After surveying the National League East this spring, Phillie general manager Lee Thomas was not entirely impressed. "Look at the teams, and you see strengths," said Thomas. "Look closer, and you see a lot of weaknesses."
True enough. The Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies have shaky rotations. The Cubs, Expos and Pirates have no obvious bullpen stoppers. The Mets are trying to make a centerfielder out of third baseman Howard Johnson, and if that isn't scary enough, the Cards are planning on Pedro Guerrero as their every-day leftfielder.
Heavy hopes hang on comebacks from injuries, including those of an old pitcher (the Cubs' Dave Smith), a frail pitcher (Chicago's Danny Jackson), a formerly fat pitcher (the Mets' Sid Fernandez), a funny pitcher (the Cardinals' Joe Magrane) and a great pitcher (New York's Dwight Gooden).
And more than any other division, this one has been clouded by controversy. The Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., has been a war zone, with talk of rape, sex and lawyers rather than runs, hits and errors. Across the state in Bradenton, Pirate players have seen the division's only 20-game winner, John Smiley, traded away to the Twins for two prospects and are quietly wondering whose expensive contract will be dumped next.
So whom do you pick in this mess of a division? According to Phillie reliever Mitch Williams, "A reporter with any intelligence will say, 'Who's going to win it? How do I know?' "
1. NEW YORK METS
Jeff Torborg gets the managing job of his lifetime, and one month into it the fate of his team may rest less in his hands than in those of some Port St. Lucie police officers. In early March three New York players (Gooden, Daryl Boston and Vince Coleman) were named as suspects in an alleged sexual assault. At week's end the investigation of the incident was continuing and no charges had yet been brought. But before that matter could be settled, it was revealed that Mets pitcher David Cone had been slapped with an $8.1 million civil suit by three women who alleged, among other things, that Cone had performed a lewd act in the Shea Stadium bullpen before a game in 1989.
Given its off-season overhaul, no team could have used a calm, orderly camp more than New York. Not a single player from the Mets' Opening Day lineup in 1991 will be in the same spot in the '92 opener. The outfield is now made up of Coleman (barely average in left), newcomer Bobby Bonilla (slow in right) and Johnson (struggling, as expected, in center). The infield features a right side—first baseman Eddie Murray and second baseman Willie Randolph—that's a combined 73 years old, and shortstop Kevin Elster, who can barely throw because of a bad right shoulder. "Our outfield defense is suspect, but our infield defense is five times as good as it used to be," says Elster, putting his finger on a big reason for last year's 77-84 Mets debacle. "We've had a——infield since '88. This year it's O.K."
But will O.K. be good enough, especially if the pitchers struggle? Gooden's comeback from shoulder surgery has been remarkable so far, but it's worth noting that Doc had pitched only two shutouts in his last 102 starts before his operation. Then there's Fernandez, who lost 40 pounds in the off-season after surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee and promptly hurt the same knee this spring when he got hit by a golf cart.
So, given all this confusion, how can anyone pick New York to win the division? The simple answer is talent, and the Mets have more of it than any team in the East. They have two Cy Young Award winners (Gooden and the newly acquired Bret Saberhagen), a future Cy Young (Cone) and a first-rate closer (John Franco). With Murray, Johnson and Bonilla, New York could become the first team ever to have three switch-hitters with 20 homers each.
"Pick us to win," says Elster. "Everything is always up in the air around here. We're used to it. We've been predicted to win it for so long, we've always just thought we would. This year we know we'll have to work for it. Pick us."
O.K. Legal proceedings notwithstanding, you're the pick.
2. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
In the movie Hoosiers, when one of Hickory High's players fouls out, the coach, played by Gene Hackman, refuses to put a fifth player in the game. "My team is on the floor," Hackman tells the referee. On the night of March 22, Pirate manager Jim Leyland woke up from a sound sleep, looked at his roommate, Pittsburgh coach Rich Donnelly, and said, "My team is on the field," and then went back to sleep.
Hickory High went on to beat bigger, badder, better South Bend Central in Boosters because Hackman inspired his guys to take on an us-against-the-world mentality. Leyland, the master motivator, is doing the same with his guys. The rich, haughty Mets bought Bonilla for $29 million in December because Pittsburgh couldn't afford him. The Pirates had to trade Smiley because they knew they would lose him after the season.
