THE WEST

April 12, 1976

With 108 victories and a world championship last season, the Reds left themselves a tough act to follow. But neither a pitching staff allegedly short on depth nor the prospect of marked improvement in the rest of the division should preclude an encore for Cincinnati. Although the Reds are coming off their finest season, they may be better on the field—if not in the won-lost column—this year.

In 1975 strong offense and fielding allowed the Reds to run away from their pursuers, the closest of whom, the Dodgers, finished 20 games back. Cincinnati's relentless march to the pennant tended to obscure the fact that Manager Sparky Anderson had no pitcher who won more than 15 games. He lost his best man, lefthander Don Gullett, for nine weeks and endured a record stretch of 45 games during which no starter went the distance.

Unbelievably, another subpar position for the Reds was catcher. Johnny Bench toiled with a lot of smashed cartilage in his left shoulder. Still, he hit .283, had more than 25 homers (28) for the seventh consecutive season, knocked in more than 100 runs (110) for the fifth time and won his eighth straight Gold Glove. It is no solace to Cincinnati's rivals that Bench's shoulder is healthier following off-season surgery.

Further sad tidings for Reds opponents is that the shortening of spring training seems certain to benefit Cincinnati more than any team in the West, because it has both a set lineup and a glut of pitchers accustomed to working only six or seven innings. As for the opposition's lone remaining hope—that the Reds will grow fatheaded from success—Second Baseman Joe Morgan says, "I don't see any problems. We don't have the kind of guys who would let each other get complacent." He's right.

Critics rap the Reds' staff for having pitched only 22 complete games last season, but they ignore the fact that Cincinnati had an excellent 3.37 staff ERA and that Gullett was superb. Although his injury limited him to 22 starts, he was 15 and 4, with a 2.42 ERA and eight complete games.

To go along with a sound Gullett, Anderson has Fred Norman (12-4 last year), who won nine of 10 decisions between June 21 and the end of the season; Gary Nolan, who came back after missing nearly two seasons to ring up a 15-9 record and allow only 29 walks; Jack Billingham (15-10); and Pat Darcy, an 11-game winner as a rookie. The rotation could be in trouble if Norman and Billingham, both 33, falter. Even if they do not, Anderson often will bring in Rawly Eastwick or Will McEnaney, last season's remarkable rookies who combined for 37 saves.

On offense, George Foster's taking over in left field was a key to Cincinnati's success. He hit .300 with 23 homers and 78 RBIs. Rightfielder Ken Griffey, who scored the winning run in both the Series and league championships, batted .305, stole 16 bases and beat out 38 infield hits. Pete Rose, who moved to third base on May 3 to open a spot for Foster in the outfield and now plans to make the position his fourth on the All-Star team, batted .317 and had his seventh 200-hit season. Shortstop Dave Concepcion won his second straight Gold Glove and stole 21 bases in a row, and Morgan did everything. According to a complex formula involving a variety of statistical categories, he was the top offensive player in the league. At first base, Tony Perez leads all active major-leaguers in RBIs. Last year he quietly drove in 109.

The Reds were first in defense, second in hitting and third in pitching. "They were a great team that had a great season," says Pirate Manager Danny Murtaugh. Barring an epidemic of bad arms, the Reds should be great again.

The Dodgers are banking on the recovery of a bad arm—the one attached to Tommy John's left shoulder—not only to give the Reds a stiffer challenge, but also to take up the slack created by Andy Messersmith's journey into free agentry.

In mid-1974 John was 13-3 when he ruptured a ligament in his throwing arm. Surgeons grafted a tendon from John's right forearm into his left elbow, and purists now may argue whether he qualifies as a southpaw. John himself is more interested in regaining his spot among the Los Angeles starters; toward that end, he pitched impressively this winter in the Arizona Instructional League.

The uncompensated departure of 19-game winner Messersmith would be a blow to any team less blessed than the Dodgers, who led the league in pitching for the second straight year. Manager Walter Alston's rotation includes righthanders Don Sutton (16-13 with a 2.87 ERA) and Burt Hooton (18-9, 2.81) and lefthander Doug Rau (15-9). Mike Marshall, who suffered a rib injury that cut down his appearances from 106 to 57, will head the bullpen—if he doesn't spend too much time away from the Dodgers settling his feud over playground rights at Michigan State.

"We're not too big, but we cover a lot of ground," says First Baseman Steve Garvey of the Dodger infield. Garvey, Second Baseman Davey Lopes, Shortstop Bill Russell and Ron Cey, the waddling third baseman, helped Los Angeles finish second in defense, and they victimized opposing pitchers while backing their own. Garvey hit .319 with 18 home runs. Cey had 25 homers and led the Dodgers with 101 RBIs, and Lopes stole 77 bases. This season he is aiming for 100.

