Advertisement

BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Can New Bunch Replace Lost Punch?

Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson are gone. Shawon Dunston, who played in only 18 games last year because of back surgery, isn’t sure he is any better.

The Chicago Cubs wouldn’t seem to be either, but Manager Jim Lefebvre looks at it differently, insisting that his outlook is more than spring optimism.

“Maddux won 20 games and the Cy Young Award,” Lefebvre said. “He had the best year of his career. Dawson had another good one. We still finished six games under .500 and 18 games behind (in the National League East).

“Two guys don’t make a team. Sure, you miss guys like that, but we took the money that would have gone to Maddux and Dawson and spread it over seven guys.

Advertisement

“Our pitching and depth are vastly improved, and we’re one of the most improved teams in a division (the National League East) that’s up for grabs.”

Lefebvre’s enthusiasm is contagious. He can make a case. But sometimes seven aren’t more than two.

It remains to be seen how much leadership and production the Cubs lost when Maddux rejected their five-year, $27.5-million offer to accept a $28-million deal with the Atlanta Braves and Dawson went to the Boston Red Sox for two years at $9.3 million, saying the Cubs never got serious or showed him the respect he deserved.

“It isn’t my area, but we made an effort to keep them,” Lefebvre said. “The (Chicago) Tribune Company (which owns the Cubs) may have a lot of money, but there are limits.”

Advertisement

The Cubs drew the line with Maddux and Dawson after making a then-record deal with Ryne Sandberg a year earlier. They were still forced into free agency by what Lefebvre called a “virtually nonexistent farm system.”

The payroll jumped from $32.9 million to almost $40 million through the signing of six free agents and a $1.375-million compromise with Greg Hibbard, who was eligible for arbitration after his acquisition from the Florida Marlins.

“The main thing is, our depth is so much better,” Lefebvre said of Hibbard and the six free agents. “We had so many injuries last year that when we got into the bench, when we tried to make double switches and other moves of that type, we were very vulnerable.”

The Cubs signed:

Advertisement

--Jose Guzman at $14.35 million for four years to fill Maddux’s spot in the rotation.

--Candy Maldonado at $3.4 million for two years and Willie Wilson at $1.4 million for two years to supplement the Dawson-less outfield.

--Randy Myers at $11 million for three years and Dan Plesac at $3.2 million for two years to stabilize a bullpen that blew 19 of 55 save opportunities.

--Steve Lake as the backup catcher at $275,000 after Joe Girardi went to the Colorado Rockies in the expansion draft.

Advertisement

The way Lefebvre sees it, his rotation includes four pitchers--Mike Morgan, Frank Castillo, Guzman and Hibbard--who have each thrown 200 or more innings in a season, and a fifth, Mike Harkey of Cal State Fullerton, who has potential if he can shake the injuries that have hampered his development.

Lefebvre also said that Dawson’s 22 homers and 90 runs batted in could be replaced in several ways: A return to health and offensive form by Steve Buechele and Sammy Sosa; the continuing development of catcher Rick Wilkins, the productivity of a left-field platoon of Maldonado and Derrick May, and the contributions of center fielder Wilson, who returns to a full-time role at 37.

The infield--even with Dunston’s uncertainty--is second to none, Lefebvre said. The slick fielding Rey Sanchez and Jose Vizcaino could continue to replace Dunston, with Mark Grace at first, Sandberg at second and Buechele at third.

It is anticipated that the $14.2-million addition of left-handers Myers and Plesac to a bullpen that already includes left-handers Paul Assenmacher and Chuck McElroy will eventually produce what it was partly intended to--a trade from strength.

Advertisement

The most persistent rumor has McElroy and Castillo going to the Seattle Mariners for starting pitcher Randy Johnson, though the Cubs might be in a battle for Johnson with the cross-town White Sox, who have reportedly offered George Bell and Wilson Alvarez.

Things look brightest in the spring, of course, but the Cubs have been this route before. There is one indisputable aspect, however, to Lefebvre’s rose-colored view: The NL East is definitely up for grabs. The domination of the Pittsburgh Pirates is definitely over.

“No team managed by Jim Leyland will ever be totally crippled, but when you lose Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek and Jose Lind on top of what they had lost the year before, the Pirates are definitely going to come down a notch or two,” Lefebvre said.

“I mean, it’s amazing how fast things change now in baseball. Toronto seemed to have everything in place, then (Dave) Winfield, (Tom) Henke, (Jimmy) Key, (Kelly) Gruber and Maldonado are gone. There aren’t any super teams. One injury can be devastating. No one has depth.”

Advertisement

The Cubs, at least, have more than they had. They just don’t have Maddux and Dawson.

Split decision: The “pitch of the ‘80s” is dying in the camp of the San Francisco Giants. Manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Dick Pole will not teach or recommend the split-fingered fastball, of which former Manager Roger Craig was the recognized guru.

General Manager Bob Quinn said he considers it strictly a trick pitch that detracts from the basic fastball, breaking ball and changeup that young pitchers should learn. Rod Beck, Jeff Brantley and John Burkett, who learned the split-finger under Craig, will be allowed to continue to throw it, but the new regime prefers the changeup.

