Low-budget Reds, Tigers could surprise league elite

On Baseball

February 14, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The widening economic chasm between baseball's richest and poorest teams has left baseball fans with no choice but to change the way they look at the sport.

It used to be pretty simple when all you had to do in the spring was delude yourself into thinking that a couple of breakthrough prospects might put your team over the top. Now, you need an accountant to tell you who's going to win.

The new challenge is identifying a couple of marginal-revenue teams that might upset the new economic order -- or at least sneak into the wild card round of the playoffs and make things interesting. The Yankees, Dodgers, Indians and Braves are going to be there, but who's going to crash the party?

This year's National League dark horse: the Cincinnati Reds.

This year's American League long shot: the Detroit Tigers.

Imagine the rejoicing in middle America if both clubs slipped into the playoffs with their cut-rate rosters and put a scare into baseball's wine-and-cheese crowd. It's not entirely out of the question.

The Reds have spent the off-season proving that you can make headlines on a modest budget, acquiring Denny Neagle, a 20-game winner in 1997, in a deal for second baseman Bret Boone and trading for 50-home run hitter Greg Vaughn. They aren't the best team in the National League Central -- far from it -- but they have to be considered a legitimate wild-card contender.

General manager Jim Bowden proposed at baseball's winter meetings in December that the divisions be realigned based on economic criteria so that every team in every revenue category would go into the season with a chance to make the playoffs.

The proposal was not taken seriously by baseball owners, but Bowden apparently went ahead anyway, building a team that easily would win the National League Least.

The addition of Neagle gives the Reds three solid starting pitchers and puts the club a breakthrough pitcher away from having one of the better rotations in the league. The arrival of Vaughn shores up a youthful offensive lineup that has a lot of unrealized potential. If manager Jack McKeon can pull together a decent bullpen -- and that's a big if -- the Reds could make some real noise in '99.

The Tigers are a longer shot, but the addition of power-hitting third baseman Dean Palmer and veteran Gregg Jefferies could pump up the volume of the offensive lineup and generate a lot of excitement in the final season at Tiger Stadium.

New manager Larry Parrish has something else going for him -- an underrated bullpen. Doug Brocail, Rule 5 rookie Sean Runyon and top prospect Matt Anderson had outstanding seasons in support of closer Todd Jones last year.

Much more has to go right in '99 to transform the Tigers from a 65-win divisional doormat into a wild-card contender, but look for Detroit to show the most dramatic improvement of any American League team.

It isn't easy to compete on a tight budget, but dollar for dollar, the Reds and Tigers might turn out to be the best two clubs in baseball.

Padres fiddle, fans burn

The San Diego Padres apparently think it's a great idea to bring 37-year-old country music star Garth Brooks to camp for a tryout this spring. But their fans would be right to wonder if it's just an attempt to divert attention away from the downsized defending National League champions, who have a better chance of playing at Opryland this year than getting back to the playoffs.

"For me, it's totally serious," Brooks told reporters recently. "I don't need the publicity. I'm going do go down there to live out my dream and the dream of 99 percent of the other guys out there."

Brooks, who was a four-sport high school athlete in Oklahoma in the late 1970s, worked out briefly with the Padres last year and even got into a spring game as a pinch runner. He expressed an interest in coming back this year and found Padres owner John Moores receptive to the idea.

If he was really serious, however, he should have approached the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose minor-league system would be much more accommodating to a country music star. If he failed to make the club out of spring training, the Pirates could just sell his contract to Nashville.

Unsung bullpen

The disastrous decline of former Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers left a huge hole in the Braves bullpen last year, but the emergence of young closer Kerry Ligtenberg and the efficiency of setup men John Rocker and Rudy Seanez turned a bad situation into a pleasant surprise.

For all the concern about the Braves' ability to survive without Wohlers, not one reliever who finished the season with the club gave up more hits than innings pitched, including Wohlers. How often does that happen?

Now, with Wohlers attempting a comeback, there is potential for even greater bullpen depth on a team that already seems to have it all another happy result of general manager John Schuerholz's obsession with pitching depth.

The insightful Alomar

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