To improve run production, which fell by 150 from 1974, Los Angeles acquired 26-year-old Centerfielder Dusty Bakers from Atlanta, where he hit .261 with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs. Flanking him will be Leftfielder Bill Buckner and Rightfielder Joe Ferguson, who can also share time with Steve Yeager and Ellie Rodriguez at catcher. In another trade, the Dodgers obtained versatile Ted Sizemore from St. Louis. "He gives us someone who can back up Lopes, Russell and Cey and play the outfield," says Alston. "Most important, he gives us another catcher without costing us a man." That could be significant since both Ferguson and Yeager are coming off injuries.

The Giants spent most of the off-season wondering whether they would wind up in Washington, Toronto, Tokyo or debtor's prison before Horace Stoneham sold the club to owners who are keeping it in San Francisco. In an effort to boost the Giants' woeful attendance, which was barely above 500,000 for the second straight year, the new owners have promised to bring tastier food and infrared heating to icy Candlestick Park.

However, San Francisco fans may get a warmer glow from a good young pitching staff headed by John (the Count) Montefusco, whose flair for being a character is exceeded only by his ability to put heat on his fastball. As he had predicted, Montefusco last season was selected Rookie of the Year after a 15-9 record and 215 strikeouts in 244 innings. This year the Count has mentioned that he will win the Cy Young Award. Doubt him at your own risk.

To lead a team that is one of the youngest in baseball and counts heavily on its pitching staff, the Giants named Bill Rigney their new manager. A self-described "pitcher's manager," Rigney will try to get the most out of his young arms without imperiling any of them. And he hopes to get plenty out of Ken Reitz, a solid third baseman obtained from St. Louis, who will complement an infield composed of Chris Speier at short, Derrel Thomas at second and Willie Montanez at first. In the outfield, Centerfielder Von Joshua, a former second-stringer for the Dodgers who hit .318 as a Giant starter last year, will be joined by Gary Matthews (.280) in left and Bobby Murcer (.298 and 91 RBIs) in right. San Francisco's defense should be more than adequate but, in contrast to Giant tradition, the long ball will be only an occasional weapon. Last year San Francisco had just 84 homers.

"I'm looking forward to a great season. In fact, I'm looking forward to overhauling Cincinnati," says Montefusco. For once, his braggadocio may have gotten out of hand.

The Braves have nine new players, a new manager in Dave Bristol and a new owner, 37-year-old Ted Turner, who says he wants to do something "about changing the image Atlanta has as Losersville, U.S.A."

Trades could help make winners of the Braves. Jim Wynn, Ken Henderson and Tom Paciorek have been acquired for the outfield; Darrel Chaney, Lee Lacy and Jerry Royster have been obtained for the infield; and Roger Moret, 14-3 last year with Boston, and Dick Ruthven, 2-2 with the Phillies, have been added to the pitching staff. Wynn could hit 35 homers now that he will play half his games in Atlanta Stadium, but his throwing arm is suspect. So is the depth of the Braves' pitching staff. Phil Niekro, 15-15 last season, Carl Morton (17-16) and Moret are good enough, but none of them qualifies as a stopper. Buzz Capra, 16-8 in 1974, could fill that role if he recovers from the shoulder problems that limited him to 12 appearances last season.

Speaking of troubles, the Astros may have more than anyone. Houston's attendance dropped below one million for the first time last year as the Astros lost 97 games, 41 by one run. The team is now owned by its creditors and is up for sale—but no buyers are in sight. Still, General Manager Tal Smith intends to handle the Astros as if they have a long future. "We have to be concerned with building a team for the seasons ahead," he says.

Smith and Manager Billy Virdon have a cornerstone in Cesar Cedeno, if he will just play up to his ability. He had a .288 average, 13 homers and 50 stolen bases last year but still disappointed one teammate, who says, "If Cesar ever gets it all together, you'll see him hit .340-.350, steal 70 bases, get 35 homers and drive in 120 runs." The Astros already are solidly served at shortstop by slick-fielding Roger Metzger and at first base by Bob Watson, who batted .324 with 18 homers and 85 RBIs. Less firm is the pitching. No starter had an ERA under 4.00.

San Diego finished last in the league in hitting, home runs, runs scored and fielding in 1975, when pitching carried the Padres to fourth place in the division. The pitching coach, Tom Morgan, has resigned, leaving his job to Roger Craig, who may find it tough to duplicate last season's 3.48 staff ERA and 40 complete games. San Diego's top pitcher was Randy Jones (20-12), whose 2.24 ERA was the league's best. He does not seem likely to lose his touch, but the rest of the Padres' young pitchers may already have lost theirs. They tailed off badly during the second half of the season.

That was understandable since San Diego's hitters gave them minimal support with a .244 team average and only 78 homers. Things are not likely to improve much since the Padres are relying mainly on newly acquired Willie Davis, the well-traveled centerfielder who will turn 36 this week, to upgrade speed and hitting.

ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)