Even the poorest teams in this talent-rich division are not without means, and most seem to have improved their situations in heavy winter trading. But alas, it is the richest who have gotten richer. The Cincinnati Reds, winners of the division title the last two years, have added to their bulging coffers the spare change needed to make a down payment on the one property that has eluded them through these prosperous years—the world championship.
The Reds lost in the league playoffs last season to the Mets, principally, it is said, because they were one pitcher, one centerfielder and one shortstop shy of perfection. In Dave Concepcion they had the shortstop already in the bank, but he spent the last half of what had been his best season (.287 batting average) on the disabled list with a broken left ankle. Concepcion tested the mended bone in the Venezuelan winter league and diagnosed himself fit for a full season. He will rejoin Dan Driessen (.301), Joe Morgan (.290, 116 runs, 26 home runs, 67 stolen bases) and Tony Perez (.314, 101 RBIs) in the league's most offensive infield.
The Reds also had a centerfielder last year, but Bobby Tolan suffered a woeful .206 season that left him disgruntled and expendable. Tolan was dispatched to San Diego for Clay Kirby, the pitcher the Reds felt they needed to flesh out a frequently maligned but nevertheless competent staff. Then they traded Pitcher Ross Grimsley to Baltimore for a new and much more congenial centerfielder, Merv Rettenmund, who hit .262 in 1973 but has had back-to-back .300-plus seasons.
"I got lucky," said jolly Merv. "I've gone from a winner to a winner."
Rettenmund joins a talented outfield crew that includes Pete Rose, the swift young Ken Griffey, who hit .327 in Indianapolis and .384 in 25 games with last year's Reds, and the good-field, not-much-hit Cesar Geronimo.
Kirby will add a needed right wing to the pitching staff. Two of the four starters—Don Gullett (18-8) and Fred Norman (13-13)—are lefthanders. Kirby (8-18 with the last-place Padres) and Jack Billingham (19-10) are the righthanders, although both Roger Nelson and Gary Nolan are attempting to come back from injuries suffered last year. Nelson might even make it. Tom Hall and Clay Carroll, who slumped in 1973, ordinarily are capable relievers.
Behind the plate there is merely Johnny Bench who, though weakened by chest surgery last season, contrived to hit 25 home runs and drive in 104 runs.
"I can say we have the best team in baseball," says Manager Sparky Anderson, "but we have yet to prove it. We have not won the big one yet and the big one is the World Series."
Walter Alston's Los Angeles Dodgers have established in the past that they can win the big one. What they have not seemed to be able to do lately is get past the Reds. They led the division into September, then succumbed, a collapse which Alston can view with the detachment of a man who has occupied the same job for going on 21 years.
"We won a lot of games early in the year that we didn't deserve to win," he says. "We were lucky. We were a young team, and a lot of our kids were hitting .300. You expect young players to level off. The trouble was, all of our kids leveled off at the same time."
Some of the Dodger youngsters did not seek out the lower levels, though. Steve Garvey, 25, and Bill Buckner, 24, the platooning first basemen, hit .304 and .275, respectively; Third Baseman Ron Cey, 26, hit 15 home runs and drove in 80 runs; Shortstop Bill Russell, 25, played in all 162 games and hit .265, and Second Baseman Dave Lopes, 27, hit .275 and stole 36 bases.
The Dodgers may also have improved themselves overall. By trading Claude Osteen to Houston for Jim Wynn, they acquired a proven, though erratic, power hitter (223 career home runs) to play center field. Another new man is the scholarly Mike Marshall, who throws an educated screwball and appeared in a major-league-record 92 games for the Expos in 1973, compiling an earned run average of 2.66. He won 14 games and saved a league-leading 31 others. A doctoral candidate in physiology at Michigan State University, he attributes the maddening deviations of his favorite pitch to his expertise in "kinesiology—the study of the principles of mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement."
He may not find kindred intellects among his new colleagues, but as a pitcher of repute he should feel right at home, for Dodger pitching is, as always, exceedingly good. The starters will be Andy Messersmith (14-10), Tommy John (16-7), Al Downing (9-9), Doug Rau (4-2), who was used infrequently last season but was impressive in spring training, and the folksy Don Sutton (18-10), who says he was reared in a Florida town so rustically tough that in the local bar "they searched you for a weapon. If you didn't have one, they gave you one."
