Last season the weak were stronger; this year the strong are weaker, so the cause of equality will again be served. Since 1973 the Dodgers and the Reds have exchanged first-and second-place finishes in a division where the rich have habitually gotten richer. But last season the beefed-up Giants were on top from May 12 to Aug. 6—except for the single day of June 7—and the ruling order was shaken. At the finish, the Dodgers were again first and the Reds second, but both were awash with foreboding. And now each has lost a previously invaluable player.
The Dodgers are best equipped to deal with adversity, because in 22-year-old righthander Bob Welch they have a ready replacement for the departed free agent, Tommy John. According to his pitching coach, Red Adams, Welch "has one of the best fast balls in the league." He also throws a wicked curve, and he is laboring to perfect a changeup. Welch, it seems, is the real article, but John won 17 games in '78 and 20 in '77 and is recognized as a nonpareil competitor. "We can't measure the loss of Tommy John until October," says Steve Garvey realistically.
Even if the kid should unaccountably fall flat on his downy cheeks, the Dodgers' pitching will remain strong. Welch joins a starting rotation of Burt Hooton, Don Sutton, Doug Rau and Andy Messersmith. Andy Messersmith? Yes, baseball's Simon Bolivar, the man who in a 1975 contract hassle with Los Angeles got the free-agent business started, is back in Dodger blue. Messersmith may have liberated his compatriots, but his own career went distinctly sour in the process. After two mediocre seasons in Atlanta, he joined the Yankees last year and separated his shoulder during spring training. The Yankees released him at the end of the season, but Messersmith, 33, was convinced that he could still pitch. He was given a tryout by the Dodgers on Jan. 25, and 13 days later he signed a two-year contract. "He is the greatest steal since the Brink's job," says his optimistic manager, Tommy Lasorda. Or maybe since the last corner grocery bubble-gum heist.
The Dodger starting lineup will be the same: Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson alternating at catcher, Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at short, Ron Cey at third, Dusty Baker in left, Rick Monday in center and Reggie Smith in right. Gone to Pittsburgh is versatile Lee Lacy, but Lasorda hopes another Jack-of-most-trades, Derrel Thomas, will fill the holes Lacy once plugged up in the infield and outfield. This is still a team of power, speed and pitching. Its defensive weaknesses in the infield generally have not surfaced until World Series time, and by then it has been too late for the rest of the National League. The same pattern seems likely to be repeated this season.
The Giants might inch one step closer to the top, displacing the troubled Reds in second place. Manager Joe Altobelli has virtually the same team that revived baseball in San Francisco a year ago. Only the Giants are not the same, because they are a year older and, presumably, wiser. Jack Clark, the 23-year-old budding superstar, is also about 10 pounds heavier at a still-lean 205. He approached his apparently fathomless potential in '78 by hitting .306 with 25 homers and 98 RBIs, but he looked even stronger this spring. Clark needs to polish his outfielding, which borders on the erratic, and his base running, which borders on madness, but even if he accomplishes neither of these, he could soon be a triple-crown threat.
Altobelli is convinced he has found his leadoff man and centerfielder in Bill North, late of the Dodgers and the A's, who signed this spring as a free agent. North has led the American League in stolen bases, he switch-hits, and he has played on championship teams. His influence on the young Giants, if only by example, could be a big factor.
There are problems in the infield, but one of them is of the sort managers appreciate—an overloaded position. At first base Altobelli has an aging immortal, Willie McCovey, who insists he can still play at 41, and a young slugger, Mike Ivie, who feels his time has come. Ivie hit .308 last year as a part-timer and drove in 55 runs, 20 as a pinch hitter. He reported to the Giant training camp 20 pounds lighter at 205 and announced himself ready to play full time. After a brilliant 1977 season, McCovey last year hit only .228, with 12 homers in 108 games, but he was among the league's RBI leaders until the All-Star break. A shoulder injury in August cost him much of the rest of the season. This spring McCovey reported at 215 pounds, seven fewer than a year ago and, to the consternation of many, announced himself ready to play. He can still hit, but after a succession of knee injuries, his mobility afield is so limited even his fellow infielders are complaining. Ivie will probably get the job, but McCovey's enormous popularity in San Francisco creates a problem of tact here.
