Baseball ’89 : A Preview : American League Preview : A’s Have Players to Make It a Letter Perfect Copy of ’88 Season

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

It’s not so tough to repeat.

Interpreters repeat. Photocopiers repeat. VCRs repeat. Re-runs repeat.

The Oakland Athletics repeat.

Never mind that little thing with Jose Canseco’s wrist. So he might miss a month. That’s kind of like spotting your little sister a couple baskets in a game of one-on-one. It gives the rest of the league a sporting chance.

Trust us on this one. The A’s will win the American League West. The A’s will win the American League pennant. The A’s will win the World Series.

Why?

Because they are driven.

And we’re not talking about Canseco’s Jaguar XJS.

They are driven to remove the Dodger blue smudge from their place in history, which, over the course of five October games, went from Team o’ the Eighties to just another Goliath. They are sick of Orel Hershiser telling them he’s going to Disneyland. They are tired of hearing about slingshots and Kirk Gibson and how the Dodger wonder scouts shut down the Bash Brothers.

Oakland won 104 games in 1988, but all anybody wants to talk about are the last four the A’s lost.

They were driven enough to add free-agent Mike Moore to what was already the league’s the best pitching staff. Moore could be this year’s Danny Jackson, a victim of non-support with a lesser team. Last summer with Seattle, Moore went 9-15. This summer, backed by Oakland’s explosive lineup, he could easily reverse those numbers.

Obscured by Canseco’s 40-40 and Mark McGwire’s 32 home runs is the fact that these A’s, first and foremost, are founded on pitching. Name another AL staff that can throw a starting rotation of Dave Stewart (21-12 in ’88), Bob Welch (17-9), Moore, Storm Davis (16-7) and Curt Young (11-8) at you. Name a deeper bullpen, in either league, than Dennis Eckersley (45 saves) and his supporting cast of Eric Plunk, Greg Cadaret, Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt.

With or without Canseco, this type of pitching should enable Oakland to survive the month of April. And while the AL’s most valuable player is sidelined, we’ll get the opportunity to check out another Oakland Jose--rookie outfielder Felix Jose, a muscular 23-year old who batted .317 with 12 home runs, 83 RBIs and 16 stolen bases for triple-A Tacoma last year.

Through 23 games this spring, Jose was batting .339 with 16 RBIs and had Oakland Manager Tony LaRussa saying such things as “If we get him enough playing time, he could be our fourth straight rookie of the year.”

The first three were Canseco, McGwire and Walt Weiss.

Jose should get the time, one way or another. By the time Big Jose is ready to return, Felix should be ready to bump Luis Polonia and his bronze glove out of left field, settling in for a long summer of forearm bashes and another crack at October baseball.

And if you aren’t sold on that, here are 13 other reasons why Oakland will repeat:

1. Toronto’s manager still has only one m in his first name. No, the Blue Jays didn’t fire Jimy Williams last winter. They erected a new stadium, but didn’t elect a new manager.

If the Blue Jay players had their way, they’d swap the Sky Dome for Sparky Anderson, even up.

What is it with Jimy One M, anyway? Where did that m go? Maybe it stands for morale, or motivation, or manager-player rapport--for all those were missing in Toronto last year, too.

Williams inherited an AL East championship ballclub when he replaced Bobby Cox in late 1985 and has owned the best personnel in the division for three seasons. All Toronto has to show for it is the Great Collapse of ’87 and six months of fighting and feuding in ’88.

How can a team with George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez, Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb, Tom Henke, Fred McGriff and Kelly Gruber not win?

Beter ask Jimy.

2. Frank Viola takes days off. So Allan Anderson won the AL ERA title in 1988. Let’s see him do it again. Take away last year’s numbers (16-9, 2.45) and Anderson’s major league totals read: 4-6, 6.24.

So Shane Rawley won 17 games in 1987. Let’s see what he did last year. Oh yes: 8-16, 4.18, 27 home runs allowed.

So Fred Toliver and Les Straker round out Minnesota’s starting rotation.

So?

‘Tis a shame that an offense stocked with the likes of Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Dan Gladden has to get bogged down by a lack of proven pitching behind Viola, the virtuoso who was World Series MVP in 1987 and the league’s Cy Young Award winner in 1988. But Viola won’t win the AL West in 1989 all by his lonesome.

So sorry.

3. Ted Higuera’s back, Dale Sveum’s leg, Juan Nieves’ rotator cuff, Glenn Braggs’ shoulder, Charlie O’Brien’s elbow . . . Trendy picks to win the AL East as soon as Bruce Hurst left Boston, the Brewers have since gone from hip to hospitalized.

