As curious as it may seem, a player who until the middle of spring training was on an American League roster has been for many months a pivotal influence in the affairs of the National League. Consider what might have happened if the Cincinnati Reds had succeeded in wresting Vida Blue from the clutches of Charles O. Finley. Their $1.75 million rescue effort was thwarted by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn on the grounds that the buying and selling of players at such a price would create imbalances in both leagues. Kuhn—and Cincinnati's National. League rivals—shuddered at the thought of Blue and Tom Seaver on a pitching staff supported by the Reds' awesome artillery. So now after months of haggling and with Bowie's blessing, Blue has been sent to the San Francisco Giants for seven able bodies and much less moolah; as a result, what figured to be another two-team race in the National League West looks more like a three-team affair. With the addition of Blue, the Giants have a pitching staff superior even to the Dodgers', while Los Angeles still has its championship team and Cincy still has its former championship team—plus Seaver. Because of the Dodgers' hot start, the race ended in May a year ago; it may not be decided until October this season.
With or without Blue, the Reds look to be the class of the division. The Dodgers are not likely to win 22 of their first 26 games again and effectively terminate meaningful hostilities before Memorial Day. The Reds are still a bit shy of qualified pitchers, but they are improved over a year ago, when their staff finished with a combined 4.22 ERA, 10th among National League teams. Seaver, who got 14 of his 21 wins after he joined the Reds on June 15, is now available for the full season, and at 33 he may still be, as Manager Sparky Anderson stoutly insists, "the best pitcher in baseball." He may not win 30 games, as some Rhineland zealots are forecasting, but he should be good for about 25.
To support Seaver, the Reds acquired Bill Bonham, a 29-year-old in-and-outer, from the Cubs. Bonham was 10-13 in Chicago last season, with a poor 4.35 ERA and only one complete game, but he feels the Cincinnati bats will transform him into a world-beater. "I'll have more confidence here," he says. "I won't be saying to myself, 'If I'd just gotten one more run....' " Anderson says, "We are very high on Bonham. We've got starting pitchers equal to anybody." That is an extravagant claim. In fact, the Reds have Seaver, Bonham, 35-year-old Fred Norman (14-13) and 24-year-old Paul Moskau, who was 6-6 in half a season. The fifth starter in the five-day rotation will be Tom Hume. Doug Capilla, who was 7-8 last year as a starter, is ticketed for the long relief job. The short men will be the tireless righthander Pedro Borbon and lefty Dave Tomlin, who had 22 saves for the Padres in '77.
The remainder of the Cincinnati lineup is as familiar to baseball fans as Murderers Row, the Gashouse Gang and the Boys of Summer. Bench, Driessen, Morgan, Rose, Concepcion, Foster, Geronimo, Griffey—they may march en masse into the Hall of Fame. Foster, who hit 52 homers and drove in 149 runs, was the latest Red, following Bench, Rose and Morgan, to be selected the league's Most Valuable Player. The Reds hit .274 as a team, had 181 homers and stole 170 bases. And they led the league in fielding. With a lot of help from Seaver, they should regain the division title.
This is not to say the Dodgers are any weaker. The same team that finished 10 games ahead of the Reds a year ago is back in force. It may even be a little better. Speaking of last season's champions, Dodger Blue-blooded Manager Tom Lasorda has said, "We felt we needed one thing, and that was left-handed relief help." In search of it, Los Angeles cast aside its prejudice against the open market and secured free agent Terry Forster, whose statistics at Pittsburgh last year (4.45 ERA, one save) are, in Lasorda's opinion, misleading. Forster was the American League's Fireman of the Year in 1974, when he saved 24 games for the White Sox. He injured his left shoulder the following year and nursed it the next two seasons by reducing his pitching repertoire to relatively untaxing fastballs and changeups. "I had to learn how to pitch," he says. "I also had to learn how to field line drives hit right back at me." Late last season at Pittsburgh he decided to risk throwing breaking pitches again, a gamble that paid off with three wins and an ERA of 2.00 in his last 18 innings.
