Here they come again—Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and New York-promising another merry brawl for the division title. Detroit won in 1972 on the next to last day of the season. Can the Tigers repeat? Why not? They play excellent defense and have as much experience as any team in the majors. But is there not a formula: experience=age? Or Boston, dear Boston. The Sox would surely win if they decide that April, May and June are on the schedule, just like July, August and September. Baltimore's Orioles, the former unbeatables, refused to hit in April, May, June, July, August and September. That isn't reasonable. Can the Birds come back? Absolutely. And the Yankees, the Sultans of Swap, isn't their candidacy worth more than a bawdy joke? You bet.
Every Middlesex village and farm has the word: the Red Sox are coming. You say the same alarum resounds every year? Well, Carl Yastrzemski is attacking the ball once more, causing legitimate visions of 1967 to dance in New England heads. Catcher Carlton Fisk is behaving like a leader, and the double-play combination of Doug Griffin and Luis Aparicio seems healthy again. What is more, Manager Eddie Kasko now has a two-year contract and thus a firmer hand.
Boston squandered its chances for the East title in '72 because it did not climb above .500 until July 12. Once the team straightened away it played very well and finished the year only half a game behind the consistent Tigers. The margin was especially painful because the Sox lost one more playing date to the strike than the Tigers did.
Boston's front-line pitching improved dramatically once Luis Tiant (15-6 and a 1.91 ERA) commenced doing his exotic pirouettes and Marty Pattin (2-8 on June 20 and then 15-4 as a starter thereafter) began to get some breaks. Those two are sound again, but the rest of the pitching order will have to be worked out in the early weeks of the season. Sonny Siebert looked sharp in the spring, and the young arms of John Curtis, Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman were alive. When they falter, solid relievers like Bob Veale and Bill Lee are available. The Red Sox' designated hitters will be Orlando Cepeda (right-handed) and "Gentle Ben" Oglivie (left-handed). Cepeda's knees are a source of concern again; he is having trouble gaining confidence in them. But confidence otherwise abounds in Boston.
In Detroit, Manager Billy Martin has a staunch faith in the league's oldest knees—and so do the fans. The Tigers, who had the second-largest attendance in the majors last season (1,890,000), never fell more than 2½ games out of first. "We won even though we didn't hit much," says Al Kaline with perfect truth, since the Tigers were eighth in the league in team batting at .237. "This season we should hit more than that; everybody is not going to have a bad year again. We now have Frank Howard for the entire season, and the designated-hitter rule is going to help us. Remember, too, that we didn't get Woody Fryman until late in the year and he did a heck of a job for us."
Indeed he did. Fryman moved over to the Tigers from Philadelphia on Aug. 2 and won 10 games while losing only three. With the resilient Mickey Lolich (47 victories and 703 innings of work during the last two seasons) and Joe Coleman (39 wins over the same period) the Tigers have three solid starters.
Although they opposed the DH movement, the Tigers would appear to profit from it more than any other American League team. Look at the possibles: Gates Brown, Frank Howard, Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Bill Freehan, Duke Sims, Willie Horton. So it looks like an improved offense to go with a steady defense. The left side of the infield is particularly strong with Aurelio Rodriguez at third and Ed Brinkman at shortstop. In the outfield Kaline, Mickey Stanley and Northrup are as sure-handed as any threesome in the league.
Faith in the verities was sadly shaken in Baltimore last year when Oriole bats fell as silent as a Chesapeake mist. Thanks to an excellent defense and superior pitching (a 2.53 team ERA) the Orioles hung on in the race until the very end, but it was a wonder, for the team batting average plunged to .229, a full 10 points lower than the league average. Now a winning Oriole season depends primarily upon the success of a winter deal with Atlanta.
Baltimore gave Atlanta four good players for Catcher Earl Williams, plus a minor-leaguer. Williams was that desirable because he could hit home runs and collect RBIs (61 HRs and 174 RBls in 1971-72). After last season the Oriole management drew up a list of players it thought could help the team score more—Billy Williams, Jimmy Wynn, Greg Luzinski and Nate Colbert were also included—and a familiar Baltimore pattern emerged. Just as they did in the cases of Frank Robinson and 20-game winners Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson in the past, the Orioles went to the National League for assistance. Dobson was one of the players sent to Atlanta, as were Second Baseman Dave Johnson, Catcher Johnny Oates and a promising young pitcher, Roric Harrison. Many think the price was too high to pay for a catcher who at times does not seem to appreciate his job. Admits Williams: "You take a guy who's been catching two years—he can't be as good as someone who has been catching all his life. And by choice."
