- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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There are but two certainties in the National League East in 1993. One, when you call for "Oz" in the clubhouse of the ST. LOUIS CARDINALS, someone is sure to answer. (But who? Ozzie Smith? Ozzie Canseco? Tom Pagnozzi? Donovan Osborne?). And two, some team will answer the call of the mild and win this tepid division. (But which one? Any club is capable, save for Florida's Men of Teal.)
"The top three teams in the West might have a better record than the winner in the East," says Pittsburgh Pirate center-fielder Andy Van Slyke. "If nothing else, parity could make the East the most exciting division to watch. There could be five or six teams contending in September. So what if we all end up around 85 wins? The Kentucky Derby is a race whether the track is wet or dry."
Thus St. Louis can win this divisional derby without improving dramatically upon its 83-79 record of a year ago. Which isn't to say the Cards aren't improved. Centerfielder Ray Lankford is an MVP waiting to happen. He hit .293 with 20 home runs, 86 RBIs and 42 stolen bases last year, which was only his second full season in the majors. Imagine his RBI numbers this season when he moves to the cleanup spot, batting behind newly acquired first baseman Gregg Jefferies.
The Cards will win because of their lefty-intensive rotation, as well. Like Lankford, it goes deep. After righthander Bob Tewksbury (16-5, 2.16 ERA in 1992) comes lefthander Rheal Cormier (7-2 after Aug. 1), followed by lefty Joe Magrane (apparently recovered from elbow and shoulder woes) and then another lefty, Osborne, who was the winningest rookie (11-9, 3.77) in the National League last year. And Lee Smith still closes like a hyperactive real estate agent. On the sodden track of this division, that's enough: The Budweiser Clydesdales can win pulling Ed McMahon in a hansom cab.
Last winter centerfielder Marquis Grissom lost his hearing—his arbitration hearing, thankfully—and said afterward of Montreal, "I was thinking about wanting to play all of my baseball there. But not now." So while they still have Grissom in the lineup with Larry Walker and Moises Alou, fans of the MONTREAL EXPOS should savor this superlatively Stoogean triumvirate: Larry, Mo and Surly constitute the best outfield in the National League. Alas, it is the Expo infield that may leak like the Nixon White House. Platoon third basemen Sean Berry and Frank Bolick, platoon first baseman Greg Colbrunn and shortstop Wil Cordero have a mere 160 games of combined major league experience.
Beyond Dennis Martinez and Ken Hill, the pitching staff is also pockmarked with question marks, which is why Montreal's spring training was a kind of baseball Bas-kin-Robbins, with 31 pitchers in camp.
On the other hand, manager Felipe Alou points out that players finally want to play in Quebec, Grissom's comment notwithstanding. One possible explanation: This young team will contend for years. Another explanation: "I remember when we couldn't wait to go back to the U.S. to go to McDonald's," says the elder Alou. "Now Montreal is full of McDonald's." So which will be a bigger concern for the next commissioner: Collusion or coronary occlusions?
The spring training clubhouse of the PITTSBURGH PIRATES was broken into and plundered on the night of March 7, and the thieves absconded with uniforms and equipment. As players took inventory at their lockers the next morning, catcher Mike LaValliere announced that (sigh) he hadn't lost any weight in the break-in.
Like the barrel around a naked man, Spanky's spare tire is about all the Pirates have left. Division champs for three years running, they've had their roster ransacked the last two winters, and about the only recognizable faces that remain belong to manager Jim Leyland, LaValliere and Andy Van Slyke.
Where have all the powers gone? Barry Bonds is in San Francisco, Doug Drabek is in Houston, and Van Slyke is in discomfort after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in March. What's less, Gold Glove second baseman Jose Lind is in Kansas City; free-agent signee Alejandro Pena is out for the season after elbow surgery, a $1.35 million bust in the bullpen; and lefthander Zane Smith is recovering from rotator-cuff surgery. That means knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (8-1, 2.15 ERA), who made his major league debut last July 31, is the Pirates' new ace.