No Asterisks, Please

Handicapping the races in baseball's first full season since 1993.

The California Angels, as I'm sure you all remember, blew a huge lead last September before losing a one-game playoff to Seattle. Will that affect them in 1996? Probably not. Historically, teams that have blown big late-season leads have performed fairly well the following season. That shouldn't be a surprise, because if they weren't good teams they probably wouldn't have had those big leads in the first place. On the other hand, the possibility does exist that phenom outfielders Garret Anderson and Jim Edmonds were flukes. And no matter how great a hitting coach Rod Carew might be, shortstop Gary DiSarcina will never again hit .307 with doubles power. The Angels are talented, but they simply can't match Seattle's Johnson, Griffey, and Martinez.

For about 20 years now, people have been saying, "This is the Texas Rangers' year," so I'm not putting my foot in that rusty old trap again. The West is a weak enough division that the Rangers might be in it at the end, but aside from the "they're due" argument--I mean, think about it. The Rangers have been in Texas since 1973, and they still haven't played in a postseason game. With the Indians and Mariners both making it last year, the Rangers now assume the title of "most futile team." Still, there's not much evidence to suggest that this is finally their year. Yes, Juan Gonzalez might bounce back and hit 50 homers, and Dean Palmer might recover from the injury that cost him most of last season, and Benji Gil might develop into a power-hitting shortstop. But even if the Rangers score their fair share of runs, which they should, it's anybody's guess as to who will be in the rotation when September rolls around.

The Oakland Athletics had two chances to be competitive, and they've lost both of them. First manager Tony La Russa left for St. Louis. And in mid-March, Mark McGwire suffered yet another foot injury and could miss the entire first half of the season. McGwire was one of the more destructive forces in baseball history when he was healthy last year, blasting 39 homers in only 317 at-bats. Without him--and Rickey Henderson too, for that matter--the Athletics might have the weakest hitting attack in the league. The Haas family was generally regarded as one of baseball's more forward-thinking ownership groups. Now that they've sold the club, the Athletics could be in for some rough years.

NL EAST

1. Atlanta

2. Florida

3. Montreal

4. New York

5. Philadelphia

First, let's get one thing straight. The 1995 Braves were a fine team, and it was nice to see them finally win a World Series. But the '93 Braves were better, and the current version certainly isn't perfect. Last year the Braves scored 645 runs, which was just ninth-best in the National League--a very low ranking for a pennant winner. That said, Atlanta should have little trouble winning their fifth NL East title in six years. Chipper Jones, who may miss the early part of the season with ligament troubles, is only going to get better, and Jeff Blauser certainly isn't going to hit .211 again. Of course, Greg Maddux won't--unless he really is the second coming of Walter Johnson--finish with a sub-2.00 ERA again. Then again, he shouldn't have to, not with Chipper and the Crime Dog around. About the only thing that could stop the Braves is two or three serious injuries to the starting rotation. And thanks to an unorthodox conditioning program, the Atlanta rotation has stayed remarkably healthy over the last few seasons.

Only in the topsy-turvy world of 1990s baseball could you find one 4-year-old expansion team trying to return to the playoffs, and another 4-year-old club challenging for a berth of their own. But the Rockies grabbed a wild-card spot last year, and the Florida Marlins should be in the running for a postseason spot in 1996. It's not too tough to handicap the Fish. If Gary Sheffield is healthy for most of the season, the Marlins could win 85 or 90 games. If not, they'll be a .500 ball club. Aside from Sheffield, keep an eye on Charles Johnson. The young catcher spent the first half of the season in a dreadful batting slump, but his defensive skills kept him in the lineup and he started hitting in the second half. League observers so admired Johnson's work behind the plate that he became the first rookie to win a Gold Glove since Fred Lynn in 1975. But the key is Sheffield.

If not for the economics of the modern game, the Montreal Expos might be challenging the Braves this season. No one will remember it in years to come, but in 1994 the Expos were actually six games ahead of Atlanta when the season was so brutally aborted in mid-August. But a year ago, the club dismantled the roster to cut costs, divesting itself of talents like John Wetteland, Larry Walker, Ken Hill, and Marquis Grissom. And this past winter, shortstop Wilfredo Cordero was sent to Boston in return for very little. Make no mistake; the Expos have a fine farm system that will pay off in the next few years. But no team in history could remain on top after dumping so much talent. Montreal has a shot at .500, which could only be counted as a moral victory.

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