There is no obvious last-place team in this division. "And no team to pick first, not even Toronto," says Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, who smiles, winks and adds, "but watch out for Baltimore." Following a season in which they won 89 games and were in the American League East race until the final two weeks, the BALTIMORE ORIOLES appear ready to unseat the world champion Blue Jays. Here are the reasons why:
•Mike Mussina. He's the pick here to win the American League Cy Young Award. Remarkably poised and polished for a 24-year-old, Mussina is the most complete pitcher to enter this league in 10 years. He was 18-5 last season with a 2.54 ERA.
•Ben McDonald. Despite a 13-13 record, a 4.24 ERA and being tagged for the most extra-base hits in baseball, Big Ben, 25, had an important year in 1992 because he pitched injury-free for the first time in his three-year major league career.
•The American League East's best defense, the division's best bullpen and sellout crowds at Camden Yards every night to inspire them.
April 4, 1993
•A more productive middle of the lineup. Shortstop Cal Ripken, coming off his worst major league season, now gets protection in the order from new DH Harold Baines, a much-needed lefthanded bat. Glenn Davis is healthy after three injury-filled seasons, which is good news because Oriole first basemen drove in 63 runs last year, an American League low.
•Jeffrey Hammonds. The team's top draft choice in 1992, Hammonds is a star of the future. He'll start the season in the minors but may well be the O's regular rightfielder by the All-Star break.
•The experience of the '92 pennant race. "Last year we didn't know what we had," says first base coach Davey Lopes. "Now we know. We're legit."
Ace righthander Jack Morris says, "I used to love to play general manager. You know, second-guess every move. But with free agency the way it is, with players moving around so much, I don't think I want to be the one who has to make those decisions." For the TORONTO BLUE JAYS, that responsibility belongs to general manager Pat Gillick, who spent the winter making tough calls and now has a team with more question marks than it has had since 1982—the last season Toronto had a losing record.
"Usually it's one opening in the pen, one in the outfield," says reliever Duane Ward. "Now it's two infield, one outfield, three pitchers." Six months after winning the World Series, there is uncertainty at those positions as well as doubts about clubhouse chemistry and the Jays' hunger to win it all again.
But how can there not be uncertainty after the Blue Jays lost so many players to free agency? Lefthander Jimmy Key, a fixture in the rotation for eight years, is gone. Closer Tom Henke and his 34 saves are gone, and no proven setup man for Ward, the new closer, has been found. Designated hitter Dave Winfield, who accounted for 108 RBIs and invaluable lineup presence, is gone; so is Candy Maldonado, with his 20 home runs. Third baseman Kelly Gruber and shortstop Manny Lee have disappeared as well.
Free-agent signee Paul Molitor is a suitable replacement at DH, but the left side of the infield is shaky. Shortstop Dick Schofield has been slow to recover from off-season surgery on his right shoulder, and Ed Sprague's defensive work at third base this spring shows why he was converted to catcher three years ago. The new leftfielder, Derek Bell, is unproven.
The personnel changes notwithstanding, Toronto still has a potent top half of the batting order in Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Molitor, Joe Carter and John Olerud. The first three are capable of totaling 120 to 150 steals in a season. In the last seven years Carter has piled up 214 home runs, 772 RBIs and 154 steals—the best numbers ever by one player in all three categories over that length of time. Olerud is on the brink of a 100-RBI season.
But if Gillick's club starts to stumble at some point, he'll be prepared to go after the players he needs. Until then the Jays have to regain the spark they had last year. "Attitude is a very big part of the game; sometimes it's overlooked," says Morris. "I can't compare this year's attitude to last year's yet. I've been on closer teams. We're good, but we have questions."
Too many to repeat.
The NEW YORK YANKEES are a good team this year. Unfortunately owner George Steinbrenner, back after a 2½-year ban from baseball, knows it and expects his club to win the division. But the Yankees can't be worrying about how the Boss will react—or, more likely, overreact—if they're seven games out in June.
They have to focus on doing the things that will prevent them from falling seven games behind—like solid catching. New York was unable to deal Matt Nokes, who this spring said, "If they want to trade me for Mark Langston, that's O.K." Yeah, right. Maybe Nokes and pitcher Jim Abbott could get the Yankees Langston. Look for Mike Stanley, who is superior to Nokes defensively, to do most of the catching.
Then there are the lingering clouds that cannot be cleared up until the season starts. Will new third baseman Wade Boggs bounce back from hitting .259 last year—.079 points under his lifetime average? Does the poor spring performance of 36-year-old closer Steve Farr indicate trouble ahead? What kind of production will come from the outfield, which includes Paul O'Neill, a career .215 hitter against lefthanders, and injury-prone Danny Tartabull, who has averaged only 119 games the last four years?
