In all five previous expansion seasons, the pennant winner in the expanded league won at least 100 games, a streak the ATLANTA BRAVES will expand on this year. Or will they? "I can't see any team in our division winning 100 games," counters San Diego Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn. "I know Atlanta and Cincinnati are loaded, but...."
But virtually every team in the West is vastly improved. All Atlanta did was add Greg Maddux, the best pitcher in the league, to what was already the best pitching staff in the game. Beyond that, the Braves are the same team that has won two consecutive pennants—a club that is rapidly becoming to the '90s what the Los Angeles Lakers were to the '80s.
The Lakers had Showtime. The Braves have Prime Time. And they're still trying to make him Full Time. Leftfielder Deion Sanders had his contract renewed last month, but Atlanta hopes to throw cold water on any notions of his playing football during the baseball postseason by working out a new, exclusive deal soon.
The Lakers had Dyan Cannon. Well, rightfielder David Justice married actress Halle Berry in the off-season, the upside of a down year in which he hit .256 with 72 RBIs. Also this winter, centerfielder Otis Nixon married Juanita Leonard, former wife of the now Sugarless Ray. Halle and Juanita should supersede the aging Jane Fonda and Ted Turner in the seats along the first base line.
Which leaves the Braves complete, save for a true closer in the bullpen. General manager John Schuerholz continues to do the tomahawk shop.
The good news is Kevin Mitchell will cover a lot of ground in leftfield for the CINCINNATI REDS this season. The bad news is he can do so standing still. Mitchell reported to camp weighing one eighth of a ton and missed most of the Reds' spring games with a broken bone in his left foot and various personal commitments.
New general manager Jim Bowden commissioned an appropriately weighty 150-page report on Mitchell before acquiring him from the Seattle Mariners for reliever Norm Charlton in November. When Mitchell alighted, dirigiblelike, at the Reds' camp in Plant City, Fla., Bowden was there to greet him. "I told him I wanted to meet the player I put my career on the line for," says Bowden.
The Reds won 90 games last year but went limp in the heat of the pennant race. Their main problem was run production: Paul O'Neill is not a number-four hitter, which is why Bowden sent him to the New York Yankees for centerfielder Roberto Kelly. And why Mitchell was brought in to clean up, like he did in averaging 32 home runs and 91 RBIs during 4½ years in San Francisco. (He hit nine home runs and drove in 67 runs in an injury-shortened season in Seattle last year.)
The Reds' starting pitching—Jose Rijo, Tim Belcher, Tom Browning—is second only to Atlanta's: To caulk the crack left by departed free-agent pitcher Greg Swindell, Bowden signed John Smiley, who has won 36 games over the past two seasons, one more than Maddux. With Rob Dibble in the pen, the Reds' pitching is almost without flaw.
His new teammates welcomed Greg Swindell to the HOUSTON ASTROS this winter by organizing a dinner in his honor. There the pitcher dispatched a waiter to a table occupied by Astro infielders Casey Candaele and Ken Caminiti, with the idea of buying them a drink. Candaele and Caminiti ordered Dom Perignon. "In return," says Candaele, "we sent over two glasses and a bottle of Sharp's."
Swindell can afford champagne. New Astro owner Drayton McLane spent $36.5 million to bring free-agent pitchers Swindell and Doug Drabek back to Houston, the hometown of both players. The two contracts are worth more than twice the entire payroll of the 1992 Astros, who finished a surprising 81-81 in spite of their shallow staff of starting pitchers, which went 42-60 last season.
This season, with Drabek and Swindell preceding Pete Harnisch and Mark Portugal in the rotation, the Astros have the third-best staff in baseball—and, alas, in the division. "There will be a lot of one-run games when we play Atlanta," pitching coach Bob Cluck clucks.
In other words, Houston is in it to win it this season. This would complete a startling metamorphosis best exemplified by the growth on Candaele's face. Candaele is wearing what blues musicians and other facial-hair aficionados call a "soul patch" beneath his lower lip. "To help me play the saxophone," he says. "Actually, it's a caterpillar. Maybe by the end of the season, it will grow into a butterfly."
Sherry Davis, the legal secretary who becomes the first full-time female P.A. announcer in the majors this year, may have the best 3-4-5 hitters in baseball to introduce for the SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS.
Batting third, the first baseman, Will Clark. A free agent after this season, Clark would like to stick the Giants for the kind of money ($43.75 million) they gave Barry Bonds in December. Which means Will will be certain to have a monstrous season after hitting a mere .300—along with the most anemic team-leading total of RBIs (73) in the league—last season.
