Everybody is picking the Dodgers to repeat, but everybody may be wrong. The Reds look better. Defensively, Cincinnati should be the stronger team up the middle: catcher (Johnny Bench over Joe Ferguson and Steve Yeager), shortstop (Dave Concepcion over Bill Russell), second base (Joe Morgan over Dave Lopes) and center field (Cesar Geronimo and George Foster over Jim Wynn). Offensively, no team can count on being better than a lineup led by Bench, Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Concepcion. Rose slipped below .300 last year, but he still scored a league-leading 110 runs, and there is no reason to believe that he is over the hill or that he isn't due to hit against the Dodgers, who held him to a .158 average last season.
Then we come to that crucial factor, pitching. It is here that Cincinnati traditionally has been considered lacking, but from among the Reds' Jack Billing-ham, Don Gullett, Fred Norman and Clay Kirby there should emerge at least as many reliable starters as from the Dodgers' Don Sutton, Andy Messersmith, Doug Rau and, well, maybe former Reliever Charlie Hough, or Geoff Zahn, who has won four major league games in his life. The Dodgers won last year by jumping off to a big early lead as lefthander Tommy John was winning 13 and losing three. Then John suffered an arm injury, which was repaired by transferring a tendon from his right forearm to his left elbow. If John ever sets a record for portsiders, it will require an asterisk noting that he did it with part of a starboard arm. He appears unlikely to set any records or even help the Dodgers this year—certainly not during the first 10 games of their schedule, seven of which are against the Reds. The Reds' perennial comeback hope, Gary Nolan, who was 13-2 with a 1.82 ERA when he hurt his shoulder in 1972, is a better bet to regain winning form this season than John is. The Reds' bullpen—Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon and Tom Hall—is at least as good as the Dodgers', which last year amounted to Mike Marshall. Marshall's 2.42 ERA was impressive, and his all time record of 106 appearances was astounding, but Manager Walt Alston seemed sometimes to be using him more obsessively than wisely, and while won-lost percentage may not be the best guide to a reliever's performance, it is worth mentioning that Marshall's was .556 and the rest of the staff's was .644. This even though persons close to the team have been known to grumble that Marshall had a way, when he entered a game with another pitcher's runners on base, of allowing them to score before he grew stingy.
Still, Los Angeles will be very strong. The Dodgers have a lot of good young players—including those mentioned above as inferior to the Reds' stars—who last year suddenly became very good. Wynn gives them power, and so does MVP First Baseman Steve Garvey, who looks as if he will be a sound performer for years to come. The Penguin, Ron Cey, cut an appealing waddly figure at third base and drove in 97 runs. Bill Buckner made acrobatic catches in left field and hit .314. Sutton and Messersmith are more accomplished than any of the Reds' starters, at least now that Sutton has profited from the services of Hypnotist Arthur Ellen. Before Ellen entered his life last year, says Sutton, sounding rather like someone writing a letter to Dear Abby, "I was trying anything and everything to snap out of my slump. I'd do crazy things like making diving catches in batting practice or pouring water into the pockets of our pitching coach, Red Adams. Nothing was going right and I was acting crazy." If you see Sutton hopping around in the outfield on one foot before a game tin's year, you'll know that he just needs to be put under a spell. Usually the Dodgers display a highly professional attitude, which means, as people used to say of Caesar Augustus, that they "execute well." "We blew a lot of games last year," says Billingham. "The Dodgers are completely fundamental. Everything they do is usually right." The Reds will have to show such poise if they are to assert their superiority.