On the other hand, the pitching is terrific. The Yankees, who haven't had a pitcher produce a 15-win season and a sub-3.00 ERA in the same year since Rudy May did it in 1980, have three pitchers who are capable of it this year—newcomers Abbott and Jimmy Key, and holdover Melido Perez. Also, by picking up Abbott, Boggs, Key, O'Neill and shortstop Spike Owen, the Yankees have added quality players who know how to win.
The infusion of good guys already has changed Tartabull's attitude. Sometimes sullen and moody, Tartabull has been enthusiastic and dedicated this spring. That's the way manager Buck Showalter likes it. "When Buck looks at a player, he doesn't ask if he can hit, if he can throw; he asks what kind of guy he is," says Stanley. "He's looking for winning personalities."
Maybe Steinbrenner can come up with one too.
It's quiz time.
1) Which team's bullpen had the lowest ERA in 1992?
A) Athletics; B) Blue Jays; C) Reds; D) Brewers.
The MILWAUKEE BREWERS have an obscure pen, but they had a combined 2.78 ERA—the best of the bunch. "No one knows who I am," says closer Doug Henry. "No one knows Mike Fetters or James Austin. People used to know Jesse Orosco, but now that he's here, they don't know him." What the Brewers know is that Darren Holmes and Dan Plesac, two key relievers, were lost to expansion and free agency, respectively.
2) Milwaukee's 256 steals last year...
A) were 96 more than any other American League team's; B) were 21 fewer than the Yankees', Orioles', Red Sox's and Tigers' combined; C) were the most in the American League since 1976; D) included a combined 61 by Kevin Seitzer, Scott Fletcher and Molitor—all of whom are now gone.
All of the above. The Brewers will keep running, though, even if they have to send Clydesdale outfielders Tom Brunansky (220 pounds) and Kevin Reimer (230).
3) Who has the best command of his breaking ball in the American League?
A) Chris Bosio; B) Frank Viola; C) Jimmy Key; D) Mike Mussina.
Bosio, but, unfortunately for the Brewers, he's now with the Seattle Mariners.
4) Excluding division winners, which team won the most games last year?
A) Brewers; B) Reds; C) Twins; D) Orioles.
The Brewers, with 92, thanks in great part to manager Phil Garner's upbeat, aggressive style. But as good as Milwaukee was a year ago, the team lost too much in the off-season to win the division in '93.
Mike Ilitch, who is the new owner of the DETROIT TIGERS, is turning Tiger Stadium into a fun place to visit again. The refurbished facility will have a new scoreboard and sound system, a food plaza, Ernie Harwell back at the mike, peanut-tossing vendors, Friday Night Fireworks and Monday Night Runarounds (kids are allowed on the field after the game to run around the bases).
The Tigers are going to be fun to watch too—if you like 10-9 games three times a week. The Detroit offense is awesome, maybe even more so this year than last, with the return of Alan Trammell, who missed most of '92 with an ankle injury. "Who are you going to pitch to in our lineup?" asks catcher Mickey Tettleton, who contributed 32 home runs to the Tigers' '92 major league high of 182. Last year Detroit led the league in runs scored, but the Tigers were still outscored.
The hope is that newcomer Mike Moore will anchor the rotation. However, in his last five seasons, four of which were spent pitching home games in Oakland's big park, Moore was 41-25 with a 3.11 ERA at home and 34-36 with a 4.10 ERA on the road. And Tiger Stadium is a great park for hitters.
Detroit won't be a contender again until it gets more pitching, but the organization appears to be on the right track with Hitch, who spends money and markets his team. The Tigers have to hope they get off to a better start at home than they did last year, when they did not have a lead in any of their first eight games at Tiger Stadium.
In February a local columnist wrote that BOSTON RED SOX manager Butch Hobson should be fired and that, in fact, the organization was letting him twist in the wind. The day before the story ran, the writer told Hobson about it. Hobson didn't slug him or snarl at him; instead he said he appreciated being told, adding, "You can come in here [Hobson's office] anytime."
That's how bad things are in Boston. It's clear even to Hobson that if the team doesn't have a good start, he's going to be axed. "I don't pay attention to it," Hobson says. "I know my players like to play for me. If I don't manage here, hopefully I'll manage someplace else."
Hobson's players do enjoy playing for him, but he just doesn't have a good feel for the job. A former Alabama quarterback who likes to tell Bear Bryant stories, Hobson seems better suited to being a football coach. He has better players than last year. New outfielders Andre Dawson and Ivan Calderon are certain to upgrade what was a pathetic offense, and first baseman Carlos Quintana returns after missing all of last year with injuries suffered in an auto accident. But with little speed, shaky defense and weak starting pitching after Roger Clemens and Frank Viola, major improvement is unlikely.
Boston's strength is its middle relief, which, in football terms, is like having a good punt-return unit.
After the deaths of pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews in a boating accident on March 22 (following story), does it matter where the CLEVELAND INDIANS are picked to finish? What matters is that this team, rich in young talent, is able to overcome the tragedy.