Nothing better testifies to the abundance of talent in the American League East—the strongest division in baseball—than the pin-stripe-thin hold the Yankees had on first place at the end of last season. This is a New York team that won 103 regular-season games in '80, more than the Yankees had won in any year since 1963 and more than any other team in either league won last season. But they won the division by a mere three games over the Orioles. The New Yorkers have helped themselves in several important ways since last season, most notably by acquiring the $22 million man, Dave Winfield, who proved with San Diego that he can run, catch, throw and hit. During spring training the Yankee leftfielder at times played with the unrestrained zeal of a non-roster rookie. Unfortunately, his spring batting average through last Sunday was that of a non-roster rookie, too.
In the course of things, one might expect a club so enriched to be the odds-on choice to win a second straight title. But things don't move along old grooves in the American League East. Only Toronto, which has the best basketball team in baseball, figures not to figure at all. Boston, just three seasons away from winning 99 games and then dropping that magnificent playoff to the Yankees, fell on its sword this winter, losing Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson, Carlton Fisk and all reasonable hope of being a serious contender. Detroit will once again score runs aplenty, and score it must with the pitching it has. Cleveland should finish above .500, having some punch in its lineup and Bert Blyleven on its staff. The Red Sox, Tigers and Indians are all strong enough to make the race interesting, but none of them is very likely to sustain a lasting battle against the three division powerhouses: New York, Baltimore and Milwaukee.
Milwaukee finished 17 games behind New York last season, but the Brewers strengthened themselves mightily through the most astonishing trade in years. Milwaukee got St. Louis power-hitting Catcher Ted Simmons, starting Pitcher Pete Vuckovich and, most important, a desperately needed ace reliever in Rollie Fingers.
Of course Milwaukee will win. O.K. scoffers, consider the top of the Brewers' probable batting order: 1) Paul Molitor, CF (.304, 34 stolen bases in 1980); 2) Robin Yount, SS (.293, 23 home runs, 87 RBIs); 3) Cecil Cooper, 1B (.352, 25 homers, 122 RBIs; 4) Ben Oglivie, LF (.304, 41 homers, 118 RBIs); 5) Simmons, C (.303. 21 homers, 98 RBIs); and 6) Gorman Thomas, RF (38 homers, 105 RBIs). What makes the Brewers lineup even more fearsome is the good prospect that Larry Hisle, a noteworthy slugger who has spent most of the last two seasons sidelined with a torn right rotator cuff, has recovered from surgery and will be the designated hitter. Third Baseman Don Money, despite injuring his right knee and playing in only 86 games, hit 17 homers and had 46 RBIs last year. He's recovered from surgery and will be in the Opening Day lineup. Second Baseman Jim Gantner, who will bat ninth, hit .282.
"Milwaukee is awesome," says Reggie Jackson of the Yankees. "It may be the best club on offense I've ever seen." And Simmons could wield the Brewers' most devastating bat. "Eve talked to players from both leagues," says Jackson, "and the way they feel about Simmons is that he hits the ball consistently harder than any man in either league. The only one they say is close is Al Oliver of Texas. If this team gets any pitching...." Pitching, of course. With the addition of the strong-armed Vuckovich, 12-9 in '80, Milwaukee has added a dependable starter to a staff led by righthander Moose Haas (16-15, 3.10 ERA). Lefty Mike Caldwell, who won 22 games in 1978 and 16 in 1979, tailed off to 13-11 last year, but he finished well. Jim Slaton, 15-19 in 1979, sat out most of last year with a slight tear in his right rotator cuff, but the Brewers expect him back. "I think we'll win the pennant," says former Milwaukee Manager George Bamberger. "We'd have won it two or three years ago if we'd had Fingers."
If Milwaukee pitching comes a cropper again, Baltimore should finish first. But then, it will finish first anyway if it wins 110 games, as Manager Earl Weaver predicts. The Orioles have defense, power and probably the best pitching staff in baseball. Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan and Steve Stone have all won Cy Young awards, and young Scott McGregor has the potential to do so. In the bullpen there's a "sigh of relief' in Tim Stoddard.
McGregor was 20-8 last year despite a sore left elbow that held him to 1-2 through May 21. He worked with weights last winter to eliminate the source of the soreness and hasn't suffered a recurrence this spring. Flanagan, who won 23 games and got the Cy Young in 1979, slipped to 16-13 last year, only to discover late in the season that his pitches were losing velocity because of the atrophying of a muscle that helps lift his arm. He exercised it all winter—"If I were home all day, that's all I'd do," he says—and appears completely recovered. Last year's Cy Young winner. Stone (25-7), wants to win 30 games. The 35-year-old Palmer, 16-10, with a 3.98 ERA, is eligible to slip badly at any time, but Weaver has an apparently revived Dennis Martinez as an extra starter. Except at shortstop, where 36-year-old Mark Belanger (.228) and 26-year-old rookie Wayne Krenchicki will share the work, the lineup is solid.
