In Seattle, where Kevin Mitchell weighed into camp at 253 pounds, the question is, How long will he look like the House That Baby Ruth Built?
In Oakland, where Carney Lansford called Rickey Henderson "a cancer" this spring, the question is, Do you suppose Lansford was just speaking, you know, astrologically?
In Minnesota, where Cy Young runner-up Scott Erickson was hot and cold in 1991, the question is, Will he be Great Scott this summer or suck it up like ScotTowels?
In Texas, where the pitching is suspect and George W. Bush is boss, the question is, Will Bobby Witt and Kevin Brown finally get it all together or will they follow the lead of their owner's father and go hurl in Japan?
April 5, 1992
Spring training raised more questions than it answered in this division, which any one of five teams could win. Perhaps it's good that the West is so confusing. "I wish I knew who was going to win," says World Series hero Kirby Puckett of the Twins. "Then I wouldn't show up." And we would all be the poorer for that.
1. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Little more than a month ago the White Sox were mere Tube Sox to new manager Gene Lamont. "I had really only seen the team on videotape," he says. "But I liked what I saw."
Well, then, personal introductions are in order. Your team, Gene: At the corners you have Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura, a tag team that combined last season for 55 home runs, 209 RBIs, a .300 average and a collective 47 years of life experience. Hospital bed sheets don't have corners this sharp.
"We have a lot of young talent," notes your new second baseman, Steve Sax, who was acquired after hitting .304 for the Yankees last season. "But it's young, proven talent."
Indeed. Twenty-six-year-old Jack McDowell was the youngest Opening Day pitcher in the league last season, during which he led the junior circuit in complete games and was second to Roger Clemens in innings pitched.
You needn't leave your other starters in for long, because your setup man is 24-year-old lefthander Scott Radinsky, who is Rob Dibble waiting to happen. "Radinsky is probably a stopper on most teams," notes your pitching coach, Jackie Brown. Except that your team has righthanded closer Bobby Thigpen, 28, who saves games in the way a lipless man saves money on Chap Stick.
So where, you ask, are the weak spots? Well, after McDowell and free-agent pickup Kirk McCaskill—who lost 19 games in California last season when the Angels averaged fewer than three runs per game for him—your McStaff is McIffy. But shortstop Ozzie Guillen and centerfielder Lance Johnson, not to mention Gold Glover Ventura, will defensively fill any fissures like driveway sealant. And—lucky you—you now have a formidable designated hitter, George Bell.
"We have a darn good team," says Sax. And darned Sox have no holes to speak of.
2. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
In Oakland there is a Q for every A. Q: Will Jose Canseco give a clutch performance on the field, for a change? Q: Is there any Stew left? Q: What is with that multigenerational mix of hair—a beatnik's goatee and a perm-aided 'do—that Mark McGwire is wearing this year? He looks as if he has entered the federal witness protection program, which is not a bad idea, perhaps, considering his .201 performance last season.
Following a fourth-place finish in 1991, the A's will undoubtedly be driven this summer. More frightening still, they may be driven by Canseco. "A lot of people think our best years are behind us," says shortstop Walt Weiss. "There are a lot of guys on this team with something to prove."
Eleven, in fact. That's how many Athletics are eligible for free agency after this season. Pride? Schmide. McGwire, Lansford, Dave Stewart, Harold Baines and Dennis Eckersley are among the A's who are trolling for dollars, a far more persuasive motivational force for the modern ballplayer.
Stewart has still more at stake as he tries to prove that his 11-11 record and 5.18 ERA of a year ago do not portend the end of his career. A renewed Stew, served with Lansford and Weiss, who are returning from injuries, would give Oakland essentially the same ingredients with which it won three consecutive pennants from 1988 to '90. Why not one more? "It feels like a championship team to me," says Baines, the DH. "We have the same guys, right?"
"You're talking Rickey Henderson, Carney Lansford, Dave Henderson, Canseco, McGwire," reminds Puckett. "You gotta come to play them guys. They got Eck in the bullpen. That ain't no walk in the park."
