First, the bad news. Top to bottom, the American League East has never been weaker. It's lugging around half of the eight worst teams in the majors. The flag can be had for 90 wins.
Now, the good news. If you like monstrous home runs, lots of walks and strikeouts, and four-hour, 10-9 slugfests, this division is for you. The AL East spent the winter acquiring big hitters, notably Glenn Davis and Jack Clark, and parting with big pitchers, such as Mike Boddicker, Dave Righetti and Jack Morris. The result could be an unprecedented scoring bonanza.
"It might be a happy season for the fans in the stands," says Detroit pitcher Walt Terrell. "The scoreboards might need some extra light bulbs—especially when I'm pitching."
He's not the only one who will light it up.
April 14, 1991
1. BOSTON RED SOX
Earlier this spring, Mo Vaughn, Boston's rookie candidate at first base, stepped up for batting practice, and bullpen coach John McLaren yelled, "Hey, Tyson." Vaughn, all 6'1" and 225 pounds of him, quickly launched into his routine, throwing a flurry of rights, pounding his imaginary opponent into the ground. "Wham, whap, whomp," he grunted.
Massive Mo couldn't even crack the Red Sox roster this spring, but get used to the sounds of destruction, because the Boston lineup will be pulverizing pitchers all across America this summer. "They'll get a lot of hits," says Boddicker, now with the Royals. But, he adds, there's a big difference between hits and runs. Last season Boston led the majors in hitting for the fourth straight year—no other team in this century has done it more than twice in a row. Still, the Red Sox finished seventh in the league in runs per game.
This year will be different. "Best lineup I've been on," says third baseman Wade Boggs, who nearly fell out of the lineup when he tumbled out the passenger-side door of a pickup truck this spring. "We've had teams with Tony Armas and Jim Rice that hit lots of homers. But I was the only one who could hit over .300. Now we have two or three other guys who can. This is more of an all-around hitting lineup."
The Sox still don't have anyone who can run, but at least they have added a guy who can walk, as well as whack. Clark, the new DH, who hits the ball as hard and far as anyone living, has walked more times in the last three seasons (349) than Armas did in his 13-year career. And if you don't believe the lineup is deep, consider that rookie shortstop Tim Naehring may get 15 homers out of the number 9 spot.
Not everyone, however, is convinced. "I don't see Boston's pitching," says Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart. Few do. Sure, Roger Clemens has the second-highest career winning percentage in American League history (.695), behind the one and only Spud Chandler (.717). But it's hard to find anyone who believes that lefthander Matt Young, who arrived from Seattle with a 39-65 career record as a starter, can win for Boston. Signing National League ERA champ Danny Darwin will help, but Darwin may have to start as many games this season as he has over the past three years combined (37).
"I don't see their closer," says Indians pitcher Tom Candiotti. It's Jeff Reardon, who could become the first reliever to save at least 20 games a season 10 years in a row. His pen pals are weak, but Reardon seems unconcerned about the starters. "We had the best rotation in the league last year," he says, "but if you ask good sports fans, I bet they couldn't name who was on it."
This year's names to memorize are Clemens, Greg Harris, Young and Darwin, plus either Dana Kiecker or Tom Bolton. Can that rotation, with a weak bullpen, win the division? In the American League East, the question is moot. Unless Boggs falls out of his car on Yawkey Way, the Red Sox should hit their way to the top.
2. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The attitude transplant in Toronto seems to have taken. The Blue Jays are a happier, harder-working team. "We've had so much talent in the past, they used to just throw the bats and balls out there in practice," says reliever Tom Henke. "You get a little lazy." Not this year, thanks largely to the departure of mercurial Tony Fernandez and cantankerous George Bell and the arrival of upbeat outfielder Joe Carter, who came over with Roberto Alomar from the Padres in a trade for Fernandez and Fred McGriff. "It's like a breath of fresh air," says Henke.
"But," says outfielder-DH Glenallen Hill, "this family unity doesn't mean a thing unless we play at the level we're noted for." That will depend greatly on Carter, who must help defray the loss of 75 homers and 305 RBIs in the winter purge. This is Carter's chance to prove he's more than the Dominique Wilkins of baseball, somebody who runs up big numbers for bad teams.
Carter had the most RBIs in baseball over the past five years (545), but few teammates can easily recount his big hits, his key homers. Last year he drove in 115 runs for San Diego, but he came to the plate with more runners in scoring position than anyone in baseball. His .220 average from the cleanup spot was the lowest in the National League. The Blue Jays need Carter to be more like Bell, at least at the plate: a tough out in late innings and in big games. Can someone who has never played in an important game after August pull that off?
