Ken Griffey Jr. is running for president, Lenny Dykstra is
running without pain. Ryne Sandberg is back, Deion Sanders
isn't. The strike zone is bigger, the average major league
salary is smaller. There will be 162 games this season, and Cal
Ripken Jr. intends to play them all.
Spring training games begin this week, and change is almost
everywhere. Six teams have a new manager, the Chicago White Sox
have a new outfield, the Kansas City Royals have a new infield,
and the St. Louis Cardinals will very likely break camp with
only one pitcher who was on their Opening Day roster last
season. It's a spring of intriguing questions. We have the
1 Can any team in the American League take the pennant from the
powerful Cleveland Indians?
No. Last year the Indians had the game's most devastating lineup
since the Big Red Machine in the mid-'70s and became the first
team to produce six .300 hitters (with at least 300 at bats)
since the '36 Yankees. This year the Indians are even more
potent because they signed free-agent first baseman-DH Julio
Franco (.301 career batting average), who played last year in
Japan. At 34 he's a smart hitter who can show Cleveland's
impatient hitters how to drive the ball to the opposite field,
which they failed to do in losing to the Atlanta Braves in the
World Series. He'll also be an asset in the clubhouse to the
Indians' young Latin players like rightfielder Manny Ramirez.
March 4, 1996
Last year Cleveland also led the league in pitching, but they
have replaced the inconsistent Ken Hill in the rotation with
free-agent righthander Jack McDowell, who has won 67 games the
last four years and is one of the game's most competitive
players. Bad news for the rest of the American League.
2 Of all the pitchers attempting comebacks from serious arm
injuries this spring, who has the best shot at regaining his old
Jimmy Key. The New York Yankees' southpaw is throwing pain-free
after missing almost all of '95 following rotator-cuff surgery
on his pitching shoulder. For a finesse pitcher like Key, the
most telling sign that he's back to his old self is his control,
and according to Yankees coach Don Zimmer, "Key can throw it in
a teacup whenever he wants."
Key may not be ready for Opening Day, but if he makes it back
into the New York rotation along with Doc Gooden, who's trying
to make a comeback of his own after being suspended for 1995 for
violating his drug aftercare program, the Yankees' pitching
staff should be terrific.
3 Will Eck be a wreck in St. Louis?
Don't count on it. Dennis Eckersley, the best closer in history,
is the newest addition to the revamped Cardinals. Even though
he's coming off a year with the Oakland A's in which he had a
4.83 ERA (7.17 after the All-Star break) and lefthanded hitters
hit .344 against him, Eckersley is capable of matching the
36-save effort turned in last season by St. Louis's Tom Henke,
who has since retired. "I've got something to prove this year,"
Eck says. "I only really got hit hard in September."
Last year, at 40, Eckersley saved 29 games. Since '69 only
Woodie Fryman (in '82) and Ron Reed ('84) among the 41-and-over
set have saved as many as 11 games in a season. Eckersley,
however, has a few things going for him. He still has pinpoint
control and throws in the upper 80's; National League hitters
will have to adjust to his deceptive delivery; and he has former
A's skipper Tony La Russa, a big booster, as his manager again.
"If I have a bad game," Eckersley says, "I won't be looking over
my shoulder wondering if the manager is going to say, 'What have
you done for me lately?' Tony is very soothing. But he's very
honest. He'll tell me if I need to make an adjustment. He won't
kiss my butt."
4 Can Rick Aguilera of the Minnesota Twins make the transition
from premier closer to a solid starter?
Yes--and he'll be the first to do so since the save statistic
became official in 1969. In the last 27 years, no pitcher who
has saved 25 games in a season has become a successful starter.
Knuckleballers Charlie Hough (22 saves in 1977) and Wilbur Wood
(21 in 1970) had above-average careers as starters before being
converted to relievers, but neither closed games as well, or for
as long, as Aguilera did in logging 204 saves over the past six
"The hardest part for me was going from being a starter to being
a reliever; going from relieving to starting wasn't tough," says
Hough. "You've really got to learn how to pitch when you're in
the bullpen because the game is always on the line in the ninth
inning. Aguilera will have no problems as long as he conditions
himself to pitch nine innings."
