Had the St. Louis Cardinals made no moves at all to strengthen themselves for the 1969 season, they would still be lopsided favorites to win in the East. Last year by Aug. 1 they were 14½ galloping lengths in front of second-place Cincinnati. They won the race by nine, and ordinarily a team that well stocked has difficulty strengthening itself from the end of one season to the beginning of another. The Cardinals are an exception.
General Manager Bing Devine went to work even before the World Series ended and picked up a man to hit third, Vada Pinson. Later came a cleanup hitter (Joe Torre), a proven starting pitcher who knows the National League hitters (Dave Giusti) and two pinch hitters (Bob Johnson and Bill White).
The initial problem for any team facing the Cards will be how to handle the first three men in their order: Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Pinson. Each is exceptionally fast and capable of confusing defenses by either bunting for a hit or driving a ball for extra bases. Very few batters ever obtain a total of 200 hits in a season. Between them, Brock, Flood and Pinson have accomplished this eight times. Defensively, their speed is almost as devastating. They can cut down seriously on an opponent's extra-base hits.
Torre and Pinson had relatively bad years in 1968, since the .271 each hit was well below his career average. Twice Torre has knocked in over 100 runs, and the same is true of Pinson. "The trade that brought me to the Cardinals," Pinson said this spring, "makes me feel like a rookie again. I've got something to prove here." (He seemed to be proving it in the exhibition games, with a batting average close to .500.) Torre, acquired from Atlanta for First Baseman Orlando Cepeda, was amazed at being traded to St. Louis. "I had thought," he said, "I would be going to New York. For a hitter, the chance to hit behind Brock, Flood and Pinson can only come once in a lifetime."
The remainder of the lineup is also exceptional. Mike Shannon is now a gifted third baseman after two seasons on the job, and he drove in 79 runs in 1968. Julian Javier and Dal Maxvill are the best double-play combination in the league, and Catcher Tim McCarver, whose batting average dropped 42 points in 1968, seems to have reacquired some of his fire.
Manager Red Schoendienst has six potential starting pitchers, and only one of them, rookie Mike Torrez, did not start as many as 30 games last year. Torrez, a handsome, hard-throwing righthander, has been the most impressive of the Cardinal pitchers in the exhibition games, although lefthander Steve Carlton, whose record of 7-1 early in 1968 dipped to 13-11 by the end of the race, now seems more mature and capable of fulfilling the promise long held for him. There is not much more anyone can say about Bob Gibson. His earned run average (1.12), wins (22) and shutouts (13), plus his performances in the World Series against Detroit, are superlatives enough. Ray Washburn (14-8 and a 2.26 ERA) and Nelson Briles, a 19-game winner, will also start. Giusti, playing with the nonhitting Houston Astros, lost four games last season in which he was shut out but still ran up an 11-14 record. He will find working for a team of hitters more rewarding.
The remainder of this division is difficult to assess. New York's Mets, for example, lack many things, among them reserves. The best thing that can be said of the bench is that it is made of wood; the worst thing, that it is made of dead-wood. Two youngsters, Amos Otis, a third baseman, and Rod Gaspar, an outfielder, have been impressive during the spring. Tommy Agee, the centerfielder, may be ready to become the player the club thought it was getting when it traded for him before the start of last season. Manager Gil Hodges' biggest experiment this spring was shifting Cleon Jones, his best player, from the outfield to first base. After a terrible start in 1968—he was hitting as low as .223 on Memorial Day—Jones ended the year the sixth top batter in the league with an average of .297.
Had Jones hit well earlier, there is no telling where the Mets might have finished, because their pitching, the team's claim to respectability, was strong. Tom Seaver won 16 games for the second straight year, and with only minimal hitting support would have won 20. Lefthander Jerry Koosman was the rookie pitcher of the year with 19 victories and an ERA of 2.08. The best young pitcher seen anywhere in Florida this spring is another young Met, 22-year-old righthander Gary Gentry. He will join Seaver, Koosman, Jim McAndrew and Don Cardwell or Nolan Ryan in making up the Mets' five-man rotation. Gentry is a product of Arizona State, where he had a record of 17-1 in 1967. McAndrew, 25, comes from Lost Nation, Iowa and broke into the majors last year by having his teammates shut out in five of his first seven starts. Only a little bit of hitting could jump the Mets in the standings if the young pitching holds up.
Leo Durocher had only one bad year as manager of the Chicago Cubs, his first. The last two seasons have seen Chicago finish third to put some life back into the old town. The Cubbies led the league in homers (130) and team defense (.981), but the pitching staff ranked ninth and, worse, gave up eight more homers than Chicago hit.