There’s also the injury element. Many split-finger specialists have developed arm problems, though Craig often said there is nothing dangerous about it.

Advertisement

Quinn, however, is skeptical.

“It’s got to be more than coincidence,” he said. “Some of the injuries have to be attributable to that pitch.”

Elixir: The Giants are $2 million ahead of last year’s season-ticket sale. There seems no question at this point that the community and clubhouse have been energized by the change of ownership and manager.

Peter Magowan, the club’s managing general partner and chairman of Safeway, Inc., remains bemused by the long process that eventually kept the Giants in San Francisco.

Advertisement

“There was a $4.2-billion leveraged buyout of Safeway in 1986 that took only 12 days,” Magowan said at the club’s training base the other day. “The sale of the Giants involved $100 million but took five months. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been involved in, but maybe that adds to the satisfaction.”

Magowan, who has a degree in American literature from Stanford and a master’s from Oxford, said there are many similarities between the supermarket business and baseball.

“Both are competitive and in both it’s tough to make a buck,” he said. “Our profit margin at Safeway is one cent on the dollar. You can’t make any mistakes.”

The profit margin in baseball?

Advertisement

“There ain’t any,” winked the man who has guaranteed Barry Bonds $43.75 million.

Hawk’s nest: Bill White’s four-year term as National League president ends March 31, although he has agreed to stay on briefly until a successor is named.

The search committee is headed by Dodger President Peter O’Malley, who said the process has been delayed, pending restructuring of the commissioner’s office and selection of a commissioner.

Nevertheless, rumors persist that Tommy Hawkins, the Dodgers’ vice president for communications, has the inside track for the league presidency.

Advertisement

“Obviously, as his position with the Dodgers indicates, I think highly of Tommy, but I’m not going to comment on any rumor or possible candidate,” O’Malley said.

The Dodger president is also a member of the restructuring committee that has finally delivered its recommendations to the executive council, which might vote on it during a meeting in Phoenix Wednesday and Thursday, then deliver it to the full ownership for a vote.

O’Malley said he continues to believe that a strong and independent commissioner will be selected soon and that the majority of owners favor that, rather than delaying the process until the new labor negotiations are completed, which Richard Ravitch, their chief negotiator, would prefer.

Could a National League president be named before a commissioner is selected?

Advertisement

“There’s no significance which comes first, but I think it’s unlikely,” O’Malley said.

Bedfellows: It would be interesting to see what a strong and independent commissioner might do about two recent moves by Russell Goldsmith, chairman of Republic Pictures and a minority owner and vice chairman of the San Diego Padres.

Goldsmith has sold 35% of Republic to Wayne Huizenga, owner of the Florida Marlins, and 9.5% to Steve Wynn, who operates the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. That makes for intriguing conflict possibilities, what with one baseball owner in business with another, and both partners of a Vegas casino owner.

Clearing house: The next salary to be dumped by the Padres is almost certain to be that of Darrin Jackson, who was awarded $2.1 million in arbitration Feb. 3.

Advertisement

Jackson is expected to go to the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers or Kansas City Royals, but only if one of those clubs agrees to extend his 1993 contract by two years to make it a three-year deal in the neighborhood of $9 million.

The Red Sox were prepared to trade center fielder Bob Zupcic and a minor leaguer, but General Manager Lou Gorman said that agent Alan Meersand’s contract proposal was unreasonable, angering Meersand. The agent pointed out that $9 million is $1 million less than Roberto Kelly’s three-year contract and $1.4 million less than Steve Finley’s, the “comparables” he used in his arbitration victory.

Meanwhile, pitcher Rich Rodriguez reflected on the long series of Padre budget cuts and said, “Things are so bad now that we have to use the same towel twice.”

Brewers’ mix: How determined is Milwaukee Manager Phil Garner to move catcher B.J. Surhoff to third base?

Advertisement

“He has orders not to go near any catchers or catcher’s equipment,” Garner said.

And how much experience will there be in the proposed infield of Surhoff at third, Pat Listach at short, former shortstop Bill Speiers replacing the retired Jim Gantner at second, John Jaha at first and Dave Nilsson behind the plate?

At those positions, only Listach, last season’s American League rookie of the year, has a full year of major league service.

Price tag: Baseball is closely monitoring the attempt by Eli Jacobs, who bought the Baltimore Orioles for $70 million in 1989, to sell the team for $140 million to a group headed by William O. DeWitt Jr., son of the former owner of the St. Louis Browns.

Advertisement

Jacobs’ creditors have accused him of defaulting on more than $44 million in loans and personal guarantees. Baseball would like the issue resolved before the season opener April 5, but the Baltimore Sun has reported that some creditors may be holding out for a price closer to the $200 million Jacobs initially asked.

Jacobs, a member of the Times Mirror board of directors, owns 87% of the Orioles, whose attendance increased by more than a million to a club-record 3.5 million during the first year in the Camden Yards stadium.


Advertisement