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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : And the Last Shall Be First--but Not the Dodgers

April 04, 1993|ROSS NEWHAN

Consider this:

It is not inconceivable that two teams that finished last in 1992, the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, could win their divisions this season, as could a team that finished next to last, the Kansas City Royals.

Will they?

The view here is that the Royals and Phillies will, but the Dodgers won't.

The predictions:

National League West--1. Atlanta Braves; 2. Cincinnati Reds; 3. Dodgers; 4. Houston Astros; 5. San Francisco Giants; 6. San Diego Padres; 7. Colorado Rockies.

Comment: The Dodgers will be vastly improved, turning around many of those 40 one-run losses of last season, but they simply have too big a jump to make in baseball's toughest division. The Braves are impossible to pick against. It's not only their starting rotation, it's that deep cast of young players waiting in triple A for a regular to slip.

National League East--1. Phillies; 2. St. Louis Cardinals; 3. Montreal Expos; 4. New York Mets; 5. Chicago Cubs; 6. Pittsburgh Pirates; 7. Florida Marlins.

Comment: The only thing flakier than John Kruk is this pick, but with the Pirates no longer dominant, it's possible to buy into the theory that the Phillies have the best hitting in the division, if Lenny Dykstra stays healthy; and the deepest pitching, if Mitch Williams throws enough strikes to supply the finishing touch.

American League West: 1. Royals; 2. Minnesota Twins; 3. Texas Rangers; 4. Oakland Athletics; 5. Chicago White Sox; 6. Angels; 7. Seattle Mariners.

Comment: No team was more aggressive in addressing its needs than Kansas City, which added David Cone, Greg Gagne, Jose Lind and Felix Jose. It's a big jump, but the division title is there for the taking. The Angels will take part, but that's about it. They face too many questions and concerns to be considered a factor. I applaud their direction--overdue by 20 or so years--but their failure to retain or secure protection for their kids seems penny-wise and take-your-poundings foolish.

American League East--1. Toronto Blue Jays; 2. Baltimore Orioles; 3. New York Yankees; 4. Milwaukee Brewers; 5. Detroit Tigers; 6. Cleveland Indians; 7. Boston Red Sox.

Comment: This should be a dogfight among the top three. The World Series champion Blue Jays underwent a massive turnover that raised questions about their pitching, but the Tuesday trade for Darrin Jackson, who should be a 20-plus home run hitter in the SkyDome, helped to sway the vote away from Baltimore or New York in another wide-open race.

DERRICKED

Lackadaisical effort, to an extent, prompted the Blue Jays to give up on Derek Bell, who dominated the International League but couldn't get started at the major league level.

Bell, traded for Jackson, had a cumulative minor league average of .289, including a .346 average with 93 runs batted in at Syracuse in 1991, compared to .228 for 78 games in the majors.

He follows Sil Campusano, Rob Ducey, Glenallen Hill and Mark Whiten as the latest in a series of touted Toronto outfielders who failed, in Canada, at least, to live up to their billing--a hype-and-burn pattern familiar, perhaps, to followers of the Dodgers.

"I still think Derek will be a good player, but we couldn't wait for him to come defensively," Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick said, adding that Bell is simply a free spirit who moves to his own beat.

"It's not that he's a detriment or lackadaisical (as Manager Cito Gaston recently charged)," Gillick said. "It's just that he has something of a different personality."

Jackson, a center fielder in San Diego, will play left for the Blue Jays, with Devon White in center and Joe Carter in right.

Gillick said that with Manny Lee and Kelly Gruber gone from the left side of the infield--to be replaced by Dick Schofield and Ed Sprague--and Dave Winfield and Candy Maldonado gone from the outfield, the Blue Jays had to have better defensive insurance on the left side than Bell can supply.

"Our outfield will be better than it was with either Winfield or Maldonado and should be one of the league's best defensively," Gillick said, adding that the Blue Jays' defense of their league and division titles hinges on Sprague's development at third base, the ability of Duane Ward to replace Tom Henke as the full-time closer and the ongoing search for a fifth starter to join Jack Morris, Juan Guzman, Todd Stottlemyre and Dave Stewart.

"We lost Henke, (Jimmy) Key and Cone, and only added Stewart," Gillick said. "Our pitching is shallow. We're not as solid as we'd like to be. That's a concern, but I don't see the likelihood of a trade. We'll continue to look within."

One possible answer was left-hander David Wells, but the Blue Jays--despite a $2.05-million salary guarantee for which they will remain responsible--put Wells on waivers, fed up with his work ethic and attitude whenever he wasn't in the rotation.

"We didn't see the stuff, and we didn't see the commitment," Gillick said of Wells. "Sometimes it's better to cut bait with guys like that."

WERNER SICKCOM

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