Pitcher Jose Rijo thrust his fist into the air after hearing last week that his team, the Cincinnati Reds, had signed free-agent catcher Benito Santiago. "We're in there!" he yelled. "We're awesome!" Later that day, when new leftfielder Ron Gant scored easily from first on a double, Rijo was nearly beside himself. "If he's the old Ron Gant," Rijo said, "we're almost unbeatable!"
Indeed, the REDS have one of the best-hitting teams in the National League. They also improved the league's top bullpen by signing free-agent relievers Mike Jackson (although he'll open the season on the disabled list) and Xavier Hernandez, they solidified their catching with the addition of Santiago and they should have centerfielder Deion Sanders (acquired last May 29) for an entire season. Most important, Cincinnati must win this season because significant payroll cuts are expected in 1996.
Gant can't wait. He's playing for the first time since suffering a multiple compound fracture of his right leg in a February 1994 dirt-bike accident. He has a slight hitch in his stride and has trouble making quick stops and sharp cuts, but Gant was clocked at 4.0 seconds (above average) from home to first and is running without pain. He says the leg will be 100% by mid-May. "One thing is for sure," says Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden. "He'll get to more balls in the outfield than Kevin Mitchell did."
Mitchell took his .326 average and 30 home runs in 95 games to Japan, but Red shortstop Barry Larkin says, "I don't know anyone who can fill that void better than Gant."
Gant, 30, hit 117 home runs and stole 127 bases from 1990 through '93 while with the Atlanta Braves—totals topped only by the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds during that time. "I want to show everyone, especially young guys, that you can come back from anything," says Gant. "This is the most talented team in the league, with more depth than the [pennant-winning] Atlanta teams. I felt unwanted over there, like when I was sent to the minors [in 1989] and was never offered a multi-year contract. The Reds appreciate me more than the Braves ever did."
The Houston ASTROS appreciated the skills of third baseman Ken Caminiti ("Best in the league," says Houston manager Terry Collins), shortstop Andujar Cedeno and centerfielder Steve Finley, but traded them all to the San Diego Padres in December to slash their payroll. While Houston still has plenty of power—new outfielders Phil Plantier and Derek Bell, both acquired in the deal with San Diego, join first baseman Jeff Bagwell, the National League MVP—in a dangerous lineup, the trade turned the Astros' outfield and the left side of their infield from outstanding to suspect defensively. The unspectacular platoon of Chris Donnels and Craig Shipley was supposed to play third until Phil Nevin, the No. 1 pick in the 1992 amateur draft, is ready. Don't hold your breath; Nevin's still struggling (.175 in 15 games through Sunday) in Triple A Tucson. Free-agent first baseman-third baseman Dave Magadan was signed as insurance at both positions, and he'll open the season platooning at third because Donnels pulled his hamstring last Saturday.
Rookie Orlando Miller replaces Cedeno, one of the league's rising stars. Miller, 26, could turn out to be one too. He baited .325 during a 16-game stint with the Astros last year, when Cedeno was hurt, but hit only .257 with 29 errors in 93 games at Tucson the rest of the season. At 6'2", 200 pounds, he's one of the biggest shortstops in the game. Miller's problem is the size of his temper. His outbursts at umpires, and at himself, were legendary in the minors.' I'm getting better," Miller says. "I've seen a psychiatrist, and he told me if I'm ready to explode, just go where no one can see me, then blow up."
Bats regularly exploded last season against the St. Louis CARDINALS, whose starting pitchers were at the bottom of the league in ERA (5.50) and strikeouts (366) and were tops in homers allowed (86) and starts lasting fewer than five innings (32). Consequently, St. Louis was on pace to break the major league record for relief appearances when the strike hit. "I didn't even want to go to the mound sometimes last year," says catcher Tom Pagnozzi. "We needed six guys to throw a shutout one game; that should be some indication."
Now the Cardinals have Ken Hill, the true ace they've lacked since Joaquin Andujar was traded to the Oakland A's in 1985. Swiped from the Montreal Expos, who unloaded several high-salaried players, Hill (16-5 in '94) and another newcomer, free-agent lefthander Danny Jackson (14-6 with the Philadelphia Phillies in '94), give St. Louis two starting pitchers who are both intimidating and disagreeable—precisely what previous No. I starter Bob Tewksbury, now with the Texas Rangers, was not. "Hitters knew that Tewks wasn't going to hurt them," says Hill. "Danny and I are aggressive. We throw hard. And at times we will sneak one up and in."
This is Hill's second tour with the Cardinals, and, like the last time, he finds a team that has trouble scoring runs. Hill was so inconsistent on his first tour (1988 through '91), the Cardinals insisted the Expos take him, instead of lefthander Rheal Cormier, in a trade for first baseman Andres Galarraga. Hill, 29, is a different pitcher these days, although he still throws just as hard, in the mid-90's. "I've matured," he says. "Now if I don't have my best stuff, I still know how to win."