There are three important things to remember this season when it
comes to pitching: allocation, relocation and location. In the
wake of Atlanta's championship drive in 1995, teams with an eye
toward unseating the Braves began to stockpile arms, not only
for their own sakes but also to choke off the supply that could
be allocated to their rivals. Thus two of the more serious title
contenders now have staffs that might run deeper than even
Atlanta's: the runner-up Indians, who enter the season with
seven or eight solid starters, and the Yankees, who have amassed
almost as many, including four former 17-game winners (David
Cone, Kenny Rogers, Dwight Gooden and Jimmy Key).
For those teams unable to attain depth, there's the quest for
that one ace who might carry them deep into the playoffs (see
Johnson, Randy; Seattle Mariners). That star search sparked a
dizzying number of relocations, including those of two Cuban
emigres who arrive in the majors this spring via the Dominican
Republic. And as for location, well, the strike zone has been
lowered slightly for '96, meaning that pinpoint sinkerball
pitchers like the Braves' Greg Maddux will be even tougher to hit.
Speaking of unerring accuracy, here are a few things that are
sure to be served up this year.
1. The off-season deal that will pay off the most was one made
by the Orioles.
New G.M. Pat Gillick signed the best free agent available in
Roberto Alomar (three years, $18 million) and a useful bat in
B.J. Surhoff (three years, $3.7 million), but it is the
acquisition of lefty Kent Mercker (one year, $2.8 million) that
will put Baltimore over the top. A 28-year-old with a lifetime
3.49 ERA, a no-hitter in 1994 and 12 postseason appearances,
Mercker was lost in the shuffle among the Braves' four aces. Now
given a regular role as the No. 3 starter, behind Mike Mussina
and David Wells, he will thrive.
2. The off-season deal that will pay off the least was one made
by the Royals.
Kansas City has been consistently respectable for years, largely
because it acquired the necessary speed, pitching and defense to
suit its outsized park. Even with a bunch of late-season
call-ups in the lineup last year, the Royals remained in the
playoff chase until the last week of the season by adhering to
that time-tested formula.
Then came last winter, when they allowed reliable shortstop Greg
Gagne to sign with the Dodgers and replaced him with L.A.'s Jose
Offerman, whom they obtained for reliever Billy Brewer. Not only
is Offerman incapable in the field--he made 35 errors in '95,
whereas Gagne made 40 over the last three years--but he is also
prone to sulking, which won't be exactly beneficial to a young
team. What's more, Offerman's new double-play partner came in
exchange for slick-fielding first baseman Wally Joyner: ex-Padre
Bip Roberts, who has an iffy glove and a dubious attitude.
3. Ryne Sandberg will not come close to resembling his
preretirement self as a player.
He began his workouts in October, three months earlier than he
used to in those off-seasons prior to his June 1994
"retirement." He has a new wife since he last played second for
the Cubs, and a new optimism about the team's prospects. But
despite his renewed energy and enthusiasm, Sandberg, who was
already on the decline two years ago, will be hard-pressed to
approximate the brilliant years of his prime at Wrigley Field.
And given the Cubs' desperate need for his production and his
own history as a notoriously slow starter, he'll be even
harder-pressed if Chicago gets off to a slow start.
It would be a mistake to compare Sandberg's comeback to that of
another 36-year-old future Hall of Famer, basketball legend
Magic Johnson. While Magic continued to compete against
NBA-caliber players during his retirement, there was nowhere
Sandberg could go to face a major league curveball--had he even
been so inclined. And the skills required in hitting and
fielding demand far greater refinement than those for nailing a
three-pointer or making a pass.
4. Los Angeles will make a late-season trade for Montreal's Jeff
The Dodgers have not started a southpaw since 1992, and they
don't have one in their rotation at the start of 1996. But
because Atlanta is loaded with lefthanded sluggers (Fred
McGriff, David Justice and Ryan Klesko), L.A. will feel the need
to have a lefty available as it gears up for a playoff
confrontation with the Braves, and no one is more available than
a thirtysomething Expo who is making big cash.
In five career starts against the Braves, Fassero, 33, has had a
3.44 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 34 innings, and his $2.8 million
salary is less of a concern to the big-market Dodgers than to
miserly Montreal. Los Angeles will have to part with a couple of
prospects or one of its younger arms--say, 26-year-old righty
Pedro Astacio, who is 0-6 with a lifetime 5.05 ERA against
Atlanta. (Note: Forty miles away from Dodger Stadium in Anaheim,
the Angels will be deploying lefties in the top three spots in
their rotation, which would seem to make the clubs ideally
suited for a trade. The last deal between them, however, was
when L.A. landed Ellie Rodriguez for Orlando Alvarez on March
5. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's first lecture about
underproducing in pinstripes will be directed at Kenny Rogers.
