This frantic division has been fairly consistent the past six years. While Montreal improves, Chicago falls back. While Philadelphia shows promise, St. Louis contends. And while New York is unpredictable, Pittsburgh plays close to form. This season figures to be among the most competitive of all.
After three second-place finishes in four years, St. Louis seems capable of escaping its runner-up rut. The offense and defense are solid, and the relief pitchers are capable, but, like most teams, the Cardinals do not have a surplus of starting pitchers.
The big question is 39-year-old Bob Gibson, who has announced that his 17th major league season will be his last. At least Gibson's knees are stronger than they were last year, when his record fell below .500 for the first time since he became a Cardinal regular. Lynn McGlothen (16-12) and Bob Forsch (7-4) came to the rescue, helping St. Louis to the East's best intradivisional record. The remarkable Al Hrabosky (8-1), Mike Gar-man (7-2) and Elias Sosa from San Francisco provide the quality bullpen.
"If we get the pitching," says Catcher Ted Simmons, "we'll win in a walk."
With Lou Brock around, he should have said they'll steal it. St. Louis Coach Dave Ricketts had some fun with Brock in spring training when he quipped, "Lou, if you'd stolen a few more bases last year, we would have won the title." The 35-year-old Brock, who was good for a record 118, just smiled. At the plate he batted .306—excellent, but third best in an outfield that included .309-hitters Bake McBride and Reggie Smith.
St. Louis has a possible successor to Rookie-of-the-Year McBride in First Baseman Keith Hernandez, 21, who batted .294 last season in a brief stay with the Cardinals. An oldcomer to the team is former Tiger Eddie Brinkman, 33, at short. He is a fine fielder, and with Ken Reitz at third the left side of the Cardinal infield should be death on ground balls.
Dead was what the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared to be on June 7, 1974, with the worst record in the majors. Five weeks later they earned a split decision in a wild doubleheader against Cincinnati and started to move, going .671 the rest of the way. "That was the real Pittsburgh team," says Manager Danny Murtaugh. "I don't see why we can't start off" that way this year." While the complexities of pitching and fielding continue to mystify some Pirates, Pittsburgh remains the best hitting team in baseball. As Al Oliver, a .321 swinger, states, it is "something we take for granted."
The Pirate outfield of Oliver, Richie Zisk (.313) and Willie Stargell (.301) out-hit even the St. Louis threesome last season, and the Bucs may be more potent still this year if First Baseman Bob Robertson recovers from two knee operations. For now, however, Stargell moves to first and Dave Parker, still another big bat, is in the outfield.
Robertson was not the only Pirate to suffer surgery. Pitcher Ken Brett, a .310 hitter and 1.000 fielder, is coming off an elbow operation, as is Reliever Dave Giusti. Injury-prone Dock Ellis will be on the lookout for line drives up the middle like the one that cut short his 1974 season. But Jerry Reuss (16-11) and Jim Rooker (15-11) return unscathed after their best performances.
"There is no way we're going to get off to a start like last year's," says Oliver. "And anyway, if we can win it that way, we can win it under any circumstances." The Pirates may need another strong finish, however, since six of their last nine games are against St. Louis, which took 11 of 18 from them in 1974.
For that matter, Pittsburgh also had a losing record against Philadelphia, which in the last two seasons has improved more than any other East Division team. First place belonged to the Phillies longest in 1974, but an awful finish took them out of the race. "The kids had to learn something from last year's experience," says veteran Pitcher Jim Lonborg. "They know now what it's like to play winning baseball," says Second Baseman Dave Cash. "When I came over here last year I didn't see any confidence in these players. They lacked desire and motivation because they didn't really know what was at stake. Now they do, and that should make a big difference."
The Phillies have another former winner to help plug last year's largest gap—relief pitching. Tug McGraw will be a big addition if spring surgery on an old back problem allows him to return to his 1973 form with the Mets. "This is the first time in years we've had an established bullpen," says Manager Danny Ozark, who is also high on Gene Garber and newcomer Joe Hoerner. "A lot of times last year I left my starters in too long because they were the best we had."
