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ANALYSIS : West Becomes Best in NL--for a Price

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sheer lunacy.

That’s how Al Rosen, president of the San Francisco Giants, describes the free-agent expenditures of a winter in which the asylum directors seem to have become the lunatics.

And nowhere have the expenditures been larger, the changes more sweeping, than in the National League West, which has undergone a significant face lift and, on a competitive basis, is now known as the NL Best, maybe baseball’s best.

Said Bob Quinn, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, “A lot of talented and attractive players have come into the division. There’s no question, it’s the toughest in baseball now.”

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The Reds, defending division, league and World Series champion, committed $19.85 million in re-signing free agents Tom Browning and Bill Doran, then signed free agent Ted Power for a year at a modest $550,000.

The Dodgers, seemingly slamming the door on their farm system, have guaranteed $36.65 million to free agents Darryl Strawberry, Brett Butler and Kevin Gross.

The Giants have invested $33 million in free agents Willie McGee, Dave Righetti and Bud Black.

The Atlanta Braves signed free agents Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream for $15.7 million.

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The San Diego Padres pulled off the most dramatic trade of the winter, then signed free agent Larry Andersen for $4.4 million.

That’s $110.150 million for 12 players and an expensive example of keeping up with the Joneses.

Said Cincinnati Manager Lou Piniella: “We re-signed Doran and Browning and added Ted Power to our pitching staff, but that might not be enough. I mean, the Dodgers and Giants went to the market and came out with their carts full.”

Said Padre General Manager Joe McIlvaine: “Some teams want to play checkbook baseball. They want to win and win now. You can build a team through the farm system, trades and free agency, which is everyone’s third preference but an obviously viable alternative. The Dodgers, Giants and Braves have gone that route, and on paper you’d have to say they’ve improved.”

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The only Western Division team that seems to have gone the other way is the Houston Astros, financially paralyzed by owner John McMullen’s attempt to sell the club and devastated by free-agent defections.

A closer look at the changes:

ATLANTA--Coupled with the 1990 emergence of Dave Justice and Ron Gant, the signing of first baseman Bream and third baseman Pendleton has strengthened the offense and significantly improved the infield defense.

The Braves, however, had the major leagues’ worst earned-run average last season, and nothing has been done to improve the pitching. John Smoltz and Tom Glavine are the only sure starters, and it isn’t certain if Mike Stanton will be able to rebound from a shoulder injury to assist Kent Mercker as the late-inning closer.

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“We’re better than we were when the season ended, and we’ll be even better when the new season starts,” General Manager John Schuerholz said, implying that he hopes to trade for pitching help, with second baseman Jeff Treadway, left fielder Lonnie Smith and one of the two shortstops, Andres Thomas or Jeff Blauser, as bait.

The last-place Braves were 65-97 last season, and Schuerholz said he hadn’t left the Kansas City Royals to serve as a caretaker.

“My mandate is to create the Royals of the South, to lift the stature of the organization and improve the product,” he said. “We’ve served our time. We’ve finished last enough. We have enough talent to be competitive now, to move up.”

But the cost? Schuerholz said he was beyond shock.

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“But there’s only so much gnashing of teeth anyone can do,” he added. “I’ve been saying for years that when the owners no longer want to spend these ludicrous sums, they’ll inform their GMs and the market will adjust. But in most cases, that hasn’t happened.

“I’ve also said it’s the age of acquisition, and free agency is a viable avenue of improvement. I can’t sit back and tell our fans we’re not going to pursue it, we’re not going to try and improve.”

CINCINNATI--In the wake of their stunning World Series victory, the Reds have watched their rivals re-arm while fighting the temptation to join them.

“The one thing we need to guard against is being reactionary,” Quinn said.

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“We didn’t feel we needed a major overhaul as much as to continue the fine-tuning we began a year ago with the trades for Randy Myers and Hal Morris. Then we got into the season and traded for Billy Hatcher, Glenn Braggs and Bill Doran.

“On that basis alone, we’ll be a better club in the spring of ’91 than we were in the spring of ’90.

“I mean, there’s no question that the Dodgers, Giants and Braves have improved themselves, but we think we’re improved as well because we were able to retain Browning and Doran, and we have some players we didn’t have at this time last year.”

With the selective signings of Browning and Doran, the Reds elected to let free agents Danny Jackson, Rick Mahler and Ron Oester leave.

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Jackson and Mahler won 13 games last year. Quinn said he was confident that Scott Scudder, who was 5-5 as a part-time starter, or Chris Hammond, who was 15-1 at Nashville, will move into the rotation and replace the six games Jackson won, and that Power will help compensate for the seven won by Mahler as a spot starter.

The Reds, who used seven leadoff hitters in 1990, intend to move World Series star Chris Sabo down in the batting order and to use Doran or his unhappy second base platoon partner, Mariano Duncan, in the leadoff role.

Last year was magic. Now the Reds face a tougher division and the tougher challenge of coping with the potential enemy within by satisfying the playing desires of potential starters such as Duncan, Braggs and Todd Benzinger.

Said Quinn, still warmed by the glow of his World Series ring, “Lou did a great job keeping everyone involved last year, and I don’t foresee a problem with that.”

