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The clear-cut, obvious choice for a winner in this chummiest of divisions is San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Houston. San Diego must be considered a long shot. Though a five-way tie for first is not inconceivable, a six-way tie may be dismissed as rank conjecture. The fact remains that because of a congenial mixture of strengths and weaknesses, injuries and enigmas, five of the six teams are contenders.

Last year's champions, the Giants, have not appreciably strengthened or weakened themselves, and it is unlikely they will enjoy similar early foot. Ahead by nine games as early as May 15, the Giants staggered home only a game ahead of the Dodgers. But while their rivals scuttled about the marketplace in the off-season, the Giants contented themselves with letting their young players grow a year older. Their one trade of consequence—Pitcher Gaylord Perry to Cleveland for Pitcher Sam McDowell—is at least superficially tit-for-tatish. Both have been 20-game winners and though Perry, at 33, is older by four years, he is considerably more dependable than Sudden Sam.

The Giants might ordinarily have been heartened by Perry's first start against them in Arizona this spring—he gave up five runs in three innings—had it not been for McDowell's shabby debut of the day before, in which he gave up eight in one inning. Still, Manager Charlie Fox is counting upon a slimmer (by 20 pounds) if not wiser McDowell as his second starter behind the estimable Juan Marichal. The other starting pitchers must be selected from a faceless cast of characters that includes Don Carrithers, Steve Stone, Frank Reberger, John Cumberland and Ron Bryant. All may take comfort in the sturdy presence of Jerry Johnson in the bullpen, a relief pitcher who worked in 67 games last year and who, when told facetiously by Fox that he might expect even longer hours this season, replied, "I may faint."

The Giants' coachwork may look much the same but there has been tinkering under the hood. Chris Speier, just 21 and with enormous potential, has been persuaded to try switch-hitting. This actually is no great trick, since the shortstop is ambidextrous anyway. Even more interesting is Fox' decision to try Dave Kingman at third base. At 6'6", Kingman may become the tallest third baseman in history. And though he may look a bit awkward on occasion, he does hit those tape-measure home runs. Fox also hopes for something other than a partial season from Willie McCovey, baseball's most feared hitter when he is healthy, which isn't often. Fox would like to get maybe 90 games out of the other Willie, the still wondrous but now middle-aged Mays. With these three, plus the flashy outfielders Bobby Bonds and Ken Henderson in the lineup at the same time, the Giants are fearsome offensively. But pitching may be their undoing.

Pitching is no problem with the Dodgers. Adding the left-handed Tommy John to a staff that already included Al Downing, Don Sutton, Claude Osteen and Bill Singer seemed almost excessive. And though they lost the former Richie, now Dick, Allen in the trade with the White Sox for John, they also acquired Frank Robinson from Baltimore, so they have lost nothing in batting power.

The Dodger infield, anchored by the elderly Maury Wills at shortstop, should be strengthened by the return of Bill Grabarkewitz, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. With Grabarkewitz at third, Wills at short, Jim Lefebvre at second and Wes Parker at first, the Dodgers have a quality inner defense. In the outfield they have Robinson, Willie Davis and Willie Crawford and can platoon Manny Mota, Bill Buckner and Bill Russell. Davis will be looking for his fourth successive .300 season.

The Giants and Dodgers don't scare Luman Harris, manager of the Atlanta Braves. "I won't hedge on this statement one bit," he said in spring training. 'This is the host personnel I have had at Atlanta. I have always wanted to be in a position where I had more good players than I had positions for them to play." Harris should be concerned, however, about whether two of those players—Rico Carty and Orlando Cepeda— can play anywhere.

Carty, the league batting champion two years ago, missed all of last season with a broken leg. Cepeda missed most of it with an injured knee. And yet Harris insists Carty will be his leftfielder and Cepeda his first baseman. Orlando limped noticeably in spring training, but as one veteran Cepeda-watcher commented, "That's O.K. He limps all the time." Carty looks healthy enough for a man who has survived a broken leg, three shoulder separations and tuberculosis. If he is, Harris will have the best hitting outfield in memory: Carty, who hit .366 the last season he was able to play, in left; Ralph Garr, who hit .343 last year, in center; and Henry Aaron, who only wants to break Babe Ruth's home-run record, in right. Garr's move from left to center will free Sonny Jackson for a return to the infield. He may not be a starter, though, for Harris seems to prefer Darrell Evans at third and Marty Perez at shortstop, Jackson's old position.

But the Braves, like the Giants, have pitching worries. Harris favors a five-man rotation of Mike McQueen, Ron Reed, Phil Niekro, Pat Jarvis and George Stone, gentlemen who are not liable to threaten the records of Warren Spahn. McQueen pitched just 56 innings last year and is recovering from elbow surgery. Of the others only Niekro had a winning season, if 15-14 can be considered a winning season.

