Welcome to the Mary Poppins division, where everything seems to be up in the air. Defending champion Houston gave up its soul. The Dodgers lost their most consistent winner, yet claim to be improved. Cincinnati made a couple of seemingly minor transactions but, in fact, substantially altered itself. Atlanta owner Ted Turner outraged both his peers and his players—no small feat, that. San Francisco acquired character when what it really needed was talent. The only club to forswear the West's fly-away logic, San Diego, gave up and started over.
Opinion is divided on how the Astros will fare after losing Joe Morgan, their second baseman and sparkplug, who as a free agent signed with the Giants. Houston couldn't have won the division without Morgan, who batted .300 the last month and a half of the season and ignited a 10-game winning streak down the stretch by calling a clubhouse meeting and reading the riot act to his teammates. "Morgan showed them how to win," says Dodger Rightfielder Reggie Smith. "I don't know if there's anyone who can take his place."
Houston Manager Bill Virdon, who puts more stock in a player's tangible qualities, thought so little of Morgan's diminished range that he often removed him in late innings, though it didn't always please his players.
Now Virdon feels the Astros may be better than ever. They picked up free agent Don Sutton (13-5) whose 2.21 ERA with Los Angeles led the league. Sutton will replace J.R. Richard (10-4), who's still recovering from last summer's stroke. In the spacious Astrodome, Sutton should reduce his yield of gopher balls—20 last season—but his usefulness can be overestimated. Considered a "seven-inning" pitcher at 35, Sutton in 1980 completed just four of his 31 starts, pitched his fewest innings (212) since 1968 and had the lowest strikeout total (128) of his major league career. Houston acquired another pitcher, San Francisco's Bob Knepper, in exchange for Third Baseman Enos Cabell. Knepper is the only lefthander on a starting staff that includes Sutton, Richard (if he makes it back), Joe Niekro (20-12), Vern Ruhle (12-4) and Nolan Ryan (11-10). The Astros are hoping the Knepper of 1981 will be the aggressive fellow who turned in records of 11-9 and 17-11 in '77 and '78, not the God Squad pacifist who slumped to 9-12 and 9-16 and shrugged off every loss as "God's will." If he doesn't work out, well, the bullpen of Dave Smith, Joe Sambito and Frank LaCorte had an aggregate record of 23-14 and 38 saves. The Astros should again lead the league in pitching.
The myth is that the Astros were a power-poor team who won with pitching, speed and defense. In truth, Houston outhomered the opposition 75-69—a statistic admittedly attributable more to the Astro pitchers than their batters—while playing inconsistent defense, especially in the infield. First Baseman Art Howe has been relocated at third, where he began his big-league career, and Rafael Landestoy will run down more balls at second than Morgan did. "Playing third is like riding a bicycle," says Howe. "Once you've learned it, you never forget."
With a weak bat at short (Craig Reynolds: .226), little power at catcher (Alan Ashby and Luis Pujols) and an inexperienced player at first (Danny Heep), the infield isn't Houston's strong suit. That's why the Astros gave a shocking $1.1-million, five-year deal to .240-hitting Texas utilityman Dave Roberts and acquired infielders Dickie Thon from California and Kiko Garcia from Baltimore.
Defense is so important to the Astros that they were willing to sacrifice Cabell's 21 stolen bases to be rid of his 29 errors. If Centerfielder Cesar Cedeno—48 steals—is reluctant to run after ankle surgery, the go-go offense that accounted for 194 stolen bases will lean more heavily than ever on the bats of Leftfielder Jose Cruz (.302, 11 homers. 91 RBIs) and Rightfielder Terry Puhl (.282; .526 in the playoffs). "People forget that we scored only 26 fewer runs than the Dodgers," says Sutton. But the Astros had few runs to spare. Pencil them in as the favorite, but barely.
Denying that Sutton's loss means a weaker Dodger team, Manager Tom Lasorda says, "Let me tell you something. Reggie Smith, who was batting .322, had to have shoulder surgery last summer. One reliever, Terry Forster, had an elbow operation and pitched only 12 innings. Another, Don Stanhouse, missed three months with back and shoulder trouble. Our shortstop, Bill Russell, broke the index finger of his throwing hand and was out the last three weeks, and Centerfielder Pete Guerrero was out a month with a knee injury. Yet we finished in a tie for first before losing the playoff game to Houston. Now we've got those guys. If they're healthy, we'll be better."
Obviously. Forster has given up the slider that wrecked his arm the last two seasons and gone back to his sharp curve. He says he's throwing without pain for the first time in six years. Adjusting to the injuries, the Dodgers uncovered depth in such performers as Rudy Law, Jay Johnstone and Derrel Thomas. The bullpen is well stocked with Forster, Stanhouse, Joe Beckwith. 1980 National League Rookie of the Year Steve Howe (17 saves) and 20-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, who didn't give up an earned run during an 18-inning cup of coffee last fall and could be L.A.'s third consecutive rookie award winner. Furthermore, Dave Goltz (7-11), who felt great pressure from having been a high-priced free agent, says he's now relaxed and ready to return to 20-win form.
