By signing free-agent reliever Mark Davis to a four-year, $13-million contract last winter, the Kansas City Royals issued a resounding call to arms.
Their AL West rivals scrambled to meet that challenge by strengthening their own pitching staffs, all part of a game of high stakes and even higher salaries.
Adding Davis, who won the 1989 National League Cy Young Award with the San Diego Padres, to a staff that already included 1989 AL winner Bret Saberhagen gave the Royals a unique set of reigning Cy Young honorees. The Angels met the Royals' bet and raised it when they signed left-hander Mark Langston for $16 million over four years. The Oakland A's gave Dave Stewart, the most valuable player in their World Series triumph, $7,850,000 over two years to keep him happy as he tries for a fourth consecutive 20-win season.
"We have to have quality pitching, each of us, to stay with Oakland and Kansas City," Angel General Manager Mike Port said. "The division is going to be a dogfight.
"Pitching depth is usually in great demand because of the injury factor, and I think there'll be a lot more emphasis this season from a standpoint of quality and depth. Those are the two things most people are after."
Three of the five AL teams that recorded 90 or more victories last season were in the West, and that figures to be the case again.
"It looks like three and maybe five (AL West teams) are going to win 90 games," said A's Manager Tony LaRussa, who counts his own team, the Angels and Royals among the sure 90-game winners and believes Texas and Minnesota could join them. "I hate to get into comparisons, because if you don't boost your club, it sounds like you're not confident, and if you boost another club, it ends up on someone else's bulletin board."
Pitching also will be the story in the AL East, but the quality doesn't come close to the level of the West. Forget superstars: finding starters who are merely capable could be the key for several teams that have good offensive punch, such as the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees, and the Baltimore Orioles will rely on highly touted rookie Ben McDonald to help prove that their long stay at the top of the division last season was no fluke.
The East has more than its share of superb relievers. Boston signed former Twin closer Jeff Reardon for $6.8 million over three years, and still has premier closer Lee Smith. Toronto's Tom Henke (20 saves) and Jim Acker are among the tops at their trade, and the Brewers' Dan Plesac led AL East relievers last season with 33 saves.
Still, the A's loom as the best not only in the West, but in the entire league.
"I think on paper, we're going to be better," LaRussa said. "We've got guys here for the whole season who weren't here for the whole season last year."
His biggest problem could be keeping his team motivated for the whole season now that the A's have the title to their credit.
"Look at the competition in the division and the league, and we know that we'd better be concentrating," LaRussa said. "We can't be comfortable with anything we've done. We can enjoy it, but we can't be comfortable or take it for granted that everything will happen right for us this season. We have to just keep pushing each other along."
Here's how the division races shape up, in predicted order of finish:
* Oakland: Jose Canseco, who had 17 home runs and 57 RBIs in the 65 games he played after his wrist injuries healed, is healthy this season--and he gets to play with Rickey Henderson from the outset. The potential for offensive mayhem is staggering. Did someone mention a 50-50 season for Canseco? It's not impossible after his 40-40 feat in 1988. And Henderson has the incentive of eclipsing Lou Brock's career stolen base record (he needs 68). Mark McGwire hit only .231 last season, but he had 33 home runs and 95 RBIs.
The A's top three starters-- Stewart, Mike Moore and Bob Welch--were a combined 57-28 last season. Scott Anderson, 11-9 with the Cubs last season, should be a solid No. 4 starter, and Todd Burns has promise as the fifth starter. Setup men Rick Honeycutt and Gene Nelson are among the best at their business, and closer Dennis Eckersley (4-0, 1.56 ERA, 33 saves) is nearly impeccable.
Losing Storm Davis could hurt a bit; losing Dave Parker to Milwaukee could dent morale more than it hurts the offense, even though Parker had 97 RBIs last season as the DH supreme. The A's have a large enough margin to lose both players and scarcely feel the pain.