The Cincinnati Reds at least remember what it was like to be winners, as do those new Houston Astros who used to be Reds. The Reds and the Astros negotiated one of the top body-count trades of the off-season, the Reds dispatching Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham and Ed Armbrister. It was a transaction that effectively altered the styles of both teams. The Reds, who lived with power in the pennant-winning season of 1970 and died with it last year, are now more of a speed team; the Astros, who hit the fewest home runs in the major leagues last season, are now more of a power team. This is what is known in the democracies of the National League West as the balance of power.

In deciding to redefine themselves, the Reds did not stop with the Houston trade, however. They sent the industrious reliever, Wayne Granger, to Minnesota for lefthander Tom Hall and they sent Pitcher Milt Wilcox to Cleveland for Ted Uhlaender, a swift outfielder who hit .288 for that dreadful American League team in 1971.

The Reds did hold onto such 1970 luminaries as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez and they are hoping, perhaps vainly, that Bobby Tolan, who missed all of last year with a torn Achilles' tendon, can play. Bench didn't exactly miss last season; it just seemed that way. The league's Most Valuable Player in 1970, he was very nearly the least valuable a year ago, hitting .238.

But Bench was not solely responsible for the Reds' descent from the top to the middle. Bernie Carbo hit an almost invisible .219, and Perez, who had a reasonably good, for him, year at bat (25 home runs, 91 RBIs), had trouble fielding ground balls on Cincinnati's artificial turf and throwing them to first. May's departure will permit him to return to first base, where he will be safer.

If Bench and the rest of the moribund sluggers regain the touch, the Reds can score runs again. The question is: Can they get the other side out? Here the Reds will need more help than they received last year from the sore-armed Wayne Simpson, who won four games, and from Jim Merritt, who won one. Simpson is the pivotal figure. That leaves shortstop, which Woody Woodward vacated when, at 29, he decided to stop covering ground and start selling it with a Florida land-development firm. Contending for the vacancy arc Darrel Chancy, who played most of last year for Indianapolis, and Dave Concepcion, who hit .205 for the Reds. Well, you can't have everything.

Or can you? Houston Manager Harry Walker suspects that with ex-Red May to hit for him and ex-Red Helms to field for him at second base, his team may at last have it all together. May hit 39 home runs last year, which is more than half as many as the entire Houston team hit. The catch is that May says the one place he doesn't hit home runs is in the Astrodome. "But that isn't because of the Dome," he hastily appends. "It is the pitching I've always faced in Houston."

He has a point there. Indeed, the Houston pitching staff had the second-lowest combined earned run average—3.13—in the league last year. And now Don Wilson (2.45 ERA) and Larry Dierker (2.71) will be joined by Dave Roberts (2.10), who was obtained in a remarkable trade with San Diego, a team with a penchant for divesting itself of pitching talent, as witness the successive deals for Pal Dobson and now Roberts.

Anyway, May won't have to worry about facing Houston pitching this year. And as a fillip he won't have to worry about those distant Houston fences either, since the Astros have kindly moved them some 10 feet closer to home plate for him.

May isn't the only power hitter on the Houston team, although the others were admittedly hard to find last year. Jim Wynn, the onetime "Toy Cannon," who has hit as many as 37 home runs, had only seven last season. But he was having troubles with both his wife and his manager. He divorced the one and reconciled with the other, and Walker now expects him to improve his homer output by 20. For added power, there is Cesar Cedeno, the centerfielder who had 81 RBIs, 10 home runs and a league-leading 40 doubles and who, at 21, is just learning how to play the game.

It will take a minor miracle to keep the Padres out of last place. "We have youth and speed," says Manager Preston Gomez. And, he might have added, not much else. Without Roberts, the Padres' pitching will not be as effective as it was a year ago—third-best ERA in the league. The only remaining pitcher of proven quality is Clay Kirby. The San Diego defense is weak and the offense negligible. "Defense is our biggest problem," says Gomez. "Defense is the key in any sport."

The Roberts trade did bring Gomez a reportedly competent second baseman in Derrel Thomas, who spent last year batting .286 for Oklahoma City. Gomez also anticipates an improved performance from Shortstop Enzo Hernandez, who tied San Francisco's Speier for the league lead in errors—33—at this position. And Gomez' Outfielders John Jeter, Clarence Gaston, Leron Lee and Ollie Brown are respectable.

Gomez speaks of the other five teams in the National League West almost as if they were in some other division, league or galaxy, so he can look upon them with proper detachment. They arc no threat to him. Which one looks good to him? "I think Houston has helped itself more than any other club," he said thoughtfully.

For one thing, Houston has Dave Roberts.