Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Low-budget Reds, Tigers could surprise league elite

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The widening economic chasm between baseball's richest and poorest teams has left baseball fans with no choice but to change the way they look at the sport.

It used to be pretty simple when all you had to do in the spring was delude yourself into thinking that a couple of breakthrough prospects might put your team over the top. Now, you need an accountant to tell you who's going to win.

The new challenge is identifying a couple of marginal-revenue teams that might upset the new economic order -- or at least sneak into the wild card round of the playoffs and make things interesting. The Yankees, Dodgers, Indians and Braves are going to be there, but who's going to crash the party?

This year's National League dark horse: the Cincinnati Reds.

This year's American League long shot: the Detroit Tigers.

Imagine the rejoicing in middle America if both clubs slipped into the playoffs with their cut-rate rosters and put a scare into baseball's wine-and-cheese crowd. It's not entirely out of the question.

The Reds have spent the off-season proving that you can make headlines on a modest budget, acquiring Denny Neagle, a 20-game winner in 1997, in a deal for second baseman Bret Boone and trading for 50-home run hitter Greg Vaughn. They aren't the best team in the National League Central -- far from it -- but they have to be considered a legitimate wild-card contender.

General manager Jim Bowden proposed at baseball's winter meetings in December that the divisions be realigned based on economic criteria so that every team in every revenue category would go into the season with a chance to make the playoffs.

The proposal was not taken seriously by baseball owners, but Bowden apparently went ahead anyway, building a team that easily would win the National League Least.

The addition of Neagle gives the Reds three solid starting pitchers and puts the club a breakthrough pitcher away from having one of the better rotations in the league. The arrival of Vaughn shores up a youthful offensive lineup that has a lot of unrealized potential. If manager Jack McKeon can pull together a decent bullpen -- and that's a big if -- the Reds could make some real noise in '99.

The Tigers are a longer shot, but the addition of power-hitting third baseman Dean Palmer and veteran Gregg Jefferies could pump up the volume of the offensive lineup and generate a lot of excitement in the final season at Tiger Stadium.

New manager Larry Parrish has something else going for him -- an underrated bullpen. Doug Brocail, Rule 5 rookie Sean Runyon and top prospect Matt Anderson had outstanding seasons in support of closer Todd Jones last year.

Much more has to go right in '99 to transform the Tigers from a 65-win divisional doormat into a wild-card contender, but look for Detroit to show the most dramatic improvement of any American League team.

It isn't easy to compete on a tight budget, but dollar for dollar, the Reds and Tigers might turn out to be the best two clubs in baseball.

Padres fiddle, fans burn

The San Diego Padres apparently think it's a great idea to bring 37-year-old country music star Garth Brooks to camp for a tryout this spring. But their fans would be right to wonder if it's just an attempt to divert attention away from the downsized defending National League champions, who have a better chance of playing at Opryland this year than getting back to the playoffs.

"For me, it's totally serious," Brooks told reporters recently. "I don't need the publicity. I'm going do go down there to live out my dream and the dream of 99 percent of the other guys out there."

Brooks, who was a four-sport high school athlete in Oklahoma in the late 1970s, worked out briefly with the Padres last year and even got into a spring game as a pinch runner. He expressed an interest in coming back this year and found Padres owner John Moores receptive to the idea.

If he was really serious, however, he should have approached the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose minor-league system would be much more accommodating to a country music star. If he failed to make the club out of spring training, the Pirates could just sell his contract to Nashville.

Unsung bullpen

The disastrous decline of former Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers left a huge hole in the Braves bullpen last year, but the emergence of young closer Kerry Ligtenberg and the efficiency of setup men John Rocker and Rudy Seanez turned a bad situation into a pleasant surprise.

For all the concern about the Braves' ability to survive without Wohlers, not one reliever who finished the season with the club gave up more hits than innings pitched, including Wohlers. How often does that happen?

Now, with Wohlers attempting a comeback, there is potential for even greater bullpen depth on a team that already seems to have it all another happy result of general manager John Schuerholz's obsession with pitching depth.

The insightful Alomar

Sandy Alomar displayed some refreshing candor last week when he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the Indians should not renegotiate the contract of shortstop Omar Vizquel.

Vizquel -- perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball -- has completed two years of a seven-year, $21 million contract but is unhappy because the overall rise in player salaries has made his deal obsolete and left him as the lowest-paid player on the Indians infield.

"I understand what Omar is saying," Alomar said, "but if he says he's underpaid at $3 million a year, the blue-collar worker isn't going to understand that. We're in an industry where players are overpaid, not underpaid."

Big Daddy still thinking big

If the Toronto Blue Jays are expecting to see the Jenny Craig version of Cecil Fielder report to spring training camp later this month, those expectations might be -- if you'll pardon the expression -- inflated.

Fielder, who is listed at about 250 pounds, remains adamant that his weight is not an issue, even though his productivity and durability have come into serious question over the past few years.

He told a Toronto reporter recently that the benefit of coming to training camp at a target weight is "overrated."

The no-hair club

The hot topic of conversation in Cincinnati these days is whether Vaughn will get to keep his goatee. The Reds have had a facial hair ban since 1967, but Vaughn may appeal directly to majority owner Marge Schott to make an exception because he has had the goatee for his entire career. If that fails, he could even file a grievance through the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Tough luck in Texas

Former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro never spent a day on the disabled list during his five-year stay in Baltimore, but he will not be able to open workouts on time with the Texas Rangers.

Palmeiro stumbled on the stairs last week and was forced to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair minor cartilage damage in his right knee. He should be OK for the exhibition season, but that wasn't quite the entrance he was hoping to make.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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