First, the good news. Top to bottom, the American League West has never been stronger. Four teams—California, Oakland, Kansas City and Chicago—could win 95 games. Then there's Seattle, the last team anyone will want to see in a three-game series.
Now, the bad news. Someone must finish sixth. The Texas Rangers will be the best team in the history of division play to finish that low. And someone must finish last. That honor will go to the Minnesota Twins, despite their near-.500 finish.
In this race, an injury here and an off-year there could mean the difference between first and fifth. One thing that's certain is that Oakland, the three-time defending American League champ, is vulnerable. Of course, that's not how A's manager Tony La Russa sees it. "We'll be better because we have to be better because the division is better," he says. It's tough to bet against him. But we will.
1. CALIFORNIA ANGELS
California manager Doug Rader refused to predict the order of finish in the division, saying the only lists that count "are David Letterman's Top 10 lists." So, here are 10 reasons why the Angels will win the West:
10. Jim Abbott, California's one-handed pitcher, hit a triple this spring.
9. Dave Winfield will be an Angel all year.
8. Rader, Winfield and Dave Parker will teach new centerfielder Junior Felix the proper way to play and act. Felix brings a reputation from Toronto for being un-coachable and incompetent defensively. "Here people try to help you," says Felix. "They don't talk behind your back like [in Toronto]." Rader, Winfield and Parker won't talk behind Felix's back. If he dogs it, they'll tell him to his face.
7. Dave Gallagher could become the first outfielder in history to play 162 games in a season without starting any of them. A defensive standout, he will replace Felix or leftfielder Luis Polonia in late innings.
6. Rader is rid of three guys he absolutely hated to play: centerfielder Devon White, rightfielder Dante Bichette and second baseman Johnny Ray.
5. Bryan Harvey has the best stuff of any closer in a division of standout closers.
4. The Angels have a big league infield again: Wally Joyner, not Lee Stevens, at first; Luis Sojo, not Ray, at second; Gary Gaetti, not Jack Howell, at third; Dick Schofield, not Kent Anderson, at shortstop. "The infield was the difference between '89 [91 wins] and '90 ," says Rader. "We couldn't catch the ball."
3. California has an excellent rotation led by Chuck Finley, the best lefthander in baseball. Mark Langston is in a more sheltered spot in the rotation, and the pressure of his big-money contract has subsided. Kirk McCaskill is healthy, and Abbott should win 15 games.
2. The lineup features five players who have hit 30 or more home runs in a season in their career.
1. Parker is here. He's 39 and troublesome when things aren't to his liking, but he will step forward—at the plate and in the clubhouse—when others get shaky. He will lead. He will hit. "He's a man," says Rader.
2. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
It's nice to see the A's haven't lost their swagger. Vulnerable? "Yeah, we stink," says centerfielder Dave Henderson. "Do you think we care what you guys write?" Beatable? "Oh, every year teams adopt a mental approach on how to beat us," says pitcher Dave Stewart. "But the season starts and they realize we're very tough to beat." Fallible? "We'll be real good," says La Russa.
But not good enough. The A's secret the last three years has been a lightning start in April: 16-7 in 1988, 18-8 in '89 and 14-5 last year. They established an air of invincibility and totally discouraged teams that had a bad first month. But the '91 Athletics aren't positioned to burst out of the gate. Third baseman Carney Lansford is probably out for the season with a knee injury. Reliever Rick Honeycutt will miss April with a shoulder injury. Rickey Henderson spent the spring grousing about his contract and threatening not to play hard—which everyone knows he is capable of doing. No, 3 starter Mike Moore didn't throw well this spring. Eric Show (4.99 ERA the last two years) has given no indication he can fill the No. 4 spot, which accounted for 36 wins over the last two years. The No. 5 starter, Kirk Dressendorfer, is a comer but has pitched only 19‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings professionally, and none above Class A.
"We haven't answered all the questions," says La Russa. "But we've answered most." He says Rickey will play hard or be benched and that Jose Canseco's back, which troubled him last year, is fine. Jose's so right, it's scary," La Russa says.
It's also scary that the A's have the game's most reliable starter (Stewart) and best reliever (Dennis Eckersley), the league's two best players (Rickey Henderson and Canseco), and the only player in history to hit 30-plus homers in each of his first four seasons (Mark McGwire).
How can they not win? "I could see us gelling menially tired." says one of the A's. They could. Fighting off all the strong contenders and dealing with distractions will wear them down. But, says La Russa, "The only thing we must do is be careful to play right. If we do that and someone beats us, I have no regrets."
3. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
The Royals are better without Bo. His intimidating presence at the plate will be missed, but his strikeouts won't. Bo had world-class speed, but he had fewer steals last year than the Brewers' Jim Gantner, who was 36 and coming off major knee surgery. One manager in the division thinks Jim Eisenreich, who will platoon with Gary Thurman in left, "is better than Bo."
Jackson was a distraction, a sideshow. The media, the fans and Nike made him too big. It was Bo and the Royals. When K.C. outfielder Danny Tartabull would hit a long homer, people would say, "Yeah, but it didn't go as far as the one Bo hit." With Jackson gone, watch Tartabull shine.
For a few years, this team has been too comfortable. That has changed too. The fire comes from new DH Kirk Gibson, free-agent pitcher Mike Boddicker and center-fielder Brian McRae. Gibson is a caveman, crude and rude, but no one values winning more. "If we lose, but someone's happy he went 3 for 4, Gibby will say something," says manager John Wathan. "Every other word is a swear word, but the first thing he talks about is winning."
"Kirk snaps—a lot," says Boddicker. "That's good. I add the humor, he adds the intensity." Few pitchers are more competitive than Boddicker, who had a better winning percentage in his 2½ years in Boston than Roger Clemens had during the same period. "It's no accident that Gibson and Boddicker have winning backgrounds," says Wathan. So does McRae, son of former Royal Hal McRae. A switch-hitting leadoff man, Brian provides speed and some pop, plus terrific defense.
The Royals' pitching should improve. Closer Mark Davis, reunited with pitching coach Pat Dobson, is intent on atoning for 1990 (his 5.11 ERA was the worst ever for a pitcher coming off a Cy Young season). And Mark Gubicza, who has recovered from a rotator cuff tear, will be activated the second week of the season. "If Gubie comes back," says Boddicker, "I'll be cleaning out toilets in the bullpen."
4. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
On the first day of spring training, White Sox manager Jeff Torborg showed his team the 1990 highlight tape. "Guys had goose bumps all over them," Torborg says.
Savor the feeling, fellas, because history says you might not enjoy it again. Just ask the 1989-90 Orioles. After unexpected success, pressures increase, heads get bigger, wallets get fatter. In that delicate matter of team chemistry, the White Sox may have added a dangerous ingredient on April 4 when Bo Jackson was signed for $700,000 for 1991 even though he may not play an inning. The top four starters make only slightly more than that combined. "It doesn't bother me," says pitcher Greg Hibbard, "but it bothers four-year guys who play every day and don't make that much."
Bo or no Bo, the White Sox, baseball's youngest team last year, aren't quite ready to win a division that's this good. First baseman Frank Thomas, one of only two everyday power hitters under age 40, and pitcher Alex Fernandez will be stars, but give them time: They haven't played half a season yet. The rotation is still shaky. The bullpen will miss setup man Barry Jones, who was traded with Ivan Calderon to the Expos for outfielder Tim Raines.
But unlike the Orioles in the wake of their miracle season, the Sox didn't stand pat. New G.M. Ron Schueler traded for Raines and outfielder Cory Snyder and signed pitcher Charlie Hough as a free agent. Raines is one of the five best leadoff men in history. "In Montreal, I put up big numbers, but not a lot of people knew what I could do," Raines says. "This is my chance to show my stuff." Raines could challenge Rickey Henderson for the league lead in steals and runs scored. Once, Raines called Henderson his idol. "Now," he says, "I just call him Rickey."
5. SEATTLE MARINERS
First baseman Pete O'Brien says the difference between the A's and the rest of the AL West is their aura. "When the A's take the field, they take over the field," he says. "That's what we have to do. We have to take over the facility."
Seattle will be able to dominate games, series, even weeks by virtue of its pitching. But to establish that Oaklandesque aura, the Mariners need more. A big, intimidating hitter—say Frank Robinson circa 1966—would help. A winning tradition would help too. The Mariners should break the .500 barrier this season, but if they don't, they'll tie the league record for most consecutive years (15) with a losing record.
"Seattle is a win-oriented city," says pitcher Erik Hanson. "Win, and they support you. For whatever reason—faulty ownership—it's all come down to performance. Part of the problem is the stigma of .500. To me, it's absolutely ridiculous. You don't go to school with a goal to make C's."
"Faulty" is indeed the correct word for Mariner management, which has left this team with a logjam at first base: Their top prospect, Tino Martinez, is headed back to Triple A Calgary, where he has absolutely nothing left to prove. The team also doesn't have enough working capital to buy a needed free-agent slugger or make a trade for Pittsburgh's Bobby Bonilla and keep him around for more than one year. So the Mariners are back to hoping that outfielder Jay Buhner finally has a healthy season.
