Field of change: Baseball puts on new faces today Free agency brings roster shuffling

February 21, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The busiest off-season in baseball history has come and gone, leaving a major-league landscape so new and different that spring training figures to be an adventure in itself.

That adventure begins today, when hundreds of pitchers and catchers begin reporting to the 26 spring-training camps in Florida and Arizona. The rest of the position players will report next week, but it will take the better part of two months to sort through all the new faces.

Thanks to the latest free-agent free-for-all, almost every team has undergone significant transformation since the Cincinnati Reds swept to the 1990 world championship. More than 100 free agents went to market in November. Another 16 became new-look free agents as part of baseball's collusion damage settlement. And the prospect of future free-agent eligibility led to some blockbuster trades, including the one that brought first baseman Glenn Davis to the Baltimore Orioles.

The salary spiral has continued unabated since Jose Canseco became the first $5 million player last year. The Los Angeles Dodgers opened this year's baseball-wide spending spree by handing Darryl Strawberry more than $20 million over five years. The Boston Red Sox recently gave Roger Clemens a five-year deal worth a record $26.5 million. During the three months in between, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in an effort to alter the balance of power in baseball's four divisions.

Can money buy happiness? The Kansas City Royals found out that it couldn't in 1990. They spent a fortune to unseat the defending American League champion Oakland Athletics, but spent most of the season in the AL West cellar. This off-season, the NL West rival Dodgers and San Francisco Giants dominated the free-agent market, but at least one of them will feel that was a mistake by the end of the 1991 season.

Can youth be served? Spring training is supposed to be a place where the young show their promise and the old show their age, but the new laws of baseball economics make it very difficult for a young player to unseat a highly paid veteran. The roles have been completely reversed in Sarasota, where Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer will try to unseat some highly touted youngsters.

It is against this backdrop that spring training begins anew. Here's a quick look at what the future might hold for each of the four divisions:

( AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST The eyes of baseball will be on Twin Lakes Park if Palmer reports for a spring-training audition. Palmer may be 45, but if he's still in good enough shape to model Jockey underwear, he's probably in better overall physical condition than a lot of pitchers. Anybody seen Fernando Valenzuela in a pair of briefs lately?

But the presence of Palmer figures to be more of a media event than a major turn of baseball fortune. The Orioles would like to see more emphasis on their rebuilt offensive lineup, where Davis and Dwight Evans are expected to make significant contributions. The Orioles also need to decide who's going to play third base, but that won't become a big issue for several weeks.

In the meantime, the Toronto Blue Jays will be in the early stages of a massive chemistry experiment. General manager Pat Gillick turned the roster upside down in an attempt to push the club back to the top of the division standings, but it'll take a while to figure out how all the new parts fit together.

The defending division champion Boston Red Sox probably will be the AL East favorite this year, but they have some important questions to answer. Will they miss Evans? Would Jack Clark beat Roger Clemens in a clubhouse brawl? Why did they ever let Bruce Hurst get away? Is it possible to blow a 6 1/2 -game lead in spring training? Just the usual stuff.

The Detroit Tigers could be the surprise team of the division -- everyone will be surprised if they don't set a major-league strikeout record. And is this the year the New York Yankees finally turn things around?

No.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST The Oakland Athletics go to camp without veteran third baseman Carney Lansford, who injured his knee in an off-season recreational accident, but the club has survived bigger losses than that to run off a string of three straight pennants. Spring training doesn't figure to bring any great surprises.

Hope is high in Chicago, where the White Sox compiled the second-best record in the American League last year and then acquired Tim Raines. But great expectations have a way of weighing a club down (as the Orioles found out last year), so the White Sox could be in for a disappointing year.

The Royals finally will get to put a disastrous 1990 season behind them. Former Orioles right-hander Mike Boddicker will join a rotation that might be awesome if it remains healthy, but the club is short on experience behind the plate. Does Bo know catching?

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