Lonborg and Steve Carlton were the only regulars with winning records. Shortstop Larry Bowa says Carlton must win at least 20 for Philadelphia to have a title chance, and Ozark says Steve is capable of even more if he cuts down his bases on balls.
There is hitting in plenty. Cash and First Baseman Willie Montanez batted over .300, and Third Baseman Mike Schmidt led the majors in home runs (36). Leftfielder Greg Luzinski, who can mash the ball, too, missed more than two months last year after a knee operation. "My being out of the lineup," he says, "may have cost us the eight games we needed to win."
Falling 20 games below .500, their worst record since 1967, the 1974 New York Mets were conspicuous losers of one-run and extra-inning games. In those categories they were poorest in the league. Injuries struck such key players as Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones, Rusty Staub, Bud Harrelson and Jerry Grote. Their return to form, with the added support of Third Baseman Joe Torre and Outfielders Del Unser and Dave Kingman, would put the Mets back in the race.
But they must find still more pitching to stay there. While Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman are the best threesome in the league, New York needs two more starters and some smoke eaters in the bullpen.
"It does seem to be a different situation than we've had in the past," says Manager Yogi Berra.
The trades that brought Torre from St. Louis, Unser from Philadelphia and Kingman, he of the long home run and lavish strikeout, from San Francisco could sharply alter the grind-it-out New York attack. The Mets even hired a batting coach, Phil Cavarretta. Torre predicts, "We're going to be a team that will score runs." Harrelson meanwhile senses a psychological boost. "We've increased the margin of error," he says. "The pitchers know they don't have to throw a shutout every time."
One person certain to appreciate more support is Matlack, who led the league in shutouts last year while getting fewer runs than any other man who pitched at least 162 innings. "This is a lot better team than we've ever had," claims Matlack, "but I'm not taking anything for granted. Met pitchers have always felt they couldn't give up very many runs. It's instilled in us." Not least in Tom Seaver, who comes off the worst season of his career—an 11-11 record and a 3.20 earned run average. Tom says he has felt terrific this spring.
Evaluating a Montreal team that set or tied club records for pitching, hitting and winning last year, Expo General Manager Jim Fanning decided that better was not good enough. In rapid succession he dealt away his top pitcher, Mike Torrez, and the RBI leaders from each of the last three years, Ron Fairly, Ken Singleton and Willie Davis. The trades landed a much-needed lefthander in Dave McNally from Baltimore and players you never heard of from Texas and St. Louis. They also opened the way for some homegrown minor league talent. "Our farm system is producing and, except for pitchers, we'll commit ourselves totally to youth," Fanning says. "When you ask if we'll be good, I do know how good we would have been, and that wasn't good enough."
Some veterans, like First Baseman Mike Jorgensen (.310) and Second Baseman Larry Lintz (50 stolen bases), will keep their jobs. Others, including power-hitting Outfielder-Third Baseman Bob Bailey, may not be so fortunate. Young Outfielder Pepe Mangual and Relief Pitcher Dale Murray came up late last year to spark an 18-5 finish, Mangual batting .311, Murray saving 10 games and winning one.
Even at a buck twenty-five for a bleacher seat, the Chicago Cubs are no bargain. Ninth in the league in hitting last year, 11th in pitching and last in fielding, they had the second-worst record in baseball. The 1975 prospects are not much better, especially with Billy Williams having been traded to Oakland.
"We are in a building program," says Manager Jim Marshall, "but it won't be accomplished overnight." Nor, for that matter, in a fortnight. The Williams deal netted three players who saw little to no action in 1974: Relievers Darold Knowles and Bob Locker and Infielder Manny Trillo.
Chicago does have an outfield that averaged 16 home runs and 70 RBIs a man last year, and Third Baseman Bill Madlock batted .313. Shortstop Don Kessinger is an accomplished fielder.
The pitching features Rick Reuschel and Steve Stone, who managed winning records last year despite ERAs over four. Knuckle-curveballer Burt Hooton is slimmer and seems more mature. "I've had more of a mental problem than a physical one," he says, making light of a sore shoulder. "I was too protective of my arm in the past. I'm looking forward to a good year."