The Cincinnati Reds ain't what they used to be.
That was the sigh of relief making the rounds of the Florida training camps this spring.
No one denies that the Reds may become the first National League team to win three straight world titles. But it is also thinkable - remote, but thinkable - that the Reds might finish third in their own National League West Division.
It is a comforting idea. Baseball men get a rash when they see a team without a weakness. It almost seemed against the natural order last season for the reds to win 102 games with Johnny Bench hitting .234 and batting seventh.
The Reds are still a traveling Hall of Fame preview, but they are no longer so superflously powerful as to seem able to shrug off any injury, any individual slump or any opponent.
Tony Perez, Don Gullett and Will McEnany are gone.
Dan Driessen takes Perez's place at first, but he makes the Red lineup top-heavy in lefthanded hitters. Until Bench proves he is still a 100-RBI man, the Redlegs will see every southpaw in the league.
That could be tough on lefty Joe Morgan, who will be 34 for the World Series, and on switch-hitting Pete Rose, who batted 72 points lower last year against lefties than righties (.237 vs. 345).
Driessen also replaces Perez's excellent glove with a questionable one. The Reds were already hiding one of baseball's least mobile fielders at third - Rose.
The Reds also have a note of dissension with Rose and reliever Rawly Eastwick threatening to play out their options.
Those who enjoy whistling with the lights out can also speculate that Cesar Geronimo's .307 average was over his head, and that rookies Santo Alcala (11-4) and Pat Zachry (14-7) are due to meet the sophomore jinx now that the hitters know them. Both tailed off drastically in the last six weeks of '76.
Nevertheless, the Reds are still loaded. If Woodie Fryman was 13-13 for Montreal, what will he be in the Queen City? Reliever Dale Murray from the Expos is a big, righthanded workhorse, perfect for manager Sparky Anderson's Captain Hook bullpen system.
The Reds still have more talent and self-confidence than the law allows.
Don't believe the rumors about Red disharmony yet. Anderson's ship is still happy.
Of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers and their neighbors the San Diego Padres are also very happy fellows.
New manager Tom Lasorda brings a Mary Poppins attitude to the Dogers that may not wear as well as Walter Alston's stone face over the long haul, but for one year it could bring some zip to a team that sometime seemed to cruise on its ability.
The Dodgers have wall-to-wall pitching but can't keep pace with the Cincy offense. The Reds outhit them 280 to .251, outscored them 857 to 606, outhomered them 141 to 91 and outstole them 210 to 144.
If only Rick Monday, that famous defender of the flag, could hit 32 home runs again this year to compliment Steve Garvey (.317 and 80 RBI) and Ron Cey (23 homers, 80 RBI), the Dodgers might make a move. But Monday hit most of those four-baggers in Wrigley Field.
Lasorda looks at Monday as a savior, but he may simply fall into a tradition of supposed sluggers grabed in trade by the Dodgers only to be eaten alive by the power alleys in Chavez Ravine. Oh, blue Monday.
After ace Don Shutton (21-10), the Dodgers have too many hurlers who are good but not good enough to go to the distance in a season-long race with the Reds. Nevertheless, if Burt Hooten could reverse his 11-15 record and Charlie Hough (12-8), Tommy John (10-10), Dough Rau (16-12) and Rick Rhoden (12-3) can persevere, the Dodgers could top 95 victories.
It is hard for Cincy pursuers to forget that the Reds have averaged 100.4 wins for the last five years.
While the Dodgers try to wheedle more hits from catcher Steve Yeager, more steals from Dave Lopes and more power from outfields Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith, the Padres are looking to three new faces for a lift.
Free-agent catch Gene Tenace (22 homers) and center fielder George Hendricks (25 homers), acquired from Cleveland, add desperately needed power to a squad that hit a puny 64 homer runs last season. They join home runs last season. They join young strongman Dave Winfield in the heart of a respectable batting order.
The Padres, however, must rely too much on three main pitchers - recuperating Randy Jones (22-14) and relievers Rollie Fingers (13-11) and Butch Metzer (11-4). Fingers will earn his $1.6 million trying to bail out the Padres' young staring staff.
