After surveying the National League East this spring, Phillie general manager Lee Thomas was not entirely impressed. "Look at the teams, and you see strengths," said Thomas. "Look closer, and you see a lot of weaknesses."
True enough. The Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies have shaky rotations. The Cubs, Expos and Pirates have no obvious bullpen stoppers. The Mets are trying to make a centerfielder out of third baseman Howard Johnson, and if that isn't scary enough, the Cards are planning on Pedro Guerrero as their every-day leftfielder.
Heavy hopes hang on comebacks from injuries, including those of an old pitcher (the Cubs' Dave Smith), a frail pitcher (Chicago's Danny Jackson), a formerly fat pitcher (the Mets' Sid Fernandez), a funny pitcher (the Cardinals' Joe Magrane) and a great pitcher (New York's Dwight Gooden).
And more than any other division, this one has been clouded by controversy. The Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., has been a war zone, with talk of rape, sex and lawyers rather than runs, hits and errors. Across the state in Bradenton, Pirate players have seen the division's only 20-game winner, John Smiley, traded away to the Twins for two prospects and are quietly wondering whose expensive contract will be dumped next.
So whom do you pick in this mess of a division? According to Phillie reliever Mitch Williams, "A reporter with any intelligence will say, 'Who's going to win it? How do I know?' "
1. NEW YORK METS
Jeff Torborg gets the managing job of his lifetime, and one month into it the fate of his team may rest less in his hands than in those of some Port St. Lucie police officers. In early March three New York players (Gooden, Daryl Boston and Vince Coleman) were named as suspects in an alleged sexual assault. At week's end the investigation of the incident was continuing and no charges had yet been brought. But before that matter could be settled, it was revealed that Mets pitcher David Cone had been slapped with an $8.1 million civil suit by three women who alleged, among other things, that Cone had performed a lewd act in the Shea Stadium bullpen before a game in 1989.
Given its off-season overhaul, no team could have used a calm, orderly camp more than New York. Not a single player from the Mets' Opening Day lineup in 1991 will be in the same spot in the '92 opener. The outfield is now made up of Coleman (barely average in left), newcomer Bobby Bonilla (slow in right) and Johnson (struggling, as expected, in center). The infield features a right side—first baseman Eddie Murray and second baseman Willie Randolph—that's a combined 73 years old, and shortstop Kevin Elster, who can barely throw because of a bad right shoulder. "Our outfield defense is suspect, but our infield defense is five times as good as it used to be," says Elster, putting his finger on a big reason for last year's 77-84 Mets debacle. "We've had a——infield since '88. This year it's O.K."
But will O.K. be good enough, especially if the pitchers struggle? Gooden's comeback from shoulder surgery has been remarkable so far, but it's worth noting that Doc had pitched only two shutouts in his last 102 starts before his operation. Then there's Fernandez, who lost 40 pounds in the off-season after surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee and promptly hurt the same knee this spring when he got hit by a golf cart.
So, given all this confusion, how can anyone pick New York to win the division? The simple answer is talent, and the Mets have more of it than any team in the East. They have two Cy Young Award winners (Gooden and the newly acquired Bret Saberhagen), a future Cy Young (Cone) and a first-rate closer (John Franco). With Murray, Johnson and Bonilla, New York could become the first team ever to have three switch-hitters with 20 homers each.