Shrinking expanded expectations Offense: Although cherished hitting records usually wobble under the weight of added teams, some people in baseball are confident the marks of Maris and Williams can support the sport's growth to 30 teams

March 29, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It should be getting tougher for Tony Gwynn to maintain his status as the game's best hitter. He's well into his late 30s, which would - under normal circumstances - lead any self-respecting Roto-head to predict a decline in his batting average, if only because he has set the statistical bar so high.

But Gwynn is no normal player, and these are not normal times. The San Diego Padres outfielder has won eight batting titles, and the prospects for another could not be better. In fact, it should come as no surprise if he makes another bid to become the first player since 1941 to finish the season with a .400 batting average.

Welcome to the wonderful world of expansion. The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays make their debuts this week, increasing the number of teams in the major leagues to 30. There were only 16 when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927. There still were only 16 when Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games in 1941. There were only 18 when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 - the first expansion year.

The number of teams has increased by 67 percent since then, and four have been added in just the past six years. Each time that the talent pool has been diluted by an expansion draft, there has been a concurrent increase in run production and ERA. If history is any guide, that will happen again, and Gwynn - along with several other premier hitters - will be perfectly positioned to take advantage of it.

Baseball fans already are having visions of Ken Griffey and Mark McGwire turning Roger Maris' single-season home run record into sawdust. If they could come within a good weekend of hitting 61 home runs before expansion, imagine what they might do with one more soft pitching staff in each league.

Presumption may be faulty

Gwynn, however, isn't so sure that the trend will hold. He says the quality of the new expansion franchises - both of which took quick advantage of free agency to augment their pitching staffs - may offset any overall decline in the quality of major-league pitching.

"People expect that this expansion will [have a big impact]," Gwynn said. "I think it will be a wash. These teams have spent a lot of money already. The Diamondbacks have Willie Blair, Andy Benes and Jeff Suppan in their rotation. They're major-league pitchers. Where you might see an effect is in middle relief, but how many times are you really going to see those guys?"

And is it really fair to create a presumption that the success of Gwynn and baseball's other premier hitters this year might be the result of something other than their own hard work and talent?

"Guys put up great numbers last year," Gwynn said. "It wasn't because of expansion. It doesn't work that way. Griffey and Mc-Gwire nearly broke Roger Maris' record. Larry Walker and I gave it [.400] a pretty good run. I don't see it getting any better than last year."

It doesn't have to get much better. McGwire, playing for the Oakland Athletics and then the St. Louis Cardinals, hit 58 home runs. Griffey hit 56 for the Seattle Mariners. If either one of them had been able to trade 40 at-bats against solid major-league pitching for 40 at-bats against a mediocre expansion staff, Maris might be off the books already.

"It's pretty obvious that there are going to be a few pitchers in the major leagues who wouldn't be here otherwise, and some hitters, too," said Athletics manager Art Howe, who is unabashedly rooting for McGwire to break the record this year. "But it's going to be your better hitters that will really benefit.

"The good hitters are going to take advantage, but it's only going to be a few games here and there."

Of course, the impact of expansion is not limited to the expansion clubs. Every other team lost players in the expansion draft, and about half those players were pitchers.

The Boston Red Sox lost Suppan, who might have been in their starting rotation this year. The Cleveland Indians, suddenly facing a serious pitching shortage, would love to have left-hander Brian Anderson back. The Orioles lost well-regarded prospect Esteban Yan, who spent time in the major leagues last year. The impact might be felt at the other end of the pitching depth chart, but it's going to be felt somewhere.

"I think it stands to reason that the overall ERA will go up and run-production numbers will go up," said New York Yankees pitcher David Cone. "I'm a believer that there is enough pitching talent to support more teams, but a general thinning out of quality can be expected."

That is hard to dispute, but wouldn't it logically follow that if expansion thins out pitching across the board, it would also thin out offensive talent?

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