Again this year the Philadelphia Phillies probably will be the best team in the National League, perhaps in baseball.
Again this year the Phillies probably won't be in the World Series. They may not even make it past the Pittsburgh Pirates into the playoffs.
The things that money finally has bought for the New York Yankees - depth at every position, four ace relievers, a cast of seven starting pitchers to choose from, poser throughout the lineup - the Phils had last year. And have again now.
The Phils even have two things the Yanks don't have: a superb stopper in Steve Carlton and overall team speed.
The Yanks, however, are world champions because they have something the Phillies lack. A manager.
An early-season slump is Philadephia's best hope. Then maybe someone will finally put Danny Ozark out of his misery.
Please, somebody, let this nice man go back to farming, or running an apothecary.
On paper, the Phils' best surface, the Blitz Kids have almost everything. They led t7-45 more than the Reds), total bases, seves (47) and slugging average (.446).
How deep are the Phils? On their bench are Dave Johnson (.321) bake McBride (.339) and Tim McCarver (.320).
Want more? Warren Brusstar was 7.2 with a 2.66 ERA in 46 games. And he was the fourth-best reliver behind Gene Garber, Tug McGraw and Ron Reed.
How can this team have won 202 games in the last two regular sesaons and be 1-6 in postseason?
First, Carlton, 43-17 in regular season, is 0-2 with a 6.62 ERA in three playoffstarts. Check this man's vital signs. He seems to have something lodged in his throat.
The same people who will go to their graves wondering how Boston's Darrell Johnson could pinch-hit Cecil Cooper for Jim Willoughby in the eights inning of the seventh game of the '75 Series, will die ignorant of Ozark's reasons for leaving Greg Luzinski in left field with a two-run lead in the ninth inning of the third (pivotal) playoff game.
The paths to perdition are crowded with outfielders who could have caught the two out liner in their teeth that The Bull dropped to keep the Dodgers alive.
Can the Phillies find a way not to win the NL East? Probably only if the starters behind carlton and Larry Christenson (19-6) become terminally confused at the way Ozark operates his whimsical 4 5/8 man rotation with optional spot starters on alternate Thursday nights.
Pittsburgh's Lumber and Lightning Co. has everything except the catching, the depth and the left-handed relief pitching to beat the Phils.
The pirates, under energetic Chuck Tanner, stole 260 bases last year. Watch out for 300 this time with swift Omar Moreno replacing traded All Oliver full time in the outfield.
Phill Garner, the most underrated infielder in the league, Rennie Stennett (.336) and Frank Taveras (70 steals) all can fly. And outfielders Dave Parker (.338) and Bill Robinson (104 RBI) can bruise the ball. If either old Willie Stargell or John Milner, ex'Met, Put together a year at first base, the Pirate attack is a nice blend.
The Bucs have four established starters and one qualified reliver-then nothing.
The loss of free agent relivers Rich Gossage and Terry Forster could cost this team a trip to the Series. Skinny Kent Tekulve (10-1) relieved in 72 games, but he's no workhorse.
Pirate fans, like Minnesota and Texas fans before them, expect Bert Blyleven to blossom into the greatest curveballer ever. History says they will be disappointed. Few pitchers with 2,100 career innings and 235 decisions (122-113), suddenly change their form.
Blyleven finds a way to lose half the time even with scoring teams behind him. "Loses concentration, loses game" is the book on him, as simple as some players can't handle likely to jump back above .600 than Blyleven a change-up. Jerry Reuss (10-13) nmay be more is to surpass that figure for the first time.
John Candelaria (20-5, but chronic back trouble) remains the ace of staff of a Buc of team that could steal an incredible number of bases and might make off with 100 wins and the division flag, too.
The rest of the East suffers from the major problem of the entire NL: lack of plausible contender-Babe Ruth.That is, he could both pitch and bat cleanup.
The Cardinals have a host of good players, but no great ones-either hitter or pitcher-to build a powerhouse around.
Gents like Jerry Mumphrey, Jerry Morales, old Lou Brock and Hot-dog Garry Templeton get lots of singels. But who turns them into runs?
