Six months have passed since the zany 1973 divisional windup and people who should be able to define what happened are still as bewildered as they were when New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Chicago came down the stretch on a zigzag course to the wire. If confused, the division can at least be proud of the Mets: they won 20 games and lost only eight in the final month, beat Cincinnati in the playoffs and extended the Oakland A's to the final out of the seventh game of the World Series before succumbing. But the Mets were the only team in the division to finish the season above .500.
During the winter, five of the six teams made major deals to get ready for this year. New York was the one that did not. Oh, the Mets dabbled in the power market, angling for Joe Torre and Jimmy Wynn, but the asking price—Pitchers Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman—was too high. New York could indeed use a right-handed power hitter. The Mets were better than only the San Diego Padres in all the majors with a .246 team batting average and they were next to last in home runs, runs batted in and stolen bases. But pitching is the Mets' strength, and they do not want to distribute it throughout baseball. New York is now what the Dodgers were in the mid-'60s, a team built on pitching and defense.
Manager Yogi Berra seems to have titles chasing him around. He has managed for only three seasons—one with the Yankees and two with the Mets—and has won two pennants. Having Tom Seaver aboard does not hurt. Seaver is baseball's best pitcher—twice a Cy Young Award winner and an All-Star in each of his seven big-league seasons. Richest, too, with a new $172,000 contract. "Watching him pitch is something like a struggling artist watching Michelangelo paint," says Pittsburgh's Jerry Reuss. Seaver (19-10, 2.08 ERA), Matlack, Koosman and George Stone, the basic starting staff, won 59 of New York's 82 victories. Rookie righthander Craig Swan (2.34 ERA at Tidewater) will probably join the rotation. As for relievers, it is almost enough to say that Tug McGraw's ERA from Aug. 8 through Oct. 1 was 0.88. Harry Parker (8-4) and Ray Sadecki (5-4) can relieve or spot-start.
Rightfielder Rusty Staub has been hurting this spring but surely he deserves a season uninterrupted by injuries. Second Baseman Felix Millan and Shortstop Bud Harrelson give the Mets a lot of double plays and Catcher Jerry Grote is sound again, so New York is stand-pat strong. But the teams to beat have all been strengthened, and one of them, St. Louis, is radically changed after finishing second by only 1½ games.
The Cardinals seem to be recast as the Boston Red Sox West. Their hitting constantly frustrated by their own park, where they had only 27 homers in 1973, the Cards are now emphasizing pitching, defense and speed. And they do have speed. Veteran Lou Brock, young Bake McBride and former Red Soxer Reggie Smith compose, from left to right, an outfield rivaling San Francisco's in that department. McBride should be the best centerfielder the team has had since Curt Flood in 1969, and Smith, who batted .303 with Boston, fills a desperate need for an outfielder who can hit righthanded.
For the Cardinals to win, two things must happen. First, Torre must prove that an inflamed right shoulder joint no longer restricts his normal free-flowing swing. "I feel no pain, compared to what it was like last season," he says. "Now it is a matter of getting my timing back."
The second necessity is that the pitching staff must prove better on the mound than it looks on paper. In trading Rick Wise and Reggie Cleveland to Boston the Cardinals lost two stalwarts in a rotation that helped give St. Louis the second-best ERA in the league (3.25 to Los Angeles' 3.00). Bob Gibson's knee injury last August was a heavy blow. Because Gibson's condition was still somewhat uncertain in spring training, Alan Foster (13-9) had to be considered the No. I right-handed starter, with John Curtis (13-13 with the Red Sox) the top lefty. Mike Thompson and Lynn McGlothen (also in from Boston) have been in competition for other starting spots.
No matter how strongly the Cards believe in their chances, the Pirates probably must be considered favorites again. They have dealt away some young talent to get two left-handed starting pitchers. Reuss from Houston and Ken Brett from the Phillies, and Danny Murtaugh, the only Pittsburgh manager to win pennants in a quarter of a century, will be handling the team for the entire season after replacing the scuttled Bill Virdon last September.
This spring Murtaugh was sitting in the dugout before a game against the Reds when he saw his opposite number, Sparky Anderson, take off his cap and exhibit a head of hair turned white. "How can a man who manages a team like the Reds grow old?" mused Murtaugh. A lack of pitching will cause it. So will poor defensive play. And those are two things that also may plague the Pirates.
Already the possessor of a fine fastball and curve, Reuss. 24, spent six months developing a slider that he is no longer afraid to throw. If it hums, Reuss could be one of the best assets the Pirates ever banked. Last season was only the third winning one in eight years of professional ball for Brett, 25. He attained fame with the Phillies when he hit home runs in four consecutive games and also handled 52 fielding chances without an error. But the important thing is that Brett can pitch.
