From the lowest clubhouse boy to the very highest front-office poo-bah, everyone in baseball agrees that the Phillies are a team on the verge—but no one is exactly sure what Philadelphia is on the verge of. On Dec. 5 the Phillies signed free-agent Pete Rose to play first base, thereby ensuring the winning of their first National League pennant since 1950. After all, with Rose's hot bat and fiery spirit, how could Philadelphia fail? Two months later, however, 13-game winner Larry Christenson broke his right collarbone and the Phillies suddenly lost the Eastern Division. After all, without a solid pitching staff, how could they succeed? Which of these early portents is correct will not be known until fall, but for now they are a source of much speculation.
The Phillies have had a relatively easy time of it the last three seasons, winning the division by an average of five games over second-place Pittsburgh and by 15 games over three different third-place clubs. They have shown variety in the way they have done it, too: a fast start in '76, a fast finish in '77 and a late holding action in '78.
Even though last season's final margin was a perilously narrow 1½ games, Philadelphia still made a strong case for its overall superiority, because so many of its important players had off years. This suggests that the Phillies don't just dominate the division, they own it. They will have the opportunity to reaffirm this in 1979, when they try to become the first National League team to win four consecutive division titles.
Philadelphia benefits by playing in the weaker half of the National League. The Phillies and Pirates were the only Eastern teams to play better than .500 ball last year, and only Pittsburgh had a winning record against the West. When Philadelphia lost its third straight championship series, 3-1 to the Dodgers, the defeat worsened the division's overall playoff record to seven losses in 10 appearances.
The Phillies hope Rose not only will solidify their first-place standing in the East but also will give them an edge over any playoff opponent. Soon after signing his four-year, $3.2 million contract, Rose said, "I see myself as being the something extra that can put the Phillies over the top and into the World Series." So do his teammates. "Getting Pete is definitely a morale booster," says Centerfielder Garry Maddox. Shortstop Larry Bowa believes, "Pete will lead by example. I can see him getting the one big hit in a key playoff situation that the rest of us have never gotten before."
By replacing Richie Hebner at first, Rose now has a chance to make the All-Star team at a fifth position (following appearances at second and third and in right and left). To prepare for just such a change, he began working out at first base during Cincinnati's late fall tour of Japan, even though he did not know then what team he'd be playing for in '79.
One skill Rose does not have to work on is his hitting. As he swings for his 14th .300 season, he will give the Phillies the consistent leadoff man they have lacked since Dave Cash departed two years ago. Now, with switch hitters Rose and Bowa, who had 192 hits last season, batting one-two, opposing pitchers will get no rest.
Another valuable newcomer to the Phillie infield is former Cub Manny Trillo, a first-rate second baseman who will fill a yawning gap five players failed to plug in '78. His wide range will be particularly valuable on balls hit to Rose's right. At first base, Pete not only has the disadvantage of being righthanded, but he is unaccustomed to going to his right and no longer has even the modest range he had as a young second baseman.
The rest of the everyday lineup is unchanged. Bowa (.294) and Bob Boone (.283) are coming off fine seasons, and Third Baseman Mike Schmidt (.251 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs) and outfielders Greg Luzinski (.265, 35, 101) and Bake McBride (.269) can be counted on to improve on their somewhat disappointing totals of a year ago.
Philadelphia's only serious concern is the quality of its pitching. The Phillies tried all spring to land a top starter, but the best they could do was a deal that sent Hebner to the Mets for Nino Espinosa. The young righthander was 2-7 after July 30 last year when he seemed to lose something on his fastball. So Philadelphia still has just three proven starters: Steve Carlton, who was 16-13 on the mound and .291 at the plate; Dick Ruthven, who was 13-5 after arriving from Atlanta in June; and Randy Lerch (11-8).
Even with Espinosa, the Phillies could use another starter. Carlton requires a five-man rotation to be effective, veterans Jim Lonborg and Jim Kaat are past being counted on, and the bullpen is not as strong as it has been. If Christenson loses too much time or effectiveness. Philadelphia will be hard pressed to win.
No matter what happens, Pittsburgh is the only team the Phillies must worry about. And for the Pirates to succeed, they must overcome some problems of their own—age, injury and a giveaway defense. In the field, Catcher Ed Ott, Third Baseman Phil Garner and Shortstop Frank Taveras were all last among league regulars at their positions, and as a team the Pirates were last, too. Ott says, "We don't have to be better defensively than Philadelphia, but we do need to be better than we were last year."
Improved defense would make a good pitching staff even better. The best starter is John Candelaria, who was bothered by physical and domestic ills last year and wound up with a disappointing 12-11 record. Now that he is healthy and remarried, he says, "I'm happier. I feel free again."
Bert Blyleven's problem is more difficult to pinpoint. Although his 14-10 record was respectable enough, he fell short of expectations as he has throughout his nine seasons in the majors. Blyleven's career ERA is 2.81, but his annual won-lost record averages little more than one game over .500. Blyleven must learn that he cannot just pitch well; he has to pitch well enough to win.
The Pirates' most effective pitchers last year were rookie Don Robinson (14-6, 3.47) and reliever Kent Tekulve (8-7, 2.33 and 31 saves in 91 appearances). Tekulve's relief this year will come from Enrique Romo, who has had 26 saves and a winning record in two seasons with Seattle.
