Armed with confidence bred by two straight pennant-winning years, plus the best pitching in the National League, the Braves, who also have some pretty fair batters, are the team to beat. At 25, Henry Aaron is already one of the mighty hitters in baseball. He, along with Wes Covington, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock, can knock a ball out of sight at any time. Left Fielder Covington, playing only 90 games because of a bum knee, nevertheless hit 24 homers and drove in 74 runs. He seemed to be in good condition this spring: what might he do with two sound legs? Mathews, despite a subpar batting average, hit 31 home runs. Del Crandall, the finest handler of pitchers around, hits with good power and is ably backed up by the veteran Del Rice. Adcock is still bothered by injuries, but that leaves first base in the competent hands of Frank Torre, a superior gloveman who stepped in and batted .309 last year. Still the best lefty-righty combination in the league, if not all baseball, the fun-loving pitching twins Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette picked up 42 wins between them. The venerable Spahnie, at 38, looks as if he will never slow down, and Burdette, a mere 32, is just getting warmed up. Behind these two pitching geniuses is the best depth in the league. When Bob Buhl, an 18-game winner the previous season, was forced to the sidelines by a bad shoulder for more than three months last summer, Joey Jay, the 23-year-old ex-Little Leaguer, and Rookie Carlton Willey moved right into the starting rotation. The two won 16 games between them; Jay had a scintillating 2.13 ERA and Willey a solid 2.70. Youthful Juan Pizarro is on the verge of big things, and Bob Rush is yet another dependable starter. Reliever Don McMahon's only problem on a staff that completed 72 of its games is how to find work. Then there are also Bob Trowbridge and Humberto Robinson, neither of whom gets the action his pitching qualifications seem to deserve or that he would get on any other club.
The major weakness of the Braves seems to be an inability to escape injury or sickness. The team broke through to a pennant when it obtained the inspirational Red Schoendienst to play second base. Now Red is recovering from tuberculosis, and the Braves need someone to take his place. They thought they had their man in Mel Roach, who hit so well last summer when Schoendienst was out of the lineup with injuries, but Roach has a torn knee ligament and no one knows when, or if, he'll be able to take over. Felix Mantilla and Casey Wise are two reserve infielders who can play second fairly well, but neither can hit. There are shaky knees in the outfield (Bruton's in center and Covington's in left) which don't help an already questionable defense. Buhl's absence wasn't noticed too much last year—after all, the Braves did win the pennant—but this year it might be different. The Braves would still like Pizarro to come through, since some make the rash assumption that Spahn is not eternal, and 37-year-old Andy Pafko is the only experienced replacement in the outfield.
ROOKIES AND NEW FACES
The Braves would have stood pat if it hadn't been for Schoendienst's illness. Since then Birdie Tebbetts, John McHale, Fred Haney and Co. have searched long and hard for a second baseman to take his place. Rookie Chuck Cottier, who was a good fielder in the minors but a weak hitter, was given a careful look in spring training. His inexperience seems to be too much to overcome, though; and the Braves' frantic efforts to talk some other team out of an established second baseman finally landed them Johnny O'Brien, of all people. He's a handy reserve but not the big second baseman Milwaukee was looking for. Injury-prone Catcher Stan Lopata also came from the Phils and will add bench strength. The Braves, as usual, have many fine young pitchers coming up from their farm system, but it's tough to crack Milwaukee's staff. Because he's a left-hander, 21-year-old Bob Hartman may have the best chance.
THE BIG IFS
The Braves couldn't play pennant-winning baseball before Red Schoendienst came along, and they may not be able to now that he is gone. Covington's big bat will be badly missed if his knee fails again. If Shortstop Johnny Logan muddles through another .226 year, the Braves' infield defense will be that much weaker, because his hitting seems to affect his fielding. It's possible, too, that Spahn might be nearing the end of the line. With so few replacements, except for pitching, injuries to any other key man might mean sudden death to "Milwaukee hopes of retaining the pennant.
Despite the loss of Schoendienst, the Braves are still a solid club with a lot of pitching and hitting. It's a moot point whether any of the pack snapping at Milwaukee's heels is ready to take advantage of Red's absence. But it is a tough league, and Milwaukee can't relax if it intends to win again.
PAST PERFORMANCE CHART
RUNS BATTED IN