The San Francisco Giants, even without traded superstars Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, have ample weaponry. For the first time in nearly four years as manager. Charlie Fox can field a fixed lineup of young players with potential. And he has an outfield of Bobby Bonds (39 home runs. 43 stolen bases), Garry Maddox (.319) and Gary Matthews (.300) that is the fleetest and probably the finest in the game. Tito Fuentes at second and Chris Speier at short are strong offensively and defensively. And First Baseman Ed Goodson (.302) and Third Baseman Dave Kingman (24 home runs in 112 games) will finally be given the opportunity to play regularly.
What the Giants do not have and have not had for several seasons is dependable pitching. "I suppose we're in the same boat with a lot of other clubs," says Fox. "We have two good starting pitchers, then we start scratching."
The two good starters are Lefthander Ron Bryant, who led the league in wins last season with 24, and Tom Bradley, who won 13 and lost 12 in his first National League season. Fox hopes to fill out his starting rotation with Lefthander Mike Caldwell, acquired in the McCovey trade with San Diego, and John D'Acquisto, a terrifically hard thrower who struck out 29 batters in 28 late-season innings with the Giants last year. Jim Barr (11-17) is the swing man who can start or relieve, and Randy Moffitt and Elias Sosa are the two full-time relievers. The Giants could use another starting pitcher as well as backup help for Catcher Dave Rader, a slight 165-pounder who tends toward fatigue in the late going. But the outfield alone should be an inducement for San Francisco's perennially reluctant fans to go out to Candlestick.
"It's in the stars" is the celestial slogan the Houston Astros have adopted for themselves this year. Indeed, there are a few shining lights in their firmament. There are also some stars who have fallen.
Larry Dierker, the onetime Wunderkind, has had a tendon repaired in his pitching hand, but he is still bothered by a mysterious ache in his pitching shoulder. And then there is the heartache. He has gone through a painful divorce. And he was arrested—and later freed—on a manslaughter charge after a car he was driving ran down a hitchhiker.
But his troubles are as nothing compared with those of his teammate, Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno's emotional fiber will be sorely tested this long season, and how well he survives the ordeal can determine how high the Astros rise. He was not charged with murder in the death of a young girl in the Dominican Republic last December, but he remains vulnerable to the taunts of fans and opposing players. Inevitably, the question of his own state of mind must arise.
"A lot depends on whether he gets off to a good start," says Infielder Denis Menke. "If he doesn't, they will be after him."
The Astros have improved themselves in other areas. They picked up a strong-armed catcher from Pittsburgh in Milt May and they buttressed their bullpen by adding Jerry Johnson from Cleveland and Fred Scherman from Detroit. They have also acquired the redoubtable Osteen (16-11 with the Dodgers) to add quality to a pitching staff that remains questionable.
And they do glitter offensively, with Lee May (28 homers, 105 RBIs), Doug Rader (21 homers. 89 RBIs), Bob Watson (16 homers, 94 RBIs, .312) and defensively, with Roger Metzger at short, Tommy Helms at second. Rader at third and the sensational Cedeno in center.
The big problem in Atlanta would seem to be when and, more important, where Henry Aaron is going to hit those home runs. Another question is whether anybody will care about the Braves after Aaron does the deed. The team hits well—and does just about everything else badly. The Braves were last in the league in pitching a year ago and next to last in fielding, and not much good at thinking, either.
"We made mistakes you couldn't believe," says Pitcher Gary Gentry, "like throwing the ball into the infield wrong."
The infielders were not bad at throwing the ball into the outfield, either. Seventy-seven errors were committed by Third Baseman Darrell Evans, Shortstop Marty Perez and Second Baseman Dave Johnson. But then Johnson and Evans also combined to hit 84 home runs. Tit, as it were, for tat. Unfortunately, the Braves will just have to find some other record for Aaron to break if they are to keep things lively down South.
The team that has helped itself the most was last year's worst, San Diego. Everything—including new white home uniforms replacing the ghastly yellow number of a year ago—seems to be new with the Padres. They have a new owner, Ray Kroc, the hamburger king; a new manager, John McNamara, who quickly won the confidence and the affection of his players; and such new players as McCovey, Glenn Beckert, Matty Alou and Bobby Tolan, who bring new power.
There are also holdover stars Dave Roberts (21 homers, .286), John Grubb (.311) and Nate Colbert (22 homers), but the pitching is of dubious merit. Only Steve Arlin (11-14) and Bill Greif (10-17) deserve major league rank.
Still, the Padres just might get out of the cellar. That will leave them many floors below the penthouse, which should be occupied as usual by the rich folks from Cincinnati.