Any questions before we start? WHY, yes, as a matter of fact. For instance: Will the Chicago Cubs win the World Series? Will the Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series of Poker? How long before Ozzie Smith is discarded? Can the New York Mets make hay without Straw? Can Barry (Zero Interest) Bonds find happiness and motivation in Pittsburgh?
What is the meaning of life? Or at the very least, what is the meaning of that baseball conundrum USA Today ran in February? "As he does every year," the paper noted, "Ryne Sandberg showed up five days earlier than expected." If Sandberg reports five days early every year, wouldn't the Cubs expect it? Just wondering.
And now, for a few answers.
1. CHICAGO CUBS
April 14, 1991
Ever since Chicago dropped $30 million to acquire free agents George Bell, Danny Jackson and Dave Smith during the off-season, manager Don Zimmer has looked like the gerbil that swallowed the canary. "This team, if it stays healthy, should win the division," says Zimmer. Then he fails to suppress a large grin.
"The first time someone mentioned the possibility of signing George Bell, I chuckled," says Zimmer. "Jackson, Smith and Bell? I didn't think that was possible. We're pretty excited about our lineup. And, hey, it didn't cost me a dime."
Bell alone will cost the Cubs $12.6 million over the next four years, but he, Sandberg and Andre Dawson could give the club its most prolific trio since guys named Hack, Gabby and Kiki combined for 106 home runs and an absurd 446 RBIs in 1930. Dawson, Bell and Sandberg each have had a 40-dinger, 100-RBI season.
Those sticks, plus a starting pitching staff filled with enough disabled veterans to people a VFW hall, will keep the over-under line for runs in games at Wrigley at around 30. True, righthander Greg Maddux has won more games (52) over the last three seasons than any other National League pitcher. But lefthander Jackson was given a four-year, $10.5 million contract because he won 23 games for Cincinnati three seasons ago, not because he has won only 12—and appeared five times on the disabled list—since.
If the rest of Chicago's starters—Mike Bielecki, Shawn Boskie, Mike Harkey and Rick Sutcliffe—can nurse a lead until Smith, the closer, appears, the Cubs will repeatedly realize Zimmer's vision for this season. He has told Bell, a laughably immobile leftfielder, that he sees him time and again hitting the go-ahead homer in the eighth inning, and then sitting next to his manager while a defensive replacement helps salt away the win in the ninth. The occasionally difficult Bell, who was furious when asked to DH in Toronto, has yet to balk at this notion. Says Dawson, "He's been very cordial so far."
2. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Did someone say cordial? Hours after manager Jim Leyland and leftfielder Barry Bonds put the irate in Pirates with their Brouhaha in Bradenton on March 4, a truck backed up to the Bucs' spring clubhouse and belched forth its cargo: Gold T-shirts with black lettering that read IT STARTS WITH RIGHT ATTITUDE.
Seldom has irony been so obvious. Winners of 95 games and the division title, with a club that includes the league's MVP, Cy Young and Manager of the Year award winners, the Pirates began their title defense by announcing losses of $7 million for last season. Worse, Bonds's unhappiness with his $2.3 million arbitration award left him sulking and apathetic when camp opened, and rightfielder Bobby Bonilla has threatened to bolt after this season unless he is given $20 million plus for five years. "I'm sure they're all looking at us and thinking we've got all kinds of problems," says Leyland. "I'll tell you what we've got. We've got all kinds of good pitchers. We've got all kinds of good players."
Trouble is, Pittsburgh has fewer good players than it did last season, before first baseman Sid Bream and platooned leadoff hitter Wally Backman left as free agents. Leyland's unsatisfactory solution? Redus and weep: The emotionally charged manager was reportedly reduced to tears because Bream was allowed to sign with Atlanta and Leyland knew that 34-year-old Gary Redus (.247 and 11 steals last year) would become the Bucs' first baseman and leadoff hitter.
What should worry Bonds and Bonilla more than their contractual figures are the numbers at the bottom of their baseball cards: .301, 33 HRs, 114 RBIs and 52 SBs in 1990 for Bonds, and .280, 32 HRs and 120 RBIs for Bonilla. Those lines have the suspicious look of career years. What's more, Pittsburgh may have also gotten a career season from pitcher Doug Drabek, who was 22-6 with a 2.76 ERA.
