go.
Bashing the New York Mets was in vogue in early June, but since June 7 they have bashed their way from 9½ games out to within a half game of first place under new manager Bud Harrelson. Behind Darryl Strawberry (nine home runs while the Mets were winning 17 of 20 games before the break), they were leading the league in runs and homers. "A lot can change in a month, can't it?" says Joe McIlvaine, New York's vice-president of baseball operations. If the Mets win the East, he says, "there will be a little extra satisfaction because of the naysayers."
The Mets now look like a smooth-running freight train. And they might still improve. "Our starting pitching hasn't been as good as it's capable of being," says McIlvaine. "If history holds true, we'll see better pitching from the Mets."
The only way the Pittsburgh Pirates can stay with the Mets is if outfielders Barry Bonds (15 homers, 24 steals) and Bobby Bonilla (19 homers) continue to have career years. Pitchers Bob Walk and Ted Power have to get healthy, too, and Neal Heaton (10-4) must repeat his first-half performance. Even if that happens, Walt Terrell remains a worry. The Pirates need another starter.
It's a shame that so many key Montreal Expos—pitchers Tim Burke and Kevin Gross, outfielders Tim Raines and Marquis Grissom and second baseman DeLino DeShields—missed time because of injuries in the first half. These young Expos must have all pistons firing if they are to contend seriously. But this hungry, defense-oriented bunch won't quit the way last year's Expos did in August.
Lenny Dykstra isn't going to hit .400, and the Philadelphia Phillies aren't going to contend, but the Phils' forward strides should continue. The second half will help them determine which of their young pitchers—Dennis Cook, Terry Mulholland, Bruce Ruffin and Pat Combs—are ready to become consistent winners.
The only questions about the Chicago Cubs are whether Ryne Sandberg (.335 with 24 homers) will win the MVP and whether, like Andre Dawson in 1987, he will do it for a last-place Cub team.
Whitey Herzog's stunning resignation as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals on July 6 makes sense in hindsight. Reliever Lee Smith and outfielders Willie McGee and Vince Coleman can become free agents after the season. The pitching has been bad; the defense, surprisingly poor. Some of these Cards have to be dealt. For St. Louis, and for several other teams, the 1991 season starts now.