The most predictable and least revealing assessment of any baseball season is the one that says the champion of last fall is the team to beat this year. With that in mind, meet the Pirates. The Fam-i-lee danced and sang and hugged its way to the East Division title, National League pennant and World Series championship last year. It barely held off Montreal in its division, swept Cincinnati in the playoffs and charged from behind against Baltimore in the Series. Pittsburgh won everything there was to win, using every way there is to win. Now it is the team to beat.
Yes, but three National League East teams are capable of beating the Pirates. Montreal and St. Louis showed substantial improvement in 1979, each moving up two places in the standings to a strong second and an encouraging third, respectively. The Expos and Cardinals passed Philadelphia, the champion the three previous seasons, which succumbed to ailments of both body and spirit. The Pirates will need something very much on the order of their 98-victory performance of last year to hold off the Expos and Cardinals, who are surging, and the Phillies, who are resurgent. After all, if the Phillies can plummet from first to fourth, so can Pittsburgh.
The Pirates may be more vulnerable than they appear. Don't forget that if Philadelphia had been healthy, the Pirates might not have won anything in '79. They succeeded largely because Centerfielder Omar Moreno, Leftfielder John Milner, Second Baseman Phil Garner, Shortstop Tim Foli, Catcher Ed Ott and Pitcher Jim Bibby all had the best seasons of their careers.
Of course, one could say that those players merely found themselves the way Tim Foli says he found God. And one could also say that even if they don't all enjoy similar success this season, there are others who can reasonably be expected to do as well as or better than they did a year ago. Rightfielder Dave Parker had good stats for anybody but himself, batting .310 with 25 home runs and 94 RBIs, but he fell off in all the important categories that made him the league's MVP in '78. Pitcher Bert Blyleven had the fewest wins (12) and highest earned run average (3.61) of his career. Two others in the starting rotation, John Candelaria and Don Robinson, won 14 and eight games, respectively, while hampered by injuries. Pittsburgh also has two players who don't need to retain luck, recover from injuries or regain old form to be tough. Whatever else happens, Third Baseman Bill Madlock will hit—he has the highest career average (.320) in the league—and Reliever Kent Tekulve will pitch effectively. He had 31 saves in each of the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, the Pirates cannot be so sure of First Baseman Willie Stargell, who during his 39th birthday celebration in spring training received a faceful of hand-delivered birthday cake from his playful teammates. Stargell was the league's Comeback Player of the Year in '78 and co-MVP, with St. Louis' Keith Hernandez, last season. His two other MVP awards, for his performances in the playoffs and World Series, shouldn't obscure the fact that last year his batting average fell from .295 to .281 and his RBI total from 97 to 82. A similar decline this season could be fatal to the Bucs.
With a strong 25-man roster, Pittsburgh is more capable than most teams of offsetting injuries and poor performances. And in Chuck Tanner the Pirates have a manager who likes to make use of all possible combinations and resources. "The best thing about winning last year was the personal satisfaction I got from knowing I did it my way," he says. Tanner's way involves platooning hitters, shuffling pitchers, stealing bases, pounding fences and smile, brother, smile.
Smiling is something Philadelphia did not do much of after May 28, the last day the Phillies were in first place. By the time Manager Danny Ozark gave way to Dallas Green on Aug. 31, Philadelphia was all the way down to fifth. A strong September allowed the Phillies to finish fourth, only two games behind St. Louis, and left them wondering what might have happened had they had their regular lineup intact for more than 74 games. "Now that we're healthy again, anyone who picked us to win in 1979 should pick us again," says First Baseman Pete Rose.
Rose may have a point. Philadelphia won the 1976, '77 and '78 division titles with largely the same lineup as this year's. Four Phillies—Catcher Bob Boone, Third Baseman Mike Schmidt, Centerfielder Garry Maddox and Second Baseman Manny Trillo—won Gold Gloves last season, and a fifth, Shortstop Larry Bowa, who fielded a league-record .991, should have won one, too. The starting rotation has four good young arms, particularly Dick Ruthven's right one, and one good old one, Steve Carlton's left. If Carlton can get along without his favorite catcher, Tim McCarver, who has retired to the broadcast booth, and if Ruthven and Larry Christenson can remain healthy, the Phillies can better suffer the inconsistencies of the other starters, Randy Lerch and Nino Espinosa. The bullpen will be better, even if its personnel is only slightly different, because Green won't overwork it early in the season as Ozark did. Lerrin LaGrow, who missed most of last season with the Dodgers, will replace Warren Brusstar, who missed most of last year with the Phillies.
Another change for the better is that wrought by Left-fielder Greg Luzinski, who batted a career-low .252 in 1979, .303 on the road and .187 at Veterans Stadium. "The fans really got to me," the Bull says. "You expect to hear boos on the road but not at home."
He also heard a lot of unkind remarks about his beefy body, and he did something about that in the off-season, losing 22 pounds—he's down to 217—by skipping breakfast, eating little, if any, lunch, eliminating desserts and exercising. "I'm not sure it will make any difference in the way I play," he says, "but I gave it a try because everybody was harping about it."
Luzinski is important to Philadelphia because he can provide both average and power. Last season only Rose (at .331) hit better than .286, and only Schmidt (with 45 home runs and 114 RBIs) produced more than Luzinski's deflated output of 18 homers and 81 RBIs.