But there's a Dodger downside, too. Comeback Player of the Year Jerry Reuss will be hard pressed to repeat his 18-6 record, and the other probable starters, Burt Hooton (14-8), Bob Welch (14-9), Goltz and 1979 Rookie of the Year Rick Sutcliffe (3-9) don't match up well with Houston's rotation. First Baseman Steve Garvey (.304, 200 hits, 26 homers. 106 RBIs, 835 consecutive games) and Leftfielder Dusty Baker (.294, 29 home runs, 97 RBIs) are the most dependable batters. The new centerfielder is Ken Landreaux, a .281 hitter last year with Minnesota.
Rightfield belongs to Smith if he can throw, and Guerrero or Law if he can't. In the DH-less National League, of course, an outfielder who doesn't throw doesn't play regularly, and during most of spring training. Smith was reduced to the demeaning—and irrelevant—job of designated hitter when the opponent was from the American League. "I have to reach the point where I can throw 200 feet on a line," says Smith, once the possessor of a cannonlike arm. "I still have to break the adhesions and rebuild the throwing process." Lasorda underscores Smith's importance thusly: "Would you rather wear blue jeans or a $200 suit?" If Smith is torn and tattered at 36, so are the aging wonderboys of Elysian Park.
By acquiring Mike Vail (.292 career average) and Larry Biittner (.272), the Reds improved their bench but not their Bench. After 13 consecutive seasons of catching 100 or more games, Johnny Bench will ease his tired and bruised body behind the plate just twice a week. Last season, largely because Bench was ailing, Cincinnati was particularly vulnerable 10 the steal. With Joe Nolan or Mike O'Berry behind the plate, the Reds just aren't the same. To compound the problem, Bench hopes to play semi-regularly at another position, probably first, third or right-field, Needless to say, the occupants of those spots—Dan. Driessen at first, Ray Knight at third and Dave Collins in right—aren't overjoyed by the prospect. But the dilemma extends beyond bruised feelings. When Bench isn't playing, the club will miss his power (24 homers). When he replaces Driessen, Knight or Collins, the league's best defense (106 errors) will suffer.
In other respects, however, the Reds should be improved. George Foster, who had, for him, a subpar season (.285, 25 homers. 93 RBIs), is healthier and happier, and there's no reason Ken Griffey (.294) can't edge back over .300. The double-play combination of Dave Concepcion at short and Ron Oester at second should be even better now that Concepcion has had calcium deposits removed from his right elbow.
"We figure we're a better team this year because of what we went through last year," says Manager John McNamara. What the Reds endured was traumatic: pitchers Tom Seaver (10-8) and Frank Pastore (13-7) were lost for more than a month apiece. Still, Cincinnati finished only 3½ games back because such youngsters as Joe Price, Mike LaCoss and Paul Moskau pitched well in their colleagues' absence, and Tom Hume had another fine year in the bullpen, with 25 saves. To avoid a further bout of tendinitis, Seaver threw daily over the winter, for the first time.
But it could take a 20-win season from either Pas-tore or Mario Soto (10-8) for the 1979 divisional champs to win. Pastore is the more likely candidate. At 23 he already has an excellent fastball, a good changeup and breaking ball and such pinpoint control that he walked only 42 batters in 185 innings. Soto, who was 9-5, with four saves and a 2.29 ERA after the All-Star break, has pitched in every capacity—long and short relief, spot starting—except that of a full time starter. Now he's got a front-line job. And no wonder: thanks to an excellent changeup, his ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched (182-190) led the league last year.
Atlanta had lost nine of its first 10 games when owner Turner tried unsuccessfully to demote Third Baseman Bob Horner (page 25) to the minors. Then Turner left town to get ready to compete in the America's Cup Trials, and the Braves set sail toward their best record (81-80) since 1974. Unfortunately, Turner returned. Over the winter he signed inconsistent Outfielder Claudell Washington to a whopping, five-year, $3.5 million contract. Then Turner refused to grant his redoubtable rightfielder, Gary Matthews, a deal similar to Washington's and traded him to Philadelphia for Pitcher Bob Walk. Matthews' punch—75 RBIs in '80—will be missed.
Nonetheless, the Braves' mood is generally upbeat. They can afford to be optimistic because they improved themselves dramatically up the middle. Bruce Benedict took over the catcher's job in midseason, hit .253, ended the longstanding Brave tradition of generosity toward base stealers and handled everything thrown his way, including Phil Niekro's dancing knuckler. Shortstop Rafael Ramirez hit .267 in 50 games. When Glenn Hubbard took over second from Jerry Royster, and Dale Murphy ended his pilgrimage—from first to catcher to left to right to center—the Braves had themselves a ball team. They were just six games out with three weeks to go.
