Spring a time for optimism? Not for all

ON BASEBALL

March 03, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Craig Shipley, a longtime utility infielder, once spoke of spring training this way: If you can't get excited now, if you're not optimistic, then you're in big trouble.

There are a handful of teams in big trouble, with no immediate reason for optimism. As the financial disparity grows between the haves and have-nots in the game, there are those clubs reduced to the role of schedule-fillers. Even in March, it's hard to see any scenario in which these teams could possibly compete.

To wit:

* Milwaukee Brewers: Start with their place in the same division as the Cleveland Indians. Factor in the lack of starting pitching or offensive production (their top run producer, Kevin Seitzer, drove in 69 runs last year, or about half of what Mo Vaughn accomplished). They play in a crummy park, to little apparent fan interest, and there is no immediate indication the team is ready to spend money. Manager Phil Garner always has his teams prepared, and they play hard, but that won't change the fact this team is destined to win no more than 70-75 games.

* Detroit Tigers: Probably the best marketing scheme for this team would be the direct and honest approach -- with a slogan such as We're Bad and We Know It. Detroit's ace is Sean Bergman, who compiled a 5.12 ERA last season. Their top lefty is C. J. Nitkowski, who won two games in the majors last year. They won't get any real help from the farm system in the foreseeable future, and the new ballpark isn't due to open for a couple of years. Good thing new general manager Randy Smith signed a four-year contract. If they don't lose 100 games, Buddy Bell should be a candidate for Manager of the Year.

* Oakland Athletics: Todd Van Poppel went 4-8 with a 4.88 ERA last season, splitting his time between the bullpen and the rotation. He is the ace, and the most experienced pitcher in the rotation. They have a few established position players, like catcher Terry Steinbach and first baseman Mark McGwire, and play in a division that figures to be extraordinarily mediocre. But they will be hard-pressed to compete.

* Montreal Expos: Last spring they dumped John Wetteland, Marquis Grissom and Ken Hill, and it figures that sometime before the end of this season, they will attempt to trade Moises Alou, who has been critical of the front office. Even before training camp opened two weeks ago, manager Felipe Alou was complaining that even if everything goes perfectly they probably still won't have enough to scare the Atlanta Braves or New York Mets. The Expos have some good young players, but they are short everywhere -- in the rotation, in the bullpen, in the starting lineup. When does hockey camp open again?

Reds are family

Remember that horrible song "We Are Family," the anthem of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates? It has been adopted by the 1996 Reds, who have brought back former Cincinnati players Chris Sabo, Eric Davis and Joe Oliver. Don't blame this idea on Marge Schott, however. This was the brainchild of shortstop Barry Larkin.

* The most action Darryl Strawberry is seeing now is in a Friday night church basketball league.

* Managers are paid to cover for their players. Earlier this week, Cubs manager Jim Riggleman watched nonroster invitee Rob Dibble walk two, hit a batter, give up a hit and two runs in two-thirds of an inning. Your first impressions, Jim? "He was all right," Riggleman said. "It's not like he's all over the place."

* New Indians first baseman Julio Franco won a Gold Glove in Japan last season, but he made three errors on the first two balls hit to him in Cleveland's first intrasquad game.

The Canseco rules

Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy is being accused by the Boston media of favoritism after he excused Jose Canseco to attend a civil suit over the payments of two cars. And rightly so. Kennedy admits there are different rules for his stars, who he believes face different pressures than other players. That may be so, but the bottom line is Canseco is expected to play right field for the first time in three years this summer and he hasn't taken a single fly ball this spring. He's going to make the Red Sox regret the day they signed him to the two-year, $9 million deal in December.

* Paul Wagner, who led the NL in losses last year with 16 and was dropped from the Pittsburgh rotation, will start Opening Day for the Pirates. But it's a little deceiving. Manager Jim Leyland wants ace Denny Neagle to start the first game in Pittsburgh a week later.

* Andy Benes has joined younger brother Alan in St. Louis. "He has these vivid memories of me pounding on him," Andy said. "But I really don't remember that." Bill Ripken has similar memories about his big brother.

Bubble gum ID

The Atlanta Braves were told to bring photo ID when they went to the White House earlier this week. Reliever Brad Clontz ** forgot, so he flashed a baseball card of himself.

Of all the Braves polled, only one -- reliever Mark Wohlers -- said he would vote for Bill Clinton.

* Tom Lasorda says that if owner Peter O'Malley asked for a recommendation on his replacement, he would back one of his coaches, Bill Russell. That might be bad news for former Orioles manager Phil Regan, seen by many as Lasorda's eventual replacement.

* Yankees owner George Steinbrenner predicts 15 or 20 wins from Dwight Gooden. Poor Doc. Talk about being doomed to failure.

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