And now the A's can play to avenge the injustice done this spring to pitcher Eric Show, who appeared in camp one day with both hands bandaged. He told management he was deserted by a cabbie on the previous night and cut his hands while fleeing mysterious would-be assailants on foot through a field of barbed wire. Or something. Management, the skeptical cads, cut him loose. Which gives the A's two very good reasons to win it all: 1) for the money and 2) for the Show.
3. MINNESOTA TWINS
Of all the dubious assertions made in Florida this spring (76 TRUCK STOP: HOME OF THE AWARD-WINNING BUFFET comes to mind), none is more doubtful than the media consensus that Minnesota will not repeat in this division. After all, evidence suggests that the world champions have improved.
For starters, take their starters. "We've got the best arms we've ever had since I've been here," says Puckett. It no longer matters that Jack Morris left for Toronto in his inalienable pursuit of unhappiness. General manager Andy MacPhail replaced him with John Smiley—who won two more games than Morris last season and is 10 years younger and is lefthanded and has never before been seen by most of the hitters in the American League. Ouch, babe.
It matters less now whether Scott Erickson is a monster or a one-season wonder, whether he is Dr. Jekyll or David Clyde. Erickson was both last season and still won 20 games, a feat he'll repeat if his aching right elbow is brought to heel. And former Federal Express delivery boy Kevin Tapani, 11-2 after the break a year ago, has absolutely, positively become an ace overnight. The Twins have pitching.
"They say that's what the game revolves around," philosophizes pitching coach Dick Such. "It sure helps get the guys off the field and get them into the dugout to swing the bats."
And this much is certain: The Twins will hack like a man in need of Robitussin. They had the highest team batting average (.280) in the big leagues last season and figure to improve on that as Triple A studhorse Pedro Munoz replaces the departed Dan Gladden in the lineup.
So why not pick Minnesota to finish first? "All I think I know about the game," says manager Tom Kelly, narrowly escaping this brushback question, "is that if you pitch good...you've always got a chance to win." Well then, TK, chances are your chances are awfully good.
4. TEXAS RANGERS
Not even an aged visitor from the East can divine the fortunes of this team. "They're kind of an enigma," says Toronto outfielder Dave Winfield. "But they'll drop some numbers on you in a minute."
For instance: 200. Three Rangers—Julio Franco, Rafael Palmeiro and Ruben Sierra—went for more than 200 hits last season. On the other hand, don't judge righthander Witt until you've walked 7.5 batters per nine innings in his shoes. "They got all the offense in the world," says Puckett. "Now if they get some pitching...."
Manager Bobby Valentine, fed up that his staff has led the league in walks five of the past six seasons, began the spring yanking any Rangers pitcher who walked two consecutive batters. And still the Rangers gave out more free passes than a Broadway strip-joint solicitor.
While Witt and righthander Kevin Brown are not about to become control freaks—nobody hit more batters in the big leagues last season than assassin Brown—they are both eminently capable, if the planets align appropriately, of winning 15 games apiece. The offense will again lead the majors in runs scored. Nolan Ryan will throw his eighth no-hitter sometime in June.
Discomfortingly, the 214-year-old righthander has already acknowledged "it could be" his last season. His contract runs through next season, at Ryan's option. Wouldn't it be nice to give ol' Nolan one more run at the playoffs this year? "Close is not good enough," as assistant pitching coach Ray Burris puts it. "It's time to go above and beyond that."
5. SEATTLE MARINERS
Kevin Mitchell reported to his first camp with Seattle a mere 40 pounds over his usual playing weight. Teammates nicknamed him Tatonka, for the buffalo in Dances with Wolves. Mitchell may no longer be a Giant, but he is still in a giant uniform.
About the only thing, then, that he fits into easily is Seattle's lineup. "Seattle is really scary," insists Angel manager Buck Rodgers. "Kevin Mitchell is the perfect guy for that team." Mitchell will bat fourth as the Mariners' designated hitter, protecting No. 3 hitter Ken Griffey Jr. while hitting balls to Kingdome come in Seattle's dingerlab.