The 34-year-old Aguilera was primarily a starter with the Mets
from 1985 through '88 and in his first season with the Twins in
'89; he has not pitched more than 73 innings in a season since
moving to the bullpen, has thrown more than 49 pitches in a game
only once and has not made an appearance longer than 3 1/3
innings during that time. Now Minnesota is banking on him to
pitch at least 200 innings--a figure he never approached as a
starter. Plus, with base stealers going 38 for 38 against him
the last five years combined, he has to work hard on his slide
step to quicken his delivery.
Aguilera, however, does have two quality pitches (fastball and
splitter), and this spring he's working on a changeup. He also
has a sound arm, but more important, he's excited about the
switch. "A lot of people are uncertain whether I can do it, but
my manager [Tom Kelly] believes I can, and so do I," Aguilera
says. "I worked harder than ever this winter on my conditioning.
The fact that no one has ever done this gives me more incentive.
I don't expect to win 20 games, but I do expect to be successful."
5 Can Jose Canseco play rightfield for the Boston Red Sox?
No. Putting Canseco back in rightfield makes no sense for
several reasons: The Red Sox were already last in the American
League in fielding in 1995 without using him in the field;
playing the quirky rightfield at Fenway Park is not easy even
for a good fielder; and it's not as if the Red Sox have a Ted
Williams waiting to DH. Reggie Jefferson, a career .272 hitter,
probably will be getting most of the at bats if Canseco plays
Boston would score a ton of runs with Jose Rijo in rightfield,
so the only sensible thing to do is to put Troy O'Leary, who is
a decent fielder and a good hitter, in right and let Canseco hit
his 40 homers as the DH. Remember the last time Canseco was an
every-day rightfielder, in '93 with the Texas Rangers? A
catchable fly ball hit him on the head and bounced over the
fence for a home run.
6 Is there baseball life after 40 for the Wizard of Oz?
No. Ozzie Smith is a future Hall of Famer and the best defensive
shortstop ever, but he's 41 and has a weak throwing shoulder,
and there's a younger, stronger, better-hitting shortstop in
camp, Royce Clayton. The 26-year-old Clayton, who was acquired
by the Cardinals from the San Francisco Giants for three
pitchers in December, is Gold Glove caliber defensively and,
despite a .244 average last season, has potential as a hitter
(he batted .282 in '93). Last year Smith hit .199 in 44 games
and missed 77 games because of his ailing shoulder. He still has
good range and fabulous hands, but his fragile right shoulder is
a liability--especially now that he can't bounce throws off the
artificial turf at Busch Stadium, where a grass surface has been
installed. Smith came to camp in terrific shape and is angry
that he has to compete for a job.
"I know what I can do, and I don't have anything to prove to
anybody," Smith said last week. "The unfortunate thing is that
people want to compare me to the 25-, 26-year-old Ozzie Smith."
Added factors working against Smith in his bid to regain a key
role in St. Louis: He refuses to play another position, such as
second base; he doesn't have a good enough bat anymore to make
him worth keeping as a pinch hitter; and the Cardinals have a
new manager, La Russa, who has no sentimental attachment to the
shortstop and doesn't tolerate sulking ballplayers. The club
would like Smith to retire, but he won't. He wants to play for a
winner again, he has personal goals (he's 104 hits short of
2,500), and he makes $3 million a year. If he doesn't retire or
accept a backup role, he'll probably be released, which would be
a public-relations nightmare for La Russa.
7 Is New York Mets rookie shortstop Rey Ordonez the next Ozzie
No. Omar Vizquel of the Indians is the next Ozzie Smith, and
Ordonez is the next Vizquel. "I've been in spring training three
days," Bobby Valentine, the Mets' new Triple A manager, said
recently, "and already a bunch of players and coaches have
relived some plays Ordonez made in workouts that they'd never
seen before. He's already a legend."
There was the time Ordonez, deep in the hole, showed his
remarkable balance by waiting on one foot for a high-hopper to
come down and then firing to first for the out; and the time he
used the Ozziesque pop-up slide after fielding a grounder to his
backhand and then threw out the runner at first; and the time he
went into the hole and tossed the ball behind his back to force
the runner at third; and the time he dashed behind the mound,
dived and slapped the ball to first with his closed glove for an
Expect the Mets to start the 23-year-old Ordonez, who played in
Triple A last season, and to use a combination from among
Edgardo Alfonzo, Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino at second and third
base. Nothing could be more important for the Mets' talented
young pitchers--sophomores Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher
will be joined in the rotation this year by can't-miss rookie
Paul Wilson--than having all the plays made behind them. Ordonez
will save more runs than any other shortstop in the league, do
it with style and start the Mets on their climb back to the top.