The Orioles are strongest on the right side, where First Baseman Eddie Murray has emerged as one of the finest hitters in the game. Over his four big league years, he has improved every season in average (.283, .285, .295 and .300), runs (81, 85, 90, 100) and RBIs (88, 95, 99, 116). Right-fielder Ken Singleton and Centerfielder Al Bumbry both hit better than .300. Bumbry also swiped 44 bases, but he wasn't running well in spring training because of a severe hip pointer.
The Yankees seem destined for third. They're still looking for a righthander to balance a staff that's already somewhat suspect. Tommy John won 22 games in 1980, but he'll be 38 in May and can again be expected to tail off in the hot months. Rudy May, 15-5 with a dazzling 2.46 ERA, has gotten crafty—he throws one of the best 3-and-2 curves in the business—but he'll be 37 in July. Ron Guidry is a puzzle. He was 17-10, but his ERA swelled almost a point, to 3.56, and there's talk that the big heat is gone from Louisiana Lightning. The bullpen is strong. Rich Gossage was magnificent in 1980 with 33 saves, and Ron Davis was very effective in long relief.
New York's most pressing problem could develop at catcher. Rick Cerone, replacing the late Thurman Munson, played splendidly last year, and there's every reason to believe he'll continue to get better. But he caught 147 games and is still without a top-quality backup. The infield is productive and almost seamless, especially up the middle with Second Baseman Willie Randolph and Shortstop Bucky Dent. At the corners the Yankees have two capable first basemen—righty Bob Watson, who hits for average, and lefty Jim Spencer, a fine fielder who hits for distance—and Third Baseman Graig Nettles, who says he's fully recovered from the hepatitis that caused him to miss 73 games last year. "It was like being hit by a train," he says.
The Yankee outfielders are falling over each other, so Oscar Gamble and a rejuvenated Lou Piniella have been relegated to platooning at DH, and Bobby Murcer seems destined to be one of the most expensive pinch hitters in history, at $320,000 a year. The centerfielder will be former Padre Jerry Mumphrey, obtained in a trade last week. A switch hitter with excellent speed, Mumphrey batted .298 in '80 and stole 52 bases. He will find a familiar face at an unfamiliar position in Winfield, who played rightfield with the Padres but will be in left for New York. The right-fielder, of course, will be Jackson, though not until he recovers from a torn tendon in his right calf that may cause him to miss the first few days of the season.
When it finally opens, the Jackson-Winfield act could be the biggest show in baseball. There already have been hints of the competition to come. While taking batting practice before the first game in spring training, Jackson issued a challenge to Winfield, "Long ball for a Coke."
"All right," Winfield said. He sent the first pitch scurrying through the grass, past the mound. Winfield grimaced. In came Jackson, who ripped savagely at the first pitch and drove it in a nearly arcless flight over the right centerfield wall. Jackson smiled. Winfield may have gotten all that money but he, Reggie, was still the boss. Winfield shook his head. "I owe you a Coke," he said.
Winfield and Jackson appear to get on well, but there are other questions about them: Jackson is in the last year of his contract, and he and owner George Steinbrenner have been embroiled in a sometimes heated dispute. The hassling has enraged Jackson. Equally problematical is how Winfield will respond to the stresses of playing in New York—for an impatient owner who's paying him millions and in front of an audience not notable for its forbearance, either. "I can handle the pressure," he says. "I can play, and there's no problem with Reggie, either. I didn't come to New York to compete with him, but to play with him." The Steinbrenner Yankees have often nibbled at the frayed edges of chaos, and one senses another one of those years.
No such turmoil threatens the division's four remaining teams. For the Red Sox, the controversy is over, gone with the departures of Lynn, Burleson and Fisk. Even with that trio, Boston finished in fourth place last year, 19 games behind the Yankees. "We won't finish 19 games back this year," says Manager Ralph Houk, who replaced Don Zimmer last fall. Anyone for 20?
Actually, if Boston can get respectable work from Dennis Eckersley, Mike Torrez and Frank Tanana—each a quality pitcher at his best—and an occasional boost from a promising youngster like Steve Crawford, 1981 might not be as gloomy as some are predicting. The Red Sox can still hit. Jim Rice, Tony Perez, former Angel Carney Lansford, Jerry Remy, Dave Stapleton, Dwight Evans and 41-year-old Carl Yastrzemski certainly can score runs.
And Boston, in Houk's words, has "a bullpen that will be the strongest in the league." Even the optimistic Houk may not be far off. To the formidable array of lefty Tom Burgmeier (24 saves), righty Bob Stanley (14 saves) and erstwhile Angel Mark Clear, Houk may be able to add a good-as-new Bill Campbell. Campbell, who led the league with 31 saves in 1977, recently went through an apparently successful rehabilitation program designed to strengthen his shoulder. The relievers had better be strong. Eckersley, Torrez and Tanana are coming off losing seasons, and to make matters worse, Fisk's successor, Gary Allenson, has played only 144 games in the majors. In fact, there are newcomers right up the middle—at catcher, at short, where Glenn Hoffman will try to take Burleson's place, and in center, where Rick Miller will step in for Lynn. The defensive decline will be dramatic, especially at short, because of Hoffman's limited range. Looking to October, Yaz is sure only of this, "I know we'll finish the season."
