Sizing Up the New Baseball Season

The big spenders are easy to spot, but money hasn't won many pennants; few repeaters likely

BASEBALL'S ever-escalating salary spiral took top billing in the off-season, as contracts reached the $6-million-and $7-million-per-year stratosphere.

Also, of course, there was the annual game of musical chairs involving trades and free-agent signings.

But with a new season ready to begin, the spotlight shifts to the playing field: How will this year's pennant races go - and who will follow Minnesota and Atlanta, last year's American and National League champions, as World Series opponents?

The Twins or Braves - or both - could go all the way again, but that would fly in the face of recent patterns. With the exception of the 1988, '89, and '90 Oakland A's, no team has made it to the World Series twice in a row since the 1970s.

Furthermore, both Minnesota and Atlanta were major surprises - staging unprecedented turnarounds by rising from last place to the top. Not surprisingly, many 1991 also-rans opened up the vaults in hopes of making more successful bids this year.

Blockbuster signings occurred in New York and Chicago - the Mets making free-agent Bobby Bonilla baseball's highest-paid player (temporarily) at $5.8 million a year for five years, only to have the Cubs top that one by re-signing Ryne Sandberg to a four-year deal worth between $5.975 and $7.1 million annually, depending upon how the figures are interpreted.

Where will it all end? Obviously, TV money has fueled the owners' spending urges. And while apprehension exists about the size of the next network contract, in view of the huge losses CBS is enduring with this one, many analysts predict even more TV revenue in the future via pay-per-view deals.

This prospect raises the specter of an even greater gap than now exists between "haves" and "have nots," with a handful of big-market teams cornering the market on expensive stars.

But can you really "buy" a pennant? The last team with the highest payroll to win even a division title was California in 1982. Meanwhile, Minnesota has won two World Series, and other small-market clubs have also achieved consistent success.

The rich teams keep trying, though, so you really won't be able to tell the players without a score card when the season begins April 6.

In addition to Bonilla, who left the NL East champion Pirates for the greener bankroll of New York, other big-name sluggers wearing new uniforms will be Danny Tartabull (Yankees), Eddie Murray (Mets), Kevin Mitchell (Mariners), Eric Davis (Dodgers), and Wally Joyner (Royals).

On the mound, World Series MVP Jack Morris left Minnesota for Toronto, whereupon the Twins picked up 20-game-winner John Smiley from Pittsburgh. Similarly, the Mets lost one former Cy Young Award winner (Frank Viola) to Boston, but acquired another (Bret Saberhagan) from Kansas City.

Taking off his uniform, perhaps for good, was Bo Jackson, who couldn't make it back this spring from the hip injury he incurred playing football.

Then there are the rookies - always an unpredictable element in assessing any season, and frequently the difference, in the final analysis. Cleveland could be the team to watch, with two top prospects in slugging third baseman Jim Thome and speedy outfielder Kenny Lofton. And don't overlook hard-throwing Oakland right-hander Todd Van Poppel.

How does it all add up? Based on recent history, the safest prediction is that few if any of last year's winners will repeat, though this year any of them does appear capable of breaking the pattern.

The Twins look just about as strong as a year ago, but that might not be enough in the AL West this time if the A's recover from an injury-filled off year and regain their old form.

The AL East seems to have turned into an annual race between Boston and Toronto, one or the other of whom has won it in six of the last seven seasons - and 1992 doesn't look much different.

The NL West looks like a repeat of last year's only close race - between Atlanta and Los Angeles - though not necessarily with the same result. The Braves got career years from several players in 1991, which often happens when a team wins - and which also frequently doesn't recur.

The NL East poses the most interesting dilemma. The Pirates were best by far last year, but have to be weakened by the losses of Bonilla and Smiley. Meanwhile, the Mets look much improved, via the additions of Bonilla, Murray, and Saberhagan, and with new manager Jeff Torborg at the reins after doing such an outstanding job in Chicago.

That should be more than enough to close the gap, but then you have to consider the intangibles, such as the winning attitude engendered in Pittsburgh by two straight titles vs. the Mets' well-earned reputation as classic underachievers. All you can do is sit back and see what happens.

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