American League hitters are hoping Hanson joins the NBA. Last year the 6'6" Hanson set a club record for wins by a righthander (18), and he might have the best stuff in the league. He also has a 42-inch vertical leap and a scar on his forehead where he hit his head on the rim making a dunk. The rest of this staff is equally ascendant. Brian Holman was virtually unhittable this spring. The 6'10" Randy Johnson is unhittable one out of every three starts. Scott Bankhead, the 1989 ace who missed most of last year, has recovered from shoulder surgery.
The pitching has brought a new confidence to the clubhouse. "We used to say, "Oh, we've got a chance to contend,' but we never believed it," says second baseman Harold Reynolds. "Now it's not optimism, it's realism. These pitchers have heart."
Says Hanson, "We feel we're in the position the Reds were in last year—a good young nucleus, good chemistry, the third year of rebuilding. We feel it's time for us."
If Seattle had Barry Larkin and Eric Davis, he'd be right.
6. TEXAS RANGERS
Nice spring for the Rangers, wasn't it? Half the team got hurt, most notably can't-miss centerfielder Juan Gonzalez, who is expected to be back in mid-April following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Because of a money crunch, little was done to fill holes at shortstop, catcher, leadoff or in the bullpen. And to top it off, manager Bobby Valentine released outfielder Pete Incaviglia, who averaged 24.8 homers and 77.6 RBIs over the last five years. That move resulted in several angry players questioning Valentine's—and the team's—commitment to winning.
"We've had smooth springs before, and that doesn't guarantee——," says Valentine. "And, with a relatively veteran team, the last thing you want is smooth."
Was releasing Incaviglia foolish? Perhaps. Fearless? Absolutely. Valentine believes Incaviglia would have caused internal problems when benched against Oakland, Chicago and Kansas City—three staffs against which he has batted .212 the last two years. Valentine is the most disliked manager in baseball because of his brash, self-promoting ways, but there's no question about his ability to manage. He proved that last season when his team won 83 games despite the following: His catchers had a combined 35 RBIs and his center-fielders 48; his leadoff men batted .217 and his third basemen .210; he had no shortstop; his closer (Jeff Russell) missed three months; and his best starter (Kevin Brown) made only two starts during the last six weeks of the season.
Russell and the five starters, perhaps the best rotation in club history, are all healthy. Texas can dazzle you with Nolan Ryan's heater and Bobby Witt's slider. And they can beat you up with a devastating middle order of Rafael Palmeiro, Ruben Sierra, Julio Franco and Gonzalez. But considering the competition, it adds up to this: The Rangers will probably go 83-79 for the third straight year.
7. MINNESOTA TWINS
On April 3, the Twins, the best team in the AL West in March according to the spring standings, clobbered the Rangers 11-1. Manager Tom Kelly was in great spirits until someone asked if the division had ever been stronger. "Please don't ruin my day," he said.
The poor Twins. They will play their tails off and finish last. But in the process, they will continue a well-planned rebuilding program. "We're going to surprise people," Kelly says. "We've got some starting pitching. I've never had that. I've had three starters before, but one would always be Freddy Toliver."
This year, Kelly has five starters: Jack Morris, Allan Anderson, Scott Erickson, Kevin Tapani and Mark Guthrie. With a decent bullpen as well, pitching coach Dick Such says it's the best staff in his five-plus years with the Twins. And it could get even better: Farmhands Paul Abbott, Willie Banks and Rich Garces are on the way.
The Twins' problem is their offense, which hasn't improved much since last year, when for the first full season since 1980 no Twin hit 25 homers or knocked in 90 runs. On the bright side, newly arrived free-agent DH Chili Davis, trimmer and clearly stronger than he was last year with the Angels, had a tremendous spring. Unfortunately, newly arrived free-agent third baseman Mike Pagliarulo was so bad this spring that Scott Leius, a .229 hitter with two homers for Triple A Portland last year, made the team as a platoon mate.
If the Twins don't hit, says Kelly, the pitching will suffer. "I believe this like I believe in the flag, apple pie and the American way," he says. "When you're constantly down 3-0 and 4-0 in the fourth inning, hitters lose interest. That's what happened to us last year. [First baseman Kent] Hrbek went in the tank [in June], and everyone jumped in after him. Then we all' went down the toilet. At the end, when the pitching came around, the hitters had no edge."
The Twins can climb out of the toilet, but they won't get out of the cellar.