The return to health of Centerfielder Rick Monday would also seem to strengthen the Dodgers. Monday suffered last season from a pinched nerve in his neck, which made his back ache and reduced by 30% the strength in his hands and arms. He was able to play only 118 games and hit .230 with 15 homers, sad figures for one capable of a .280 batting average and 30 homers. The Dodgers should be so lucky as to have only one injured player this year. Much of their success in '77 can be traced to their uncommon salubrity. Their starting pitchers—Don Sutton, Tommy John, Doug Rau, Burt Hooton and Rick Rhoden—scarcely missed a turn, starting 158 of the 162 games. And the regulars were just that—regular. As a result, most of them achieved career highs in one category or another. Ron Cey's 30 home runs and 110 RBIs were his best ever, and so were Davey Lopes' .283 average, 11 homers and 53 RBIs. The same went for Steve Garvey's 33 home runs and 115 RBIs, Dusty Baker's 30 homers, Reggie Smith's 32 homers and Bill Russell's .278 average. But for Monday's aching back, the Dodgers might have had five players with 30 or more homers. The team has few weaknesses. Catcher Steve Yeager is strong and durable, and the infield and outfield are sound defensively and offensively. Last year the Dodgers were both good and lucky. If they are merely good this year, it will not be good enough.
The Giants' overall talent does not compare with that of the two leading contenders, but San Francisco has enough pitching to supply an entire league. Such is their surplus that they could surrender four pitchers for Blue, including ace Reliever Dave Heaverlo and 21-year-old Alan Wirth, who is considered an outstanding prospect. But there is not a man in the San Francisco organization who does not think Blue was worth the price. He may literally be a franchise saver, because he is enormously popular on both sides of the Bay; win or lose, he is money in the bank whenever he pitches. He also gives Manager Joe Altobelli the leader his staff requires. With the left-handed Blue starting in rotation with Ed Halicki, the staff ace in '77 at 16-12, and John (The Count) Montefusco, who missed much of last season with back and ankle injuries, the Giants have three potential 20-game winners. Blue has reached that figure three times, even while being distracted by numberless run-ins with his despotic former boss. All three pitchers have thrown no-hitters, and they are all under 30.
After the trade was announced, Blue came to San Francisco's training camp long enough to model his new uniform and then went into hiding for a few days back home in Louisiana, hoping that his absence would prompt the Giants to modify the contract he had brought with him from Oakland. While he was away, Blue reflected on his boyhood and how it had never occurred to him that he would someday be paid to play. "Then Mr. Finley had me sign on the crooked line—oh, no, I mean dotted line," he said. The Freudian slip pretty well sums up Blue's years with Charlie O. His brief contract hassle with the Giants aside, he was delighted by the trade. He would not have to sell his home in Oakland, and, at 28, he would have a chance to complete a rare double. After 124 victories in the American League, he is aiming to win 100 games in the National.
Altobelli figures to use a four-man rotation, with the fourth man likely to be Bob Knepper. Jim Barr or Lynn McGlothen, who has recuperated from an arm injury, could also be members of the rotation. With six starters and a balanced bullpen of righthander Randy Moffitt and lefthander Gary Lavelle, the Giants are likely to be looking for another trade, this time swapping pitching for needed power. To add some punch, Altobelli shifted former batting champ Bill Madlock from third base to second and installed Darrell Evans at third. Playing third, first and the outfield last season, Evans hit 17 home runs. Johnnie LeMaster, a slick fielder with an uncertain bat, is the shortstop. Willie Mc-Covey, who hit 28 home runs and revived interest in the notion that life begins at 40, is back on first. Altobelli, whose constant tinkering a year ago won him acclaim as "Juggling Joe," will go with a set lineup this season, which means his outfield will be Terry Whitfield in left, Larry Herndon in center and the very promising Jack Clark in right. Strong-armed Marc Hill is the catcher. However, these regulars alone do not figure to carry San Francisco too far. The Giants' staff is their edge, and their position in the standings next October should do much to determine just what percentage of the game is, in fact, pitching.