That's not the only Carter question. Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn asks, "Can Carter play the outfield?" Not known for his defense as a leftfielder, Carter will play part of the time in right, a tougher position. With the weak-armed Mookie Wilson, 35, in left, the Jays' shaky outfield won't help a starting rotation that completed only six games in 1990—a major league record low.
Lloyd Moseby, Tiger outfielder and a former Blue Jay, sums it up this way: "I don't know what the Blue Jays' [off-season moves] will do. They could be good this year. And they could have a disaster."
3. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
When a well-respected scout was asked to name the best young pitcher in the American League, he reacted as if he had been asked to name the winner of the gulf war. "What, you mean other than Ben?" he said.
That's Ben McDonald, of course. He's the biggest reason that the Orioles will challenge Boston and Toronto instead of battling the rest of the pack for fourth. Rarely does a 23-year-old with 15 major league starts warrant such stature, but McDonald is unique—and not only because of his habit of eating a can of mustard sardines before each start. He's the best pitcher to hit the American League since Clemens, in 1984. The righthanded McDonald throws in the mid-90's and fearlessly busts hitters inside, but he hasn't hit one of the 505 major league batters he has faced. Last season he allowed fewer base runners per nine innings than any other pitcher in the league.
That's all very nice, but for Baltimore to finish atop the AL East, McDonald has to win at least 20 games. Mentally, McDonald says, he's ready: "I've been the ace of every staff I've ever been on. My concern is that I've never pitched more than 180 innings before. To go 200-plus or 250-plus, I don't know how my arm will handle that."
So far, not so good. McDonald was scratched from his Opening Day start after suffering a strained flexor muscle in his right elbow late this-spring. If he misses an appreciable amount of time, it won't matter how many games closer Gregg Olson saves or how many homers Glenn Davis hits, the Orioles won't contend.
Davis, acquired from Houston in the off-season, fills a significant void. Last year, Baltimore's cleanup hitters produced fewer homers (16) and RBIs (78) than any other team's. Davis has proved he can hit with power: He has averaged 27 homers a season for the past six years, despite playing half his games in the dead-air Astrodome. Says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, "That park [Baltimore's Memorial Stadium] is a bandbox. Davis may lead the league in homers."
It may be more important that Davis and the O's play solid defense, which is what kept Baltimore in the title chase in 1989. With first baseman Randy Milligan playing leftfield for the first time and 39-year-old Dwight Evans in right, that defense is no sure thing. Still, says Anderson, "if any team can upset Boston, it's Baltimore."
4. DETROIT TIGERS
That sound you hear coming from Tiger Stadium is whooosh. With Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer, Mickey Tettleton and Pete Incaviglia leading the way, the Tigers should break the single-season record for strikeouts (1,203) set by the '68 New York Mets. "I laugh at it," says Deer, who fanned 147 times last year with Milwaukee. "People think they'll hurt my feelings when they say that. I could cut down on strikeouts, hit .250 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to swing the bat hard in case I hit it."
"Strikeouts don't mean anything," says Anderson. O.K., then we'll track some other numbers for Detroit this season. Like the number of upper-deck homers hit against the Tigers' pitching staff. Or the number of times a Detroit starter gives up more home runs than he gets strikeouts. The Tigers, who will start seven players who have hit 24 homers in a season, will score lots of runs—but they will give up a lot more. Their '90 starters had the highest ERA (4.98) in the majors, and now the rotation no longer includes Morris, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent. His replacement, Bill Gullickson, allowed a homer per game in 15 of his last 17 appearances for the Astros in '90. Wait till he pitches in cozy Tiger Stadium. He joins Terrell, Frank Tanana, Dan Petry and Steve Searcy (the only one in the group younger than 31). Last year, that fivesome gave up 89 homers and struck out only 390 in 752⅖ innings.
Asked in spring training who would start on Opening Day, Anderson said, "Tanana. But it doesn't matter—we don't have number 1-2-3-4-5 pitchers. But we've never been blessed with great pitching. But with Jack, at least we had the one guy. But in a way. I feel better because we'll use all 10. But if we don't pitch, we can't win."
That's a lot of buts. But in this division, five buts will still get you fourth place.
5. NEW YORK YANKEES
For the millions who make a hobby of rooting against the Yankees, baseball won't be as much fun this summer. George Steinbrenner is gone, and his successor, mild-mannered theater impresario Robert Nederlander, isn't going to upstage anyone. The manager. Stump Merrill, is a likable guy whose lone vices are the incessant spitting of tobacco juice and—this is true—the occasional flossing of his teeth with his sanitary socks.
