Invincible in the fall, when they swept through the playoffs and Series without a loss, the World Champion Cincinnati Reds seem almost vulnerable in the spring. They are getting older—are they not? They have lost their best pitcher and their most reliable clutch hitter—have they not? There has been so much bickering this spring in their once closed ranks over such contemptible matters as wages and ego gratification that they have become something other than one big happy family—right? On paper, such nits are ripe for the picking, but on the field the champs have yet to be dethroned and, though they play in baseball's toughest division, chances are they will not be.
It is true that the Reds are getting older. Pete Rose is 35 and Joe Morgan will be 34 in September. But Dave Concepcion, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, Ken Griffey and even Johnny Bench are all still in their 20s. True, the Reds will certainly miss their fragile but talented lefthander, Don Gullett, gone to the Yankees, and Tony Perez, shunted to Montreal, was an inspiration off the field and a big RBI man on it. But there is more where they came from. And though Rose, Concepcion, Gary Nolan and Rawly East-wick have all recently concluded, or are still conducting, heated contract negotiations and though Rose, particularly, is madder than a hornet—this too shall pass. Rose may be miffed, but his displeasure with management is not likely to affect his play. If indeed he wants to go elsewhere next year, he will require a Rosean year for bargaining power, and even in palmier days he was known to chafe a bit at the attention and money paid Bench and Morgan.
As one former Red says, "This isn't the first time people have raised these questions. Bench and Rose have been fierce competitors for years, but they've always sublimated it for the sake of the team. You must remember that Rose was the local boy. He was everything. Then Bench, the handsome young bachelor, rode into town, and things were different. But they still got along."
And the Reds still get along with one another. Their starting lineup, even without Perez, is still the strongest in baseball, save for the pitcher. Dan Driessen, a World Series hero, who takes over for Perez at first, is a strong, young lefthanded hitter who, it is said, needs only to play regularly to be yet another Reds .300 batter. The rest of the infield—Morgan at second, Concepcion at short, Rose at third—is peerless, offensively and defensively. The outfield of Foster in left, Geronimo in center and Griffey in right is in the same class. Manager Sparky Anderson has never needed more than adequate pitching, and he will have it again with starters Gary Nolan (15-9, 3.46 ERA), Fred Norman (12-7, 3.10), Pat Zachry (14-7, 2.74), Jack Billingham (12-10, 4.32) and 36-year-old Woodie Fryman, acquired in the Perez transaction from Montreal, where he was 13-13 with a 3.38 ERA for a last-place team. The bullpen is well stocked, with Eastwick, who had 26 saves in 71 appearances, Pedro Borbon (eight in 69 appearances) and Dale Murray, another former Expo who relieved in a league-leading 81 games last season.
The Reds finished 20 games ahead of the Dodgers in 1975 and 10 ahead of them last year. At that rate, the race should end in a dead heat this time. That's not likely, but it might be closer. By trading Bill Buckner to the Cubs for Rick Monday, the Dodgers have finally obtained the all-round centerfielder they have pursued ever since Willie Davis departed in 1973. At roomy Dodger Stadium, Monday will not hit 32 home runs, as he did in cozier Wrigley Field, but he does add left-handed power, good defense and fierce patriotism. It was Monday, Dodger fans will recall, who rescued the American flag from two protesters bent on setting it aflame in the Los Angeles left field last April 25. Monday has in mind capturing a different flag this year. "My goal is to play in the World Series," he says. "I've seen too many on TV."
Monday is not the only Dodger plus. Tommy John should be stronger after his comeback-of-the-year pitching performance (10-10) in '76, when he tested a left arm rebuilt by surgery. And Davey Lopes, who missed six weeks with a stiff neck and a pulled muscle in his rib cage and still stole 63 bases, is fit again. "Lopes is the catalyst," says new Manager Tom Lasorda. "If Davey gets on, that so-and-so will steal everything but the backstops and the stands. He's liable to swipe 100 bases. He'll be the sensation of the country."
Such hyperbole is not uncommon from Lasorda, a man of inordinate enthusiasm. His great strength, Dodger officials say, is as a motivator. "Alston [former Manager Walter] was a different kind," one veteran player says. "He wasn't a motivator. He believed in letting guys play and do the job. There were no bed checks or anything like that. His system worked very well until the early '70s, but lately there have been a lot of young players coming up who played under Lasorda in the minors and got motivation."
The new manager will be motivating a solid team. The infield of Steve Garvey at first (.317, 80 RBIs), Lopes at second, Bill Russell (.274) at short and Ron Cey (.274, 23 HRs, 80 RBIs) at third is exceeded in all-round competence only by Cincinnati's, and Monday will solidify an outfield that has Reggie Smith in right and Dusty Baker in left. The pitching, as usual, should be the best in the division. Don Sutton (21-10) heads a list of starters that includes John, Doug Rau (16-12), Rick Rhoden (12-3) and Burt Hooton (11-15). Knuckleballer Charlie Hough (12-8, 2.20, 18 saves) is the mainstay of the bullpen.
Incontestably, the most improved team in the division is San Diego. By signing free agent Gene Tenace from Oakland and by trading with Cleveland for George Hendrick, the Padres have added about 50 home runs to a feeble attack. And by signing another A's free agent, Rollie Fingers, they have assembled perhaps the best bullpen in the league. Fingers will join last year's co-Rookie of the Year, Butch Metzger (11-4, 2.93, 77 games), and Dave Tomlin, a lefthander who allowed just four earned runs in his last 28 appearances.