The only way for the Padres to do better than third place is for two hotshort rookies, shortstop Bill Almon and second baseman Mike Champion, to pull a Lynn-and-Rice.
Of the rest of the West, Atlanta has the best chance to catch fire in baseball's toughest division. It cost five players to get Jeff Burroughs from Texas, but the young bull, still only 26, may have found a 35-homers-a-year haven in Atlanta's bandbox stadium.
Burroughs is joined by outfielder Gary Matthews, the 20-homer outfielder that owner Ted Turner wanted enough to shell out $1.9 million. Matthews isn't worth it, but Brave pitchers Andy Messersmith, Phil Niekro, and Dick Rutheven won't complain about a little overpriced hitting help.
Even the West's tailenders - Houston and San Francisco - have impressive pitching staffs. Houston's only returning hurler who had more than 10 wins last year is towering J.R. Richard (20-15), but the Astros are loaded with young arms. The hats of Bob Watson (102 RBI) and Cesar Cedeno (.297) keep Houston respectable.
The Giants, on the other hand, have a sad offense to support quality mound men like John Montefusco, Jimm Barr and Lynn McGlothen.
New Giant Bill Madlock may hit .375 on the Candlestick artificial turf and win his third batting title.
While the West has no soft touches, the National League East is essentially a two-club division.
The Philadelphia Phillies, minus Dave Cash, should have their hands full with the Pittsburgh Pirates club that manager Chuck Tanner swears he will turn into a larcenous imitation of his last team, the 341-theft Oakland A's.
The Phils, even with Dick Allen gone, have several simmering clubhouse feuds. As a team they have little confidence in manager Danny Ozark and with provocation the team could play below its talents.
A lineup with Garry Maddox (.330) and now a leadoff man), Mike Schmidt (38 homers), Greg Luzinski (95 RBI) and Jay Johnstone (.318) is going to score. But Cash's 189 hits have gone to Montreal in the re-entry draft. More important.
Fortunately for Phildelphia. Tanner is rebuilding the Pirates with less than all-star material. The Bucs will have deep starting pitching, phenomenal speed and some power. The blend has not jelled yet this spring.
The infield trio of phil Garner (ex-A's) at third, Frank Taveras at short and Rennie Stennett at second should steal Lord knows how many bases when Tanner finishes with them, upward of 125 among them at the least.
The fleet outfield of Omar Moreno, Dave Parker and Al Oliver (healthy again) might add another hundred thefts. If Willie Stargell at first base and Bill Robinson in a utility role can add punch, the Bucs will have an attack that adds up to more than the sum of tis unspectacular parts.
Look for two of Tanner's relief favorities from his Chicago White Sox days - strong-armed Rich Gossage and Terry Forster - finally to show what they can do on a contending team.
Starters John Candelaria, Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker, Bruce Kison and Larry Demery may thrive with a Gossage Forster, Kent Tekulve bullpen behind them.
No one else in East has a chance. The New York figures that three famous starters in Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman (21-10) Jon Matlack, plus the bat of Dave (King Kong) Kingman, is enough to keep the stands and the cash register well stocked.
Last year's two East tallenders - St. Louis and Montreal - have new managers and hope to approach .500. Forget it.
The Expos' disgraceful 107-defeat team of a year ago at least looks like a major league outfit now with Dave Cash and Tony Perez joining competent shortstop Tim Foli in the everyday infield. But manager Dick Williams will have his short fuse lit many a time by the rest of the majors' 10 new managers, Ven Rapp, have a little of this, a little of that and not much of anything.
Only a great leap forward by several young pitchers could make this Cardinal season memorable for anything except Lou Brock's record-setting 893d stolen base. He needs 27.
Is there another team in this league? Oh, yes. The Chicago Cubs.After two pointless trades; Madlock for Bobby Mureer and Monday for Bill Buckner, the Cubs have succeeded in casting away their only two players worth paying to see - a bonafide batting champion and a contender for the home run title.