The Pirates actually had the two-headed equivalent of a second Cy Young-caliber pitcher last season. Neal Heaton was 10-4 before the All-Star break, and Zane Smith was 6-2 with a 1.30 ERA after joining the Pirates in August. No wonder Pittsburgh had a lower team ERA than the Mets. No way that will happen again.
3. NEW YORK METS
"We have good chemistry," says third baseman Gregg Jefferies. "That's hard to believe, I know, a Mets team with good chemistry."
Chemistrywise, shampoo was the only thing pH-balanced in the Mets' clubhouse last year. That was before Darryl Strawberry departed to the Dodgers. Now, though, the team lacks equilibrium afield.
"A lot of people don't believe in us," says Jefferies, who has moved from second base to third. "They think I can't play third base, they say [Howard Johnson] is not a shortstop, that we've got a leftfielder playing centerfield, a shortstop on the bench...."
Stop. Exactly. Erstwhile third baseman Johnson is not a shortstop. A leftfielder, Vince Coleman, is playing centerfield. A record-setting shortstop, Kevin Elster, is on the bench. In short, "They're going to be a little suspect on defense," says one NL East manager. All of which would be fine if New York hadn't announced its intention to win with speed and defense sans Straw.
Speed and defense? What are the Mets if not pitching and offense? Not the Mets. While the team still has the best starting pitching in baseball, it isn't as good as it was a year ago. Lefthander Sid Fernandez has allowed fewer hits per nine innings (6.64) than any pitcher in major league history save Nolan Ryan. But the 240-pound Fernandez will be out until at least June with a broken left forearm suffered in spring training. "We have a lot of guys who can fill Sid's shoes," says Jefferies. Perhaps. But this much is certain: 185-pound Wally Whitehurst, who has made one major league start and will replace Fernandez in the rotation, cannot fill the rest of El Gigante's uniform.
As for offense, the Mets have done the impossible. The team had the majors' highest batting average against righthanded pitchers last season and the majors' lowest average against lefties. Yet New York's primary acquisitions over the winter—Coleman and rightfielder Hubie Brooks—hit southpaws fairly and poorly, respectively.
The Mets need more hitters like Dave Magadan, who batted .328 last year, if they're to manufacture runs, as they hope to do. They can no longer rely on the ninth-inning shot over the billboard in rightfield at Shea. Subtract Strawberry's 37 home runs and 108 RBIs and what do you have?
4. MONTREAL EXPOS
A brief chronology of the Expos since last season: In December, they traded their alltime greatest player, Tim Raines, to the White Sox for a relief pitcher and Ivan Calderon, who spent the off-season training fighting cocks in Puerto Rico. In February, Calderon arrived at Montreal's spring complex wearing two gold ropes that weighed 10 pounds apiece. Days later, manager Buck Rodgers was hospitalized with what doctors diagnosed as "acute indigestion."
This isn't to say that the Expos made a bad trade. "Sometimes when you haven't won and you've been close, you just make changes," says G.M. Dave Dombrowski. "It can be good for everybody."
Remarkably, Montreal was indeed close last season. And leftfielder Calderon (.273, 74 RBIs and 32 stolen bases last year) isn't likely to be the source of Rodgers's shpilkes this season. Instead, starting pitching will determine whether the Expos plop-plop or fizz-fizz.
The Expos plop-plop if Chris Nabholz, Mark Gardner and Brian Barnes (the latter two started the season on the disabled list), who have 14 major league wins among them, are not ready for prime time. The Expos fizz-fizz if those guys find the groove, and Oil Can Boyd and Dennis Martinez repeat their solid seasons of a summer ago.
Oh, when a relief it is. "We're extremely comfortable with our bullpen," says Rodgers. Last year, closer Tim Burke saved 20 games, rookie Bill Sampen had a team-high 12 wins and lefthander Steve Frey was 8-2 with a 2.10 ERA. Barry Jones, who learned he was the reliever in the Raines-Calderon deal while watching TV on Christmas Eve, was 11-4 with a 2.31 ERA as Bobby Thigpen's table-setter in Chicago last season.
