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The Giants' other big question marks are rightfielder Candy Maldonado, who slipped from 20 homers and 85 RBIs in '87 to 12 homers and 68 RBIs in '88, and third baseman Matt Williams, who has to prove he can hit a major league breaking ball. The Giants are hoping that new outfielder Tracy Jones will push Maldonado, either to better numbers or to the bench.
San Francisco's two major assets on offense are centerfielder Brett Butler batting leadoff (.287 with 97 walks and 43 stolen bases) and first baseman Will Clark batting cleanup (29 homers. 109 RBIs). At times, though, the two have felt as if they were doing it all alone. Robby Thompson, the second baseman who bats number 2, struck out 111 times. And Clark had so little protection from the batters behind him that he led the National League in intentional walks with 27.
So a lot has to happen for the Giants to regain the title they won in '87. The franchise slogan this year is I Feel Good. It should be We Feel Better.
The Astros were 10th in the league in hitting and eighth in runs scored last year. With starting pitchers like Mike Scott, Bob Knepper and Jim Deshaies, and a reliever like Dave Smith, it was pretty obvious what the Astros needed. But for some reason they decided to go out and get more pitching, signing free agent Jim Clancy and trading with the Yankees for Rick Rhoden. Granted, Nolan Ryan opted to sign with the other team in Texas, but Houston's crying need was offensive. To manage this club, the Astros chose the aptly named Art Howe. How are they going to score enough runs?
"We don't have the power, so we have to manufacture runs with raw speed and hitting ability," says outfielder Kevin Bass, whose 14 homers and 72 RBIs were both second on the team to first baseman Glenn Davis's 30 homers and 99 RBIs. Davis's numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that nobody behind him in the order had more than seven homers. As for the speed, the Astros did have plenty, with outfielder Gerald Young (65 stolen bases), outfielder Billy Hatcher (32) and Bass (31). And Young, who didn't bunt for any base hits last year, took hitting lessons from Rod Carew over the winter. But going back to school won't be enough. What this team needs is someone like a Cesar Cedeno in his prime. What's that you say? Cedeno was in the Astros' camp and he looked great? Fine. He's 38, and he has been out of baseball for two years. If nothing else, the fact that the Astros invited him to camp indicates that they're in deep trouble.
The Braves lost 106 games last year, their worst season since 1935, and they were 11th in the league in hitting and pitching. They were so bad, in fact, that it even rubbed off on outfielder Dale Murphy, who batted .226. Murphy spent the winter wondering where he was going to play, but the Braves weren't able to make a trade, and Murphy says he's happy to spend another season in Atlanta. "We won't be too bad," he says. "I've never seen so many good young arms. And I can't be as bad as I was last year."
Atlanta does have lots of good young arms: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Derek Lilliquist and Zane and Pete Smith. There are many more in the minors, and general manager Bobby Cox's plan is to trade some of them for position players. Until then, he has filled the roster with veterans like Darrell Evans and Lonnie Smith.
Besides Murphy, the Braves' only real offensive threats are Gerald Perry and Ron Gant. Perry continued to blossom into an all-around star at first, hitting .300, with 74 RBIs and 29 steals, and Gant revealed tremendous potential, with 19 homers and 60 RBIs. He also revealed he couldn't play second, so manager Russ Nixon is moving him to third. (Ironically. Gant means "glove" in French; perhaps he should be named Baton, French for "bat.") But the Braves can't afford to be too picky. They're not even sure who'll play second, catcher, leftfield or rightfield.