The Dodgers won't repeat. The Mets will.
After L.A. won the World Series in 1981, they finished second in '82. When they won 91 games and a division title in '83, the next season they won 79 games and finished fourth. Then they won 95 games and a division title in '85, and the next year they won 73 games and finished fifth.It's happened too often to be coincidence.
Perhaps the surest sign that L.A. won't repeat is that they are already warning people about not expecting back-to-back titles. Outfielder Mike Marshall said: "When a team goes back-to-back fourth-place finishes (the Dodgers were 73-89 in both 1986 and 1987) and then wins the world championship, you can see what a fine line there is between winning and losing. We're in the strongest division in baseball. Five teams (the Dodgers, Reds, Padres, Giants and Astros) could win it and the Braves aren't far behind." (And when you start flattering the Braves, you're in serious mental trouble.)
"So much has to happen (to repeat)," Manager Tommy Lasorda said. "One, everyone has to have a good year. Two, you need some breaks, you need some luck. You also need to be healthy, and you can't be complacent. Complacency can kill a team. Plus, every team we play this year is going to be up to play us, because of what we did last year. That's baseball."
If the Mets had won the World Series, they wouldn't be picked to repeat. But they didn't, they lost to a team everyone said was inferior, so don't expect that to happen again. For these guys, a division title is too low a goal. They enter the season expecting to get to the World Series. Everyone else in the NL East starts the season just hoping to beat the Mets.
Here are the picks in both divisions, in order of predicted finish:
San Diego Padres
After Jack McKeon replaced Larry Bowa as manager last May, the Padres were 20 games over .500 the rest of the season (67-47) and wound up third in the National League West at 83-78. That's a .587 winning percentage, which would have been good enough to beat the Dodgers by a game. Of course, getting a new manager usually gives a team a boost, so that statistic is probably misleading. But the important thing is that the Padres are talking like winners. They've been the hottest team in the league in spring training, which is important only because it means they may be learning how to win. The players are excited about the additions of veterans Jack Clark and Bruce Hurst.
Their starting pitching is solid, and Mark Davis is a good reliever. Ex-Tiger Tom Brookens should improve a shaky third base situation, but Garry Templeton has been fading at shortstop. They had hoped to find another outfielder to team with Tony Gwynn and John Kruk, but it looks like they will open with Carmelo Martinez. Catching may be the deepest in the league.
Look for Benny Santiago and Kruk to rebound from poor sophomore years, Clark to enjoy his return to the NL, and McKeon to deal for whatever it takes to win a title.
The funny thing is that on paper the Dodgers look better now than they did last October. They have added Eddie Murray, who is better than all the guys who played first base for L.A. last year put together, and Willie Randolph, who had a down year offensively but is still Steve Sax's defensive superior.
Everyone questions the starting pitching, with Fernando Valenzuela and John Tudor recovering from injuries and rookie Ramon Martinez relatively untested, but the Dodgers won last year without any of those guys making a huge contribution. Of course, the question is, can Tim Leary (17-11) and Tim Belcher (12-6) improve on what were for them career seasons?
Orel Hershiser won't duplicate last year's feats, Mike Marshall is going to figure he's proved himself and go back into the tank, and Kirk Gibson will probably be in and out of the lineup with injuries all season. Murray will have a big season, but L.A. will fall short.
Last year we said this team was doomed to another second-place finish because it lacked leadership. So what's changed? They have added Todd Benzinger, Rick Mahler, Jeff Sellers, Joel Youngblood and Manny Trillo, none of whom qualifies as a clubhouse leader. They have strong starting pitching, an All-Star reliever in John Franco, good hitting and no catching.
The best thing that could happen to this team would be for Pete Rose to get suspended for gambling. His ex-players have criticized him for not communicating, and the suspicion is he suffers from a disease common to many great ballplayers who try to manage - they can't understand why everyone isn't as good as they were.
But at least they won't finish second.
They've got a rookie manager in Art Howe, but there was nothing wrong with Hal Lanier that some offense wouldn't have helped. The Astros lost Nolan Ryan but replaced him with Jim Clancy and Rick Rhoden, and now they have seven starting pitchers. It would seem a natural for them to trade some of that pitching for some hitting, but . . . Unless they make a deal, they'll lose a lot of 2-1 ball games, with the 1 being a Glenn Davis homer. Most of the trade rumors they have been involved in concern Wade Boggs, but Boggs isn't what they need. They need a power hitter to give Davis some support - last season he was intentionally walked 20 times.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants fell victim to the stand-pat syndrome in 1988. While the rest of the division worked to improve, the Giants tried to win with what they had. It wasn't enough. Their pitching fell apart, literally. Everyone was injured, except aging workhorse Rick Reuschel. Kelly Downs had a good year but missed the last part of the season; Dave Dravecky is trying to recover from a tumor in his shoulder and will be out until at least July; and Mike Krukow has won 12 games in the last two seasons. For this season they picked up catcher Terry Kennedy and outfielder Tracy Jones and gave up catcher Bob Melvin and outfielder Mike Aldrete, and the difference should be negligible.
These guys are laughable, for the following reasons: 1. They were a half-game shy of the worst record in baseball last year, but they were the only team not to make a trade at the winter meetings; 2. They have turned down several solid offers for Dale Murphy, who is tired of losing in Atlanta; 3. They have brought in over-the-hill veterans Jody Davis, Darrell Evans and Lonnie Smith to try to salvage this season. A realistic goal would be to lose fewer than 100 games.
New York Mets
They didn't add anybody, but who did they need? They tried to trade for Dale Murphy, even though they didn't have a place to put him, just to lighten their roster. They unloaded second baseman Wally Backman, and their infield is still crowded. They handle turmoil well, even seem to thrive in it, which is good, because it's always present in this clubhouse. Even with Carter and Hernandez aging, they'll be hard to beat.
The Bucs are still trying to find the right combination to win this division. With a couple more players (notably a power-hitting first baseman, another outfielder and an everyday shortstop) and some matured starting pitching, look out, Mets. They lost Dave LaPoint, and that's a definite minus. Their biggest mistake was firing GM Syd Thrift, who made most of the deals that made this team a contender. Not all of his deals worked, but enough were successful that he was worth keeping.
In the past seven years, the best finish this team has ever managed is third - and they have done that five times. Sounds like the Reds of the East? Yep. Good talent in some places, but not enought talent in enough places to win it all. Kevin Gross from the Phillies will help the pitching, but they still need middle infield and catching help. They will make their annual run at some point of the season, then will fade.
St. Louis Cardinals
Where's the starting pitching on this team? After Joe Magrane and Jose DeLeon, what's left? What's left is Todd Worrell out of the bullpen, but Worrell might find himself with fewer save opportunities this season. The Cards' great hope is that Pedro Guerrero will want to show the Dodgers were wrong and will have a mega-season, as Jack Clark did two years ago, but Guerrero is too injury-prone to bet the farm on.
GM Jim Frey and Manager Don Zimmer should be applauded for trying to do something, but the Cubs still don't have enough. Their starting pitching ranks are thin, and their bullpen hopes rest on the shoulders of wild Mitch Williams. Andre Dawson still needs what he needed last season: some power help.
Excellent bullpen, and that's it. No starting pitching. Offensively, this is the "If" team of 1989. If Mike Schmidt returns to form, if Ricky Jordan fulfills his potential, if Tom Herr finds happiness in Philly, if Juan Samuel can adjust to the outfield . . . well, you get the picture.