A more serious, if less delicate, problem exists at shortstop, where Johnnie LeMaster and Roger Metzger are in competition. Platooning the two, even though Metzger is a switch-hitter, didn't work last year, but neither seems capable at the moment of handling the job alone. A solution is imperative, because the Giants are set at third and second with Darrell Evans, who hit 20 homers, and Bill Madlock, who batted over .300 for the fifth time in five big league seasons. The catcher is strong-armed Marc Hill, but he must improve his anemic hitting—.243 with only three homers in 117 games—if the Giants are to make a serious run at the Dodgers.
It is on the mound that San Francisco is at its best. The starting rotation of Vida Blue (18-10), Bob Knepper (17-11), Ed Halicki (9-10 but a 2.85 ERA) and John Montefusco (11-9) is potentially the equal of any, and the bullpen from which Randy Moffitt and Gary Lavelle emerge is truly a bastion. The key man is Montefusco, who had an off season. "I was just plain stupid last year," the Count acknowledges. "I went with my fastball and forgot about all the other pitches. The hitters were just sitting on my fastball. If I'd had a good year, we would've won it."
The Reds might have won it but for injuries and creeping old age among their established stars, notably Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench. Morgan is 35, but his sorry 1978 season—.236 with 13 homers and 19 stolen bases—can probably be attributed more to a stomach-muscle pull than to advancing years. He is healthy this year, but the peculiar jabbing stroke he developed while swinging with pain persists as a bad habit. Seaver, 34, concedes that "my days of striking out 16 to 18 a game are over." He was 16-14 last year, but in 15 of his 36 starts his teammates scored two runs or fewer, and a pulled calf muscle contributed to a painfully slow beginning. His ERA was 6.52 for his first six starts. Bench is only 31, but he has caught 1,500 games during the last 12 seasons. Catchers age quickly, and Bench, bothered much of last year with a bad back, may already be playing on borrowed time.
But age is not as conspicuous a factor in the Reds' scheme of things as is the absence of Pete Rose and Manager Sparky Anderson. Rose defected to Philadelphia for the well-publicized zillion dollars, and Anderson was summarily cashiered, presumably for not winning the division in his last two years. He is succeeded by John McNamara, an affable, intelligent, low-keyed former manager at Oakland and San Diego. McNamara has appointed Ken Griffey as Rose's replacement at leadoff hitter and Ray Knight as his successor at third base. Griffey is speedier than Rose and will steal more bases and beat out more infield hits, and Knight, in his own opinion at least, is a better fielder. "I'm a better third baseman than Pete," he has said, "and everyone here knows it." Possibly, but Pete Rose had other qualities, as the Hall of Fame voters will eventually confirm.
The Reds still have George Foster, the league's home-run and RBI champion the last two seasons, but they will need improved bat work from First Baseman Dan Driessen (.250) and Centerfielder Cesar Geronimo (.226) to crank up the Old Red Machine. Beyond Seaver, the Reds' pitching is a fright. Bill Bonham is recovering from elbow surgery, Paul Moskau is coming off a poor season and Fred Norman is 36. Tom Hume, who won five games on the Reds' fall tour of Japan, will be the fifth starter if he can conquer a tendency to come in tantalizingly high with his fastball. The bullpen, with Doug Bair and Pedro Borbon, seems good enough. But Red bats can no longer support Red arms.