The 6'5" Murphy is the first Brave to arrive at practice and the last to leave; he hits for points (.281) and power (33 homers, 89 RBIs) and races around the outfield like a cheetah. Playing his second straight partial season, Horner had 35 homers and 89 RBIs in just 124 games. Washington could contribute 25 or so stolen bases, a big boost to a club that was last in the league with 73, and give Atlanta another lefthanded bat to go with that of First Baseman Chris Chambliss.
Are the Braves contenders or pretenders? Consider the pitching. Niekro (15-18) and Gaylord Perry (10-13 with Texas and New York) are Hall of Fame candidates, to be sure, but they total 84 years between them. Perry admits that he's lost his-"hummer" altogether, and, of course, the knuckling Niekro never had one. Then there's John (The Count) Montefusco, who was 4-8 in a troubled season with San Francisco. Nonetheless, the Braves thought enough of his potential to trade Doyle Alexander (14-11) for him. The bullpen has Rick Camp (6-4, 1.92, 22 saves). Says Niekro, "I can't remember when I felt so good about this club." The Braves are probably no more than pretenders, but at least they're enthusiastic ones.
San Francisco once again has a harmonious clubhouse. The new manager succeeding Dave Bristol is Frank Robinson, and the Giants' most talented player, Rightfielder Jack Clark, is delighted with the change. Though Clark batted .284, with 22 homers and 82 RBIs, he earned a reputation for "playing dumb" by running unwisely and forgetting the number of outs on more than one occasion. He's expected to pay closer attention under Robinson.
Unfortunately, Robinson has little else to work with. San Francisco has a history of bringing up players with considerable promise who never bloom. Such was First Baseman Rich Murray's potential that Willie McCovey retired in midseason to make way for him: Murray was hampered by pulled hand ligaments and batted only .216. This year the Giants will try Cabell at first, leaving Darrell Evans at third. The odd man out is Mike Ivie, who could play left if it weren't for Jerry Martin, late of the Cubs. Elsewhere, Robinson has a $1 million infield at second base alone; Rennie Stennett ($600,000 a year) and Morgan ($400,000). Morgan will start.
The Giants could improve marginally if starters Vida Blue (14-10), Ed Whitson (11-13) and Alexander (14-11) have good years and rookie Fred Breining pitches as well during the season as he did in Arizona. Thanks to its excellent bullpen, San Francisco placed a respectable fourth in the league with a 3.46 ERA. Righthander Greg Minton had 19 saves, and Al Holland, a gem mined from the Pittsburgh organization, added seven more and a sparkling 1.76 ERA. The stocky Holland made maximum use of a fastball that can sail, tail—or nail—a righthanded batter.
The atmosphere in San Diego is almost festive. If the Padres lost their name players—Leftfielder Dave Winfield to free agency and Reliever Rollie Fingers and Catcher Gene Tenace in a trade with St. Louis—they also lost three unhappy souls who depressed both the clubhouse and their overmatched manager, Jerry Coleman. What's left are young players eager to establish reputations and a popular—but tough—new manager in Frank Howard. Howard literally grew in stature with his hiring; he was 6'7" during his playing career but is listed at 6'8" in the Padre press guide. His brightest new pupil is Catcher Terry Kennedy, who was acquired in the Tenace-Fingers deal. An outstanding but little-used prospect in St. Louis, Kennedy batted .254 in 84 games. "I'll catch every inning of every game if they want me to," he says. "I'm not worried about hitting or throwing. The most important contribution I can make is to help the team's young pitchers."
Despite their last-place finish, the Padres attracted 1,139,026 paying customers. Holdovers from that team include Shortstop Ozzie Smith and Leftfielder Gene Richards, who stole 57 and 61 bases respectively. Smith also won a Gold Glove, setting a major league record for shortstops with 621 assists, including 12 in a single day. "I want to add numbers onto my batting average but not sacrifice anything on defense," says Smith, who hit .230 but reached base 71 times on walks. Two former Yankees complete the outfield, Ruppert Jones in center (.223 last year) and Joe Lefebvre in right (.227).
Second Baseman Juan Bonilla, acquired last week from Cleveland, is an excellent fielder. Third Baseman Luis Salazar hit .337 in 44 games after coming up from Hawaii. And new First Baseman Randy Bass is a minor league legend who had 150 hits, 143 RBIs and 37 homers in only 123 games at Denver last season. Finally reaching the majors at age 27, Bass will supply whatever power the Padre lineup packs.
With a rejuvenated finger, Pastore should blur the ball past the hitters once again.