Welcome to the National League best, home of the two best teams in baseball (Reds and Braves), the two best rotations (Reds and Braves) and the two best bullpens (Reds and Braves), No division can match it for quality starting pitchers (10 pitchers have a legitimate shot at 20 wins), lefthanded hitters (seven of baseball's 13 best play here) or off-season improvement. "It's awesome," says Padres manager Greg Riddoch. "We're better. Everyone's better."
Everyone's bitter, too. Baseball's most contentious division the last two years will become only more intense with the off-season trades within the West of pitcher Tim Belcher (Dodgers to Reds), reliever Randy Myers (Reds to Padres) and outfielders Bip Roberts (Padres to Reds) and Eric Davis (Reds to Dodgers). Myers celebrated his trade to San Diego by tearing up 600 baseball cards of him in his Reds uniform, thus propelling the Padres versus Reds hate affair right up there with Padres versus Giants, Reds versus Astros and Everyone versus Dodgers.
"It's really going to be exciting," says Dodger centerfielder Brett Butler. And entertaining. The West will feature a catcher now playing second base, a shortstop with 60-error capability, a team with a 26-game road trip, Dibble and Deion, Orel and Roberts, and—together at last—Davis and Darryl. All this plus Reds and Braves, a duel that will go the distance.
1. CINCINNATI REDS
From the file of Sentences You Never Thought You'd Hear came one from Reds manager Lou Piniella this spring. After detailing his team's magnificent winter of trading, he said, "The only guy we really wanted but didn't get was Casey Candaele."
Candaele is a nice little utility player for Houston, but we fearlessly predict that the Reds will survive without him. Cincinnati general manager Bob Quinn snagged everyone else he pursued, including pitchers Belcher, Greg Swindell and Scott Ruskin, and outfielders Roberts and Dave Martinez. Quinn called the off-season "a bit of a coup"; Piniella says his team is the most improved in baseball.
"We don't have holes," Piniella said—just before Rob Dibble, Cincy's monster closer, was disabled with tendinitis in his right shoulder. Dibble pooh-poohed the severity of the ailment, but he most likely won't return before May 1. The Reels can weather April without him, but Dibble's 5.13 ERA in the second half of last season coupled with his poor spring is suspicious. Nevertheless, says a National League scout, "that wild man will be throwing 98 and saving a ton of games before long."
If so, the Reds have no holes. Their top four starters—Swindell, Belcher, Tom Browning and Jose Rijo—threw 882 innings last year. All have 20-win stuff. "When I saw who we got in trades, I couldn't believe it," says Rijo. "I said, 'No way, Jose.' " Equally delirious is Swindell: In his six years with the Indians, his winning percentage was .522, while the team's was .432. In 1991 he was burned by the most unearned runs (20) in baseball.
But the Reds' most important winter deal was Myers for Roberts, a lifetime .291 hitter who can play the outfield and the infield, hit leadoff and steal bases. With Roberts at the top of the lineup, No. 3 hitter Barry Larkin won't go 35 straight plate appearances without a runner in scoring position, as he did in '91.
"The [winning] attitude is back because of the trades," says Rijo. "Last year was terrible. No one wanted to come to the stadium. Players were getting here late."
Terrible? It was disgraceful. The Reds quit with a month remaining in the season and finished with the lowest winning percentage (.457) ever by a team the year following a world championship. "It was pathetic, embarrassing," says Piniella. "I've never been through anything like that. We said, 'Let's get this thing fixed.' We did. We did it right."
Right to the World Series—without Candaele, but not without Dibble.
2. ATLANTA BRAVES
Everyone knows these guys now. Steve Avery is being compared to Sandy Koufax, Ron Gant is the new Bobby Bonds, and David Justice is looking more like Billy Williams with an attitude. We know all about the Lemmer's size, John Smoltz's shrink, Tom Glavine's slap shot, Terry Pendleton's MVP and Deion Sanders's progress. The Braves won't sneak up on anyone this year.
Expectations, though, will be significantly higher, which can be a danger for a team that has gone from very bad (97 losses in '90) to very good (National League champs in '91) in a hurry. "Wait, I don't think 10 years is a hurry," says Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "We'd been a perennial last-place team since '82. That's not a hurry. The young guys just blossomed together. They're not flashes in the pan. Everyone knew about our talent."
Yes, but.... Pendleton (.319, 22 homers, 86 RBIs) had his best season ever; so did Otis Nixon (.297, 72 steals), who will sit out the first 16 games of the season after being suspended for failing a drug test last September.
On the other hand, talent won the Braves a pennant, and they have more of the stuff this year. Reliever Mark Wohlers, a potential killer closer, wasn't recalled until last September, the same month No. 5 starter Mike Bielecki and backup catcher Damon Berry-hill were acquired from the Cubs. The club's top three starters, Avery, Smoltz and Cy Young winner Glavine, won 52 games in 1991; 60 is possible this year.
