SARASOTA, Fla. -- The busiest off-season in baseball history has come and gone, leaving a major-league landscape so new and different that spring training figures to be an adventure in itself.
That adventure begins today, when hundreds of pitchers and catchers begin reporting to the 26 spring-training camps in Florida and Arizona. The rest of the position players will report next week, but it will take the better part of two months to sort through all the new faces.
Thanks to the latest free-agent free-for-all, almost every team has undergone significant transformation since the Cincinnati Reds swept to the 1990 world championship. More than 100 free agents went to market in November. Another 16 became new-look free agents as part of baseball's collusion damage settlement. And the prospect of future free-agent eligibility led to some blockbuster trades, including the one that brought first baseman Glenn Davis to the Baltimore Orioles.
The salary spiral has continued unabated since Jose Canseco became the first $5 million player last year. The Los Angeles Dodgers opened this year's baseball-wide spending spree by handing Darryl Strawberry more than $20 million over five years. The Boston Red Sox recently gave Roger Clemens a five-year deal worth a record $26.5 million. During the three months in between, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in an effort to alter the balance of power in baseball's four divisions.
Can money buy happiness? The Kansas City Royals found out that it couldn't in 1990. They spent a fortune to unseat the defending American League champion Oakland Athletics, but spent most of the season in the AL West cellar. This off-season, the NL West rival Dodgers and San Francisco Giants dominated the free-agent market, but at least one of them will feel that was a mistake by the end of the 1991 season.
Can youth be served? Spring training is supposed to be a place where the young show their promise and the old show their age, but the new laws of baseball economics make it very difficult for a young player to unseat a highly paid veteran. The roles have been completely reversed in Sarasota, where Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer will try to unseat some highly touted youngsters.
It is against this backdrop that spring training begins anew. Here's a quick look at what the future might hold for each of the four divisions:
( AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST The eyes of baseball will be on Twin Lakes Park if Palmer reports for a spring-training audition. Palmer may be 45, but if he's still in good enough shape to model Jockey underwear, he's probably in better overall physical condition than a lot of pitchers. Anybody seen Fernando Valenzuela in a pair of briefs lately?
But the presence of Palmer figures to be more of a media event than a major turn of baseball fortune. The Orioles would like to see more emphasis on their rebuilt offensive lineup, where Davis and Dwight Evans are expected to make significant contributions. The Orioles also need to decide who's going to play third base, but that won't become a big issue for several weeks.
In the meantime, the Toronto Blue Jays will be in the early stages of a massive chemistry experiment. General manager Pat Gillick turned the roster upside down in an attempt to push the club back to the top of the division standings, but it'll take a while to figure out how all the new parts fit together.
The defending division champion Boston Red Sox probably will be the AL East favorite this year, but they have some important questions to answer. Will they miss Evans? Would Jack Clark beat Roger Clemens in a clubhouse brawl? Why did they ever let Bruce Hurst get away? Is it possible to blow a 6 1/2 -game lead in spring training? Just the usual stuff.
The Detroit Tigers could be the surprise team of the division -- everyone will be surprised if they don't set a major-league strikeout record. And is this the year the New York Yankees finally turn things around?
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST The Oakland Athletics go to camp without veteran third baseman Carney Lansford, who injured his knee in an off-season recreational accident, but the club has survived bigger losses than that to run off a string of three straight pennants. Spring training doesn't figure to bring any great surprises.
Hope is high in Chicago, where the White Sox compiled the second-best record in the American League last year and then acquired Tim Raines. But great expectations have a way of weighing a club down (as the Orioles found out last year), so the White Sox could be in for a disappointing year.
The Royals finally will get to put a disastrous 1990 season behind them. Former Orioles right-hander Mike Boddicker will join a rotation that might be awesome if it remains healthy, but the club is short on experience behind the plate. Does Bo know catching?
Meanwhile in Mesa, Ariz., the California Angels will be working with a new-look infield that features new-look free agent Gary Gaetti at third and newly acquired Luis Sojo at second. Manager Doug Rader needs to settle on an outfield alignment and look at some young pitchers
There are three other teams in the AL West. Can anyone name them?
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST The NL East took a beating during the off-season. The Mets lost Strawberry. The Montreal Expos lost Raines. The St. Louis Cardinals lost Vince Coleman and Terry Pendleton. And the Chicago Cubs acquired George Bell.
The division-wide free-agent exodus could make the NL East the most youth-oriented division in baseball, with the Cardinals in a large-scale rebuilding program and the Mets even thinking youth movement. The Expos, who have been the victim of their poor front-office judgment the past couple of years, are almost certain to have at least two rookies in their starting rotation.
The Philadelphia Phillies should be improved, but they could face a morale problem when all the rest of their .208 hitters find out how much Darren Daulton is making.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST Top to bottom, the NL West figures to be the strongest division baseball this year. The Dodgers and Giants spent something like $75 million between them to corner the free-agent market, and the San Diego Padres apparently got the better of the biggest winter meetings trade in recent memory.
The Dodgers go to Vero Beach, Fla., hoping that what was once one of the best starting rotations in baseball can be put back together by the early part of the season. Orel Hershiser isn't back from surgery yet, but Tim Belcher apparently is. The addition of Kevin Gross gives manager Tommy Lasorda enough depth to be patient.
The Giants have spared no expense in their attempt to return to the top of the division standings, signing 1990 AL batting champion Willie McGee and pitchers Bud Black and Dave Righetti, but there are four legitimate contenders in the NL West.
Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella returns with largely the same club that won the world championship, and the Padres have added Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez and Jim Presley to a club that is expected to rebound from a 75-87 season.
Some of the big names with new teams this season:
Baltimore: 1B Glenn Davis, OF Dwight Evans, LHP Mike Flanagan, RHP Jeff Robinson, OF-DH Larry Sheets, RHP Roy Smith, C Ernie Whitt.
Boston: 1B/DH Jack Clark, LHP Matt Young.
California: OF Junior Felix, 3B Gary Gaetti, 2B Luis Sojo.
Chicago: OF Tim Raines, OF Cory Snyder.
Cleveland: RHP Shawn Hillegas, RHP Eric King.
Detroit: OF Rob Deer, C Mickey Tettleton.
Milwaukee: C Rick Dempsey, OF/1B Franklin Stubbs.
Minnesota: P Steve Bedrosian, OF Chili Davis, RHP Jack Morris.
New York: RHP Steve Farr.
Oakland: 3B Vance Law.
Atlanta: C Mike Heath, 3B Terry Pendleton.
Chicago: OF George Bell.
Houston: OF Steve Finley, RHP Pete Harnisch, RHP Curt Schilling.
Los Angeles: OF Brett Butler, C Gary Carter, RHP Kevin Gross, RHP Bob Ojeda, OF Darryl Strawberry.
Montreal: OF Ivan Calderon, P Barry Jones.
New York: OF Vince Coleman.
Philadelphia: 2B Wally Backman.
San Diego: SS Tony Fernandez, 1B Fred McGriff, 3B Jim Presley.
San Francisco: LHP Bud Black, OF Willie McGee, LHP Dave Righetti.