To the four new managers in the division, a few words of warning: old habits die hard here. So please be advised, Chuck Tanner, that Pittsburgh always does well, while Montreal, Dick Williams, invariably struggles. St. Louis, Vern Rapp, has been consistently mediocre, while Chicago, Herman Franks, has been near the bottom of the heap the past four seasons. And as Joe Frazier of the Mets and Danny Ozark of the Phillies can tell you, New York always finishes third and Philadelphia always seems to be improving. Now play ball.
There will, of course, be some slight alterations in 1977. The Phillies, who set a club record last year with 101 victories, should not win as many, and the Expos, who came within three of their team mark by losing 107, should not lose as many. Also, fans are duly advised that Pittsburgh's Lumber Company is now a fast-food franchise, that New York's shoddy defense has tightened up, and that St. Louis' Mad Hungarian, Reliever Al Hrabosky, is madder than ever, because Rapp made him shave his mustache and trim his extensive locks. Chicago will be different, too, but not where change is needed most—60'6" from home plate.
Despite the loss of two free agents—Second Baseman Dave Cash to Montreal and First Baseman Dick Allen to Oakland—Philadelphia retains the necessary blend of hitting, pitching, defense and experience to win again. And if preserving a manager's peace of mind is worth anything in a division race, the departure of Allen might be counted as a plus. Make that a double plus if Richie Hebner makes the transition from Pittsburgh third baseman to Phillie first baseman. "I feel like a kid just out of high school," says Hebner. "I only hope I get off to a good start, because I understand the Philadelphia fans can get on your case if you don't do well."
Although Ozark hopes Hebner, who hit .246 and .249 the past two seasons after seven years of .287 batting, responds to his new environment with some of his old prowess at the plate, he has no such expectations for the new second baseman. "We don't have anybody who can get on base the way Cash did, so we're looking mainly for defense," Ozark says. That requirement should be adequately filled by Ted Sizemore.
There is plenty of hitting in the rest of the lineup. Outfielders Garry Maddox, Greg Luzinski and Jay Johnstone were all above .300 last year, and Third Baseman Mike Schmidt smote 38 home runs for his third straight major league title. Schmidt and Maddox have Gold Gloves to complement their golden bats. Schmidt, who recently became baseball's highest-paid player by signing a six-year, $3-million contract, says he is not worried that a healthy Dave Kingman of New York might take his homer title away. "I'm not going to race him, because I'm concerned about my batting average, too," says Schmidt. "If he plays all year, he can hit 40 or 50, so I'll just put my 30 or 40 up there and see what happens."
The Philadelphia pitching staff, third best in the league last season, is led by 20-game winner Steve Carlton and side-winding Gene Garber, one of three relievers with 11 or more saves. Jim Lonborg, Larry Christenson and Tom Underwood return to the starting rotation, but Wayne Twitchell should put Jim Kaat, the majors' winningest pitcher (247 victories over 18 seasons), in the bullpen. Although the 38-year-old Kaat still throws strikes and fields his position impeccably, National League batters began to catch on to his no-windup delivery last year, sending him to a 2-10 finish after a 10-4 start.
The late Danny Murtaugh would hardly recognize the Pirates that Tanner will be managing. Pittsburgh lost a lot of base hits with the departures of Catcher Manny Sanguillen—who was traded to Oakland for Tanner—and Left-fielder Richie Zisk, but those deals opened the way to upgraded defense, speed and relief pitching. "When I think about everything we've done, I smile a lot," Tanner says. "I definitely feel we are capable of winning the division." Actually, Pittsburgh's 92 victories last year would have been enough to win it most seasons, but the Phillies broke away so fast the Pirates could never catch them.
Resuming the chase is the hitting nucleus of Al Oliver (.323), who shifts from center to left; Rightfielder Dave Parker, who hit .313 with 90 RBIs; 36-year-old First Baseman Willie Stargell, who had 20 homers during a season in which he was distraught because of his wife's near-fatal illness: and supersub Bill Robinson (.303, 21 homers, and angry that he didn't play every day).