Randy Jones (22-14) has recovered handsomely from offseason arm surgery and will join Brent Strom (12-16, 3.28), Rick Sawyer (5-3, 2.52), Tom Griffin (9-6, 4.10) and, quite possibly, rookie Bob Shirley in the starting rotation. Tenace will be the catcher; last year's leading hitter, Mike Ivie (.291, 70 RBIs), will be on first; and veteran Doug Rader (.257) is at third. Hendrick (.265, 25 homers, 81 RBIs) is the centerfielder and Dave Winfield (.283, 13 home runs, 69 RBIs), who may now be approaching his apparently limitless potential, is in right. Rookie Gene Richards, who hit .331 in the Pacific Coast League, appears to be the leftfielder, although he has competition from Jerry Turner, who batted .267 in 105 games last year. Both are left-handed. Manager John McNamara will risk starting rookies Bill Almon and Mike Champion, who came up together from the Coast League, at short and second.
The Braves, Astros and Giants, not necessarily in that order, should have a lively, if fruitless, struggle for the three lowest rungs in the standings. Next to the Padres, the Braves, last in 1976, are most improved. The Astros have promising but inexperienced pitching. The Giants do not look like much, but they do have good pitching and young players, notably Outfielder Jack Clark, who has genuine star quality.
The Braves have added sluggers Gary Matthews, a free agent from the Giants, and Jeff Burroughs, a tradee from the Rangers, to a previously punchless lineup. Burroughs, who watched ruefully as the Texas winds blew his home runs back into Arlington Stadium, should find happiness—that being 35 homers—in the friendly Atlanta park. Matthews is a .287 lifetime hitter whose .279 last year was the lowest average in his five-year career. But he did hit 20 homers and drive in 84 runs in another windy facility, Candlestick Park. Matthews and Burroughs will play alongside Centerfielder Rowland Office, who had a 29-game hitting streak last year before an injured knee sat him down. The Braves will have First Baseman Willie Montanez (.317, 84 RBIs), who was picked up from the Giants last June, for the full schedule, and Andy Messersmith is back in good health after an injury-filled 11-11 season. Mike Marshall, the litigious reliever, is also fit after a year in which he endured knee, back and courtroom miseries. Surgery cured the back problem, which dates to an auto accident 22 years ago, and his alma mater, Michigan State, got him out of court for the time being by dropping charges against him of misusing campus athletic facilities. But the Braves still have a shaky infield and, even with Messersmith and Marshall, questionable pitching.
The Astros have solid major-leaguers in First Baseman Bob Watson (.313, 102 RBIs), Shortstop Roger Metzger, Third Baseman Enos Cabell (.273) and Centerfielder Cesar Cedeno (.297, 18 homers, 58 stolen bases), although Cedeno will miss the early weeks of the season because of an injured finger. In the 6'8", 235-pound J.R. Richard, who won 20 games with a 2.75 ERA, they have one of the fine young fastball pitchers in the game. Beyond Richard, Manager Bill Virdon will go with youngsters. The striplings, notably Joaquin Andujar (9-10, 3.61), did well in the Astros' stretch drive to third place in '76, but the hitters will be taking a second look at them this year. That bodes ill.
Pitching is not the Giants' problem; almost everything else is. They have four excellent starters in John (the Count) Montefusco (16-14, 2.85 and a no-hitter), Jim Barr (15-12, 2.89), Ed Halicki (12-14, 3.63) and Lynn McGlothen (13-15, 3.91 with St. Louis). All, regrettably, are righthanders. There are two lefthanders in the bullpen, Gary Lavelle (10-6, 2.70 in 65 appearances) and John Curtis (6-11, 4.50 in 37 games with St. Louis), to go with the estimable Randy Moffitt (6-6, 2.27 in 58 appearances). The Giants have 1976 batting champ Bill Madlock (.339 for the Cubs) at third base and mass confusion elsewhere in the infield. Chris Speier and light-hitting Johnnie LeMaster both want to play shortstop, and Derrell Thomas, Vic Harris and Tom Heintzelman are all itching to step in at second. However, the well-traveled Rob Andrews, obtained in a late trade, will probably get the job. Willie McCovey is home after three seasons in San Diego and is trying, at 39, to win his old position back. Much of his bat speed is gone, but he is still able to thump one now and then and revive memories of better times. If McCovey does not make it, Darrell Evans, who once hit 41 homers for the Braves but slumped to 11 homers and a .205 average last year, will try once more.
New Manager Joe Altobelli has a plethora of outfielders to choose from. Somewhere out of a sextet of rookie flash Clark, Larry Herndon, Evans, Gary Thomasson, Terry Whitfield and spring-training sensation Randy Elliott, a trio will emerge. Hard-throwing Marc Hill and Mike Sadek will do the catching. If San Francisco can muster any sort of offense, its pitching could carry it as high as fourth, a score or more games behind the champs.
San Diego may roll with Rollie
The relief pitcher is the least predictable of players. As often as not, the rally-dousing Fireman of the Year one season becomes the arm-weary Flop of the Year the next. So when Ray Kroc, the McDonald's magnate who also owns the Padres, signed a free-agent reliever to a six-season, $1.6 million contract, he figured to be called a meatball by the experts. He wasn't, simply because the man he hired was Rollie Fingers, who in eight full years at Oakland had suffered none of the vicissitudes of his trade. With the A's, he had an ERA of 2.90 and averaged 63 appearances, eight victories and 17 saves a season. He has been even stingier in 16 World Series appearances, with a record six saves and a 1.35 ERA. But perhaps the most important of Fingers' statistics is that he is only 30, although his handlebar mustache seems to have been with us since 1890. That means if he fails to lead the talented young Padres to the Series this season, he should be around for quite a few more tries. In the process, he may correct an injustice. The tireless Fingers has never been named the year's best reliever, having been edged out several times by men who are no longer stars. If he performs well for San Diego, a new title may have to be created just for him: Fireman of the Decade.