Ted Simmons (95 RBI) and Keith Hernandez (91) do sometimes. But a genuine power man could transform the entire lineup. Haven't the Cards heard of the free-agent draft?
The pitching behind determined and unheralded Bob Forsch (20-7) is decent but make shift. The staffs Achilles heel could be Mark Littell, the flamethrower rightly reliever acquired in trade for the Mad Hungarian of lefty persuasion, Al hrabosky.Manager Vern Rapp may have been so anxious to get rid of Hrabosky that he got stuck with damaged goods. Dittell's delivery in Florida looked cripped.
Montreal is interesting. Very interesting. The EXpo pitching looks like Baltimore North with Rudy May, Ross Grimsley and Fred Holdsworth now in Canada. Steve Rogers (17-16) is the bear with 302 innings.
But it's EXpo's everyday lineup that looks like a potentila shocker. The outfield of Warren Cromaritie (.282), Andre Dawson (.282) and Ellis Valentine (25 homers) is set for a decade, agents willing, and could improve in a rush.
What catcher tied Johnny Bench for most homers in the majors last years? Gary Carter, 31 for Montreal.
And we haven't even mentioned Tony Perez (91 RBI), Dave Cash (188 hits) or Chris Speier.
The Expos even cut ring-laden TIto Fuentes (190 hits for Ditroit) ourtight in spring trainning. You can't be too shabby when you tell 309-hitting infeilders to get lost, we don't like your jewelry.
The Cubs have two exciting players and a grumpy manager. Bruce Sutter, if skipper Herman Franks doesn't try to kill him with overwork again, offers the closest thing around to an unhittable pitch: the split-finger fast ball. The league hit.168 versus Sutter last year with 129 strikeouts in 107 innings.
New Cubs Dave KIngman should hit 40 home runs in Wrigley Field and prove anew that of all baseball undeniably good palayers, he is the worst. Given sufficient playing time he's never batted more than 502 times in a season-King Kong can smash the 200-strike-out barrier. He might also hit 50 homers with no one on base. Let's have a big frown for the camera, Dave.
The pinch-penny New York Mets derserve to be forgotten. They just about have a monopoly on overrated creations of the adoring New York media: Steve Hewnderson (pure showboat), Willie (call me Guillermon) Montanez (Mr. Hot Dog), Elliot Maddock and Tim Foli.
Best bet: Lenny Randle (304) won't punch Joe Torre, Torre has a black belt in face.
In the West, the Los Angeles Dodgers kept a pat hand after a World Series visit. That almost always works out badly. Top teams seem to need an annual sprinkling of hungry players, even if only bench types.
The Dodgers, who won by 10 games last year, have reason to be complacent when they look at what Cincinnati has for pitchers behind Tom Seaver. What a kennel.
"I'm even looking over my shoulder at Houston," claim the Reds' Pete Rose.
Is he kidding? Has the curse of space Richardson, the worst trading general manager in history, finally been lifted? Could the 500 Astros actually win, say, 92 games and scare everybody?
There is some doubt that the Astros actually exist. Has anyone really been inside the Astro dome lately?
The statistics say that JOe Sambito is Houston's reliever (233 ERA), that Art Howe is the steady second baseman, that Enos Cabell is almost a star (274 total bases, 42 steals) and that somebody called Terry Puhl hit 301 last year.
Could these guys just be mailling in the box scores?
It's no joke that the Astro pitchers were second in the league in ERA last year (3.54) with household names - in their own house - like Joaquin Andujar and Mark Lemongello in the starting rotation.
If Houston's big weapon - 186 steals - was a secret, at least two of the team's stars deserve vastly more attention than they get. J.R. Richard, 6 feet 8, is still wild, but at 18-12 with 214 strikeouts Manager Bill Virdon will forgive him.
"Bob Watson had a better year than Steve Garvey (of L.A.)," exaggerated the Red's Joe Morgan, "but he might as well be playing in Siberia." Watson had 110 RBI.