Higuera, runnerup to Anderson in last year’s ERA race, may be ready to return as early as mid-April. Braggs, the promising young outfielder who missed half of 1988, is already back, although his throwing arm is rumored to be still in transit. But Sveum, last year’s starting shortstop, and Nieves, the No. 4 starter, may be out until the All-Star break, especially if Nieves’ torn rotator cuff requires surgery.

Sveum will be replaced more easily than Nieves. That’s because Gary Sheffield’s time has come. Sheffield, a minor league marvel, batted .314 at El Paso and .344 at Denver last year, totaling 29 home runs and 119 RBIs. Now Sheffield has not been handed the Brewers’ shortstop job, but the AL rookie of the year award as well.

Milwaukee’s pitching depth runs a tad more shallow, and any staff with designs on unseating the A’s had better run deep.

4. David Cone and Danny Jackson are in the National League. There were six 20-game winners in the major leagues in 1988.

Three of them were Kansas City Royal teammates in 1986.

How does this starting rotation grab you? Jackson (23-8 with the Reds) followed by Cone (20-3 with the Mets) followed by Mark Gubicza (20-8 as a Royal holdover). Bret Saberhagen, 1985 AL Cy Young winner, would be the No. 4 starter on this staff. Charlie Leibrandt would be No. 5.

Floyd Bannister would pitch long relief.

But because Oakland doesn’t have to worry about facing Jackson or Cone until the World Series, this dream staff won’t be grabbing the A’s. The Royals may have a pair of bodies that defy the laws of nature--the indomitable Bo Jackson and the indefatigable Bob Boone--to go with George Brett and Danny Tartabull, but they no longer can boast of the best pitching in the division.

Too much of it is pitching in other divisions.

5. Penthouse magazine continues to publish. If the decline of the Hurst empire doesn’t sink the Boston Red Sox, the ambush by the Guccione empire surely will. What an epitaph: Bridesmaids in ’88, torn asunder by a mistress in ’89.

You can measure the Margo Adams damage by the number of Wade Boggs trade rumors, which seem to multiply by the day. Here is the five-time American League batting champion, in his prime at age 30, and the Red Sox seemingly can’t wait to get rid of him. One day, it’s Boggs to the Mets for Howard Johnson and Sid Fernandez. The next, it’s Boggs to the Royals for Tartabull and Leibrandt.

Imagine: Wade Boggs, banned in Boston because of bad chemistry.

For Joe Morgan, the yarn-spinner who pulled the Sox together in 1988, this will no doubt be a year of gritting and bearing it. And hoping that Wes Gardner, John Dopson and Oil Can Boyd somehow discover a way to replace the 18 victories Hurst took with him to San Diego.

6. Detroit didn’t make enough trades. OK. So the Tigers did swap pitcher Walt Terrell for San Diego infielders Keith Moreland and Chris Brown. And they did make three trades in one day in late March--Eric King for Ken Williams, Tom Brookens for Charles Hudson, Luis Salazar for Mike Brumley, all within a matter of hours.

Still not enough.

Gone are the big-bang Tigers that were the Bash Brothers of 1984, the Gibson-Parrish-Evans axis that made Sparky’s world go ‘round. Mr. Anderson’s neighborhood is now populated by pop guns, which makes Detroit no threat to the A’s, but enough little triggers exist to shoot a few holes in the AL East standings.

Williams, Moreland and especially Brown--the much-maligned malingerer--are classic Sparky reclamation cases. Coax decent years out of them, get representative years from Alan Trammell, Fred Lynn and Lou Whitaker, and the Tigers could very well over-achieve again.

Provided oldster pitchers Jack Morris, Frank Tanana and Doyle Alexander hold things together until the next trade.

7. We know Dave Winfield. Dave Winfield is a friend of ours. Mel Hall, you’re no Dave Winfield. Whenever Winfield used to complain about a pain in his posterior, it was always assumed he was referring to The Boss.

Now, it turns out to be a herniated disk in Winfield’s back, an injury that will require surgery that will keep Sir George’s favorite foil--and a .322 hitter at age 36--on the sidelines through late July.

That’s one way of keeping Winfield out of the All-Star Game.

Steinbrenner may gain a new and fuller appreciation for Winfield after watching ex-Cub and ex-Indian Mel Hall try to replace him for four months. Not that Hall’s that bad a player; he batted .280 and drove in 71 runs in 1988.

