All managers are skippers, and players everywhere "test the free-agent waters." But this division has gone overboard, if you will, with the nautical imagery. Front-office types spent the winter swashbuckling for players. "Every time we fired a shot across someone's bow," says Braves general manager John Schuerholz, "they fired two back across ours." Owners spent money like drunken sailors. Those who didn't, faced mutiny: On a choppy Red Sea, Cincinnati pitcher Jack Armstrong threatened to bob alone in a tuna boat.
In San Diego, the Padres' new caps are navy, and rightfielder Tony Gwynn hopes this season is not an adventure, it's just a job. The Reds, Dodgers and Giants may well set a high-water mark for baseball's best division by becoming the first three teams in the West to win 90 games in the same season. Any one of the three could ride a title wave.
1. CINCINNATI REDS
"Nothing is different," says shortstop Barry Larkin. Indeed, for the champions of the world, the world hasn't changed much. Bookshelves do not buckle beneath the weight of such titles as Schottzie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush or Dibble's Book: As Dictated to Schottzie. The sign on the restaurant off 1-4 in Plant City, Fla.—DENNY'S WELCOMES THE CINCINNATI REDS—was not modified to mention a World Series triumph. Eric Davis, eviscerated by fans and ownership alike last season, found himself being shooed from the batting cage and wondering aloud, "What is this, Abuse Me Day?"
"The atmosphere is the same," says Larkin. "I don't see anybody being content." Cynics say he hasn't seen any teammates being content with their contracts, except Jose Rijo, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal this spring. Others point to general manager Bob Quinn, who was clearly content with the Reds' roster. And why not? "There's no reason the Reds shouldn't be the favorites," says San Francisco G.M. Al Rosen. "They haven't done anything to hurt themselves."
Not hurting themselves was the team's primary concern in training camp. "Don't worry about repeating," manager Lou Piniella told his players when camp opened. "Worry about getting through here healthy." Having done that, the Reds have every reason to feel secure in their chances of becoming the first team to repeat in the NL West since the Dodgers did so in 1978.
Things will only get better. Cincinnati fielded the youngest team in the league in 1990, when its starting lineup averaged 27.8 years. The Reds played .500 ball for the final four months of their championship season and got a career-best year from no player but Larkin, who merely had the best year so far in a career that is climbing.
The Reds do have one hole, but it is hardly gaping. "We need a lefty setup man to replace me," says former Nasty Boy Norm Charlton, who assumes the starting slot vacated by Danny Jackson, a free-agent signee by the Cubs. Piniella's strongest candidate this spring was Gino Minutelli, who at least sounds Nasty but, apparently, not nasty enough to make the team. Even without Charlton, this pen is still mightier than any other in baseball.
"We're not looking over our shoulder," says Larkin. "It's more like looking straight ahead. We're not worried about having to beat the Dodgers. Or whoever."
2. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
At least one observer thinks that the acquisition of Darryl Strawberry and Brett Butler does not bode well for the Dodgers. "That will put pressure on them," he says. "Remember, when you get too much talent, the egos start flying." That, anyway, is the humble opinion of Cincinnati reliever Rob Dibble.
Whether the ego has landed for the born-again Strawberry may be immaterial. "Darryl is a given," says pitcher Orel Hershiser. "You know he's going to hit 30 homers and drive in 90 runs. But signing Butler gives us speed at the top of the order, a legitimate leadoff hitter and a centerfielder. Those were three huge holes."
The Dodgers have three more huge holes, however, and they're all in a row round the horn. These three positions may determine L.A.'s position in the standings:
Third base. Said one Dodger, "We're pulling guys off the streets to play there."
Shortstop. Alfredo Griffin broke no records last season, but did pretty much the same thing semantically: He damaged a disk, leaving L.A. with a 34-year-old, .210-hitter with a bad back to anchor the infield. The heir apparent, 22-year-old super-prospect Jose Offerman, frequently looked more like Oh-fer-man when he batted .155 in 29 games last year.