Anyway, Yankee haters had a decade worth of fun last year. "And it wasn't George's fault." says rightfielder Jesse Barfield of New York's last-place finish. "We just stunk." Need one telling stat? The pitcher who led the team in wins was a reliever, Lee Guetterman, with 11.
The Yankees were so pathetic you almost have to root for them this year. After all, who wouldn't want first baseman Don Mattingly to go a full season without any back problems? Who wouldn't want dashing DM Kevin Maas to loft 30 homers into the rightfield seats? And does anybody really want to see rookie leftfielder Hensley (Bam-Bam) Meulens become history's first 200-strikeout man?
That's not to say other teams won't enjoy kicking the Yankees when they're down. "No one is going to give us anything," says Barfield. "When I was with Toronto, we wanted to kill the Yankees. We didn't care about the mystique, the Ruth-Gehrig thing. We just wanted to kick their butts."
New York will suffer a number of butt kickings, mainly because of its woeful starting pitching. If you're confused about the rotation, don't despair. Andy Hawkins, Tim Leary, Scott Sanderson and Mike Witt are actually the same person—a tall, dark-haired righthander who gives up lots of runs and loses lots of games. I he Yankees may become the first team ever with four starters who finish with exactly the same numbers: a 9-16 record and a 4.87 ERA.
But the return of Mattingly, the maturation of Maas and the arrival of Meulens—the MM&M Boys—should lift the Yanks out of last. "We've got nothing to lose," says Hawkins. "No expectations, no pressure other than performing in New York. If we could make it through last year, we can make it through anything."
6. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
With ace lefthander Teddy Higuera out for at least two months with a slight tear in his rotator cuff, no one will be fooled this year into believing that the oft-injured Brewers can contend. The only question now is whether they can stay out of the cellar.
The sad tale of the beat-up Brewers has hidden the fact that for the past two years they have been an overrated team with terrible defense and precious little pitching. "We weren't a good team last year, injuries or no injuries," says Dan Plesac, who wasn't a good stopper in '90.
This season Milwaukee is simply going to be a bad team, thereby putting Trebelhorn atop the first-manager-to-be-fired list. The Brewers will hit and they will steal bases, but their pitching makes the Tiger staff look like Hall of Fame material. And things could get worse if the top two starters, Ron Robinson (elbow problems) and Chris Bosio (various knee ailments) break down early. "I wish we had guys fighting for spots, instead of just handing guys spots," says pitching coach Larry Haney.
The only hope for these pitchers is defense, which former big league infielder Fred Stanley was hired to improve. During spring training he devised a daily game in which infielders had to cleanly field 25 straight ground balls or else pay Stanley one golf ball. An errorless 25 cost Stanley a golf ball. When the Brewers broke camp, Stanley said, "I'm up 64 balls."
"We had the two extremes last year," says Trebelhorn. "We had our pitchers saying, 'I've got to make the perfect pitch because these guys can't catch the ball.' And our infielders were saying, 'The pitchers are going 3 and 1, 3 and 2 on every hitter, and they're not locating the ball where they should.' Somewhere in the middle is the truth. Poor defense can be so deflating to a team." It's going to be a flat year for the Brew crew.
7. CLEVELAND INDIANS
During spring training, manager John McNamara carried a tape recorder in his back pocket to record his observations. Let's pretend he does the same during the regular season. Now let's fast forward to the end of the year and replay the tape:
April 19: We've played 10 games and haven't hit a home run yet. But what do you expect? We've had to start a lineup that hit the same number of home runs last year as Cecil Fielder—51. But Albert Belle, who hit 11 homers this spring, is due to hit one any day now.
April 30: Why did we move those outfield fences back at Cleveland Stadium in the off-season? The power alleys are now in the middle of Lake Erie. Oh, yes, we did it for our new speedster, Alex Cole, who had played all of 63 major league games before this season. Wasn't he traded twice in 1990, once for Omar Olivares and later for Tom Lampkin?
May 15: Maybe we should have given Candy Maldonado that three-year contract in December. We sure could use his bat.
June 8: This spring Cole called us the American League Cardinals because of our speed. So why is he the only one who steals any bases?
July 15: Pitcher John Farrell might come off the DL in another week. The Big Three—Greg Swindell, Tom Candiotti and Eric King—are tired of losing 2-1 games.
Aug. 1: When are we going to bring up our two best prospects, first baseman Tim Costo and shortstop Mark Lewis? Be patient. Remember, we're rebuilding.
Sept. 15: Our amazing streak continues. We haven't finished within 10 games of first place since 1959.
Oct. 6: The Brewers and Yankees didn't catch us. We came in last.