Does the National League, despite all its future Hall of Famers, still have a single great team?
League champion Los Angeles has lost its best pressure pitcher, Tommy John, and most of its strong bench through free-agent attrition. Every Dodger regular now is over 30.
The once-mighty Cincinnati Reds are without Pete Rose, symbol of the franchise, and Manager Sparky Anderson. They must beg the aging bodies of Joe Morgan and Johnny Bech to keep them in contention.
Both San Francisco and Pittsburgh have three top-drawer starting pitchers, but as the Giants' Willie McCovey and the Pirates' Willie Stargell decline, neither team has a cleanup man to anchor a pennant drive.
The San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos, both active in the money madness, have the young stars necessary to reach a World Series, but neither club has the necessary spear carriers to support their lead players.
Even the perpetually frustrated Philadelphia Phillies, proud owners of a fading Rose, seem like a powerhouse of the past that has let its moment of greatness slip in '76 and '77 and now is growing old and thread-bare on the pitcher's mound.
As the American League seems to be dividing itself into exciting haves and distressing have-nots-teams that talk of winning 95 or more games, and others that fear losing as many-the National League appears to be bunching toward .500.
At first glance, the Phils and Dodgers seem relative certainties to meet in the playoffs for the third straight year.
Philadelphia felt it needed leadership, postseason confidence, a bit of swagger, if you will. So they spent $3.2-million for Rose, hoping he would cheer or kick his teammates into dignified pressure performances.
The only Phil weak link was second base, so Ted Sizemore was traded for quality hotdog Manny Trillo, a man who makes, rather than breaks, double plays.
Nevertheless, the smarter Phillies still worry. "I just hope nobody gets hurt," says catcher Bob Boone, shaking his head.
Once, Danny Ozark's Phils had bench to spare, starting pitchers to spare, more relievers than they could use. That was long ago, in '76-'77 when the club won 202 games but never got to the Series.
Now, the Phillie bench does not exist. Outfielder Jerry Martin, gone in the Trillo trade, was the last of it.
Those young Phillie starters have faltered. Randy Lerch lloks more like an erratic journeyman every year. Larry Christenson is hurt, out until at least May.
The old standbys-Jim Kaat and Jim Lonborg-have had their day. Steve Carlton, 34, now is a finesse pitcher and his 16-13 record may be a harbinger of harder days ahead.
Dick Ruthven, 13-5 in 20 Phillie starts last year after a trade with Atlanta, was the savior of '78. Now he has arm trouble.
Despite all this, the Phils probably are the class of the dynasty-less National League. Their speed and defense are exceptional, their power adequate with Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski (and little else).
Pittsburgh finished only 1 1/2 games behind Philadelphia last season and that is a good measure of how closely it still shadows the Phils.
The Bucs will go as far as their strapping trio of John Candelaria, Bert Blyleven and Don Robinson will take them-that could be to the Series or to Nowheresville. The three pitchers were 40-27 last year. They could win 60 this season.
Robinson at 6-foot-4, 231 pounds, is a 21-year-old bear with blow-'em-away greatness written on him. The 6-7 Candy Man, plagued by back problems, still seems more like the 21-5 southpaw of '77 than the 12-11 lollipop of '78. Blyleven probably will be the sticking point. Believe it or not, his modest 14-10 record with the Bucs was the second-highest winning percentage of his nine years-and this from a 28-year-old already on the verge of 2,000 strikeouts.
The Big Three must dominate, because the other starters-Jim Rooker, Jim Bibby, Jerry Reuss-won't. Kent Tekulve (91 appearances) is a string-bean one-man bullpen.
The Pirate attack has the speed (213 steals) that Manager Chuck Tanner preaches. And it has the Cobra, Dave ( $5 million man) Parker with his 30 homers, 117 RBI, and .334 average.
But it has little else. Stargell's remarkable 97 RBI in 390 at bats was perhaps the besthidden stat of '78. It is also a figure a 38-year-old is unlikely to duplicate.
Montreal is the reverse of the Pirates-it has the lineup, but perhaps not the pitching. The Expos' 86 losses last year were the mystery of baseball. They are just too good to lose that many. Com'on Dick Williams, kick some fannies.
The infield of Tony Perez, Dave Cash, Chris Speier and Larry Parrish is solid. Catcher Gary Carter has hit 52 homers in two seasons. The outfield of Warren Cromartie (.297), Andre Dawson (25 homers) and Ellis Valentine (25 homers) is flirting with greatness. The trio had an astounding 65 outfield assists. Please, run on us, they beg.
The Expos have two quality starters-Ross Grimsley (20-11) and Steve Rogers (2.47)-and, at last a reliever to back them up, Elias Sosa (68 games, 2.64 with Oakland).
Montreal goes as far as young Dan Schatzeder and old ALers Rudy May and Bill Lee can take them. That should be well above .500, but not high enough for any October exposure.