While it's likely he will also go after the recalcitrant
outfielder-DH Ruben Sierra, Steinbrenner usually picks on the
free agent he has most recently overpaid in order to deflect
attention from his own flawed decision making and to rechannel
the bile he feels when signing that player's bloated bimonthly
paycheck (e.g., Danny Tartabull, Ed Whitson). The lefthanded
Rogers has a lifetime 6.47 ERA at Yankee Stadium and will be
receiving $20 million over the next four years. As always,
Steinbrenner's tirade will serve only to rattle his player's
confidence and devalue his investment even further. And Rogers
isn't known for having the kind of thick skin needed in the Big
Apple. "Kenny has never been subjected to the kind of scrutiny
he'll face from the fans and media in New York," says one source
close to the Rangers. "Based on his overreaction to what little
criticism he received in Texas, he's in for a very tough time in
6. The American League MVP will be an Indians outfielder, but it
will not be Albert Belle.
Being edged out by Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn for the award
gave Belle one legitimate beef to complement his 3,000
illegitimate ones in 1995, but he won't endear himself to anyone
by carping when the Tribe's catalyst, centerfielder Kenny
Lofton, cops it in '96.
And the rest of the hardware to be distributed around the AL
this fall will go to...Orioles starter Mike Mussina (Cy
Young), Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (rookie of the year),
White Sox rightfielder-DH Danny Tartabull (comeback player of
the year) and the Baltimore brain trust of Davey Johnson
(manager of the year) and G.M. Pat Gillick (executive of the
As for the National League...Colorado centerfielder Larry
Walker (MVP), Cardinals righthander Alan Benes (rookie of the
year), Houston righthander Darryl Kile (comeback player of the
year), Terry Collins of the Astros (manager of the year) and
Marlins G.M. Dave Dombrowski (executive of the year). (Note: The
NL Cy Young has been officially retired and renamed the Greg
7. The first manager to be fired will be Cincinnati rookie Ray
Sure, it sounds crazy. After all, Reds owner Marge Schott shoved
aside Davey Johnson, who has the highest winning percentage of
any active manager (.576), to make room for Knight, 43, who has
never managed at any level. And he is family, too, having played
third base for Cincinnati from 1977 to '81.
But no manager will have a more taxing spring than Knight, who
must choose among a slew of hot prospects and low-budget free
agents to plug holes in two outfield slots and at third base. At
the same time, he will be measured against the success of
Johnson, who finished first the past two years. No matter what
personnel decisions Knight makes, this Cincinnati team is not
nearly as talented as the '95 version. As for Knight's Reds
roots, well, consider Johnson's predecessor, ex-Cincy slugger
Tony Perez. Like Knight, he was much beloved by Schott, but he
lasted only 44 games in 1993.
8. The first All-Star to be unloaded to a contender down the
stretch will be Toronto's Joe Carter.
Detroit first baseman Cecil Fielder makes too much money--$9
million this season--and he has two years left on a five-year,
$36 million contract. First baseman Mark McGwire and outfielder
Kirby Puckett are fixtures on rebuilding teams in Oakland and
Minnesota, respectively. Even if Juan Gonzalez is slowed again
by injuries, the Rangers won't part with his 50-home-run
potential. Outfielder Gary Sheffield will stay put because
Florida will remain in the wild-card hunt.
But with the Blue Jays' continued decline all too apparent by
August (or June, for that matter), there won't be any point in
their hanging on to Carter, who will make $6.5 million in '96
and will be a free agent after this season. A team in the
pennant race will be happy to trade a few minor leaguers for a
proven RBI man who in 1993 slugged one of the most dramatic home
runs in World Series history.
9. Baseball's most improved team will be the Orioles; the least
improved team will be the Mariners.
No club underwent a bigger makeover during the winter than the
Cardinals, who obtained a manager (Tony La Russa), an outfielder
(Ron Gant), two infielders (Gary Gaetti and Mike Gallego), a
pair of starters (Todd Stottlemyre and Andy Benes) and a closer
(Dennis Eckersley). They also finished a miserable 62-81 in
1995, so a mere .500 record will mean a 19-game improvement in
the wins column. But St. Louis is thin in pitching and on the
bench and will struggle to break even this season. Baltimore,
meanwhile, was 71-73 last year and could rack up triple-digit
W's in '96.
After winding up 74-70 last year, the Rangers will find a second
straight winning record elusive, but their decision to let Kenny
Rogers go and devote his salary to starter Ken Hill and reliever
Mike Henneman should keep them from slipping too far. The
Mariners went 79-66 last season and won the AL West, but in a
salary dump they swapped two of their stalwarts, first baseman
Tino Martinez and reliever Jeff Nelson, for two of the Yankees'
question marks, third baseman Russ Davis and starter Sterling
Hitchcock. That deal will doom Seattle.
10. The Braves will once again defeat the Indians in the World
But this year it will take seven games instead of six.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Among other things, our crystal ball reveals that Mercker (far left) will go boom, Sandberg will go bust and Fassero (below) will go to the Dodgers. [Kent Mercker]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: V.J. LOVERO (2) [See caption above--Ryne Sandberg; Jeff Fassero]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONRogers (right) will regret his escape to New York--as will Steinbrenner--and Lofton (below) will bump Belle as the Tribe's most valuable outfielder. [Kenny Rogers]
COLOR PHOTO: TONY TOMSIC [See caption above--Kenny Lofton]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVEROBest bets: The Mariners' high hopes for Davis (right) will prove too high, and Carter will soon be sent packing as the Blue Jays continue to slide. [Russ Davis]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Joe Carter]