The American League East, the toughest division in major league baseball, has added a rocket and a missile launcher since its representative in the 1984 World Series, the Detroit Tigers, eliminated the San Diego Padres in five games.
The New York Yankees, by trading with the Oakland A's for speedster Rickey Henderson, feel they have moved 10 games closer to the Tigers in the AL East. Detroit also has to be concerned with the Baltimore Orioles, who recently signed free agent Fred Lynn of the California Angels (23 home runs in '84) to a five-year contract. Prior to that Baltimore picked up another productive batter from the Pittsburgh Pirates in Lee Lacy, who hit .321 last season.
A case can also be made that the Toronto Blue Jays are closer to the Tigers now that they've made a deal with Oakland for reliever Bill Caudill. Runner-up to Detroit last season, Toronto felt it could have won in '84 with a super arm anchoring the bullpen. Thus by acquiring Caudill (36 saves in '83), the Blue Jays believe they may have uncovered the final piece in their pennant puzzle. Over in the National League, the Montreal Expos made headlines in both French and English by sending catcher Gary Carter (27 home runs; 106 RBIs; 16 game-winning hits in '84) to the New York Mets in a deal that may never be logically explained.
Although the Expos got two fine young players in return in catcher Mike Fitzgerald and infielder Hubie Brooks, Carter has long been considered a superstar. Reportedly Montreal acted out of frustration generated partly because it had never won a pennant in 10 years with Gary behind the plate, and partly because it needs the $1 million-plus spent on his salary each year to pour into its farm system.
Earlier the National League champion San Diego Padres shipped pitcher Tim Lollar, who was no mystery to Detroit in the World Series, to the Chicago White Sox for 1983 Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt. While Hoyt, because of his Pillsbury Doughboy frame, doesn't look like a pitcher, his strikeout totals always seem to exceed his bases on balls by about 3 to 1.
Padres' General Manager Jack McKeon obviously is hoping that LaMarr can pitch back to his 1983 form, when he was 24-10 and started 36 games. It is the kind of gamble most GM's would take, and McKeon usually scouts players with all the thoroughness of the KGB.
Meanwhile Ted Turner made another big-money move in his continuing effort to build a pennant winner in Atlanta. The owner of the Braves signed free-agent relief pitcher Bruce Sutter to a multi-year contract that reportedly will pay him nearly $5 million over the next six years and later provide him with a $1 million-per-year retirement income for 30 years via an annuity.
While Bruce saved 45 games last year for the St. Louis Cardinals and has been one of baseball's best relief pitchers for 10 years, some people think he would have to work every day and twice on Sunday to justify that sort of money. Fortunately, Turner is not empowered to buy paper clips for the government!
George Hendrick, another key member of the St. Louis team that won it all two years ago, will also be wearing a new uniform next season. The slugging outfielder, who was the power man of the '82 Cardinals and also starred in both the playoffs and World Series, was traded to Pittsburgh for left-handed pitcher John Tudor.
Getting back to Henderson and the Yankees. Rickey, often called the best leadoff hitter in baseball, topped the American League in stolen bases (66) last season for the fourth consecutive year. He also holds the all-time major league high for stolen bases in a single season with 130, set with Oakland in 1982. Henderson might be the only thing around that has been able to outrun inflation.
Last season, on a combination of 147 hits and 86 walks, Rickey was on base 233 times in 142 games. That should make him the ideal table setter for Yankee sluggers Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield.
At this point, assuming that New York gets more than 19 complete games from its starters and Detroit's bullpen falls short of last year's record 51 saves, the division race in the AL East may well resemble the contents of a high-speed blender.
Baltimore's interest in Lynn, who never performed for California the way he once did for Boston (he was both MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1975), may actually have been prompted as much by his defense as his offense.
The Orioles need a center fielder who can cover huge patches of ground, and in that capacity Lynn is still one of the best in baseball. He also still has those amazing power streaks when neither opposing pitchers nor outfield walls can contain his offense. The curious thing is that Fred never tried to adjust his ''Fenway Park'' swing to the more spacious contours of Anaheim Stadium.
If what has been happening in baseball's marketplace so far hasn't given fans enough to chew on this winter, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees reportedly will announce major trades in the near future.