No Asterisks, Please

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

The New York Mets are a popular pick to challenge for a wild-card playoff spot. After all, their trio of awesome, if unproved, starters--Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson--are calling to mind the 1969 Mets, who won the World Series behind a pitching staff featuring youngsters Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Nolan Ryan. What people forget is that Seaver had already established himself in the majors, with 32 victories in his first two seasons. The Mets' terrific trio has a total of 14 victories. I said it before, and I'll say it again: Young pitchers will break your heart. Toss in a suspect outfield and a relatively punchless infield, and it looks like Mets fans have a longer wait than they think.

Thanks to a bunch of surprising pitchers, last June 25 the Philadelphia Phillies sported a 37-18 record, baseball's best. From that point on most of those same pitchers were horrible and the Phils went 32-57, which was baseball's worst mark. Even if the Phillies' luck improves--they've been decimated by injuries the last two years--they probably won't get much better. The club's best players, guys like Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra, are old and fragile, and the farm system hasn't exactly been churning out the prospects. The Phils were active in the offseason, signing free agents Todd Zeile and Benito Santiago, and luring burly Pete Incaviglia back from Japan. The offense might click, but to contend the Phillies will need more than two months of luck with their pitchers.

NL CENTRAL

1. Houston

2. Cincinnati

3. Chicago

4. St. Louis

5. Pittsburgh

Just as Florida's pennant hopes depend on the health of Gary Sheffield, the Houston Astros need a complete season from slugging first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who has suffered a broken hand in each of the last two seasons. When Bagwell was healthy in 1995, the Astros were 67-48. But they won only nine of the 29 games he spent on the disabled list, costing the club a playoff spot. It seems highly unlikely that Bagwell will break his hand again, thanks to a protective glove he's now wearing. Which makes it highly unlikely that the Astros will do anything but win the Central.

So does that mean we're counting out the Cincinnati Reds, last year's champs? Yup. The Reds lost Ron Gant (.276-29-88 last year) to free agency, and it looks like his replacement might be Vince Coleman. Even if you think the running game actually makes much of a difference, that's not a good trade-off. Shortstop Barry Larkin is an awesome player, but he'll probably spend too much time on the disabled list to win a second straight MVP Award. And perhaps worst of all, manager Davey Johnson was sent packing after the season to make room for Ray Knight. That's even worse than the Gant-for-Coleman deal, as anyone who ever heard Knight's commentary on ESPN can tell you.

It's not inconceivable that the Chicago Cubs could be very good this year. After all, they only finished four games behind the Rockies in the wild-card hunt. And with Ryne Sandberg returning from his season-and-a-half-long, self-imposed exile, the lineup suddenly looks a lot better. (By the way, history suggests that a player of Ryno's caliber can be effective even after a long layoff.) But the Cubs benefited from surprising 1995 seasons from three starters: Jaime Navarro (14-6, 3.28), Frank Castillo (11-10, 3.21) and Jim Bullinger (12-8, 4.14). At least one and possibly all three of those guys will drop off in 1996, and the Cubs should end up winning about half their games again.

The most interesting race in the Central might be the same as last year: the fight for fourth between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. What makes it interesting--and strange--is that the two clubs are managed by a pair of acknowledged geniuses in Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland. In fact, La Russa is so highly regarded that some people are figuring the Redbirds as playoff contenders. I just don't see it. The Cardinals scored 563 runs last year, by far the fewest in the majors. The addition of Ron Gant will help, but the outfield wasn't the problem. In the infield, there still isn't any power except what comes from Gary Gaetti (another free-agent pickup). Gaetti did hit an amazing 35 homers with the Royals last year, but he's 37 years old. And the Cardinals' rotation won't be much unless Andy Benes finally pitches like everyone thinks he can and Danny Jackson returns from the dead. What are the odds? But the Cardinals won't finish last, because the Pirates have that spot reserved for themselves. It's another case of a small-market team with no money to spend and an unproductive farm system. 'Nuff said.

NL WEST

1. Los Angeles

2. San Diego

3. Colorado

4. San Francisco

In the American League, the best race will be in the East. In the National, it will be in the West as the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and Colorado Rockies duke it out. Conventional wisdom says the Dodgers win, and this time conventional wisdom is right on the money. As usual, the story in Dodgerland starts on the mound, where Ramon Martinez, Hideo Nomo, Ismael Valdes, and Tom Candiotti anchor a solid rotation. Mike Piazza is easily the best catcher in the game, and maybe the best since Johnny Bench. And Raul Mondesi looks more and more like Roberto Clemente with each laser shot from right field. Not that the Dodgers are perfect. First baseman Eric Karros and third baseman Mike Blowers (with Seattle last year) both posted career seasons in 1995 and are sure to decline, and the Dodgers won't get much punch from their infield. So if 38-year-old center fielder Brett Butler suddenly goes from ageless to aged, the Bums might have problems scoring runs.

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