Leyland decided to treat the losses as a challenge: another reason to try to repeat as East champs, another reason to beat hated New York. "If they took away all his players," says Donnelly, "he'd still think he could win. That's him. He says if someone gets killed in a war, you can't stop the war. It will run over you."
Bonilla's 100 RBIs will have to be compensated for by Kirk Gibson, who was picked up from the Royals last month; the return of first baseman Jeff King from a back injury; and a full season of Steve Buechele at third base. "You think we couldn't have won last year without Bobby's bat?" asks centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "We won by 14 games!"
The only trouble spot Leyland says he sees is the bullpen. "But we'll finagle it," he says with conviction. Still, no manager, not even Leyland, can keep his players from worrying when the front office has itchy fingers. Will new general manager Ted Simmons unload ace Doug Drabek, too? And what about leftfielder Barry Bonds? If Pittsburgh falters early, will the game's best player be dealt to a contender? This is too much for the Pirates to think about.
Leyland disagrees, of course. "We've had more controversy in spring training the last two years, and we've won more games than anyone," he says. "The clubhouse attitude will be fine." Even so, Leyland's guys will lose at the buzzer to the bigger, badder, better Mets.
3. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
This deck of Cards has no ace, just Jose De-Leon, the game's most mysterious pitcher.
He's 31 and has tremendous stuff. He was once traded even-up for Bonilla. In nine major league seasons righthanded hitters have a .189 average against him, but his career record is 73-105, and he's only 12-28 the last two years. He's durable but has had only one complete game in his last 60 starts.
Yet he will be the Cards' Opening Day starter, which might say all that needs to be said about St. Louis's chances. Manager Joe Torre, however, thinks we might see a different DeLeon this year, so we'll listen. First off, DeLeon has been nearly unhittable this spring: two runs allowed in 22 innings, through last week. His forkball is improved, but he's now relying more on his 90-mph fastball than on breaking stuff.
St. Louis needs DeLeon to come up big because the rest of the rotation consists of pitchers who are 12-game winners at best: Bryn Smith has won between nine and 12 games for six straight seasons; Bob Tewksbury won 10 in 1990, 11 last year; Omar Olivares won 11 last year. When they falter, the Cardinals have Lee Smith, who someday may be recognized as the best closer in history. The starters will also be helped by a standout defense—even with Guerrero in left. (By the way, Guerrero's motto for 1992—"It was a mistake before it got to me"—deftly shifts the onus back to the pitchers.)
But St. Louis can't win this division unless DeLeon finally finds the fountain of truth. That's doubtful. What Torre needs is a healthy Magrane, who won 18 games in 1989 but missed last year with a left elbow injury and won't be back in action until mid-May. Without an ace the Cards can't bluff their way through.
4. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
What will those nutty Phillie pitchers do for an encore this year? A few more wild pitches hitting the screen on the fly? Six hundred walks for the fifth straight year? Another 1-2-3 Philadelphia sweep for the worst control pitchers in the league?
Yes, again, the Phillies' pitchers are young, talented and unpredictable. Sometimes they're even good: During one hot stretch by the staff last season, Philadelphia ran off 13 straight wins, the longest streak in this century by a team with a losing record.
Terry Mulholland has become one of the best lefties in the league, and Tommy Greene has gone from raw to reliable. Jose DeJesus, though, may yet become the first pitcher in history to walk 15 and strike out 15 in the same game. "Who knows where his pitches are going," says one National League batter. "I faced him once this spring, and it was the longest 15 minutes of my life." Rookie Kyle Abbott, obtained from the Angels in an off-season deal for outfielder Von Hayes, brings another impressive arm, and scouts were raving this spring about rookie Andy Ashby's fastball, but both are—surprise!—wild. In other words, Philadelphia fans, get ready for both great and ghastly nights.
The fun won't stop when manager Jim Fregosi goes to his bullpen, which is headed by the wildest Phillie of them all, closer Mitch Williams. Williams is impressed with his fellow pitchers. "I think all the walks are behind us," he says. "Except for me, of course."
