Monday, February 08, 1999
What to watch at spring training
BY CHRIS HAFT
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In about a week, the glorious 1998 baseball season will officially become a cherished keepsake.
Spring training is about to begin, and though the feats of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the New York Yankees are indelible in history, teams and players are poised to write new chapters.
This doesn't mean last year's heroes will fade into obscurity, replaced by the mundane images of ballplayers stretching lazily on the Florida grass or joking raucously by an Arizona batting cage.
From Jupiter, Fla., where McGwire will train with the St. Louis Cardinals, to Mesa, Ariz., where Sosa will limber up with the Chicago Cubs, observers will scrutinize the sluggers as they prepare to try to match their prodigious '98 home run totals.
In Tampa, every twinge in a pitcher's arm and each misstep on the basepaths will be interpreted as a sign that the Yankees, who won 125 games and their second World Series in three years, might be in danger of tumbling from their throne.
But a myriad of fresh themes appear ready to unfold next week after pitchers and catchers report led by the Reds, whose Feb. 16 reporting date for batterymen happens to be the earliest in the majors.
Teams that will treat spring training as more than just an exercise include:
Houston. Uneasy lies the head that has worn the National League Central Division crown for two seasons in a row. First-round playoff eliminations each year have put the Astros on notice that they could be dismantled if they don't fare better in the postseason this year. So expect a little urgency at their camp.
Los Angeles. Having added super righthander Kevin Brown, center fielder Devon White and catcher Todd Hundley, the Dodgers are viewed as certain NL West champions. But though the Dodgers appear to have constructed a decent lineup, they have yet to build clubhouse chemistry, which eluded them as less-talented division rivals surpassed them in recent years.
Seattle. The Mariners will renew their annual search for pitchers who can get some damned outs, as an annoyed Ken Griffey Jr. said recently, sounding unintentionally funny. Their list of offseason acquisitions includes journeyman Mark Leiter and the enigmatic Jose Mesa, which hardly inspires confidence.
Cleveland. Winning the AL Central has become virtually a given for the Indians, who have dominated the division since 1995. But failing to win a World Series is getting monotonous for club management.
Anaheim. The talented Angels are hungry for Mo Vaughn's leadership and productive bat, both of which just might nudge them past Texas atop the AL West. Building camaraderie is a major part of spring training, so Vaughn will keep busy by imposing his considerable will upon the club.
Arizona. Owner Jerry Colangelo's $120 million spending spree brought the Diamondbacks pitchers Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Armando Reynoso and Greg Swindell, center fielder Steve Finley and utilityman Greg Colbrunn. They also traded for left fielder Luis Gonzalez. It's a nice haul of players, but insiders believe most members of this group, if not the whole bunch, have already enjoyed their best seasons.
New York Yankees. The defending world champions can take a step or two back and still remain vastly ahead of their AL rivals. But if starters David Cone, 36, and David Wells, 35, suddenly show the ravages of age, this cruise ship will spring nasty leaks rather quickly.
New York Mets. Striving not to be rendered irrelevant by the Yankees, the Mets retained catcher Mike Piazza for $91 million and snatched third baseman Robin Ventura from the Chicago White Sox. Since the Mets cost themselves a wild-card playoff berth by fading badly down the stretch last season, manager Bobby Valentine can be expected to stress a more purposeful attitude this year.
Baltimore. Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro were known as Thunder and Lightning as collegians at Mississippi State. Now we have Clark, a commanding clubhouse presence who doesn't tolerate poor attitudes, being paired with Albert Belle, whose face appears to have been surgically altered into a permanent frown. Can they coexist? Or will they come to be known as Oil and Water or Arsenic and Strychnine? And what will Cal Ripken Jr. think of all this?
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