8 Will the Seattle Mariners be hurt by the trades
of first baseman Tino Martinez (111 RBIs in '95) and third
baseman Mike Blowers (96 RBIs)?
Who knows? The last team to trade a 100-RBI man and a 95-RBI man
in the off-season was the Washington Senators, who dealt first
baseman Zeke Bonura (114) and outfielder Al Simmons (95) before
the 1939 season. "I could see Martinez and Blowers having those
kinds of years again," says Seattle closer Norm Charlton. "I
would be lying if I told you that I thought the two new guys
would drive in 207 runs."
The new guys are first baseman Paul Sorrento, the former Indian
who signed with the Mariners as a free agent, and third baseman
Russ Davis, who came over from the Yankees with starter Sterling
Hitchcock in the Martinez deal. Sorrento hit 25 homers in only
323 at bats last year, but 23 of those homers came off
righthanders, and he hit only .163 against lefthanders. Look for
Sorrento to platoon with Greg Pirkl, or perhaps designated
hitter Edgar Martinez will play first base against some lefties.
"I like Mike Blowers," says Mariners ace Randy Johnson, "but he
was streaky. He would drive in seven runs in one game, then go
two weeks without an RBI. I'd like more consistency." Of
Blowers's 96 RBIs, 43 came in eight games. Davis, 26, has a
quick, live bat and a good glove. Seattle, in fact, will be
better defensively at the corners this season--Tino Martinez
throws poorly, especially to second on potential double-play
grounders, and Blowers doesn't have much range.
The Mariners will be hurt more by the loss of their two premier
middle relievers, Jeff Nelson, who was also traded to the
Yankees in the Tino Martinez deal, and Bill Risley, who was sent
to the Toronto Blue Jays for two prospects. Their replacement is
the often-injured Mike Jackson, who because of a tender right
elbow pitched only 49 innings for Cincinnati in '95.
9 Will the volatile Ray Knight be a good manager for the
Yes. He has never managed before on any level, but anyone who
has been around professional baseball for 21 years has to
understand game strategy. Plus, former manager Davey Johnson was
grooming him for the job last year, so Knight played a large
role in running the team.
The most important part of managing is getting the players to
work hard. Knight loves to talk, and he'll put an arm around a
player while he's giving him a pointer, but he won't hesitate to
criticize a player to his face.
The rap on Knight is that he's too emotional. Truth is, he's a
tough competitor who hates to lose. In his 12 years in the
majors, there wasn't a pitcher Knight didn't think he could hit.
He played with kidney stones in 1987 with the Baltimore Orioles.
He knows pressure, having succeeded Pete Rose at third base for
the Reds in '79 and earned Series MVP honors for the Mets when
they won the '86 world championship. He's not as famous as his
wife, golfer Nancy Lopez, so his ego is in check. And he's a
boxer, therefore he can punch out anyone on his team who gets
out of line.
"He's fiery and aggressive. He's very similar in approach to Lou
Piniella," says Reds general manager Jim Bowden, comparing him
with the last Cincinnati manager to win a World Series, in 1990.
"Lou's a winner, Ray's a winner. They're both leaders."
10 Who the heck is Jayhawk Owens?
Claude Jayhawk Owens II is half American Indian, half Irish and
100% the new starting catcher for the Colorado Rockies. His
grandmother on his father's side is a full-blooded Cherokee. He
has relatives named Florida, Iowa and Nevada. Growing up, he
went by the initial J, not Jayhawk, "because I got teased a
lot," he says. "But when I came to the big leagues in '93, the
media started calling me Jayhawk." Owens says he'll name his
first child Dakota or Colorado. "If we have twins," he says,
smiling, "I might name them North and South Dakota. My wife,
Jennifer, might be cool to that. I may have to arm wrestle her
for that one."
Owens, 27, will be one of the most closely watched players on
the Rockies, who, unlike the rest of the clubs in the National
League West, did little to improve themselves in the off-season.
Drafted as an outfielder by the Twins in 1990, Owens has never
caught 100 games in a season as a pro and has hit .224 in only
143 major league at bats over the past three years. But Owens is
considered a better receiver than his predecessor, Joe Girardi,
who was traded to the Yankees for two minor leaguers. Owens has
a better arm and more power (Owens had four homers in 45 at bats
last year; Girardi had eight in 462). "I lost a couple games for
us in '93 with my defense," Owens says. "Since then, defense has
come first for me."