Among the new starters, Duffy Dyer brings to the catching position qualities it never had when Sanguillen was around—minor league hitting and major league fielding. The shift of Oliver opens center field for Omar Moreno, who batted .315 and stole 55 bases in Charleston last year. The speedy Moreno may bat first, ahead of Shortstop Frank (The Pittsburgh Stealer) Taveras, who ranked third in the league with 58 swipes. The third new regular is Phil Garner, who played second base in Oakland, but now moves to third, his minor league position. Garner is another of the talents that A's owner Charlie Finley allowed to get away. He stole 35 bases last season, drove in 74 runs, had a .261 average and was among the American League's top three second basemen in assists, putouts and double plays.
But wait, there's more. To beef up the bullpen, the Pirates got Grant Jackson, who was 6-0 with the Yankees, Terry Forster and Rich Gossage, former Firemen of the Year with the White Sox. There was no reason to tamper with the fine starting rotation of John Candelaria (16-7, including a no-hitter), Bruce Kison (14-9), Jerry Reuss (14-9) and Jim Rooker (15-8). The pitchers are particularly pleased with the team's new look. "In the past we've emphasized hitting, but now we're going to do other things well, too," says Kison. "It's refreshing."
Pittsburgh's off-season activity gave it the kind of balance that the standpat Mets still lack. New York preferred protecting its pitching and elevating its younger prospects to bargaining for established major league talent. Those Mets whose futures are now include Third Baseman Roy Staiger, Centerfielder Lee Mazzilli, Rightfielder Mike Vail and Catcher John Stearns. From this group, New York hopes to find the improved hitting and defense needed to support its superlative pitching. "Both of those have been monsters," says Lefthander Jon Matlack, "but I guess we need defense more than anything. It's easier to win when you're not giving away so many runs."
Staiger, a gloveman in the Brooks Robinson mold, should help the defense, while Mazzilli provides speed in the lead-off position—a big plus for the Mets, who were last in the league in steals with 66. Vail and Stearns could enliven the offense with their bats, Vail having shown his potential two years ago when he hit .302 in a 38-game trial. Although he dropped to .217 in 53 games last season, he places the blame on a slow-healing dislocated foot, which now seems sound. Stearns, who hit .295 after rejoining the Mets in September, becomes the regular catcher because Jerry Grote's bad back will not let him play every day.
It does not help the Mets at all that their three best hitters of last season are part-timers. Joe Torre (.306) and Ed Kranepool (.292) are slated for backup duty behind First Baseman John Milner, and young Outfielder Bruce Boisclair (.287 and a league-leading .571 as a pinch hitter) probably will be platooned with Vail.
That leaves too much of New York's offensive burden on Dave Kingman, the league's No. 1 triple threat: errors, strikeouts and long home runs. The leftfielder missed 33 games with a torn thumb ligament, but still hit 37 homers. He also struck out 135 times, batted .238 and ranked last defensively among outfielders who appeared in 100 or more games. And for all this, he spent the spring threatening to play out his option unless he is paid more than Tom Seaver, who earns $225,000 a season.
Seaver, Matlack and Jerry Koosman are the reasons New York had the second-best record (86-76) in its history last season. Koosman (21-10) and Matlack (17-10) enjoyed their best years ever, and Seaver (14-11) led the league in strikeouts and was third in shutouts and ERA. The Mets scored all of 15 runs for him in his defeats. Overall, the Mets' staff was tops in the league in ERA, complete games, strikeouts and fewest hits allowed. With the retirement of Mickey Lolich (8-13), the fourth starter will probably be Craig Swan.
St. Louis singles out injuries and youth for its 72-90 record last season, the Cardinals' second-worst since 1924. More experience and an active winter in the trading market should move the Cards up a notch to fourth place. Ken Reitz is back from San Francisco to plug a hole at third, and Centerfielder Bake McBride (.335) and Second Baseman Mike Tyson (.286) are recovered from the hurts that kept them sidelined for a total of 186 games. First Baseman Keith Hernandez (.289) and Rightfielder Hector Cruz (13 homers, 71 RBIs) who struggled defensively at third, should be even better in their second full seasons. Twenty-one-year-old Garry Templeton has shown he can hit major league pitching, batting .291 in 53 games, but his 24 errors proved he cannot yet field major league hitting.