Moving Johnson out of the Oriole lineup puts Bobby Grich into it permanently at second. As a hardworking swing man in his first full season, the 24-year-old Grich was among Baltimore's top three players in eight offensive categories.
Manager Earl Weaver has lost 30 pounds and shaved his off-season mustache, but the biggest little Oriole shaver is a 20-pounds-lighter Boog Powell, the Bird who left tons of runners in scoring position in '72. Heretofore a slow starter, Powell hopes the weight loss will help get him moving quicker and lift his RBIs above his relatively anemic 81 of last year. Powell does not want to be the DH, but may be persuaded to yield first base if a swift, sure 6'4" rookie, Enos Cabell, fulfills his promise.
The prototype for a major league pitcher may well be Jim Palmer, winner of 77 games against only 33 losses during the past four seasons. His mates, the 35-year-old Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, 30, are getting no younger, but at 22 Doyle Alexander is a fresh arm and potential fourth starter who could stay in a lot of games should the Orioles find their bat rack humming again. And when needed, there is always Baltimore's often forgotten bullpen, led by the anonymous but dependable Eddie Watt, whose ERA has been below 3.00 in five of the last six years.
Merv Rettenmund had put together two consecutive over-.300 seasons before his .233 of 1972; a return to a higher zone is anticipated. Still, the Williams trade likely will make or break the Orioles. "You held Frank Robinson in awe for what he had already accomplished," says Centerfielder Paul Blair of the departed team leader. "You hold Earl Williams in awe for what he might accomplish."
One of the earliest—and silliest—betting lines out of Nevada established the Yankees as 9-5 favorites to win in the East. That seemed suspect because New York's pitchers, while having a good overall ERA (3.05), struck out fewer batters than any other staff and seemed to be groping for a stopper. Steve Kline, in only his third full season in the rotation, could emerge as the big man on a staff that includes Mel Stottlemyre and the much-discussed Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, the left-handed starters. The new Yankee ownership, and the club's working brass, will try to keep stiff upper lips, but bench jockeys are going to give Kekich and Peterson a rough ride. If General Manager Lee MacPhail and Manager Ralph Houk can keep the Yanks calm, they might have a chance.
MacPhail and Houk agreed in the off-season to trade tomorrow for today and go after a pennant in this, the 50th anniversary of Yankee Stadium, with the result that Graig Nettles and Matty Alou were picked up in trades with Cleveland and Oakland. They are notable additions to a lineup that was already handy with a bat. Still, the infield is hardly reminiscent of great Yankee teams of the past and the team's best performers of 1972-Bobby Murcer (102 runs, 33 homers, .292) and Reliever Sparky Lyle (35 saves, 56 games finished)—had difficult winters. Murcer broke his hand; Lyle tore a tendon in his ankle. But the Yankees should hit well enough to lead the league in that department—they were second to Kansas City in '72—and the DH rule will not hinder Houk's managing. It will not be necessary to draft Joe DiMaggio out of retirement. The Yankees have ready reserve bats in such men as Ron Swoboda and John Callison. "I'll probably pick our designated hitter according to the park we're playing in and the pitcher we're facing that day," says Houk.
When the Yankees traded their tomorrows, they gave most of the future to Cleveland, whose continual rebuilding never seems to get the walls up, much less a roof on. But the Indians—fifth last season, 14 games behind Detroit—could cause a ripple or two now. "On paper," says Phil Seghi, the Cleveland general manager, "you have to believe that Boston, Detroit, Baltimore and New York are the leading contenders, but we helped ourselves a great deal during the winter. The normal development of the players we have plus lightning striking any one guy could get us into contention. I'm not talking about our pitching, because it doesn't need lightning."
Cy Young winner Gaylord Perry, Dick Tidrow and Milt Wilcox won 55 games among them, and that was not easy on a team that scored the fewest runs this side of Arlington, Texas. Buddy Bell will replace Nettles at third and the hope is that former Yankees Charley Spikes (.309 with 26 homers at West Haven) and Rusty Torres can shore up the outfield.
There are financial problems in Milwaukee and a new player named Money. The latter is not likely to solve the former. The Brewers barely reached 600,000 in home attendance last season. They had to scrape to put nine men on the field; now they must find a 10th. "We ain't got no hitters," says First Baseman George Scott. "How we gonna have designated hitters?" Good question. Milwaukee scored one run or none in nearly a third of its 1972 games. Don Money moves into County Stadium from Philadelphia and he is an excellent defensive player, but one who has yet to hit up to his potential. At least he has potential.