Trouble is, the M's gave up three pitchers to get Mitchell from San Francisco, including 32 of their 48 saves from last season in the persons of Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba. After Randy Johnson and Erik Hanson, Seattle's rotation cannot be considered too legit to hit. "We have question marks about our young pitchers, but that's nothing new," says second baseman Harold Reynolds. "As far as the eight regulars...our lineup is as good as anyone's. But that's nothing new, either."
What is new? For one, manager Bill Plummer is refreshingly low-key in contrast to his roto-rooting predecessor, Jim Lefebvre. For another, the M's are coming off their first winning season in the club's 15-year history. "It was really nice for the Mariners' franchise," says Reynolds. "But these days, if you play 500, you're a loser."
Expectations will be weighty, but not to worry. Mitchell alone is capable of outweighing them.
6. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
"The White Sox, Oakland, Minnesota," frets manager Hal McRae. "I'd like to almost guarantee we'll be in the middle of it all. We won 82 games last year. If we win 90 games this year, it should put us in the hunt."
I'd like to almost guarantee? Not exactly Joe Namath, and no wonder, considering the Royals have lost their best pitcher (Bret Saberhagen traded to the New York Mets) and their best hitter (free-agent Danny Tartabull to the New York Yankees) from a team that finished sixth last season. What did the Royals get in return for Sabes? Uncertainty in spades. We're only going to go over this once.
Gregg Jefferies, who played mostly second base with the Mets, will be the Royals' third baseman. Kevin McReynolds, who played leftfield with the Mets, will replace Tartabull in rightfield. Keith Miller, who played most of his games in the infield with the Mets, will naturally settle into...leftfield?
Those still with us will be interested to know that free-agent acquisition Wally Joyner is the new first baseman and that Mark Davis, winner of the Cy Young Award as a reliever two years ago, will join the starting rotation. It's a good enough group of players, but what with everyone on the team adjusting to new faces and/or a new position and/or a new league, it helps that McRae is as well adjusted as he appears to be.
"I just like having a job," McRae says. "I prefer to work in baseball, but the job doesn't have to be this one. It could be in Cleveland." If the Royals don't win, it could be.
7. CALIFORNIA ANGELS
The 1991 Angels had the best record of any last-place team in history. The 1992 Angels may have the worst record of any last-place team in history. Do we exaggerate? "We have a bunch of old guys," says manager Buck Rodgers. "And we can't score any runs." Something tells us this is not the promotional slogan on the Halos' season-ticket brochures.
Few police lineups are this ugly: first baseman, Lee Stevens; second baseman, Luis Sojo; shortstop, Gary DiSarcina; third baseman, Gary Gaetti; catcher, Lance Parrish; outfielders, Luis Polonia, Junior Felix and Von Hayes.... Ladies and gentlemen, your 1993 Florida Marlins!
"We have a lot of question marks," concedes pitcher Jim Abbott. "I'm through trying to make predictions. Last year I thought we'd be real good and we'd score a lot of runs. Basically, the opposite happened. Our expectations were much too high. This year, as a team, people don't have much in the way of Expectations."
Abbott, Chuck Finley and Mark Langston will remain the most awesome lefty threesome throwing. Closer Bryan Harvey will save whatever is salvageable and maintain an ERA that would be an acceptable blood-alcohol level in most states. Rodgers will be baseball's hippest manager now that sideburns are again in vogue. But what will all this get the Angels?
"We may not have as much talent as the other teams, but we'll scrap with 'em and see what happens," drawls Harvey. "It doesn't matter how good ya are. If ya finish last, ya ain't too good."
The Contract Factor
Below are key players in the division who are eligible for free agency after this season. In the closely contested American League West, Oakland may benefit from an incentive boost.
CALIFORNIA: Mark Eichhorn, Von Hayes, Don Robinson
KANSAS CITY: Jim Eisenreich, Mark Gubicza, Wally Joyner
MINNESOTA: Chili Davis, Greg Gagne, Mike Pagliarulo, Kirby Puckett, John Smiley
OAKLAND: Harold Baines, Ron Darling, Dennis Eckersley, Carney Lansford, Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Dave Stewart
SEATTLE: Henry Cotto, Harold Reynolds
TEXAS: Jose Guzman, Jeff Russell, Ruben Siena