Maybe you haven't heard. Perhaps you've had the chicken pox and been quarantined in a hotel room, with O.J. and Nintendo as your only diversions. The World Series, apparently known as the Spring Classic this year, has already been decided. "We're the first team to win the World Series in April," says Atlanta Brave owner Ted Turner.
Turner's braggadocio can almost be excused. He wasn't alone in crowning the Braves undisputed heavyweight champs of the National League East after the Montreal Expos seemingly KO'd their own chance of winning the division by unloading their four best players in a payroll-savings plan. Atlanta will win the East easily, so the thinking goes, and the division's other teams will slug it out for a wild-card spot.
But Expo manager Felipe Alou isn't buying into any of this prefight hype. "I'll wait until they win before I congratulate them," says Alou. "We still have to play 144 games."
So how good are the BRAVES? They addressed their need for a leadoff hitter by acquiring one of the best in the game, Marquis Grissom, from the Expos. The pitching staff, anchored by three-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, appears to be as formidable as ever (now that Maddux is over the chicken pox). And sluggers Fred McGriff (34 homers in 1994), David Justice (19) and Ryan Klesko (17) seem ready to pick up where they left off. The only significant loss from '94 is third baseman Terry Pendleton, who signed with the Florida Marlins as a free agent. But taking Pendleton's spot is rookie Chipper Jones, a player whom Atlanta manager Bobby Cox considers "the best athlete on the team."
Jones, the No. 1 pick in the 1990 amateur draft, was a star shortstop in the minor leagues. With Jeff Blauser manning that position for the Braves, Jones was moved to leftfield last spring to get his bat (.325 and 13 home runs in Triple A in '93) into the lineup. But less than three weeks before the '94 season opener, Jones tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was sidelined for the year.
"I'm flattered that every time there's a position open, I'm put in the mix." says Jones, who last played third base nine years ago—in the Babe Ruth League. "I feel I can play all seven positions behind the pitcher; I have speed, a good arm and good range. Third base is more of a reaction position. I might be better at it. At Shortstop, the more I think, the more trouble I get into."
This spring, after giving up stars Grissom, pitcher Ken Hill, outfielder Larry Walker and closer John Wetteland, among others, the EXPOS had more jobs available than an employment agency. The arrival of Roberto Kelly and Tony Tarasco in the trade with Atlanta took care of the two holes in the outfield. Prospects from the Montreal farm system—perhaps the most productive in baseball—are expected to fill some other vacancies. The good news is, the entire infield and four fifths of the rotation remain intact.
Wetteland's departure was the most significant loss because of the ripple effect it had on the bullpen. Mel Rojas, who had been the setup man, takes over as Expo closer. As of Sunday no one from among a handful of middle relievers had nailed down Rojas's old job.
Though Rojas doesn't have a fastball like Wetteland's, he has a masterly forkball. "It looks like a perfect strike." says Alou, "then it drops out of sight. Rojas is the key to our success, if he stays healthy. Last year, when Wetteland got hurt, Rojas would fill in. This year if he gets hurt, then...." Then the Expos, who had the best record in the majors last year, will drop like a Rojas forkball—out of sight.
In 1990, when the New York METS were searching for a leadoff hitter, Brett Butler, then a free agent, was on the market. He didn't seriously consider playing for the Mets at the time because, he says, "there was too much chaos and negativism [surrounding the Mets] then." Besides, New York was more interested in Vince Coleman, whom it signed—to its ultimate regret—to a four-year contract.