1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
GAGNE TO THE RESCUE New shortstop Greg Gagne has stabilized a
position that Jose Offerman, who was traded to the Kansas City
Royals in the off-season, had butchered for four years. Gagne,
who signed as a free agent, is the best defensive shortstop the
Dodgers have had since Pee Wee Reese. Over the past four seasons
Gagne made 67 fewer errors than Offerman did--and Gagne had 266
more chances. In 1995 Offerman made 12 errors just in games
started by knuckleballer Tom Candiotti. "He had attitude
problems--he pouted," Candiotti said of Offerman. "It was a
problem that had to be rectified."
CAN THE BUTLER DO IT? In this century 10 players who were 38 or
older have been the regular centerfielder for their teams. This
spring L.A. centerfielder Brett Butler, who turns 39 in June,
looked as good as he did last August, when he was acquired from
the Mets and sparked the Dodgers' offense. "I'm a .290 career
hitter," he says. "If I hit .250, I'll walk away." Only two
teams have won the pennant with a regular centerfielder who was
38 or older: the Chicago White Sox with Dummy Hoy in 1901 and
the Detroit Tigers with Doc Cramer in '45.
BRAVE ROTATION In the National League only the Braves have
better starting pitching than the Dodgers, whose rotation boasts
Ramon Martinez, Hideo Nomo, Ismael Valdes, Candiotti and Pedro
Astacio. The first four pitchers had ERAs of less than 3.75 last
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR Leftfield is a big question mark for the
Dodgers, who will most likely platoon Todd Hollandsworth and
Billy Ashley. Hollandsworth hit .233 and played only 41 games
because of injuries last year, while in '95 Ashley set the major
league strikeout mark (88) for players with fewer than 225 at
bats in a season. The Dodgers, however, have two outstanding
prospects in Triple A--Karim Garcia and Roger Cedeno, both of
whom should be ready next year.
A CLOSER'S BEST FRIEND Lefthanded reliever John Cummings was
jogging this spring when he was bitten by a pit bull. Cummings
then kicked the dog into a canal. That's the kind of toughness
you want in a middle reliever.
OUTLOOK The Dodgers will win the West. With their pitching and
an upgraded defense, they might be the only team capable of
challenging the Braves for the National League pennant.
2. SAN DIEGO PADRES
RICKEY REVIVAL New leftfielder Rickey Henderson, 37, looks like
he's 27. "I thought everyone got old," says Padres rightfielder
Tony Gwynn. "I guess he's the exception." Henderson worked out
all winter with a fitness coach for the first time in his
career, and he was so enthusiastic this spring that he asked to
play in exhibition games that he had been scheduled to sit out.
How much does he have left? Says former A's teammate Dave
Stewart, who works in the Oakland front office, "He might win
SHORTCOMING The Padres will have a better shot at a postseason
spot if shortstop Andujar Cedeno improves his overall game. His
.210 average last season was the lowest among National League
players who batted at least 300 times, and his fielding was
TONY BALLGAME The 35-year-old Gwynn has hit .372 over the last
three years, six points higher than Ted Williams's best average
over three consecutive seasons. Is Gwynn, a six-time National
League batting champ, primed to make another run at .400? "I
don't pay attention to that stuff," he says. Last year he had a
career-high 90 RBIs and a career-low 15 strikeouts, thus
becoming the first player since Don Mueller (83 RBIs and 12 K's)
in 1955 to put up such an impressive ratio. "Now, I like that,"
TOOLS OF IGNORANCE? San Diego must have the smartest catchers in
baseball: Starter Brad Ausmus is a Dartmouth graduate, and
backup Brian Johnson went to Stanford. In the off-season Johnson
tutored grammar school kids in English and math.
OUTLOOK The Padres are moving up, but in a division loaded with
power, they have very little.
3. COLORADO ROCKIES
ROCKY ROTATION With only one complete game last year, Colorado's
starters set a dubious big league record, and the staff had the
worst ERA (5.19) in the National League. This season they could
be worse. Righthander Bret Saberhagen (torn ligament in his
pitching shoulder) may be out for the year, and righty Billy
Swift (arthroscopic shoulder surgery) won't be ready for the
opener. Manager Don Baylor says he'll start the year with 12
pitchers. In this case, there's no strength in numbers.
THE REAL THING Some baseball observers doubt that third baseman
Vinny Castilla can duplicate his 1995 output of .309, 32 homers
and 90 RBIs. Wrong. Castilla has learned to hit to all fields,
especially to right center. Count on him to have another
CENTER STAGE Larry Walker, a Gold Glove rightfielder, looked
terrific in center this spring. "It's been easier than I
thought," he says of the change in positions. Walker's arm is so
good that four times in his career he has thrown out hitters at
first base after fielding their one-hop liners to right. "It's
going to be tough to do that from center," he says. "A sniper is
going to have to drop the hitter on his way to first."
OUTLOOK The Rockies plan to slug their way to the playoffs for
the second straight year. That won't happen.
4. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
LEITER TIMES In the winter of 1987 Mark Leiter, who'd had
surgery on his pitching shoulder and appeared to be finished as
a major leaguer, took a job as a corrections officer at a jail
in Ocean County, N.J. But he persevered and returned to baseball
two years later, and last season he became the Giants' ace by
winning 10 games and completing seven. "People ask me all the
time, 'Don't you have a brother [the Marlins' Al] who pitches in
the major leagues?'" Leiter says. "Then they ask me, 'So, what
do you do?'" He may not be well known, but he will pitch on
TOUGH TRANSITION Cuban defector Osvaldo Fernandez, a 27-year-old
righthanded starter whom San Francisco signed to a three-year,
$3.2 million contract in January, struggled in spring training.
He was hit hard and had difficulty adjusting to major league
rules, such as not being allowed to go to his mouth while on the
mound. His signing looms as a Giant mistake.
BULLPEN BLUNDERS San Francisco had the worst bullpen in the
major leagues last year; it had a 5.35 ERA and yielded a
National League-leading 64 home runs. It looked just as bad in
spring training. "It has to be better because it can't be
worse," manager Dusty Baker says.
OUTLOOK The lineup and defense are good enough for the Giants to
make a run at the Dodgers, but the pitching is so bad that San
Francisco has a better shot at finishing last.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Delino DeShields and the Dodgers might be the only NL team that can challenge Atlanta.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO With the Giants' dubious staff, it's a stretch to think Kirt Manwaring and Co. will be contenders.