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DODGERS--Executive Vice President Fred Claire won’t say they should be favored in the West, as McIlvaine and Piniella have, but Claire acknowledges improved power, speed and pitching depth, calling it the most talented Dodger team in some time.

“There’s no question we should be very competitive,” he said. “We haven’t won anything yet, but we’ve acquired some players with a great deal to prove.”

The acquisitions, Claire said, were prompted by Dodger needs, not the moves of other teams in the division. He also said they represented a bridge to the future, though outfield prospects such as Tom Goodwin and Henry Rodriguez will have to be patient, waiting for Butler’s and Strawberry’s contracts to expire.

“We’re not going to be involved with free agency year after year,” Claire said. “It’s not the way we want to be headed, but with today’s rules (on free agency and arbitration) it’s difficult to establish continuity without some form of controversy.

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“I mean, change is at your doorstep every season, whether you like it or not, but no one should mistake what our direction is as an organization.”

Claire referred to a developmental direction so off course in recent years that only two farm products--shortstop Jose Offerman and catcher Mike Scioscia--probably will be in the opening-day lineup.

Forced into the market, the Dodgers’ $36-million spending spree didn’t resolve every question. Among those that remain:

Will Orel Hershiser be able to pitch this season? Will a left-handed closer emerge to assist Jay Howell? Is Offerman ready, and can Juan Samuel or Greg Smith provide the stability he may require in a double-play partner? Will Jeff Hamilton re-claim third base or will it again belong to the platoon of Lenny Harris and Mike Sharperson?

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There is also the question of whether the Dodgers will be penalized for an unbalanced lineup that includes four key left-handed hitters: Butler, Strawberry, Scioscia and Kal Daniels.

And there’s the intangible issue of chemistry. Claire has said he is pleased with the caliber and competitive nature of the new Dodgers.

SAN DIEGO--The Padres replaced aging shortstop Garry Templeton and departing first baseman Jack Clark with a blockbuster trade that sent Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar to the Toronto Blue Jays for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff.

The top of the lineup--Bip Roberts, Tony Gwynn, Fernandez, McGriff and Benito Santiago--has some merit, but the rest of it is a mystery.

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The left and center fielders will be chosen from a less than formidable list of Shawn Abner, Darrin Jackson, Tom Howard, Jerald Clark and Oscar Azocar.

The current third baseman is the recently acquired Scott Coolbaugh, who hit .225 at Oklahoma City and .220 with the Texas Rangers last season.

It may be that Roberts will move to third, with Paul Faries, who played at Pepperdine, replacing Roberts at second, Alomar’s position.

Or it may be that Kansas City will accept San Diego’s longstanding offer of Roberts for outfielder Danny Tartabull, who would help compensate for the loss of Carter and his 115 RBIs.

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McIlvaine said he expects the Padres to be competitive.

“We’re solid at five positions and shaky at three,” he said, referring to third base and the two outfield spots. “Those three are the key. If we can get someone to come through. . . .”

The easy way would have been to pay the market price, but the Padres’ only free-agent acquisition has been relief pitcher Andersen, signed to assist Craig Lefferts and replace Greg Harris, who is moving into the rotation.

Wasn’t the market tempting in light of what his division rivals were doing?

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“You have to be aware of what the other clubs are up to, but you can only do what’s best for your own,” McIlvaine said. “It’s still a judgment game. You can go out and spend $33 million on three players, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the pennant.”

SAN FRANCISCO--The Giants invested $33 million in those three players--McGee, Black and Righetti--and Rosen said it fit the winter pattern of sheer lunacy.

“We have to come up with a system that makes more sense or we’re headed for Armaggedon,” he said.

In the meantime, Rosen cited owner Bob Lurie’s commitment to winning and the necessity of having an attractive product in the Bay Area.

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“Every city has its own set of circumstances, but the lifestyle here is so varied that people can easily find other things to do than go to a game,” he said.

“I mean, the park and the weather at Candlestick are an obstacle in themselves. Even when we won the division (in 1989) we drew only 2 million people. Last year, when we fell out of the race early, the no-show factor was tremendous.

“It’s easy for people to criticize, but we did what we feel we had to do. I mean, I’ve always felt we had to take the extra step to be competitive so as to maintain our attendance.”

The Giants have a loaded lineup that will look different at the top with McGee replacing Butler in center field and batting second behind Robby Thompson.

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Did Rosen overreact to a contract demand that Butler said he never made? Did he simply want Butler out and McGee in?

Parts of the story remain missing, but the Giants believe that in McGee they now have an even more productive hitter ahead of the murderer’s row of Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell and Matt Williams.

More important, in Rosen’s view, the acquisition of Black deepens a rotation riddled by injury last season, and Righetti will join Jeff Brantley in forming a left-right closing combination that enabled the Giants to shake down the payroll some by trading Steve Bedrosian to the Minnesota Twins.

“There are so many good hitters in the division now that any club that doesn’t get pitching is going to have a tough time,” Rosen said. “Even with everything the Dodgers have done, they still need Hershiser and (Tim) Belcher or they’re going to have trouble.

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“Pitching was our Achilles’ heel last year, but we’re stronger now.”

Strong enough, Rosen said, that he won’t be tempted to make another move, no matter what the next move by a division rival is.

“You can keep doing it until you run out of money or get to the point where enough is enough,” Rosen said. “We’ve done both.”


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