Cleveland Manager Dave Garcia has it all figured out: "If everyone contributes what their agents say they'll contribute, we'll have 172 wins and no losses in 162 games." More realistically, the Indians could climb from sixth to fourth if they get the pitching Garcia thinks they may. And they could do it despite the dreadful luck that seems to plague this team. Toby Harrah, the talented third baseman and run producer (100 runs, 72 RBIs), began the new year by falling off a ladder while painting his house and injured his left wrist, right elbow and left knee. He returned to action last week, and will start on Opening Day. First Baseman Andre Thornton missed all of 1980 because of an injury to his right knee that required surgery. Scheduled to be the DH this season, he promptly broke a finger in the team's first exhibition game, delaying his return at least another week.
Garcia has four first-rate outfielders: Joe Charboneau, the 1980 Rookie of the Year, who will also do duty as DH; Jorge Orta; Rick Manning; and the fleet Miguel Dilone, who blossomed last year with a .341 average and 61 stolen bases. Garcia should get each of the four at least 500 at bats. There's plenty of sock elsewhere, too, with Catcher Ron Hassey, First Baseman Mike Hargrove and Second Baseman Alan Bannister, .300 hitters all.
With the acquisition of former 20-game winner Blyleven from Pittsburgh, Garcia sees the dim outline of a good staff that includes Len Barker (19-12), John Denny, Rick Waits and Wayne Garland.
Despite the Tigers' lineup of fine hitters, Detroit won't have much clout. When the young Mark Fidrych started gardening the mound, the word in Detroit was youth, but that era has passed as swiftly as The Bird's foreshortened career. "We're not a young club anymore," he says. "If we're going to do it, we'll do it now." But, alas, it will be without Fidrych, who failed to make the team.
Detroit led all of baseball in scoring last year—with 5.1 runs a game. Outfielder Steve Kemp set the pace, hitting .293, with 21 homers and 101 runs batted in. The Tigers got additional power from Catcher Lance Parrish (.286, 82 RBIs), First Baseman Richie Hebner (.290, 82 RBIs) and slick-fielding Shortstop Alan Trammell (.300, 65 RBIs).
But the pitching did Detroit in, which is why Manager Sparky Anderson plans to call some pitches from the bench this year. The pitcher who would seem to need the least assistance is Reliever Aurelio Lopez, who had 13 wins and 21 saves. The other bullpen mainstay should be Kevin Saucier, obtained from Philadelphia by way of Texas. The bad news is that the starting rotation of Milt Wilcox, Dan Schatzeder, Dan Petry and Jack Morris is back. Pitching Coach Roger Craig believes he can improve the staff by making it work faster. "Ninety-nine percent of all successful pitchers complete games in two hours or less," says Craig. The average Detroit game took 2:40 last season. Anderson expects good things from Morris, whose 16 wins led the Tigers in 1980. "Jack just had to get some humility and realize he's in the major leagues," he says.
Toronto really does have the best basketball team in baseball. Aside from Third Baseman Danny Ainge, the 6'4" star of the Brigham Young hoops team, the Blue Jays feature 6'5" Pitcher Mike Barlow, who played basketball at Syracuse, and 6'3" First Baseman John Mayberry, a star at Northwestern High in Detroit. If Toronto takes an early lead, look for Ainge to direct the four corners.
Whether the Jays can play baseball is, of course, another question. They won 67 games in 1980, and finished in the cellar again. But they also had Ontario buzzing during an eight-day spell in April when they led the division. "We had a taste of respectability last year," says Manager Bobby Mattick. "Now we'd like a bite."
Certainly Toronto chewed up opponents with double plays. Shortstop Alfredo Griffin and Second Baseman Damaso Garcia keyed an infield that tied Boston for the league lead in DPs. The Jays' best outfielder is Al Woods, whose .300 average led the team.
Toronto has serious shortcomings behind the plate, Ernie Whitt and Dan Whitmer being marginal big leaguers, but the Blue Jays are even worse off on the mound. Jim Clancy could blossom if he finds his control; he led the league with 128 walks. Except for Dave Stieb (12-15, 3.71), the other Toronto starters are even worse. Every spring, of course, it's open season for Blue Jay jobs. The team caters to youth, often to the dismay of veterans. "On every other club, the rookies have to beat out the veterans for the jobs," Outfielder Rick Bosetti says. "Here it's the other way around. Kids from Medicine Hat are walking around with radios blaring like they own the place." In places like Toronto, they eventually do.
Cerone's ability to hit in the clutch makes him a prize Yankee catch.