Thomas, the most underrated general manager in the league, made some nice improvements in the off-season, but he admits, "We have a lot of questions. 1 guess if I wasn't with the Phillies' organization, I'd have to pick someone else."
We're not, so we will. But you're fourth with a bullet, albeit a stray bullet.
5. CHICAGO CUBS
Manager Jim Lefebvre leans against the Cubs' batting cage, spits and says, "Our pitchers' numbers weren't impressive, but we have some good arms. If we get pitching...."
Freeze it right there. Replace Lefebvre with Frankie Frisch, Stan Hack, Leo Durocher, Herman Franks, any Cubs manager during the last 45 years, and the scene is identical. It's the longest-running story line in sports history. The same scouting report has been written about Chicago most every year since World War II.
And sure enough, most every year pitching kills the Cubs, and some outfielder named Doug Dascenzo ends up pitching after all the real pitchers have been shelled.
Chicago's 1992 pennant hopes rest on three key players—all pitchers, of course.
1) Mike Morgan. We're pulling for him because he lives in a log cabin without a phone in the off-season, hunts coyote in the middle of the night, owns a couple of car-wash operations and, until last season, had not had a winning season for 10 consecutive years—the third-longest such streak in history.
2) Danny Jackson. Every year we hear how great he's going to be, and every year he either ends up around .500 or on the disabled list for a month. Jackson is living off one big year: 23-8, 2.73 ERA for the 1988 Reds. Without that, he's 50-71 lifetime with a 4.11 ERA. This spring he was awful the first three weeks, great the next two. Who knows?
3) Dave Smith. He's coming off a season of injuries to his back, his right knee and his right triceps. He, too, threw well this spring, but at 37, he is the oldest closer in the league.
Beyond these three, Chicago has ace Greg Maddux and a lot of question marks. Should a Cub fan have faith? Will this be the year they get enough pitching? Get loose, Doug.
6. Montreal Expos Watch Gary Carter smile for the camera. Watch him do interviews, sign autographs and tape promotional ads. Watch him pump his fist and high-five his teammates during rundown drills in spring training.
The Kid is back with the Expos. He'll be 38 next week and is well past his prime, but he's still loved in Montreal. His return after a seven-year trip through New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles is all part of Les Expos' new image this year. Je suis positif ("I'm positive") is their slogan. After last season's 70-91 embarrassment, in which manager Buck Rodgers was fired, general manager Dave Dombrowski resigned and Olympic Stadium all but collapsed and had to be closed for a month, an attitude change was clearly needed.
"Last year couldn't have been worse," says first baseman Tim Wallach. "There was so much bad stuff, it was terrible. But this spring has been upbeat."
The Expos have new, attractive uniforms, a new third baseman (Bret Barberie), first baseman (Wallach), catchers (Darrin Fletcher and Carter) and closer (John Wetteland). They have the same second baseman, Delino DeShields, but you'll never recognize him. He has ditched his hightop spikes, pulled his pants up to his knees to show full stirrups and shaved his head. He is using a bigger glove, he smiles once in a while, and he says he won't argue with umpires anymore. All this in hopes of atoning for a .238, 151-strikeout season in 1991.
The best form of advertising for the new Expos has been televising exhibition games back to Montreal: The Expos won 15 of their first 22. The starting pitching was good, and Wetteland's fastball was clocked in the upper 90's. "He's an animal," says Expo ace Dennis Martinez.
Montreal is the most improved team in the division, but that may not be good enough for manager Tom Runnells, who seems to be wound a little too tight. Before a March 9 exhibition game against the Yankees, he said, "We have to win this one." Easy does it, Tom. Someone has to finish last.
The Contract Factor
Below are key players in the division who are eligible for free agency after this season. If money is a motivator, look for some big-stat seasons out of this group. Keep closest watch on Dawson, Bonds and Ozzie Smith—all of whom have shown signs of restlessness.
CHICAGO: Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux, Luis Salazar
MONTREAL: Gary Carter, Spike Owen
NEW YORK: Daryl Boston, David Cone, Dave Magadan,
PHILADELPHIA: Dale Murphy
PITTSBURGH: Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, Gary Redus
ST. LOUIS: Jose DeLeon, Pedro Guerrero, Bryn Smith, Ozzie Smith