Second base. Juan Samuel had the lowest fielding percentage of any starting second baseman in the majors last season while batting .242. He remains a Dodger only because G.M. Fred Claire offered Samuel salary arbitration, guessing that he would sign elsewhere as a free agent and that L.A. would get a draft pick as compensation. Claire guessed wrong.
At most other positions, however, the Dodgers are as deep as Camus. "They have a lot more depth than any team in our division," says San Diego manager Greg Riddoch. Not that they need it offensively. Strawberry, first baseman Eddie Murray and leftfielder Kal Daniels totaled 90 home runs and 297 RBIs in '90. So what if Murray is the only dangerous righthanded hitter? These guys are Left Coasters. It is time to see if they can be West coasters as well.
3. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
He brought riches to Rags, put Bud in the black and gave Gs to McGee. Al Rosen dropped more than a dime on reliever Dave Righetti, lefthander Bud Black and centerfielder Willie McGee last winter and was accused of profligacy by his fellow G.M.'s.
The bottom lines: 1) Owner Bob Lurie shelled out $33 million for the trio and 2) the Giants better not finish third. "This is the best club I've ever had going into a season," says manager Roger Craig, whose team won the pennant two years ago. "If I don't mess things up, we should have a great season. Al Rosen and Bob Lurie said to me, 'We got you the players, now it's up to you.' In a way, they were kidding. But I love that kind of pressure."
By August, Craig will realize that they weren't kidding, and that, come to think of it, he doesn't love that kind of pressure.
McGee was the league's batting champion in '90. But he replaces Brett Butler, baseball's co-leader in hits last year, in centerfield without replacing him in the leadoff slot. McGee will bat second, and Robby Thompson, who has averaged 109 strikeouts for each of his five major league seasons, moves to the top of the order, where he doesn't plan to cut down on his K rations. "Just because I'm hitting leadoff," says Thompson, "I can't leave my aggressiveness in the dugout. I've got to be me."
Expect San Francisco pitchers to be themselves as well. Both Don Robinson and Rick Reuschel are recovering from knee surgery, but neither of the 240-pounders will ever see their scars. Twenty-six-year-old John Burkett (14-7 in '90) is the staff ace, though this is the first season he has made an Opening Day roster. While Burkett acknowledges that he doesn't throw all that hard, he is quick to point out that he made his Professional Bowlers Association debut in the off-season and that "I get the [bowling] ball up there much harder than most of those guys."
The pitching staff's much ballyhooed new receiver is Steve Decker, who looks like Richie Cunningham with a cannon. "I like to think of myself as a pretty bright guy," Decker said one day this spring. "Not an idiot." Nevertheless, when the battery is Black & Decker, Steve will be required to wear the power tools of ignorance.
The Giants still have the game's best three, four and five hitters in Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell and Matt Williams. Several times this summer that trio will send opposing pitchers to the showers at Candlestick. Don't underestimate the importance of this. Last season the drought-conscious Giants installed shower heads in their clubhouse that reduced water flow to a dribble. This season the Giants have removed those shower heads—and installed them in the visitors' clubhouse.
4. ATLANTA BRAVES
The day camp opened, instructor Willie Stargell emerged from the Braves' clubhouse, lowered his highway-patrol shades, surveyed the field and announced, "This is one ugly group."
U-G-L-Y, the Braves ain't got no alibis. After signing free-agents Rafael Belliard, Juan Berenguer, Sid Bream, Mike Heath, Terry Pendleton and Deion Sanders, management cannot be blamed should the team again finish last. Or finish no higher than fifth, as Atlanta has done for the past six years. Or continue its astonishing streak of 22 consecutive months of losing baseball. "We all see what the Dodgers and Giants have done," says Cincinnati G.M. Bob Quinn. "But the Braves—look at Pendleton and Bream and Heath. And they have a great outfield."