However, Houston probably will not be able to interrupt the long-running act that Cincinnati and L.A. have going in West. One or the other has won the division the last six seasons. Their casts are essentially the same.
The Dodger formula is simple: four sluggers with 30 homers, five starting pitchers with winning percentages over .615, several other solid starting players, good morale, huge attendance, hunt-and-peck relief pitching, little depth.
How could Lasorda's Legion do better than last year?
Rick Monday could hit more than 15 homers Reliever Charlie Hough could reverse a 6-12 mark.
Free agents Terry Forster could shape up in the bullpen.
But that's about it. On the other hand, Passel of Dodgers could falter appreciably and still not be playing much below their established ability.
Tommy John, at 35, Probably won't win 20 Nor ia Ron Cey, angry about money differences with team, likely to drive home 110 runs again. Doug Rau (14-8) has arm trouble. Those rumblings have started again in Dodgertown - Vero Beach, Fla. - that the Bums are annoyed with Mr. Perfect, Steve Garvey for being so, well perfect. It can get on a imperfect guy's nevers.
Nevertheless , the Dodgers have to dream up problems to worry about. The Reds have real ones.
Time was when the only team that could put eight regulars on the field like the killers who wont the 75 and '76 Series for the Reds was at a Cooperstown old-timers day.
Now, with the lively Rawlings ball, teams like Philadelphia, L.A., Boston, New York and even Kansas City and the Chicago White Sox are in the same run-scoring class as the Reds.
The Reds, however, no longer have reliable pitching.
For the Big Red Machine to have a credible staff, Bill Bonham must approcach 20 wins, instead of surpassing 20 losses as he once did in Chicago.
Also, little Freddy Norman must do better than 14-13, and Paul Moskau (6-6) become a stable starter.
Once, Manager Sparkey Anderson was called Captain Hook for the way he pulled pitchers. Not any more. His bullpen ought to have an unlisted phone. Last year the Reds sank low enough to dredge up 40-year-old Joe Hoerner for long relief. They're still computing his ERA. THis year ancient AL Downing actually got the once-over. That's desperation.
Pedro Borbon is a stolid Red fireman, but that's it. Dale Murray, the man the Reds got for Tony Oerez, has been a disappointment again this spring!
Many thigs could go wrong for the REds, while few surprises could go right. Even Anderson says, "George Foster may be a better player this season than he was last year, but I doubt if hsi statictics will be as good." A season with 52 home runs and 149 RBI comes hust once in a career.
If Foster and John Bench drive home only 200 runs between them, instead of 258, who picks up the slack?
The West's second-division teams are probably beyond redemption. San Diego has already fired Manager Alvin Dark- a time tested concept- but the Padres still have an infield that may not hit 20 homers combined and a pitching staff built on built on two question marks: old Gaylond Perry and reconstructed Randy Jones.
Oscar Gamble, who slugged 588 (fourth best in baseball) for the White Sox last year, rounds out a powerful Paadre outfield with George Hendrick (311) and Dave Winfield (25 homers). HOwever, on defense that trio will miss a lot of tweeners.
San Francisco has pitching talent: Vida Blue, John Montefusco (7-12 last year), Ed Halicki (6-12), jim Barr (12-16) and reliever Gary, Lavelle (206).
The Giants also have two hitters: Bill Madlock (302) and Willie McCovey (28 homers). But the Bay City Rollovers have a punchless outfield, no quality catcher, poor defense (Madlock, who couldn't play third, has moved to second)and llittle speed.
A good Giant mound staff will pull its hair over unearned runs and weak offensive support.
Note: if McCovey hits 28 home runs again this year, he would pass Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Ernie Banks and Ed Mathews on the all time homer list and tie Ted Williams at 521. Who ever thought old Stretch, good as he has been (three HR titles, one MVP), would join that company. Longevity hath its privileges.
Alanta belongs in AAA ball. Maybe, Jeff Burroughs, swinging for those short fences, may hit 40 homers again.But that's all Chief NOck-A-Homa has to cheer for.
Rookie manager BobbyCox has an entirely new Brave infield. But then, nobody knew the old one.