Batting fourth, the third baseman, Matt Williams. When Bonds arrived this spring, he allegedly called Williams a "fat, bald old man." Even so, Williams has to be elated about his new teammate. Batting in front of Bonds—who led the league in walks last year—Williams will see nothing but pitches on the fat part of the plate, as he did when Kevin Mitchell used to hit behind him. Without a threat in the five hole last season, a flustered Williams batted .227.
Batting fifth, the leftfielder, Barry Bunds. The best player in baseball had a tumultuous spring, but also a torrid one. He hit Padre Phil Plantier, but he also hit .400 for most of the exhibition season. He and Clark together—both strongheaded, sometimes wrongheaded—will make for a wildly interesting season.
The problem for undermanned San Francisco? As centerfielder Willie McGee says, "You can't put them on the field by themselves." The Giants, it seems, intend to try.
If ifs and buts were Pizza Huts, Tom Lasorda would be fat again. "What if Strawberry is healthy?" queries Giant manager Dusty Baker. "What if Davis is healthy? What if Offerman cuts down on his errors? What if Orel Hershiser and Ramon Martinez put it together?"
The LOS ANGELES DODGERS lost 99 games and finished in last place for the first time since 1905. But what if fragile outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis are healthy? Last season these best friends played together a mere 31 times. Both reported this spring with shaved heads and a sense of purpose. Says Strawberry, "I have a chance to establish myself as probably one of the best players ever to play this game." He is already one of the best to seldom play this game.
And what if shortstop Jose Offerman cuts down on his errors? Last year he booted more balls than Uwe von Schamann, leading the major leagues in errors, just ahead of a teammate, second baseman Lenny Harris. Needless to say, the Dodgers' 174 errors were the most in baseball. Which is why they traded for Jody Reed (to play second) and Tim Wallach (to play third); combined, the pair committed only 29 E's last season.
And what if pitchers Hershiser and Martinez recover from a season in which they combined for 18 wins? Behind them will be knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, Kevin Gross (who threw the majors' only no-hitter in '92), and either rookie Pedro Astacio or rookie Pedro Martinez (Ramon's brother), or both. An all right rotation, not to mention an all-righthanded one.
What if all these elements come together? L.A. would improve by 25 games. And finish a dozen out of first place.
The SAN DIEGO PADRE roster is thinner than coach Rob Picciolo, who is thinner than the instrument that his surname sounds like. By unloading the salaries of such talented players as Benito Santiago, Randy Myers, Tony Fernandez, Craig Lefferts and Jerald Clark last winter, San Diego owners saved $11.5 million. New manager Jim Riggleman, however, was left to open the spring with a 40-man roster that included Pat Gomez, Jeremy Hernandez, Rich Rodriguez, Ricky Gutierrez, Luis Lopez and Guillermo Velasquez. Get the idea that beating the Pads this summer will be...e-z?
It will be easy as 1-2-3, even with the presence of 1) third baseman Gary Sheffield, who would have been the league MVP last season had the Padres finished higher than third; 2) Fred McGriff, who in '92 became the first player since 1908 to win a home run title in both leagues; and 3) Tony Gwynn, who continues to turn out singles like a latter-day Berry Gordy.
To the list of history's great Rockies—Rocky Marciano, the first Rocky, Rocky the Flying Squirrel—add manager Don Baylor of the COLORADO ROCKIES. Baylor will not allow his players to wear those unsightly Oakley sunglasses at the plate, and he has banned earrings as well. Baylor wants his players to be diamond studs, not to wear them.
Alas, Baylor has a lot of cubic zirconia in his lineup. And what will it take for the Rockies to finish above seventh place? "Every guy on the team has a career year," says outfielder Dante Bichette. "Or close to it. That's what we need to be competitive."
The Rockies will run. And No. 1 starter David Nied had a phenomenal spring. Following Nied, Butch Henry and Bryn Smith in the rotation, will be.... Saaay, what are your plans for the summer?
"Hey," says third baseman Charlie Hayes, assessing the Rockies' chances. "You never know."
Hey. Sometimes you do.
RONALD C. MODRA
LIKE HENRY RODRIGUEZ, L.A. WILL STRUGGLE TO MAKE A FORWARD STEP
KIRT MANWARING AND THE UNDERMANNED GIANTS WILL TAKE THEIR LUMPS