When it comes time to clear the table at the end of this season, Rodgers will, somehow, again be free of acid indigestion. "Buck Rodgers does wonderful things," says St. Louis manager Joe Torre. Indeed. Having managed the Expos to 500 wins in six full seasons, he is the dean of the division's managers. However, Rodgers looks forward to a season when he no longer has to be so wonderful. This is not that season.
5. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
This BP was rated NC-17. Wally Backman and John Kruk were hitting against coach Larry Bowa this spring, and the three of them were spraying as many imaginatively coined obscenities around the infield as they did baseballs. "Murph," said leftfielder Von Hayes, addressing the fourth member of this group of hellions, "how did you get stuck with this bunch?"
How, indeed, did straight-arrow Dale Murphy fall in with this band of rogues? With Backman, the tobaccy-chomping free agent from Pittsburgh whom Darryl Strawberry once called a "redneck"? Or with Kruk, the intense, Red Man-hawking first baseman who has batted .308 since joining the Phils two years ago?
Or with centerfielder Lenny Dykstra, who hit .325 last season and who should again draw full houses around the league this summer. (Let us rephrase that. Dykstra, who is serving a year of baseball probation for running up a $78,000 poker debt, will again put fans in the seats.)
The Phils should at least fill the Vet's bleachers with souvenir-seekers, so hideous is the team's pitching staff. When asked to name the most difficult part of his job, manager Nick Leyva says, "Convincing my pitchers that they're good." Lefthander Pat Combs walked nine batters in three innings this spring and could only laugh about it afterward. Reliever Chuck McElroy gave up a ninth-inning, game-losing grand slam and was shaking so violently when pitching coach Johnny Podres went to comfort him that the Pod called on Sandy Koufax the next day to counsel the 23-year-old McElroy. (A few weeks later, he was traded to the Cubs.)
Too bad Pirates G.M. Larry Doughty couldn't have inadvertently thrown in a pitcher when his office made the clerical error—a misinterpretation of the waiver rules—that gave Philadelphia promising leftfielder Wes Chamberlain last summer. Now the Phils can trade Von Hayes for a much-needed starter.
Even if that deal doesn't happen, though, Leyva has made a Namath-like prediction for this team. "We won't," he says, "finish last." He is right.
6. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Never mind Joe Torre. Roger Tory Peterson couldn't identify these Cardinals. Gone from a team that lost 92 games and drove Whitey Herzog to retirement are outfielders Willie McGee and Vince Coleman, third baseman Terry Pendleton and pitcher Ken Dayley. Not coincidentally, those players signed free-agent contracts worth $41.5 million.
Unfortunately for Torre, the bleeding hasn't stopped. Joe Magrane, the staff workhorse, will be out all season following elbow surgery on April 4. And to further disorient fans, the Cards will have a new P.A. announcer. Their voice of the last eight seasons, John Ulett, was canned during the Gulf war for announcing on his day job at a local radio station that the continental United States was under nuclear attack.
Most jarring, though, will be the frequent disappearance of Ozzie Smith at shortstop. Torre says he will rest the 36-year-old Wizard a few days every couple of weeks; Smith says he wants out if he isn't permitted to play every day. Second baseman Jose Oquendo has been groomed to take over for Smith at short, and was given a four-year, $8 million contract in the off-season. Jose Oquendo?
The Cards' free-agent liquidation should at least free more Oquendough for the team's other young studs. "They giving you mucho pesos?" Detroit's Tony Phillips asked St. Louis rightfielder Felix Jose before a spring game. "No," said Jose, 25, who was traded from Oakland to the Cardinals for McGee last August. The money will come. Ray Lankford, 23, replaces McGee in centerfield, and leadoff hitter Bernard Gilkey takes Coleman's place in left. Lankford and Gilkey have played big league baseball for a total of 10 weeks.
"We have a lot of kids," says Torre. "You don't know what to expect until they play."
"Who knows?" says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "They're in the same position as we were last year, and we won 85 games."
Torre appreciates the logrolling (recall his "Buck Rodgers does wonderful things" comment). But even the Buckmeister can't really believe this team will finish above .500.