The American League has reached parity with the National League after 20 years of embarrasment. The proof is in the AL East - the strongest division in baseball.
Last season the NL had two teams with as many as 97 victories. The AL East had three.
This time around, the defending world champion New York Yankees are slightly improved, the Boston Red Sox considerably better. If Baltimore is worried about too much dependence on sophomore starting pitchers, the fans in Detroit and Milwaukee both feel they have teams capable of sniffing 90, that's right, 90 victories.
Everybody's not going to win 90, but that doesn't keep them from thinking they are.
Most confident of all are the Yankees, who think their incredible bullpen of Sparky Lyle, Rich Gossage, Rawley Eastwick and Dick Tidrow is proof against any disaster.
The saddest joke of spring training was that the Yankee B team could play 500 ball.
Dont't laugh. That scrub team would include a polished catcher (Fran Healy), a mean DH (Cliff Johnson), an infield of Jim Spencer, George Zeber, Fred (Chicken) Stanley, and Mickey Klutts, and an outfield of Paul Blair, Roy White and Dell Alston.
Only three things could unseat the Yanks:
Dissension leading to forced trades of star players like Thurman Munson or Mickey Rivers.
A phenomenal 100-plus victory year by the Red Sox, who are capable ofalmost anything if their starting pitching jells.
A collapse by the deep but not really imposing starting pitching of the Yanks.
Yankee Manager Billy Martin may need all four of his relievers - Lyle and Gossage for the eight and ninth, and Eastwick and Tidrow for the sixth and seventh.
The Yankee mound corps has one strong link, young and healthy Ron Guidry (16-7). Behind him is a wealth of good, but tainted, hurlers.
Don Gullett (14-4) still has never had even half an injury-free season. His 158 innings last year were typical of the short, tight-muscled pitcher who constantly suffers rips and pulls of nearly everyting.
Ed Figueroa, who feuded with Martin during the World Series, has arm trouble and may not duplicate his 16-11 mark. Those aging stars of the old Oakland A's - Catfish Hunter and Ken Holtzman - seem to have reached the end. Only their contracts live forever.
As long as pitching is the heart of the game, Yankee-haters have hope.
"If the Yankees could invent two more positions," said Oriole Manager Earl Weaver, "they'd be unbeatable."
Actually, the Yanks would be better suited to the NL, where there is no DH. Their strengths - deep bench, pinch hitters, relief pitchers - are the classic baseball virtues.
The Orioles are the perfect example of how a team with lesser talent can use the DH rule to help keep itself abreast of the Yankee juggernaut.
Weaver believes his Birds can prosper with four starting pitchers who are all capable of 12 to 20 complete games, a couple of modest one-inning relievers and a nucleus of four excellent offensive players.
Last year he was right. He may be again, especially if Mike Flanagan, who finished '77 with a 13-2 binge, can join Jim Palmer to make a parlay of 45 victories. To be a contender, the Birds almost have ot 20-win seasons from both.
Dennis Martinez, 22, a stuff pitcher, and Scott McGregor, 24, a heady type, are being asked to win 15 apiece. Martinez (14-7) might do better. McGregor still has to prove he has some of Flanagan's thick skin and competitiveness.
If McGregor comes through, then trading Rudy May for 10-10 Montreal reliever Don Stanhouse will look smart.He and Martinez No. 2, whose nickname is Tippy, could give Weaver his first quality bullpen in years. If Stanhouse is forced to start. Weaver will look at Nelson Briles as his No.1 right-handed reliever. And that's big trouble.
The O's Big Four hitters will be pressed to produce more as a group than they did last year. Lee May and Ken Singleton (.328) both had 99 RBI. Al Bumbry (.317), if he gets the green light, might steal 50 bases. And Rookie of the Year Eddie Murray (27, 88, .283) could be the main honcho of the whole team now as a regular cleanup hitter and first baseman.
Nevertheless, the Orioles are the most vulnerable of all baseball's contenders to injuries and slumps.
