No Asterisks, Please

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

Baseball fans are excited. Oh, maybe not the yuppies who love the Twins when they're winning, are indifferent when they're losing, and don't really pay attention either way. But the real baseball fans, the ones who start thinking about next season in November, the ones who know about Todd Walker and Marc Barcelo, the ones who can't afford the seats where you're close enough to read Kirby's lips when he talks to the catcher... those fans are excited.

Why are we excited? Because after one season without an ending and another that was about 20 games too short, the schedule returns to 162 games. Now, some of the players complain that 162 games is too many. Who cares? One of the wonders of baseball is its day-in, day-out soap opera of injuries, lineup changes, road trips, streaks, and slumps--along with everything else that can happen when you get 25 guys together and make them compete at an extraordinarily high level for six months with only an occasional day off.

Incidentally, the more games a team plays, the better the chance you'll see its true level of ability. The Indians and the Braves would have won division titles in 1995 whether the season had lasted 144 or 244 games. But were the Dodgers really better than the Rockies? Were the Mariners really better than the Angels? The only good thing to come out of the abbreviated schedule was the wonderful playoff game for the AL West pennant.

AL EAST

1. Baltimore

2. Boston

3. New York

4. Toronto

5. Detroit

In recent years, each offseason has seen the Baltimore Orioles--fueled by the revenue stream otherwise known as Oriole Park at Camden Yards--invest in big-name free agents. All they've got to show for it over the last two seasons is a 134-122 record; it has now been 13 years since the once-proud O's tasted the postseason. This winter, Baltimore again spent a lot of money, most notably on future Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar. But even more important, they added the best manager and the best general manager of the late 1980s: Davey Johnson and Pat Gillick. Johnson skippered the Mets to a World Championship back then, and Gillick was the genius behind the Toronto Blue Jays for most of their history. After a curious exile from the game, Johnson guided the Reds to a 1995 pennant in his first full season back. He was forced to leave anyway, apparently because owner Marge Schott didn't care for Johnson's table manners. Johnson and Gillick are two of the few nonplayers who can truly make a difference in the standings. And the final standings will show Baltimore on top if they can sort out a complicated outfield picture.

The Boston Red Sox haven't won two consecutive titles, division or otherwise, since 1915-1916, when a young lefty named Babe Ruth won 41 games over the two seasons. Can they do it again? I wouldn't bet on it. At least three regulars--Tim Naehring, John Valentin and Mo Vaughn--enjoyed career years, and erratic knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is unlikely to go 16-8 again. The Sox signed Heathcliff Slocumb to finish games, but what if last year's 32-save season with the Phillies was a fluke? On the other hand, if Slocumb really is that good, and if Roger Clemens returns to form after three spotty seasons, and if Jose Canseco stays healthy enough to play 140 games, the Sox will be tough to beat.

It might be said that the New York Yankees blew their chances for the 1996 pennant last October 8. That night, the Yanks lost the decisive Divisional Playoff game to Seattle after then-manager Buck Showalter--one of the more intelligent men in the game--refused to remove a dead-armed David Cone in the eighth inning of a tight contest. The Mariners eventually won the game and the series, initiating a chain of events that ended with Showalter's being replaced by Joe Torre. Torre is one of those major-league retreads who get multiple chances not because they actually help a club but because they look the part and know all the managerial clichés by heart. Still, with prized prospects like Derek Jeter and Ruben Rivera on their way to the lineup, the Yankees' future looks good. At least, it would if George Steinbrenner weren't back to his old tricks. The first time Jeter hits a 2-for-32 skid, will King George order Torre to stick Tony Fernandez in the lineup? Yes, and that's why the Yankees won't win anything.

Four or five years ago, who would have believed that in 1995, Toronto and Oakland--the American League's dominant teams over a nearly decade-long stretch--would both finish last? Toronto's decline is perhaps the best example in baseball history of just how important a general manager can be. With Pat Gillick running the show, the Blue Jays wound up as the model expansion franchise. But now he's gone, and the Jays tied the Twins for the worst record in the majors last season at 56-88. There's hope for the future. Young players Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Gonzalez all might play in an All-Star game someday. But if the Jays finished fifth last year with Roberto Alomar, where will they finish without him?

Sparky Anderson will be in the Hall of Fame someday, but somehow I don't think the Tigers are going to miss him much. This, after all, is the guy who gave Mike Moore 25 starts last season. The result? Moore posted one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in major-league history: 5-15 with a 7.53 ERA. I mean, who exactly benefited from that arrangement? Buddy Bell is the new skipper, and he certainly can't be any worse than Sparky. Detroit's problem hasn't been management, but rather the farm system's utter inability to produce anything resembling a major-league player in recent years. Is that about to change? The STATS 1996 Minor League Scouting Notebook ranks the top 50 prospects in the game; no Tiger appears on the list.

AL CENTRAL

1. Cleveland

2. Chicago

3. Minnesota

4. Kansas City

5. Milwaukee

With Jack McDowell joining the rotation, and budding superstars Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome gaining a year of experience, it's tempting to suggest that the Cleveland Indians will be even better in 1996 than they were in 1995, when they simply overwhelmed the American League. We're talking about a team that scored the most runs (840) in the league and allowed the fewest (607), a truly awesome combination. And make no mistake about it, the Tribe will win the AL Central again, and quite possibly the World Series. But they'll have to work for both. Age works both ways, and Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez are both on the long side of 40 now. And McDowell is a solid pitcher, but his ERA has gone up every season since 1992. One last note on the Indians: The last team to dominate like the Tribe did last year was the 1986 New York Mets, who won 108 games on their way to a World Championship. In 1987, the Mets won 92 games and finished second.