Over the winter Ted Abernathy, one of the game's most durable relief men, was returned to Chicago in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. Abernathy has averaged 73 games a season the last four years. He will join Phil Regan, who had 10 wins and 21 saves for Chicago in 1968. Ferguson Jenkins, of course, is Durocher's top pitcher. The winner of 20 games in each of his first two seasons as a starter, Jenkins led the league in strikeouts last year with 260. He also pitched in nine games when the Cubs did not score for him at all. Bill Hands, the team's best relief pitcher in 1967, made the transition to starter and won 16 games while allowing barely one walk per nine innings pitched.
Throughout the training period First Baseman Ernie Banks was predicting another Cub pennant, just as he has for 16 years. At 38, Banks is coming off" a season in which he hit 32 homers and drove in 83 runs. Nobody has ever correctly predicted what Banks might do during his career, so it is aimless to try to do so now. He is one of the six solid players who make up the backbone of the Chicago club. The others are Billy Williams, who has now played five consecutive seasons without missing a game and last year hit 30 homers with 98 runs batted in; Ron Santo, who had the same number of RBIs but a fallen batting average—.246; Second Baseman Glenn Beckert, who continued to improve and batted .294; Shortstop Don Kessinger, who led the team in sacrifice flies and stolen bases while batting .240; and 26-year-old Randy Hundley, whose batting average dropped off to .226 but whose durability—160 games—was remarkable for a catcher. Durocher has the nucleus for an outstanding team but seems short of outfielders and consistent pitching. And that was his basic problem last year.
There is a new stadium abuilding in Pittsburgh that next season will house both the Pirates and the Steelers. If that does not bode well for sports in this country nothing ever will. The Pirates came home sixth last season, the Steelers last in their division of the NFL. The baseball Pittsburghers had racial problems, injuries and a cheap front office. In the expansion draft they lost Maury Wills, Donn Clendenon, Manny Mota and Al McBean, which is a lot. Still it is hard to ignore them or to downgrade their chances. Last year they had too many injuries for any team to overcome.
Under Manager Larry Shepard, Pittsburgh's pitching improved vastly despite the ineffectiveness of Jim Bunning. This spring Bunning found the new low mound to his advantage. Should he continue to prosper, pitching might well become the Pirates' strength. Steve Blass won 18 games and lost only six last year. Bob Veale, although he had a losing record of 13-14, compiled the third-best earned run average (2.06) in the league. Bob Moose's 8-12 record went with a good ERA of 2.74.
The infield will be changed and suspect until the new hands prove themselves. The only oldtimer is Bill Mazeroski, for the umpteenth time at second. The outfield is thoroughly tested, maybe too thoroughly. It will consist of Willie Stargell, who had many injuries in 1968 and hit only .237; Matty Alou, a very underrated player who has now hit .342, .338 and .332 over the past three years; and Roberto Clemente. He tailed off from .357 to .291, had shoulder problems last year and has complained about them again this spring.
Not far from Pittsburgh is Philadelphia. That town too has professional baseball and football teams, the Phillies and Eagles, and soon they will be in a new ball park. The question is, will Richie Allen ever play there? Or will he have destroyed the Phillies or himself by the time it opens?
Either course seems more likely than that Allen should settle down and become the superb player he could be if he ever stopped wasting his potential. Last year Allen, at .263, finished under .300 for the first time since he became a rookie in 1964. But he still hit 33 homers and drove home 90 runs. He also struck out 161 times. If Manager Bob Skinner can get Allen to the old ball park on time, his sometime third baseman will have a bigger target than ever. The fences have been brought in, as much as 37 feet in center field.
This season Shortstop Don Money and Outfielder Larry Hisle should be ready to play in the majors. They are good, and the Philadelphia future rests heavily on them. The present has a lot to do with John Callison, as well as Allen. Callison, who knocked in 101 runs three seasons back, tumbled all the way to 40 last year. The rest of the team seems to be a little bit old or quite a bit injured.
The newest form of bores around are writers and broadcasters who explain to their readers what certain baseball terms are in French. (A home run in French, for anybody's information, is four bases, the same as it is in English.) The new Montreal Expos, however, have more than a language problem. Whether it is called la neige or snow, the fact is there could be quite a deal of the white stuff in tiny Jarry Park (capacity 30,000) by the time they hope to open their season there against St. Louis on April 14.
As a team, the Expos have two stars who might draw people to those early games to freeze, Maury Wills and Rusty Staub. They also have in Gene Mauch a colorful manager. Jim (Mudcat) Grant is an Expo, too. So is Larry Jaster, the young lefthander who shut out the Dodgers five times in one season when he was with St. Louis.
Wills will play shortstop and, despite his advancing years, will bring some action to Montreal. Staub, only 25, comes to Canada by way of Houston, where he had three fine years in a row. With Donn Clendenon, Bob Bailey, Mack Jones, John Bateman, Jose Laboy, Manny Mota, Jim Fairey and Floyd Wicker, the Expos are dangerous enough hitters to raise themselves out of the snowdrifts, or even above one of the other teams having a bad season. But St. Louis is the sweltering town in the division. The Cards should stay hot all year.