If Andres Mora loses weight and Dough DeCinces keeps developing, the Birds might have five 20-homer men. But what if those nine rookies of '77 start to slump? Ever seen an Oriole flying against a stiff wind?
The Red Sox should be putting the finishing touches on a great team. But in the ancient Fenway Park tradition they keep finding ways to trip over their slugging averages.
On paper Baltimore couldn't touch the 213 homer Bosox last year, but both won 97 games.
Now the Sox have just what they need - the Yankees' tenacious 17-game winner, Mike Torrez; the strikeout king of the Cleveland staff, Dennis Eckersley, and a fleet second baseman, Jerry Remy.
More starting pitching, more speed, more infield defense. How much do these guys need? Nonetheless, the folk of the Fens are grumbling. Geroge Scott arrived in camp looking like a human parkerhouse roll. After the heat he took last year over his blubber, how could he break all records at 240 pounds?
The Sox will hit a ton, even though Zimmer insists on having his big bats - scott, Dwight Evans and Butch Hobson - 7-8-9 in the order while putting his weak sisters - Remy and Rick Burleson - at 1-2.
Remy (.252), Burleson (three homers) and sometimes Fred Lynn (.260) is a shockingly tepid opening bid by a team that has more slugging trumps than any team in baseball.
Wake up, Zim. Do the Reds bat Geronimo first and Concepcion second?
The Hose have seven potential starting pitchers. Zimmer would settle for just four of them being consistent.Reggie Cleveland (11-8) has found his level and, unfortunately, Bob Stanley (8-7) probably has, too.
Wise is in the doghouse, and Bill Lee, with shoulder miseries at the age 31, is bright and funny, but he couldn't get Martin out, let alone Martin's team.
That leaves the weight with Eckersley, Torrez and aging (still) Luis Tiant, who at 37 with a dislocated right index finger may have seen his last toP-fligth season.
Boston has plenty of .500-4.00 type pitchers. But can they take a pennant away from New York?
The Detroit Tigers, if Mark Fidrych wins 20, are a potentially rambunctious team.
For bats the Bengals have Jason Thompson (31 homers), Ron LeFlore (.325, 212 hits), Rusty Staub (101 RBI) and Steve Kemp (88 RBI).
Both Fidrych and his 6-foot-4 running mate, Dave Rozema (15-7), could give season-long stability if they stay healthy. Jim Slaton (10-14 at Milwaukee) and Fernando Arroyo (8-18, 209 innings) could become .500 pitchers with a general team improvement.
Detroit has only a fair bullpen, poor defense and several out men in its lineup. In all, a solid, but limited team.
If Milwaukee's new manager, George Bamberger, had a pitching stafflike those he coached in Baltimore, he'd have the Brewers on the pennant trail.
Unfortunately, all he has is injured and embittered Bill Travers, and a bunch of guys like Jerry Augustine (12-8) and Moose Haas (10-12).
With an infield of Cecil Cooper (.300), Don Money (25 homers at second base), Robin Yount (.288) and Sal Bando, plus an outfield with free-agent Larry Hisle (199 RBI), Sixto Lezcano (21 homers) and Ben Oglivie (21 homers), the Brewers are darn near a terror at the dish.
If only somebody knew how to pitch and catch.
Somebody has to suffer in this division, and it probably will be the darn sound pitching staff of Cleveland.
Wayne Garland (13-19), Mike Paxton (10-5 for the Red Sox) and several others have proved they can pitch, at least a little; and several others have proved thay can pitch. But except for little-known Andre (Thunder) Thorton, the league's No. 6 slugger, the Indians are powerless at bat. Hits, yes. Runs, no.
Toronto has good fans. That's a break.
In the West everybody talks like the runslingers from Kansas City can be had in the first serious shootout. Didn't improve themselves, is the word. Stood pat and now their bluff is going to be called by Texas or California or the White Sox or . . .