The only question mark in a solid lineup is at second base. The Lemmer, 5'9" Mark Lemke, takes over for an injured Jeff Treadway, who will miss four months with a hand injury. "I don't know how I'll do until I play every day," says Lemke, who won hearts all across America with his clutch performances in the postseason. "I'm not taking anything for granted."
Nor are the rest of the Braves, apparently. As if to prove the point, they came out charging in their first exhibition game and pounded the Dodgers 10-0. "All last year," says Lemke, "we heard the 'Oh, they'll fold' talk. That's harder to deal with than 'Oh, they won't fold.' I think we'll remain focused." And in the hunt until the Reds' October.
3. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Grounder to Daniels, he boots it, the ball ricochets to Samuel at second, he bobbles it, throws to Offerman covering second, he drops it, then throws way over third base and into the Dodger dugout. Two runs are in. Tommy is steaming....
Let's hear Vin Scully make that sequence sound poetic. He'll have plenty of opportunities this year. The Dodgers, one of the very few organizations that has consistently chosen pitching and offense over defense, will pay for it this season. Oh, they'll be a factor in the race because they have firepower (the Davis-Butler-Darryl Strawberry outfield should hit 60 homers and score 270 runs) and good pitching. But with the Dodger defense, the pitching has to be great to win. The only chance of that happening is if Ramon Martinez snaps his slump (he got rocked the last two months of '91 and again this spring) and his brother Pedro, a 20-year-old phenom, pitches his way out of the minors and into the rotation before June.
Until then, the Dodger staff, without Belcher, will be mostly a finesse group. That translates to fewer strikeouts, and more ground balls hit to Kal Daniels, a gimpy-kneed outfielder who is trying to play first base for the first time in his career. And more balls hit to Juan Samuel, an erratic fielding second baseman. And more hit to sophomore shortstop Jose Offerman, who has a habit of butchering routine plays. "Their third basemen aren't too good, either," says one National League manager, referring to the trio of Lenny Harris, Mike Sharperson and Dave Hansen. "Hit it to their infield, and you have a chance to beat them."
The Dodgers are using their underdog status to advantage. "There are no expectations," says Butler. "The pressure isn't on us, it's on Cincinnati and Atlanta. Last year we said we were the underdogs, but we weren't."
What they are is the the most disliked club in the league. Everyone wants to beat Tommy Lasorda's team whether it's in first place or last. With its defense, in this division, it won't be first.
4. SAN DIEGO PADRES
O.K., it's quiz time.
Q: Which team won the most games in 1991—the Cardinals, Tigers, Athletics, Red Sox or Padres?
A: They each had 84 wins. Given the Padres' injuries and inner turmoil, it's a miracle they won that many.
Q: Who hit the most homers last year—Eddie Murray, Dale Murphy, Bobby Bonilla, Kent Hrbek or Darrin Jackson?
A: Jackson, the centerfielder for the Padres, with 21. But if San Diego is going to stay in the race in '92, Jackson had better drive in more than 49 runs, his '91 total.
Q: Who was the best pitcher in the National League the second half of last season—John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery or Andy Benes?
A: Benes of the Padres, who went 11-1 with a 1.77 ERA after July 15. If you want a dark horse for the '92 Cy Young, he's your guy.
Q: Who had the lowest ERA of any major league pitcher with at least 100 innings last year—Greg A. Harris, Greg W. Harris, Reggie Harris or Chuck McElroy?
A: O.K., it was Cub reliever McElroy, but San Diego's Greg W. Harris had the next-best ERA (2.23). Harris, Benes and Bruce Hurst form a terrific Big Three.
Q: Which of these players has never made an All-Star team—Pat Tabler, Matt Young, Neal Heaton, Bob Walk, Kevin Gross, Gerald Perry, Rafael Ramirez or Fred McGriff?
A: McGriff of the Padres, who is the only player in the majors to have hit at least 30 homers in each of the last four years.
Q: Who plays third base for the Padres—Craig Worthington, Tim Teufel, Paul Faries or Gary Sheffield?
A: They all have this spring, but the job now belongs to Sheffield, 23. Once a can't-miss prospect, he tangled with Milwaukee management and teammates for four years. The March 27 deal (for pitcher Ricky Bones and two prospects) means a fresh start for a player in desperate need of one. Sheffield hit .194 last year—as did the Padres' third basemen—but look for him to improve that by at least 75 points.
Q: Which free agent is most likely to leave his team after this season—Benito Santiago, Barry Bonds or Ruben Sierra?
A: They're all likely to leave, but Santiago, the Padres' catcher, already has one foot out the door. This is his option year, so watch him have his best season.
Q: What are San Diego's chances in '92?