The two most dependable—and durable—Cardinals are Leftfielder Lou Brock, beginning his 17th season with a .296 career average, and Catcher Ted Simmons, starting his 10th year at .297. This season should be a triumphant one for Brock, who needs only 28 more stolen bases to reach 893 and surpass Ty Cobb's major league career record. "I might go to 892 and stop," says Brock, "just to keep Cobb and me in the record book together."
St. Louis tried to bolster its pitching staff during the offseason by picking up John D'Acquisto from San Francisco, Larry Dierker from Houston and Reliever Clay Carroll from the White Sox. But Dierker, who was 13-14 with the Astros, was injured in spring training—he will be out until May—and D'Acquisto is coming off a dismal season (3-8 with a 5.35 ERA), so the Cardinals will again have to rely mainly on their only two pitchers with winning records last year, John Denny (11-9 and a league-leading 2.52 ERA) and Hrabosky (8-6, 13 saves). Hrabosky at first threatened to sue if Rapp did not let him grow his hair back. "This has upset my mental state," he says. "I can't scare anybody anymore. Guys are laughing at me, telling me how pretty I look."
Chicago, which has been sixth, fifth and fourth the last three years, should drop to fifth this season. The Cubs showed more concern for their pocketbook than their place in the standings when they traded Third Baseman Bill Madlock to San Francisco and Centerfielder Rick Monday to Los Angeles. Madlock was the league's leading hitter the last two years, and Monday was the Cubs' power. The trades did net four possible starters: Right-fielder Bobby Murcer (23 homers, 90 RBIs), First Baseman Bill Buckner (.301), Third Baseman Steve Ontiveros and Shortstop Ivan DeJesus. However, neither Ontiveros nor DeJesus has much major league experience, and Buckner is disabled with an ankle injury. And neither trade yielded help where the Cubs need it most—on the mound. Chicago ranked 11th in pitching last year, and will go nowhere with essentially the same staff.
Montreal was last in almost everything in 1976: hitting, pitching, victories in night games, doubleheaders and extra innings, and, of course, the standings. Shortstop Tim Foli's 36 doubles made him the only Expo among the top five National Leaguers in any major department. Three newcomers, Second Baseman Cash from Philadelphia and First Baseman Tony Perez and Reliever Will McEnaney from Cincinnati, give the Expos unaccustomed luster. If they all have strong years and if young Outfielders Ellis Valentine (.279 in 94 games at Montreal) and Andre Dawson (.350 with Denver) develop, the Expos' first season in Olympic Stadium will not be another disaster.
Cash deficit in Philadelphia
By leaving the Phillies for a $1.6 million, five-year contract with the Expos, Dave Cash became the only important free agent in the National League East. He is a superb second baseman whose .988 fielding percentage was the best at that position in the majors in '76. And he is a deft leadoff hitter who batted .296 and averaged 203 hits and 97 runs a season during his three years in Philadelphia. Cash is almost impossible to strike out—his 13 whiffs were easily the fewest among big-league regulars last year—and is just as tough to get out of the lineup. He missed only two games while playing for Philly. Beyond that, he is an aggressive performer who has been given a lot of credit for the Phils' switch from chronic losers to confident winners. In short, Cash is the classic second baseman, a player who is invaluable as a field leader and an offensive catalyst when he is performing for a good team. His departure has left a gaping hole in the Phils' infield, batting order and psyche. But how important will Cash be to the hapless Expos? His are mostly "team talents" (scratching his way on base, making the double-play pivot, etc.). and Montreal cannot surround him with players who can consistently make those abilities pay off. For this season, at least, the Expos are unlikely to cash in on their investment.