Don't believe it. If rookie Clint Hurdle, who hit .328 at Omaha, can push Mr. Rally killer, John Mayberry, off first base, K.C. will look like a Royal flush.
For two years Mayberry's .230 averages have gummed up the Royal attack. Manager Whitey Herzog has finally given up. "I stuck with Big John through a 300-game slump," he says.
The rotation of Dennis Leonard, Jim Colborn, Paul Splittorff and Andy Hassler, plus versatile hurlers like Marty Pattin, Larry Gura and Doug Bird make Herzog smile. The Mad Hungarian, Al Harabosky, should fit right in with this team of closet crazies.
Few teams have true leaders. The Royals do in George Brett (.312) and Hal McRae (86 extra-base hits). They are hard-nosed throw-backs.
If Fred Patek and Amos Otis can squeeze another dependable year from their older bodies, the Royals could win 102 (tops in baseball) again.
The bona fide challengers are Billy Hunter's Texas Rangers.
This gang is still a little wild and woolly around the edges.The outfield should be fun to watch with free-agent Richie Zisk, Claudell Washington and Al Oliver trying to cover the acreage and figure out their batting averages at the same time.
The infield of Mike Hargrove, Bump Wills, Bert Campaneris and Toby Harrah draws a lot of walks, hits for average and plays adequate defense. But those name don't have the ring of greatest. Catcher Jim Sundberg (.291) is excellent.
The Rangers will or won't get their man, depending on their starless pictching staff. Doyle Alexander (17-11), aged Ferguson Jenkins, Dock Ellis, Jon Matlack (7-15), Doc Medich. Someone has to stand up and say, "I'm the stopper. I win the big game. I win 20."
The Rangers can hit. But they still probably are not a complete enough team to topple a 102 game winner that has taken the Yankees to the final inning of the AL playoffs twice before being denied entree to the Series.
The big - spending disappointments - the California Angels - end the down-at-the-heel heroes - the Chicago White Sox - should fight for third.
The Angels keep spending, but they still have a two man pitching staff: Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan. Both are strikeout whizzes. Both may be overrated because of their K's. Tanana has never won 20, doesn't get along well with teammates and begged off pitching late in 1977 so he could back into the ERA title. In other words, he's selfish.
Ryan was 19-16 again last year. With 341 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA, how do you lose 16 games? Only Nolan knows. And when you've found the secret of losing, it's hard to forget it.
If a lineup that contains Lyman Bostock, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and . . . and . . . Well, that's all this team has. Two pitchers and four players. Bobby Bonds took his 37 homers and 42 steals to Chicago.
The Angels will have to play like the devil to stay ahead of Bonds and his new playmates.
The White Sox come out of the dugout swinging. A game to them is just nine innings of laugh-it-up batting practice. They can't run the bases, they get picked off, they ignore defense. But they HIT.
The addition of Bonds and Ron Blomberg should just about balance the loss of Zisk and Oscar Gamble. Lamar Johnson (.302), Ralph Garr (.300), Eric Soderholm, Jorge Orta and Co. will continue the assault.
Francisco Barrios (14-7), Steve Stone (15-12) and Ken Krave (11-8) show the limits of the Pale Hose pitchers. Don't say anything bad about the defense, guys. They may score six runs next time up.
The worst three tailenders in any division are clustered in a pathetic clump at the bottom of the Al West. The Minnesota Twins have Rod Carew (.388) and Manager Gene Mauch and a bunch of holes where Hisle and Bostock used to be.
Mauch should be able to hold fourth place with Dave Goltz, the most unheard of 20-game winner in memory, and catcher Butch Wynegar.
Oakland and Seattle should have one of the game's memorable races for 100 defeats. Oakland should bet there first, and keep right on going.
Final quiz: name the two 20-homer men for the Mariners and A's.
Ruppert Jones (24) and Dan Meyer (22) for Seattle; Wayne Gross (22) and blossoming Mitchell Page (21) for the Where-Are-We A's.
Look out below.