Pitching should be San Diego's strong suit. Forty-year-old Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry (21-6), whose hair—what little there is of it—is now gray, heads a staff of starters that includes Randy Jones, Eric Rasmussen, Bob Owchinko and Steve Mura. The Padres' bullpen of Rollie Fingers, who had 37 saves in '78; John D'Acquisto; Mark Lee, who was 5-1 in 56 appearances as a rookie; and Bob Shirley is hard to beat. D'Acquisto was the happiest surprise of last season. He had 10 saves, 104 strikeouts in 93 innings and a 2.13 ERA. A 1974 Rookie of the Year with the Giants, he had been plagued with seemingly incurable wildness. His fastball has been clocked at 100 miles an hour, but as one former manager remarked, "He couldn't keep it in this room." He experimented last season with a simplified delivery, which involved keeping his elbow up and his wrist uncurled, and—voilà!—he got control. D'Acquisto was sustained in his long search for the plate by the experience of another pitcher who suffered from wildness early in his career. "I just kept telling myself, 'Sandy Koufax, Sandy Koufax,' " D'Acquisto says.
The Padres also have some offensive punch, particularly in an outfield of Jerry Turner (.280) in left, Gene Richards (.308) in center and Dave Winfield (.308) in right. Richards started last season as a first baseman, a position now occupied by Mike Hargrove, who was obtained in a trade with Texas. Manager Roger Craig assumes that Hargrove's .251 season in '78—he averaged .303 during his first four big league seasons—was an aberration.
Bill Almon is the second baseman, rookie Barry Evans is at third, and last year's rookie sensation, Ozzie Smith, is a superb shortstop. Gene Tenace, who commuted between catcher and first last year and, possibly because of it, hit only .224, is now strictly a catcher. "This is the first time the Padres have been a real contender," says Craig.
With a little more success on the road, the Astros, who finished 21 games back in '78, could make it a five-team race. In the Astrodome they were a pennant-contending 50-31; outside it they were a cellar-dwelling 24-57. "There are climatic changes outside the Astrodome," Manager Bill Virdon correctly concludes. "It always takes two or three days to adjust after playing indoors." Inside or out, Houston must get a full season from its star, the unpredictable Cesar Cedeno, to be a contender. Cedeno tore a knee ligament sliding into second base against the Cubs last June 16. "I looked up," he recalls, "and the top of the Dome was spinning." He was virtually finished for the season. This year he will be flanked in the outfield by Terry Puhl in right and Jose Cruz, who hit a very quiet .315 in 1978, in left. Bob Watson, whom the Astros wanted to trade but didn't, will be the first baseman, and Craig Reynolds, whom Seattle wanted to trade and did, is the new shortstop. Reynolds hit .292 last year, but Mariner Manager Darrell Johnson decided he was not quick enough to play shortstop on the Kingdome's artificial surface. Now the Astros will see if he's quick enough for the rug in another dome.
League strikeout-leader J. R. Richard heads a pitching staff that also includes Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, Vern Ruhle and, possibly, Joaquin Andujar. The bullpen is weak.
Most of the talk in the Atlanta Braves' camp was about a man who was not there—Rookie of the Year Bob Horner. Horner hit 23 homers in 89 games last year, 19 of them in Atlanta Stadium and the other four in similarly cozy Wrigley Field. He absented himself from most of spring training over a salary squabble that, in the view of the Braves' owner, Ted Turner, merits him Ingrate of the Year honors. With Horner, who at the eleventh hour allowed that he'd play for Atlanta, the Braves are long on power. Gary Matthews, who had 18 homers despite missing 27 games with an injured shoulder; Jeff Burroughs (23); and Dale Murphy (23) are all bombers. But the team finished last in the league in team batting (.244) and pitching (4.08 ERA) and last in the division standings. Young (25) Larry McWilliams and old (40) Phil Niekro will be heroic on the mound, but the Braves are not likely to gain ground.
Whether the Dodgers can make it three in a row in the West may depend on how well precocious fastballer Bob Welch steps in for Tommy John in the rotation. Playing only half the 1978 season in the majors, Welch had a 7-4 record, a 2.03 ERA and a stirring World Series debut.