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Peter Gammons
August 07, 1989
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August 07, 1989

Inside: Baseball

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Pitching will probably be the decisive factor in the National League East race, but don't overlook the importance of catching. Here's how the Expos, Cubs and Mets have performed this season with and without their aces behind the plate.






With Mike Fitzgerald




Without Fitzgerald





With Damon Berryhill




Without Berryhill





With Gary Carter




Without Carter




Through July 29


In 1987, when the Minnesota Twins won the World Series, their core of talent was one of the most impressive in baseball. But since then the Minnesota front office has made one ill-fated move after another and turned the club into a second-rate power. On Monday the Twins' "brain" trust made matters even worse by trading 1988 Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola to the Mets in a deal involving pitchers Rick Aguilera, David West and Kevin Tapani. Why?

The Twins' decline began last year when they dealt rightfielder Tom Brunansky—an integral part of the championship team—to the Cardinals for second baseman Tommy Herr, who never performed up to his capabilities in Minnesota and ended up being traded to the Phillies for journeyman pitcher Shane Rawley. Then, instead of adding quality pitching in the off-season, the Twins unloaded 38-year-old righthander Bert Blyleven, who was 10-17 with a 5.43 ERA in '88, in a multiplayer deal with the Angels. At week's end, Blyleven was 10-2 with a 2.45 ERA.

The importance of Blyleven to the Twins cannot be measured by numbers alone. He was the clown prince of the clubhouse, the guy who, along with third baseman Gary Gaetti and first baseman Kent Hrbek, kept the team loose. Now Gaetti has become a born-again Christian and has cast off the leader's mantle. So despite the best efforts of Hrbek and such vocal players as center-fielder Kirby Puckett and utilityman Al Newman, the Twins' clubhouse is much more subdued.

Does the Viola trade make sense? Not really. Even though Viola has an 8-12 record this season, he has one of the best deliveries in baseball and, as a result, has never had arm trouble. He is a workhorse who has pitched at least five innings in 97 of his last 101 starts, and he hasn't missed a start since April 1983. Most important, he has proved that he can win under pressure. "Every one of the pitchers the Mets offered [for Viola] has big questions," says one general manager. " Aguilera has a history of arm problems. West has an attitude problem, and Tapani is a gun pitcher—his fastball is better on radar than it is to the hitter. But a pitcher like Viola comes along only once in 20 years."


Although the Tigers have received offers for several veterans, including shortstop Alan Trammell, general manager Bill Lajoie hasn't made any calls of his own and insists that he's "not holding a fire sale." Instead, he plans to: 1) get pitchers Jack Morris and Jeff Robinson healthy again; 2) keep righthander Doyle Alexander, who has a new knuckler, and lefthander Frank Tanana, who Lajoie claims "might have five more good years"; 3) use newly acquired role players Tracy Jones and Kenny Williams to fortify the bench; and 4) find, in the off-season, some power at first base and at one outfield position....

After Cleveland's big trade in December, which sent second baseman Julio Franco to Texas, everyone thought that second baseman Jerry Browne was just a throw-in by the Rangers to go with first baseman Pete O'Brien and outfielder Oddibe McDowell. But Browne has been a major factor in the Indians' recent surge. Says one American League advance scout, "He is hitting over .300, he is getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time, he can run, and he is at least an average defensive second baseman. He could be a fine player for 10 years." In addition, nearly every manager in the American League East agrees that if lefthander Greg Swindell bounces back from his current elbow stiffness, Cleveland will have the best rotation in the division....

Another team on the move in the AL East is Toronto, which was only four games out of first at week's end. The biggest reason for the Blue Jays' charge is their bullpen, which has flourished under new manager Cito Gaston. His predecessor, Jimy Williams, used to make relievers jump up and down like puppets, but Gaston, who took over on May 15, has been more careful with his pitchers. Under Williams the Toronto bullpen was 4-12, with a 4.65 ERA and four saves in 36 games. With Gaston at the helm, its record has climbed to 14-5, with a 3.42 ERA and 18 saves in 68 games.

Last Saturday the Rangers traded shortstop Scott Fletcher, outfielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Wilson Alvarez to the White Sox for designated hitter Harold Baines and infielder Fred Manrique. Some observers feel that the deal gives the Rangers an outside shot at the division title, even though they were seven games out of first place at the time of the deal. "It's a great trade, because Baines is one of the top five clutch producers in the league, and while Sosa and Alvarez are prospects, there's no guarantee on either one," says one American League general manager. "If the Rangers' pitching holds up and Jeff Kunkel can replace Fletcher at shortstop, they still have a chance because now the middle of their lineup [ Baines, outfielder Ruben Sierra and second baseman Julio Franco] is as good as any in baseball."

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