A major concern for Pittsburgh is the recovery of Second Baseman Rennie Stennett, whose injured right leg limited him to 106 games and a .243 average. A healthy Stennett would improve the Pirates' offense and help stabilize their defense, not only at second base but also at third, because Garner would not have to switch from one position to the other, as he did in '78.
The Pirates want more punch from Centerfielder Omar Moreno; though he batted only .235, he stole 71 bases. During the off-season, former Manager Harry Walker gave Moreno some special instruction on how to take advantage of his speed by beating the ball into the ground and hitting to the opposite field.
Most of Pittsburgh's wallop in 1978 was provided by Most Valuable Player Dave Parker, who hit .334 with 30 homers and 117 RBIs, and Comeback Player of the Year Willie Stargell (.295, 28, 97). Parker is fully capable of repeating his performance, but the 38-year-old Stargell may have more trouble.
The Pirates believe they will win if they can avoid another bad start. Last year they were fourth, 11½ games behind, before they mounted a stirring comeback on Aug. 12. "When we were eliminated on the next-to-last day I had tears in my eyes," says Stargell. "But not because we lost. They were tears of joy because we never quit. This season we can't let ourselves fall so far behind. We need the frame of mind that we had the last month and a half."
While Philadelphia and Pittsburgh tangle for the top, the rest of the division's learns will be snuggling to be No. 3. Because Montreal has finished sixth, fifth and fourth the last three years, it is reasonable to pick the Expos for third. Manager Dick Williams believes his team helped itself greatly in the off-season with the addition of reliever Elias Sosa from Oakland, backup Catcher Duffy Dyer from Pittsburgh and infield reserves Tony Solaita from California and Rodney Scott from the Cubs. What the Expos need most, however, is a bit more determination. They led the league with 36 one-run losses.
Williams likes his everyday lineup the way it is, but he thinks he can get more from it by giving Catcher Gary Carter, who was behind the plate for 152 games last year, more rest. Williams also is moving Centerfielder Andre Dawson to the top of the batting order. Dawson hit .282 while winning the '77 Rookie of the Year award, but he fell to .253 last season and struck out 128 times. The change from a lower spot in the order should oblige him to be more selective.
Pitcher Ross Grimsley, who was 20-11, believes the Expos are as good as his former Baltimore team. "The difference is the Orioles knew how to win, and this team is still learning," he says. Another difference is pitching, although the Expos will be much better if accomplished righthander Steve Rogers fully recovers from last season's elbow chips and Scott Sanderson is as good as he seemed to be while winning four straight in September.
The St. Louis Cardinals were an absolute horror last season, finishing in fifth place with their worst percentage (.426) since 1924. The front office was so certain that the figure was a fluke that it did not make a single change in the starting lineup. According to Manager Ken Boyer, all the Cardinals want is for the players to do as well this season as they did poorly last year. "This is the nucleus of a heck of a club," he says. "We should win at least half our games by everyone having his normal season."
Last year better not have been normal. The Cardinals were ninth in hitting, 11th in scoring and particularly-harmless against lefthanders. The pitchers ranked seventh and contributed greatly to their own undoing by finishing near the top in balks, walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen. "The hell with last year," says Pitcher Pete Vuckovich, one of the few who did well. "Let the dead lie."
Chicago may have been third in the East, but the Cubs were not in the same league with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, having lost 25 of 36 games to their two top rivals. The Cubs led the league in hitting (.264), but the hits did so little damage they were fifth in scoring. The offense will be more productive this year if First Baseman Bill Buckner (.323) and Leftfielder Dave Kingman, who hit .266 with 28 homers and 79 RBIs, can put in full seasons. Buckner should be better because he is healthier, and Kingman should be better because he is smarter. Kong cut down on his strikeouts and reached a career high in batting average, mainly because late in the season he finally started to hit outside pitches to rightfield.
The Cubs picked up three potential regulars in the deal that sent Trillo and reserve Outfielder Greg Gross to Philadelphia. They are Second Baseman Ted Sizemore, Outfielder Jerry Martin and Catcher Barry Foote. After hitting .219 in '78, Sizemore must prove he can still play, and the other two, who have been subs throughout their big league careers, must show they can play every day. If they can, the trade will be a big plus for Chicago.
Pitching is the Cubs' biggest problem. Chicago ranked 11th in ERA with an unsavory 4.05, and Mike Krukow (9-3) was the only starter with a winning record. Unfortunately, everybody is back.
According to General Manager Joe McDonald, the New York Mets are "one year older and one year better." It is going to take more than such platitudes for the Mets to escape the cellar. New York was 11th in hitting and 10th in pitching in the league, and in the majors only second-year teams Seattle and Toronto had worse records. In an attempt to produce more offense, the front office acquired Hebner from Philadelphia to play third base and Manager Joe Torre is giving rookie Kelvin Chapman and erstwhile utility man Joel Youngblood shots at second base and rightfield, respectively.
The Mets' hopes lie with the continued development of a still-young lineup, but no significant moves were made in the off-season to take care of immediate needs: depth in the starting rotation and, most glaringly for a team that lost 35 of 62 one-run games, relief pitching.