As for the rest of the division, Atlanta, Houston and, yes, San Francisco might all be contenders. The Braves don't have Henry Aaron, but that means they will field a better defensive outfield. Ralph Garr, the league's batting champion (.353), will be able to settle in left, where his modest fielding talents should suffice; Dusty Baker will be a fixture in right; and wonderfully named Rowland Office may well establish himself as one of the league's best centerfielders. Garr is perhaps the least conventional hitter-for-average in baseball. He swings at balls over his head, he doesn't just step but plunges into the bucket and he says things like, "As a player there really isn't anybody you can compare me with. I'm pretty talkative, but I'm pleasant." The rest of the Braves' batters should do better than they did last year. That was the year Atlanta pitching suddenly got hot. Who knows, it might do so again in '75. Certainly the Braves will rank right up there at the top in good names. There is Office, whose nickname is Sapphire. Unfortunately, he is too skinny to be called Oval. There is Shortstop Larvell Blanks, "who very seldom draws one," says Manager Clyde King, and whose sobriquet is Sugar Bear. Then there is Catcher Vic Correll's Statesboro, Ga. mule named Henry. That just seems like a good name for a mule, especially one who can, Correll claims, point birds.
The status of Dick Allen, officially Atlanta property, was uncertain last week. All on the same day, Second Baseman/First Baseman Dave Johnson had said, "We can't tell what our infield will be until we know about Allen"; the front office announced that "in all probability, if Allen plays this year, it will be in Atlanta"; and Manager King said, "We stopped including him in our plans long ago. He's like the big one you get up just to the point where he's breaking water and then he gets away. You don't talk about those." But of course you do talk about those. Allen—perhaps because King kept brother Hank Allen on the bench in Richmond one season—says he won't play for King. If he changes his mind, the Braves will be a hot item.
Houston has the volatile Cesar Cedeno, who "can be the greatest player in baseball," says Manager Preston Gomez, "but he has to first learn to control himself." Other good Astro hitters are Outfielder Greg Gross, First Baseman Bob Watson and Catcher Milt May. Rob Andrews, brother of Mike whom Charlie Finley mistreated, is a promising second baseman obtained from infielder-rich Baltimore, and Doug Rader is the best third baseman in the league as well as a productive hitter and an amusing redhead. The big problem for the Astros, says Gomez, "is right there in the middle of the diamond"—pitching. Larry Dierker or Tom Griffin or someone will have to become what the team needed last year, a stopper.
The Giants looked pretty sad in '74, finishing fifth and drawing only slightly more than half a million fans, but this spring they looked different. Bobby Bonds and Dave Kingman, seen by management last year as discordant elements, have been traded, and Bonds' replacement, Bobby Murcer, has played dynamically in exhibitions. The club has pitching talent, notably in the person of 23-year-old John D'Acquisto, who throws about as hard as anybody around and seems to have learned control. Young Catcher Marc Hill looks like a comer; new Second Baseman Derrel Thomas will help; and Von Joshua, acquired from the Dodgers, lends depth to an outfield that is already well stocked with Murcer, Gary Matthews and Garry Maddox. Murcer says he prefers to hit in less blustery conditions but concedes that the prevailing wind in Candlestick Park, to right field, should abet his home-run swing. He could not make New York forget Mickey Mantle, but maybe he can help make the Giants forget fifth place.
"We're through being patsies," says Padre owner and McDonald's tycoon Ray Kroc. Or maybe he said, "We're through being patties." Outfielders Bobby Tolan, Dave Winfield and Johnny Grubb can hit; Willie McCovey is still, if not exactly Willie McCovey, at least a powerful presence; and the newly acquired Tito Fuentes and Rich Folkers should lend substance to, respectively, the infield and the bullpen. But the Padres suffered a big loss before spring training: Catfish Hunter declined to sign with them, although they offered him more money than the Yankees did and also a chance to bat. Who knows, maybe Hunter doesn't like those long skinny French fries. Fuentes says he has cured his bad back of last year, after five doctors failed, by drinking a tea of herbs and roots. He is expected to help develop fellow Latin Enzo Hernandez, a promising shortstop. Fuentes is optimistic about the Padres' chances. "We're going to turn things around in a way that would surprise you," he says. Almost any way would; but good luck to them. Can you eat herbs and roots on a bun?
Atlanta's Ralph Garr isn't just beep-beeping on the bases or with his bat.
The writers: Jim Kaplan (AL East), Ron Fimrite (AL West), Larry Keith (NL East), Roy Blount Jr. (NL West).