A scorecard won't be enough to tell the players apart this week. Better bring a Rand McNally, too.
Never before has baseball seen such a shift of major talent in one winter. Darryl Strawberry, George Bell, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Kirk Gibson and Bo Jackson are among the 30-something free agents who moved, while Tim Raines, Glenn Davis, Joe Carter, Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez, Roberto Alomar and Dave Parker are some of the dozen big names that traded places.No set of off-season moves has ever come close. Put it this way: since Cincinnati finished its surprise sweep of Oakland last season, 27 players who ranked among the league's top third in runs, RBIs, victories or saves have switched teams.
In the past 10 years, never had more than seven such players changed clubs in one winter. And in the past 75 years, only once had at least 10 such players been on the go - in 1963, when 16 moved, including trades involving Luis Aparicio, Hoyt Wilhelm and Moose Skowron.
Of course, the emergence of free agency is the major reason for so many transactions, particularly last winter's crop of "new-look" players set free by collusion rulings. Gary Gaetti, Jack Morris, Brett Butler, Jack Clark, Dave Smith and Danny Darwin were among them, and they all found new, high-priced homes.
Even as Monday's opening day approaches, some big names are still out there. Pete Incaviglia, who hit 24 home runs with 85 RBIs for Texas, and Fernando Valenzuela, who went 13-13 with a no-hitter for Los Angeles, are available for whatever amount a team wants to pay them.
With so much switching, there's now one big question: Will baseball's balance of power shift, too?
Cincinnati, which will try to become the first World Series champion to repeat since the 1978 New York Yankees, was one of the few teams that did not add a significant player. Instead, the Reds lost Danny Jackson to the Chicago Cubs.
Oakland, trying to become the first team to win four straight pennants since the New York Yankees in 1964, chose to not re-sign McGee, who won the weird National League batting title, and Scott Sanderson, a 17-game winner. Rather, they signed Willie Wilson as insurance for Jose Canseco's bad back, got Eric Show to take Sanderson's spot in the rotation and added Ernest Riles and Vance Law to platoon at third base for Carney Lansford, who was injured in a snowmobile accident and may miss the entire year.
Pittsburgh and Boston, the other two division winners, went in opposite directions. The Pirates lost Sid Bream, Wally Backman, R.J. Reynolds and Ted Power without adding anyone, while the Red Sox spent millions to sign Darwin, the NL ERA leader, Clark and pitcher Matt Young.
Most active of all, however, was Los Angeles. The Dodgers brought Strawberry back home for $20 million, signed Butler to lead off and play center field, pitcher Kevin Gross to start and Gary Carter to back up at catcher, traded Hubie Brooks to get pitcher Bob Ojeda and did not keep either Valenzuela or Gibson.
"Obviously, we've made a lot of changes," Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said. "But we have to see if it pays off on the field."
Strawberry, who hit 37 home runs with a team-record 108 RBIs for the New York Mets, will be the focal point. His supporters say a change of scenery will do him good, even though he's only a career .225 hitter at Dodger Stadium.
Strawberry's critics are certain he will drop and are convinced the Mets are better off with Coleman in a strength-for-speed exchange. They claim, as do many people, that free agents work hard in their final year to get a rich contract, then instantly go downhill with their new team.
Here is the truth: free agents, hitters and pitchers alike, do not fall off in performance in their first year after signing. If anything, they improve slightly.
Here are the numbers: in the past 14 years, free agents batted .261 in their last year with a club, then hit .264 with their new teams. Their home-run rates were identical and the RBI rates were almost exact. There was, however, one difference - the at-bats dipped 10 percent. Maybe that was because it became easier to go on the disabled list with all that security, and maybe it's because many of those free agents were at the end of their careers, like Willie Randolph and Rick Dempsey with Milwaukee this year.
For free agent pitchers, they had a 3.72 ERA and a .513 winning percentage in their last year with one club, and had a 3.71 ERA with a .521 winning percentage in their first year after signing. Again, the major difference was in playing time - the innings pitched dropped about 8 percent.
San Francisco and the Cubs, trying to regain championships they won in 1989, hope there's no falloff in performance. The Cubs signed Jackson to start, Smith to relieve and Bell to hit balls onto Waveland Avenue. The Giants got McGee to play center field instead of Butler, and paid $10 million each to pitchers Bud Black and Dave Righetti.
Toronto and Baltimore, which dueled for the AL East title in 1989, each were busy. The Orioles may have pulled off the steal of the season by getting Davis from cost-conscious Houston for three younger players, and also signed Dwight Evans. The Blue Jays made the trade of the decade, sending Fernandez and McGriff to San Diego for Joe Carter and Alomar. They also sent Junior Felix to California for Devon White.
Detroit, which found Cecil Fielder and his potential for 51 home runs last year, signed another player in Japan, bringing back Tony Bernazard. The Tigers also signed Rob Deer and traded for Mickey Tettleton. Atlanta added Terry Pendleton and Bream. Milwaukee signed Franklin Stubbs and Candy Maldonado and traded Parker to the Angels for Dante Bichette. The White Sox signed Charlie Hough and traded pitchers Eric King and Shawn Hillegas to Cleveland for Cory Snyder.
Kansas City, stung by free-agent flops Mark and Storm Davis last winter, plunged back into the market, signing Gibson and Mike Boddicker. But it's what the Royals did not do that created the most interest and intrigue of the off-season.
Faced with the possibility that Bo Jackson would never again play baseball, or that he would return and continue his NFL career, Kansas City released the two-sport star because of a bad hip. For three days, Jackson was available on waivers for $1, and no team took him.
A few days ago, though, the White Sox made their move. They signed Jackson, who hit a career-high .272 with 28 home runs last season, and loaded his contract with incentives. If he returns this year, and he vows he will, he'll join Raines in one of the most exciting outfields ever.
Raines finally got out of Montreal in a deal for Ivan Calderon. Raines wanted to leave the Expos, and wanted a chance to play in the AL, where he could go head-to-head with Rickey Henderson. For years, Raines has lost out in matchups to MVP Henderson, who needs three stolen bases to pass Lou Brock as the all-time leader, as the best leadoff man ever.
Now, Raines gets his chance.
"I'm looking forward to the comparison," Raines said. "I've always wanted to see how we'd do in the same league."