St. Louis' lineup, like that of Philadelphia's, is so set that there's no room for some very good young players. That's why Catcher Terry Kennedy, who batted .293 in Springfield and .284 in St. Louis last year, and Outfielder Leon (Bull) Durham, who hit .310 in the American Association, must sit and wait. Even without the retired Lou Brock, the Cardinals have stars aplenty. First Baseman Hernandez is merely one of four .300 hitters among the regulars. The others are Shortstop Garry Templeton, who batted .314 and has a new, improved attitude thanks to a six-year, $4 million contract; Second Baseman Ken Oberkfell, who hit .301; and Rightfielder George Hendrick, whose .300 average tended to obscure his disappointing totals of 75 RBIs and 16 homers. Better known than any of these players are Catcher Ted Simmons, who was looking like an MVP himself last season until he got hurt, missed four weeks of action and finished with a .283 average, 26 homers and 87 RBIs, and Leftfielder Bobby Bonds (.275, 25, 85 and 34 steals with Cleveland), who is joining his seventh team in seven years. He should improve the Cards' righthanded hitting and lend Simmons a hand in giving St. Louis some power. Simmons believes that the Cardinals are such a strong hitting team that they will overtake the Pirates. "We're the only team that can hit with them," he says, "and the only place to beat that team is at the plate."
For St. Louis to win, however, it will need more than outstanding hitting, good defense and solid, if unspectacular, starting pitching. The Cardinals had all of that last year too, but they never seriously challenged for the division title, losing 35 of 60 games against the league's other top teams.
St. Louis' problem last year was its bullpen, and the situation there is hardly changed. The Cardinals tied for last in the league in saves, and they lost 26 games on their opponents' final at bats. Mark Littell did well (9-4, 2.20 ERA and 13 saves), but he isn't the kind of tireless one-man gang that Tekulve, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers are. Littell needs help, and it isn't likely to come from either Buddy Schultz or Don Hood, a free agent formerly with the Yankees. The Cardinal bullpen also suffers from the lack of a stopper among the starters. The only member of the rotation who came close to filling that role was young John Fulgham, who had 10 complete game wins and a 2.53 ERA after coming up from the minors on June 15.
St. Louis could also use a proved lefthander, although Montreal showed last year that a team can have plenty of those and still not win. The Expos let two of their better southpaws get away in the off-season, Dan Schatzeder in a trade with Detroit for Ron LeFlore and Rudy May, who went to the Yankees via the reentry draft. Between them, Schatzeder and May won 20 games last year and lost only eight. It is difficult to imagine that lefthanders Fred Norman, 11-13 with Cincinnati, and Ross Grimsley, 10-9 with a 5.36 ERA with the Expos, can take up the slack.
For these and other reasons, Montreal may not do as well this year as it did last, when the Expos stayed in the pennant race until the final day of the season, led the league in pitching and set team records for hitting, scoring and slugging. The one quality that will carry over into this season is the players' realization that they are good. "For a while last year we were waiting for the hammer to fall," says Pitcher Steve Rogers. "Then we realized we weren't flukes."
If Montreal is to contend again, it needs another big season from pitchers Bill Lee (16-10) and David Palmer (10-2) and such hitters as Third Baseman Larry Parrish (.307, 30 homers, 82 RBIs), Catcher Gary Carter (.283, 22, 75) and Centerfielder Andre Dawson (.275, 25, 92). Those three can take turns driving in Leftfielder LeFlore, who routinely gets on base (.300 average last season) and into scoring position (78 steals).
LeFlore's arrival has uprooted Warren Cromartie and put him in a tug-of-war with Rusty Staub for first base. Staub is not only a better cook than Cromartie but also a better hitter: despite batting half as many times last year, he had more home runs (12-8) and more RBIs (54-46). The first-base job opened when Tony Perez parlayed advancing years (he's almost 38) and declining numbers (13 homers, 73 RBIs) into a big free-agent contract with Boston.
Far below the top four teams in talent and expectations are Chicago and New York, which will finish fifth and sixth again. If the Cubs' new manager, Preston Gomez, found it difficult to get his father out of Cuba during the winter, just wait until he tries to pull Chicago up from the second division. For that to happen, Leftfielder Dave Kingman and Sutter will have to double their fabulous outputs of last season. Kingman had his best season ever, batting .288 with 48 home runs and 115 RBIs, while Sutter won the Cy Young Award with 37 saves and a 2.23 ERA. Elsewhere, Chicago has its usual mix of a few good pitchers and a few good hitters, but they never seem to jell. A major burden is the exhausting daytime schedule the Cubs must play in beautiful Wrigley Field. Last year, for example, they fell from third place, 6½ games out at the end of August, to fifth place, 18 games out by the end of the season. Chicago had better get out of the broiling sun and start playing night games at home, even if it means wearing miners' hats.
Things could hardly get darker for the Mets after three straight seasons in the cellar. Although New York should finish last again, there is hope for a brighter future, thanks to the ambitious new owners who bought the team for a record $21.1 million. The group has already started investing in tomorrow by signing Pitcher Craig Swann (14-13, 3.30 last year) to a five-year, $3 million contract and Outfielder Joel Youngblood (.275, 16 homers, 60 RBIs) to a three-year, $1 million deal.
The New York owners have also improved the team's stadium and clubhouse, but they haven't substantially refurbished the lineup. The Mets are so weak that Jerry Morales and Phil Mankowski, who were found wanting by fifth-place Detroit last year, will, respectively, start in the outfield and platoon at third base for the Mets. Youngblood and the ever-improving Lee Mazzilli (.303, 15, 79 and 34 stolen bases) give the Mets a little punch, but there are never enough teammates on base to drive in. After Swann, the pitching is very thin. The best hope for the bullpen is 22-year-old Neil Allen. Allen is one of many young players the Mets are hoping to build around, but as Catcher John Stearns says, "Our problem is that we've been rebuilding for four years." Thus, while Pittsburgh is the team that everyone hopes to beat, New York is the team everyone will beat.