Last season's Rookie of the Year, Dave Justice, is in right, the Comeback Player-of-the-Year, Ron Gant, who did 30-30, is in centerfield, and 34-year-old Lonnie Smith may or may not bump Sanders from left-field and the leadoff spot when he returns this month from arthroscopic knee surgery. After he signed a minor league contract in January, Sanders said that he had no intention of playing Peon Deion down on the farm and that his goal was to appear on "TBS or whatever it is." TBS—or whatever it is—is Sanders's employer.
The Braves, at last, are above the poverty line. And—stop us if you've heard this one before—their rotation of Charlie Leibrandt, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Paul Marak is downright upwardly mobile. "Atlanta can't be overlooked," says Giants G.M. Al Rosen. "I've always thought Bobby Cox was an excellent manager, and he's got impact players in Gant and Justice." Of course, this year in this division, that isn't nearly enough.
5. SAN DIEGO PADRES
Even though we are picking them fifth, we wouldn't be surprised if the Padres surprise some people. "This is the type of team that could surprise some people," says Tony Gwynn.
Says manager Greg Riddoch, "I'd like to think this team can surprise some people." Adds first baseman Fred McGriff, "I don't see any reason why this team can't surprise some people."
Riddoch, it will come as no surprise, is a former high school psychology teacher trying desperately to persuade the Padres that they are good. And good-natured, for a change. Riddoch did an impromptu striptease in a hotel lobby this spring, unbuttoning his uniform top to reveal the T-shirt beneath it. The shirt showed a group of Padres standing on a field as a little boy looked admiringly at them.
"I don't even know if guys were rooting for each other last year," says one Padre player, "I think there were guys hoping that their teammates would mess up."
New G.M. Joe McIlvaine immediately established himself as Trader Mac, moving outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar to Toronto for McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez. The trade means Bip Roberts will have to play second base, where he made three errors in the eight games he played there last season. San Diego will overlook his defensive deficiencies. "Last season, three players batted .300 or better with at least 40 extra-base hits and 40 stolen bases," notes The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst. "Two won MVP Awards; the other was Bip."
Bruce Hurst, Ed Whitson and Andy Benes—the nucleus of the staff—will win 40 games among them this season. But Greg Harris has been pulled from the bullpen to become the fourth starter. As for the open fifth slot? Eric Nolte appears to be the winner. He beat out Derek Lilliquist, who is most notable for wearing the lowest-riding pants since George Hendrick donned what appeared to be footsie pajamas, and Wes Gardner, whose best pitches are his print ads for The Gap, which is where most of his fastballs are hit.
6. HOUSTON ASTROS
They serve a drink in a mason jar at a dive called the Big Bamboo, a spring hangout for Astros and others in Kissimmee, Fla. The cocktail is also called the Big Bamboo. "Nobody knows what's in it," jokes a bartender, "and the contents change daily."
The same may be said for Art Howe's lineup this summer. So unfamiliar are most of these players that pitcher Jim Deshaies wore one of those breast-pocket stickers on the first day of camp that read, "Hi, My Name Is: Jim Deshaies." Only he and pitcher Mike Scott remain from Houston's '86 division championship team.
"Last year at this time we had [Dave] Smith, [Larry] Andersen, Danny Darwin, [Juan] Agosto and [Dan] Schatzeder," says Houston pitching coach Bob Cluck of the revamped bullpen. "We had five good pitchers, now all of them are gone."
Thus, the Astros must rely on relievers like Curt Schilling, who, some fear, is worth closer to a farthing. Howe can look on the bright side: Most games shouldn't be close by the late innings. Last year Houston had the league's lowest batting average, scored the fewest runs and got the fewest hits, which is why third base coach Phil Garner is being called baseball's Maytag repairman, the loneliest man in the game.
"We have a lot of hungry guys," says centerfielder Steve Finley. Hungry guys with anemic statistics. Finley will frequently be flanked by Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes and Luis Gonzalez, who represent two of Houston's brightest hopes. Together, the two have hit .150 in 51 major league games.
Before each home game this spring, the Osceola County Stadium P.A. played Frank Sinatra's High Hopes: "Just what makes that little ol' ant/Think he'll move that rubber tree plant?"
This season, the ant can't.