The rest of the NL East is expendable. Chicago has mastered profitable mediocity and will settle for it. Dave Kingman hit 28 homers in 395 at bats last year. Why won't somebody play the big rally-killing King Kong every day just to see what he'd do? What does Herman Franks have to lose?
The St. Louis Cardinals have no power (79 homers), no left-handed pitching (four southpaw victories), bad relief pitching (16-33 in onerun games) and a showboat shortstop, Garry Templeton, who made 40 errors. No NL team scored fewer runs (600).
The last-place New York Mets can only improve, since M. Donald Grant was booted out of team's chairmanship. They actually have a nucleus of decent players-pitchers Craig Swan (2.43) and Pat Zachry (3.33), plus catcher John Stearns, Steve Henderson, Lee Mazzilli, Willie Montanez (96 RBI) and Richie Hebner from the Phils.
If only the Giants or Reds could get their acts together, the Natioanl League West could have a full-scale shootout. Los Angeles, a year older and minus John, Bill North (27 steals) and Lee Lacy, just con't be a juggernaut.
As usual, Manager Om Lasorda is determined to get the maximum production from the minimum number of players-the Dodgers are essentially a 15-man team, plus a few bodies.
The now-familiar lineup stays identical from spring training to World Series. Again, L.A. should lead the league in runs and homers, though Reggie Smith, 34, this month, and Rick Monday, 33, aren't spring chickens. Catchers Steve Yeager (.193) and Joe Ferguson (.237) are the only every-day annoyances.
The rotation of Burt Hooton, Doug Rau, Rick Rhoden and Don Sutton (hot in Florida) plus either young Bob Welch or recycled Andy Messersmith looks solid, but perhaps no longer the best in the league without John, the Redsbeater.
If you put together the Giants' pitching and the Reds' hitting, you'd have the New York Yankees. If you put together the Giants' pitching and the Reds' hitting, you'd have the Toronto Blue Jays.
San Francisco, its attendance up 149 percent, is a franchise on the upbeat. Yet the Giants still have few believers. If anyone knocks off the Dodgers, it will be the spirited, scrappy Giants of Joe Altobelli, playing on their new grass Candlestick Park field.
The hurling quartet of Vida Blue (18-10), Bob Knepper (2.63, 17-11), John Montefusco (239 innings) and 6-7 Ed Halicki can only be helped by the absence of artificial turf and the cheap hits it brings.
Also, the slewfooted Giant infield, including McCovey, Bill Madlock and Dwight Evans, needs the slowest hops it can get.
Can the Giants match their major-leaguerecord 42 one-run wins? Probably not. But they could be a better team.
A full season of Roger Metzger at shortstop will help S.F.'s poor double-play total.
The Giants need peak years from two-time bat champ Madlock, Jack Clark, Evans and either McCovey or Mike Ivie.
The heart is willing but the bats are weak.
Let's make it simple: behind Tom Seaver, Cincinnati's pitching is too rotten to win a division crown unless its hitting is vintage Reds of '76-'77. And Cincinnati's hitting never will be that good again.
Four Reds flopped last year-Cesar Geronimo (.226), Dan Driessen (.250), Bench (only 393 at bats) and Morgan (.236). Is it likely that all four can rebound? Well, that's what it will take to make up the slack for losing Rose.
Bench never will return to Hall of Fame form-too many long-term injuries. But Morgan might approximate his old style. That's the Reds' key-Morgan. If he plays like '77, they will battle for the flag. If he plays like '78 with no speed, no power, no defense, the Reds will disappear.
San Diego is baseball's soundless winner. Last in runs, 10th in homers, 11th in fielding, it can't buy an appearance on the TV game of the wek. The young stars are anonymous.
But they are mighty good.
Right fielder Dave Winfield-6-foot-6, 220 pounds-is on the next level below Jim Rice, George Foster and Parker as an offensive monster. And he is a star, not a liability, in the outfield.
Pencil-thin Ozzie Smith (159 games, 40 steals) is the most acrobatic shortstop in baseball and one of the best. Fleet outfielder Gene Richards (40 steals hit .308. Reliever John D'Acquisto, with 104 Ks in 93 innings and a 2.13 ERA, is almost as good as super-saver Rollie Fingers (37 saves).
Add to that old Gaylord (Cy Young) Perry (21-6) and rebuilding Randy Jones (2.88 in 253 innings), plus several live young arms named Owchinko, Rasmussen and Shirley.
Pay no attention to the Houston Astros. They don't care, why sould you?
The Atlanta Braves are as wacky a team as their owner Ted Turner. For instance, Jeff Burroughs, playing in home-run heaven, decided he wants to shorten his stroke and hit .300. He hit .301, drew walks, but knocked in only 77 runs. Wake up, Jeff.