If the Indians have any competition in the Central, it will come from the Chicago White Sox. Remember, this is a club which is in many ways little different from the squad that finished first in both 1993 and 1994. There's no reason to think that pitchers Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez will duplicate their nightmarish 1995 campaigns. Bere, for example, was just 8-15 after going 24-7 in his first two big-league seasons. Alvarez was 2-5 with a 5.45 ERA at the All-Star break, but turned things around in the second half. He'll be okay as long as his weight is under control. On the other side of the equation, any lineup that includes Frank Thomas, Tony Phillips, and Robin Ventura is going to score some runs. The Sox should be in the wild-card hunt when September rolls around.

A friend of mine is an Iowa native, a pretty smart guy and a Twins fan, and every spring he tells me the same thing: "The Twins have some good hitters, and if they can get just a little pitching they'll win some games." And in the grand tradition of baseball fans, my friend never loses hope. How bad has it been lately? The Twins' composite ERA over the last two seasons is 5.72. That's the worst since 1939-40, when the St. Louis Browns rang up a 5.91 mark. Yikes. Still, with Marty Cordova in left field, Kirby in right, and Rich Becker in center backed by Roberto Kelly, the Twins will score their fair share of runs. And yes, if Rick Aguilera's arm can last for 30-odd starts, the rotation will be better. But are Frank Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins ready for the big time? Young pitchers will break your heart.

The Kansas City Royals boast center fielder Johnny Damon--widely regarded as perhaps the top prospect in the game--and not much else. True, Kevin Appier has been one of the top starting pitchers of the '90s, but he and his well-earned salary are likely to find themselves on the trading block if the club falls out of contention early. Kansas City has played better than expected in each of the last three seasons, but this might be the year the bubble bursts. If Damon isn't able to handle the pressure that the Royals have perhaps foolishly placed on his shoulders--he was a centerpiece of their offseason promotional campaign--it could get ugly.

They Milwaukee Brewers are a lot like the Royals: small-market team, usually loaded with a bunch of mediocre white guys, not enough power, not enough walks. The difference is, where the Royals have Johnny Damon and Kevin Appier, the Brew Crew features Mark Loretta and Ben McDonald. The latter, Milwaukee's big free-agent pickup in the offseason, is being counted on as a number-one starter despite the fact that he's never won more than 14 games in a season. A piece of advice: If you haven't seen a game at Milwaukee's County Stadium, make a trip to Wisconsin before they tear the old place down. It features lots of cheap, empty seats, friendly people, and the flavor of an old-time ballpark.

AL WEST

1. Seattle

2. California

3. Texas

4. Oakland

Prevailing wisdom holds that the Seattle Mariners are the best team in the AL West. After all, Ken Griffey should be healthy after missing much of 1995, and Randy Johnson is surely the best pitcher in the American League. On the other hand, those conditions both pretty much applied in 1993, when the M's finished fourth. It's going to be a dogfight in the West, but I'm picking Seattle on the strength of super young shortstop Alex Rodriguez. If manager Lou Piniella leaves him in the lineup all season, and Edgar Martinez remains even close to his 1995 level--Martinez deserved the MVP Award rather than Boston's Mo Vaughn--the M's should again be the best in the West.

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.

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.

If the Dodgers falter, look for the Padres to take advantage. Their young rotation might be even better than the Dodgers', if less heralded. Andy Ashby, for example, posted the NL's third-lowest ERA at 2.94, but no one noticed because awful run support saddled Ashby with a 12-10 record. Then there was Joey Hamilton, who really had bad luck. His 3.08 ERA in 31 starts was outstanding, yet Hamilton lost nine games and won only six. He might triple his victory total this year. The outfield of Rickey Henderson, Steve Finley, and Tony Gwynn--assuming Henderson can stay in the lineup--looks pretty impressive on paper. The Padres, by the way, are in a similar situation as the Mariners were a year ago: If they don't win something, it could be their last season in San Diego.

1996 Baseball Myth #1 (with a bullet): The Colorado Rockies are a great-hitting team, but they need to improve their pitching. Sounds logical. After all, the Rockies hit 200 homers and scored 785 runs, both marks topping the National League, and their pitchers finished with a league-worst 4.96 ERA. That, friends, is one of the best examples in history of how much difference a ballpark can make. Coors Field, at least in its first season, looks like perhaps the best park for hitters in major league history. Last season the Colorado pitchers finished with a better road ERA (3.71) than did the vaunted Dodger staff (4.07). In fact, only the Braves had a better road ERA than the Rockies. And of course, it works both ways. Yes, the Rockies hitters were devastating at home, where they hit 134 homers. But on the road they hit only 66, and only the punchless Phillies and Cardinals scored fewer road runs than the Rockies (300). Believe it or not, the pitching is fine. Fact is, the Rockies won't be a consistently winning club until they score even more runs.

It's probably not fair to completely discount the San Francisco Giants, if only because Barry Bonds and Matt Williams are two of the top 10 hitters in the major leagues. But a rotation full of unproved youngsters--albeit ones with good arms--should keep the Giants from contending. It's a real shame, because people seem to already be discounting Bonds, who remains one of the more potent forces in the game. CP

Rob Neyer, a former assistant to Bill James and staffer at STATS INC., now toils on the ESPN website.

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