Neither Steve Blass nor Bruce Kison could last year and spent time in the Florida Instructional League. Blass trying to get the mechanics of his form back in sync and Kison trying to recover from a siege of wildness during which he walked 106 batters at Charleston and Pittsburgh while striking out 96. Blass, whose record went from 19-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 1972 to 3-9 and 9.81 in 1973, was still struggling in spring training, and Dock Ellis (12-14) is coming off knee surgery. But the Pirates are strong in the bullpen with Ramon Hernandez and Dave Giusti, whose palmball has made him the only $100,000 relief pitcher in history.
Another big bat goes into the rack to join those bearing the names Stargell, Hebner, Sanguillen, Oliver and Zisk. This one says Parker. Dave Parker is 22 years old. Dumped into the September pressure last season by Murtaugh, he hit .354, and then he led the Dominican League last winter with .335. Murtaugh has been experimenting with Parker at first base just in case Bob Robertson's bat does not rebound from two mediocre years.
The Cubs have not won a pennant in 28 summers. You can probably make that 29 right now. Most of the big Cub names and big Cub salaries have been scattered across baseball: Ferguson Jenkins to Texas, Randy Hundley to Minnesota, Glenn Beckert to San Diego, Ron Santo to the other side of Chicago. The Cubbies are on a youth kick and nobody, but nobody, can blame Owner Phil Wrigley for succumbing to the urge to change.
Only Shortstop Don Kessinger remains from last year's infield. Billy Williams has been pulled in from left field to play first, where he saw some duty near the end of '73. "It's strange not seeing guys you worked with during the last seven years," says Williams. "I'm surprised I'm still here."
The Jenkins trade with Texas begat Second Baseman Vic Harris and Third Baseman Bill Madlock. Perhaps it might be reassuring for Cub fans to remember that Bob Short of the Rangers is the same Bob Short who traded Aurelio Rodriguez and Eddie Brinkman to Detroit in the Denny McLain deal of 1970. Harris (.249 for Texas in 152 games) is a switch hitter with stealing speed, which the Cubs need. "I like it here," he says. "Some guys are just starting out like me, but there are still older guys around to get advice from."
Madlock had an excellent season (.338, 90 RBIs) at Spokane and also hit .351 when advanced to the Rangers for 21 games. The new catcher is George Mitterwald from Minnesota, the new leftfielder Jerry Morales (.281 at San Diego). Holdover Rick Monday hit a lot of homers early last year but tailed oft" later. Still, he led the team with 26 and scored 93 runs. Jose Cardenal had his best year (.303) and was the Cubs' top player in '73.
But who pitches for Chicago in '74? The Cubs still have to come up with a left-handed starter, and they can only hope that Burt Hooton (14-17), Rick Reuschel (14-15) and Bill Bonham (7-5), all still young, will improve.
Philadelphia has already suffered a cruel blow, one that may prevent a young and potentially exciting team from contending. Wayne Twitchell (13-9, 2.50 ERA) has had a leg in a cast and probably will not even be allowed to start throwing until later this month. Without Twitchell the Phillies will be short of pitching but Steve Carlton, who went from 27-10 in 1972 to 13-20 in '73, is "throwing better this spring than I did at any time during the '73 season."
Unlike recent seasons, the Phils enter this one with a set lineup that can held the ball. And nobody knows yet just how far Greg Luzinski can hit it. The team is young and daring but the loss of Twitchell could be disastrous.
For Montreal, last year was actually two seasons. Until the All-Star break the Expos played predictably mediocre baseball and were seven games under .500. Afterward they played what passed, in the division, for very good baseball—three games over .500—and were in serious contention until a seven-game losing streak did them in. The Expos finished fourth and gave Jarry Park its first taste of pennant fever.
Steve Rogers, who came up from Peninsula on July 16 and had a 10-5 record, plus a superb 1.59 ERA, catapulted the team into contention. "Nobody's ever been that good." says Manager Gene Mauch. "Veteran or rookie, nobody that I've seen ever pitched any better than he pitched. He made 17 starts and gave us 17 chances to win."
Rogers says, "People ask if I was surprised to do as well as I did. Heck, anyone who makes it to the major leagues has confidence in his ability. Pleased? Yes. Shocked? No. There's going to be more pressure this year. Last year there wasn't any until the end. And we handled it pretty well."
Mauch hopes there is more pressure. "I hope these players put the pressure on themselves." The trade of the fine reliever, Mike Marshall, to Los Angeles for Willie Davis caused consternation in Montreal but Mauch says, "I put a higher premium on a first-class centerfielder than I do on a first-class relief pitcher."
Each season Montreal has been fortunate in the bullpen and Mauch now must pray that someone will surface to take Marshall's place. Mauch also must get better years out of Mike Torrez (9-12), Balor Moore (7-16), Ernie McAnally (7-9) and Bill Stoneman (4-8).
But then everybody has pitching problems. Everybody except the Mets.