But on a team that starts Rafael Santana at shortstop, lists Don Slaught and Jamie Quirk as its catchers and calls Andy Hawkins its “ace” starting pitcher, life without Dave Winfield will be a little like late night without David Letterman.

8. Nolan Ryan’s last save was in 1973. Nice move, that, getting The Express to change his Texas address. Julio Franco and Rafael Palmiero weren’t bad ideas, either. Now, we have reason to watch the Rangers.

But will we be watching them advance in the AL West standings?

Amid all the offseason maneuvering--Texas traded away 10 players and brought in six--the Rangers were left with one gaping gap in their revamped roster: the bullpen. It was never all that great with Mitch Williams in residence, but with His Wildness now scaring them in Chicago, the Rangers are trying to convert starter Jeff Russell and hoping for assistance from rookie Drew Hall and Yankee burnout Cecilio Guante.

It could make for a bearish bullpen, which puts the Rangers at risk in a division harboring the likes of Dennis Eckersley, Jeff Reardon, Bryan Harvey and Bobby Thigpen.

Ryan and Charlie Hough won’t be enough.

9. There’s only one Jim Abbott. First observations: He’s a human interest story. He’s an interesting human. He’s colorful. He’s friendly. He’s poised. He’s a winner.

First impression: He can’t possibly play for the Angels.

But Jim Abbott does, or will, just as soon new Manager Doug Rader gets his way and finds a way to squeeze Abbott into his starting rotation. That shouldn’t be as difficult as it has turned out to be. Last year, Angel starters went 50-68 with a 4.56--and that was before Bert Blyleven (10-17, 5.43) joined them.

If Lance Parrish stays healthy, he should hit AL pitchers again. Claudell Washington has to be an improvement over Chili Davis in right field. And it will be a major help to the Angel cause if Wally Joyner and Devon White regain their home-run strokes.

But most of all, the Angels need Abbott. And more like him.

10. Cleveland got the wrong McDowell. What the Indians really needed was Sudden Sam, the strikeout pitcher. What they wound up with was Oddibe (Young Again), the strikeout hitter.

Something must have gotten lost in the transaction.

Cleveland claims to be truly excited over the big deal it made with Texas last winter--Franco for Pete O’Brien, Jerry Browne and McDowell. “Three starters for one,” says General Manager Hank Peters. But the feeling persists that this was simply a lone star trade-- the .300-hitting Franco, sent Arlington way in exchange for three bit players.

O’Brien, a sort of poor man’s Wally Joyner, is the best of the lot. Browne, the not-so-good Gov’nor, and McDowell, who struck out 89 times in 437 at-bats, both split their 1988 seasons between Texas and Oklahoma City. Now they’re sharing time in Cleveland.

11. Seattle’s weaker, Moore or less. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the M’s got the shaft when the A’s got Mike Moore.

So goes the line and verse with sad sack Seattle, the baseball team that can’t hold on to good young pitchers. First Matt Young, then Moore and now Mark Langston--the best left-hander this side of Viola--wants out. The suitors are already lined up, with both New York teams jostling for trading position.

Maybe the Mariners will send Langston to the Yankees as a belated token of appreciation for last year’s Jay Buhner steal.

With Buhner, Mickey Brantley and rookie hopeful Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle has the makings of its best young outfield since, well, Danny Tartabull, Phil Bradley and Dave Henderson.

You want prospects? The Mariners always have prospects.

In Seattle, the hard part is keeping them.

12. Boston’s still in Chicago. To paraphrase Frank Tanana’s legendary assessment of the woeful Angels of the mid-1970s, the White Sox have everybody back this year--and that’s the problem.

This team still has too many Daryl Bostons, Ivan Calderons and Dan Pasquas to make a run at anything outside the AL West cellar. Chicago could use another Ozzie Guillen, who just may be the best Ozzie in the land. Or another Carlton Fisk, the astounding 41-year-old catcher who hit 19 home runs in half a season last year.

Give the White Sox credit, though, for trying. They tried to sign Willie Randolph, they tried to sign Buddy Bell. But all they succeeded in bringing in was another new manager, Jeff Torborg, who was 157-201 in two seasons as Cleveland’s manager a decade ago.

It should all add up to a trying summer.

13. Baltimore’s still in the league. The less said about the Orioles is probably the better. Yes, they were awful in ’88. Yes, they’ve made some changes during the winter.

Who knows if they’ll be any better in ’89?

But at least they’ll look better in ’89. Yes, the new uniforms are very nice.