The new and improved San Diego Padres ("New formula! Won't upset your stomach!") are touting clinical research that proves that they had the best record in the National League West last year after May 21, nearly the last two thirds of the strike-shortened season. Now the fine-print disclaimer: They earned that honor while playing losing baseball (37-38).
Such is life in the West, where only the Los Angeles Dodgers cracked the .500 mark in 1994—and by only two games—and where mediocrity again figures to be enough to keep a team in contention. The top two teams from last season, the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, have gotten worse, while the bottom two, the Padres and Colorado Rockies, have gotten better. The shame is, somebody has to win.
So why not the DODGERS? They have the division's deepest pitching, especially considering that Hideo Nomo of Japan, Chan Ho Park of Korea and Antonio Osuna of Mexico could make a world of difference. The 26-year-old Nomo, with one of the strangest deliveries in baseball, may be the most promising, having led the Japan Pacific League in strikeouts four times.
Then again, Los Angeles is also counting on four outfielders, none older than 27, who have only 343 career hits among them. Raul Mondesi will replace departed free-agent Brett Butler in center, with the corners likely to be shared by Henry Rodriguez, a career .244 hitter in 233 big league games, Billy Ashley and rookie Todd Hollandsworth.
Cincinnati Red scout John Stearns has high praise for Mondesi, the National League's Rookie of the Year last season. "He's got the best throwing arm, he can really fly, he's got power, and his overall game is as good as anyone's now," says Stearns. "I think he will become one of the top three players in baseball, right behind [Ken] Griffey and [Barry] Bonds."
The Dodgers selected Hollandsworth with the 1991 draft pick they got as compensation from Kansas City after the Royals signed free-agent Kirk Gibson, the player with whom Hollandsworth is most often compared because of his football-player intensity, his speed and his power. Ashley became the top minor leaguer in the Dodger organization by banging 37 home runs while averaging .345 for Triple A Albuquerque, "I like our outfield," says manager Tom Lasorda. "People talk about not signing Butler, but to me it's the same as not signing [catcher] Mike Scioscia a couple of years ago. That opened it up for Mike Piazza, and that worked out all right, didn't it? So don't criticize us yet."
The GIANTS still have the best defense in the league and two franchise players, Bonds and Matt Williams. But they have also developed some serious holes in their rotation. They lost three pitchers—Bill Swift and Mike Jackson via free agency, and John Burkett in a trade—who had accounted for 41% of San Francisco's victories over the past three years.
The Giants do have the services of another big-name pitcher to soften the blow: William VanLandingham, a fireballing righthander whose 20-letter full name is 1) the longest in baseball history, and 2) a daunting problem when it comes to signing autographs. VanLandingham has solved the latter by developing a shorthand signature: "It's W, M, with a couple of L's in between," he says.
VanLandingham's record last season included only a couple of L's in his 16 appearances, all but two of them starts. He was 8-2 with a 3.54 ERA after being called up from Double A Shreveport on May 19. "You don't know if the second time around will be different," says Giant manager Dusty Baker. "This game is about making adjustments, and we'll see how he handles it."
A military school graduate from rural Columbia, Tenn., VanLandingham gives few clues as to how he'll handle a heavier load this year. "He's so quiet you hardly know he's there," says pitching coach Dick Pole, "and when he does talk, he calls me sir."