A: The Padres finished third last year, and they could finish in the top half of the division again if Sheffield hits and new second baseman Kurt Stillwell makes a successful switch from shortstop. But "if we have injuries, we have problems," says manager Riddoch. "We're not deep. We don't have anyone on our bench with more than a year's experience."
Q: Do teams ever avoid injuries?
A: No, which is why the Padres will finish fourth.
5. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Go ahead, rip Kevin Mitchell. Call him fat. Call him irresponsible. Call him a negative influence. Then call up his stats: 109 home runs over the last three years for the Giants. In five years by the Bay he averaged one bomb every 15.5 at bats—a rate nearly matching that of Hall of Famer Willie McCovey (15.4), a Giant hero.
Mitchell, traded to Seattle last December, will be missed. The Giants finished 19 games out of first last year and scored 100 fewer runs than Atlanta. The Giants' '92 Opening Day outfield—Darren Lewis, Willie McGee and Kevin Bass—collectively hit 15 homers and drove in 98 runs in '91. That puny production will put a strain on the number 3 and 4 hitters, Will Clark and Matt Williams. "I'd walk Clark every time I possibly could," says one NL scout. "Like in high school, just wave him down to first base. You can pitch to Williams, but not Clark."
If manager Roger Craig misses Mitchell, it certainly doesn't show. "In many ways this is the best camp I've ever had," Craig says. "No bitching, no complaining. It's been great." His optimism will be taxed by his fragile pitching staff, which began the season with starters Bud Black and Trevor Wilson on the disabled list. Craig is counting heavily—too heavily?—-on righthander Billy Swift, 30, one of three pitchers acquired for Mitchell, to win at least 15 games. Swift had ERAs of 2.39 and 1.99 the last two seasons, but that was mostly as a reliever. Now he's starting. Says Swift, who is 20-35 as a starter, "When I first came up [in 1985], I was bouncing back and forth. I wasn't sure what I was doing. But last year I was just in the pen, and I relaxed."
He won't get to relax much this year. If the Giants aren't hitting or if he isn't winning, Swift will continually be reminded of the trade. "The trade was made—who cares?" Swift says. "Mitchell was causing some problems here, and they didn't like it. So they got some quality pitching for him. I think they did pretty well."
Even with a premium Swift, fifth is as pretty as it will get for the Giants.
6. HOUSTON ASTROS
We're calling for a moratorium on Astro-bashing this year. This isn't the time for bashing, it's a time for pity. The poor 'Stros are stuck in this monster division while they're in the middle of a massive rebuilding program. Last place is a lock no matter how hard they play. Manager Art Howe deserves better. So does coach Ed Ott, who in March underwent the 10th operation on his knees. ("There should be something like frequent-flyer points once you get to double figures on surgery," Ott says.) And on July 27 the Astros will begin a 26-game, 28-day, 9,186-mile road trip so that the Republican party can hold its convention in the Astrodome. (If you want to bash Astro owner John McMullen, the man responsible for that ridiculous schedule, go right ahead.)
"What if we surprise people and we're one game out when that thing starts?" says Astro reliever Curt Schilling. "We could come home 40 games out."
If the Astros are one game out in July, Howe should win the GOP nomination. Look at his team. The second baseman is Craig Biggio, who used to be the catcher and hasn't played second base since high school. Biggio's double play partner is Andujar Cedeno; to finish with more RBIs than errors, Cedeno had better drive in 70 runs—and he might.
The catching platoon is rookie Eddie Taubensee and rookie Scott Servais. That won't help a young pitching staff that needs lots of guidance, if not confidence. Rookie hurler Jeff Juden said in camp that he can win 20 games this year. If he does, Juden should get the GOP nomination. (He'll start the season in Triple A.)
Pitcher Doug Jones, one of thousands of free-agent veterans the Astros invited to camp, rediscovered his changeup and won the job as closer. Pete Incaviglia, another spring invitee, shed 40 pounds and is the new cleanup hitter.
"We will be better than last year," says Howe, "but it might not show in the win column." Ah, but it will next year. The National League is expanding.
The Contract Factor
Below are key players in the division who are eligible for free agency after this season. In the game of play-today-for-next-year's-pay, keep an eye on L.A.—especially Daniels and Davis.
ATLANTA: Rafael Belliard, Juan Berenguer, Mike Bielecki, Alejandro Pena, Lonnie Smith
CINCINNATI: Glenn Braggs, Dave Martinez, Greg Swindell
LOS ANGELES: Kal Daniels, Eric Davis, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Roger McDowell, Bob Ojeda, Juan Samuel, Mike Scioscia
SAN DIEGO: Craig Lefferts, Randy Myers, Benito Santiago
SAN FRANCISCO: Kevin Bass, Kelly Downs, Mike Felder Scott Garrelts, Chris James, Jose Uribe