Houston is another team that looks to its pitchers, many of whom were young and innocent a year ago—notably Mark Lemongello, 22, Floyd Bannister, 22, and Joaquin Andujar, 25. Lemongello may have matured during the season. On June 25 he was 1-11; at the end he was 9-14. The kid pitchers will team with 18-game-winner J. R. Richard, who is hardly doddering at 28, and 33-year-old Joe Niekro.
Lemongello was not the only Astro to finish with a rush. Centerfielder Cesar Cedeno, suffering from torn ligaments in the ring finger of his left hand, was batting .179 on June 22. From that date until the end of the season he hit .349, including a gaudy .417 in September, during which he also had five homers, 26 runs, 26 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. His Garrison finish earned him a lifetime multimillion-dollar contract with the Astros.
Houston is blessed with speed—Cedeno had 61 steals, Rightfielder Jose Cruz 44 and Infielder Enos Cabell 42—and good gloves. For a while this spring, Manager Bill Virdon considered realigning his infield—and benching slick Shortstop Roger Metzger, a .186 hitter—to get more punch. But a few days before breaking camp, Virdon reinstated the 1977 arrangement of Metzger, Art Howe (.264) at second, Cabell (.282, 16 homers) at third and Bob Watson, who had 110 RBIs, at first.
Virdon may have monkeyed with his infield, but no more than Alvin Dark did with his before his dismissal by San Diego on March 21. Dark thus became the first manager since the Cubs' Phil Cavarretta in 1954 to be cashiered in spring training. Dark, Padre officials say, could not "communicate"—that word again—with his players. He left a fine mess in the infield. Leftfielder Gene Richards had gone to first, Shortstop Bill Almon to second and Derrell Thomas, who played mostly in center field for the Giants last season, to third. Dark's successor, Roger Craig, may not be content with this alignment, but it is inconceivable that he will tamper with the Padres' outfield of Oscar Gamble in left, George Hendrick in center and Dave Winfield in right, who combined for 79 home runs last season.
It is on the mound where the Padres come a cropper. Gaylord Perry, approaching his 40th birthday and 250th victory, may be the ace if Randy Jones is not fully recovered from his arm ailments. Mickey Lolich, emerging from a year's retirement at 37, will be around to keep Perry company, although he may well be confined to the bullpen, particularly if Bob Owchinko, Bob Shirley and Dave Freisleben perform to expectations. With or without Lolich, the relief corps should be formidable with the indomitable Rollie Fingers and reliable Dan Spillner.
The Padres may be all mixed up, but they have not approached the level of disorder of the Atlanta Braves. "This is a very iffy team all around," says slugger Jeff Burroughs. "Everything has to click for us to have a half-decent season." Burroughs sounded a rare positive note last season with his 41 home runs and 114 RBIs. The rest was despair. Now the team is building anew, if not exactly afresh. Willie Montanez is gone. Andy Messersmith is gone. And so is Dave Bristol, the manager who yielded the helm for a few days during the season to yachtsman Ted Turner, the team's improbable owner. The new manager is Bobby Cox, whose combat training as a Yankee coach may stand him in good stead during the routs to come. The Braves have some hitting with Burroughs, Gary Matthews (17 homers) and Catcher Biff Pocoroba (.290), but they are weak defensively and the pitching, to borrow from Burroughs, is decidedly "iffy." Dick Ruthven (7-13) and 39-year-old Phil Niekro (16-20) are still around, and Cox has high hopes for Adrian Devine and Tommy Boggs, two righthanders acquired from Texas.
The Braves are at least determined not to challenge the powers of darkness. This spring they changed Infielder Jerry Royster's uniform number from 13 to 1. "I guess they thought that was why I had a bad year," said Royster, who hit .216.