MAKE WAY for Montreal, Houston and perhaps St. Louis.
Step aside Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and probably even world champion Pittsburgh -- those four powers that won 18 of the National League's 20 division titles in the last decade.
In the 1970's, baseball produced a succession of modest dynasties -- teams which came together for a few years of superiority, then either disappeared totally, or had to undergo major repairs.
The Phils, and probably Dodgers, are already in this decomposing Class. The stand-pat Reds seem typecast for the role, too. And the Pirates will need enormous good future to escape falling into the same category.
Conversely, once a team shows strong growth trends, it usually makes its way to the very top. The Astros and Expos finished just 1-1/2 and 2 games out of first in '79, and contended until the last week.
Each is slightly stronger on paper. Get ready to hail two champions -- each a former expansion team -- which have never before won anything.
Get ready to say hello to the dingy Astrodome. And pack a parka for the World Series in Montreal where the retractable dome still isn't close to competition.
First things first. There should be no way the Pirates can win the East again, let alone repeat as pennant or Series winners.
The self-proclaimed Dirty Bucs won with mirrors and morale last year, plus the best balanced offense in the NL, the deepest bullpen and the most underrated manager.
Their starting pitching was poor then. Now, with the loss of free-agent Bruce Kison (13-7), it's downright bad. Never pick a team with old sluggers and lousy starters.
Seldom has a Series winner started the next season with a starting rotation as thoroughly ordinary as John Candelaria, Bert Blyleven, Jim Bibby, Don Robinson and Jim Rooker.
This quintet won all of 50 games last year. Taken as a group, it's probably more than could be expected of them.
Where in the world do the other 50 Pirate wins come from this year?
The Bucs were lulled into offseason torpor by the illusion that their staff did wonders in the Series (3.19 ERA). Post season is always a special case. Extra days' rest rides weak fourth and fifth starters while allowing the pullpen to carry an extra load -- a big Pirate plus. No team hits much in October.
Now, the truth may out. Rooker is washed up, coming off a four-won year. Robinson, at 22, has a chance to set a record for most consecutive years of major offseason surgery; he's coming off an elbow ('78) and a shoulder ('79). Candelaria keeps driving his car into stationary objects and has chronic back miseries (which may be related to his pot gut).
Bibby, at 35, has an 81-80 career record; can be have another .750-percentage year? If Blyleven has to go back to pitching complete games, instead of handing 33 of 37 starts over to the Buc pen, he'll rediscover his penchant for blowing leads in the late going.
The likes of Andy Hassler, Dave Roberts and Rock Rhoden have been wheeled in as stopgaps. Pure desperation. Rhoden was cut yesterday.
Can you Bucs NL-leading run total (775) go anywhere but down? Can the trio of Willie Stargell (39), Bill Robinson (37) and John Milner -- who revolve at two positions (first and left) -- combine again for 70 homers, 217 RBI in 1,145 at bats?
Full years from Tim Foli and Bill Madlock, plus, perhaps a top year from Dave Parker, make this a 90-win club that has both speed (190 steals) and power (143 homers).
However, the Bucs' margin of error was infinitesimal last year -- 41 come-from-behind wins and 25 victories in their last at bats. What family can do that twice?
Montreal may not quite need to match its 95 wins of '79 to make the playoffs. That's good news for manager Dick Williams because his staff, which gave up the least runs in baseball last year, is minus Rudy May and Dan Schatzeder.
The Expos' potential vulnerability depends on three eccentric veterans -- Ross Grimsley, Bill Lee, and Steve Rogers -- plus two sophomores -- David Palmer and Scott Sanderson -- in their rotation.
There are worse fates. Grimsley-Lee-Rogers were a modest 39-31 last year, so they might actually improve. Palmer (2.63) and 6-foot-5 Sanderson (3.43) look bona fide.
With Ron LeFlore (78 steals) now in left field and Warren Cromartie at first base, where his lackadaisical style may do less damage, the Expos have quality at every position, tons of speed at the top of the lineup, and six authoriative hitters.
Oddly, the Expos lack true third and fourth hitters who relish RBI responsibilities. Somebody better drive in over 100 runs, probably Larry Parrish (30 homers) since Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine and Gary Carter all seem to lack the last ingredient for true offensive stardom: consistent class in the clutch.
The East's third contender is more likely to be the Cards than the Phils.
St. Louis' lineup, with Bobby (U.S.) Bonds now joining the crew that already led the league in hitting, is a superb collection of bizarre temperament cases.
Bonds, with his sixth team is six years, joins aloof, patrician catcher Ted Simmons, vain Garry Templeton, incommunicado George Hendricks, superflake Bernie Carbo, and batting champ Keith Hernandez. Oh, for the movie rights to what goes on this clubhouse.
Quiz: What .300-hitter won, the NL gold glove at second base last year? Hint: plays for the Cards, first name Ken.
Answer: Oberkfell (.301).
Though the St. Louis bullpen is thin after Mark Littell, the starting quartet of Silvio Martinez (15-8), Pete Vuckovich (15-10), John Fulgham (10-6, 2.53) and Bob Forsch (11-11) is much better than the Pirates. Watch young Martinez and Fulgham. They're the key.
The Phils no longer have a key. Their motor was turned off long ago under the stupefying reign of Danny Ozark. This team in '79 was the all-time overpaid, pampered, moody ballclub. Pete Rose made them look like statues.
Philadelphians think their off-injured, out-of-shape boys were unlucky to finish fourth last year at 84-78. Heck, they were lucky to end up ahead of the Cubs: the Phils were outscored by 35 runs, a figure more suitable to a 78-84 finish.
The Phils have two things on their side: talent and shame, they should improve, but hopefully not too much. It would set an ugly precedent.
The NL West presents an almost identically symmetrical picture. The Reds have gained nothing, while losing old Fred Norman and Joe Morgan. They are banking on a healthy George Foster, and the continued excellence of a whole host of surprise youngsters who performed above expectations, or previous statistics (even in the minors).
If Ray Knight (.318), Dave Collins (.318), Mike LaCoss (14-8), Tom Hume (2.76), Dave Tomlin (2.64), Frank Pastore and Paul Moskau equal their clutch contributions of last season, then quiet manager John McNamara is baseball's hidden genius.
None of these guys ever made a ripple until he got 'em.
If the Dodgers aren't an aging, stagnant ballclub trying desperately to buy its way back into contention for one more year, there never was one.
All eight of the Dodgers regulars are at least 31, and six of the eight candidates for an extremely shaky-looking starting rotation are 30 or over.
A dozen of these Dodgers have been together for a dozen years, stretching back to Albuquerque. They can remember when scrappy young manager Tommy LaSorda used to win all his fist fights. They've all grown up together, won together, aged and spat together, and now they'll try to shale off their wealthy collective complacency for one last year of Dodger Blue dignity.
It's a nice idea. But it could only come true in a bad Hollywood made-for-TV movie. The Dodgers showed the grit to have the league's best record over the second half of '79. And they've signed Don Stanhouse and Dave Goltz -- both solid, neither wonderful nor worth millions.
However, L.A. has a huge hole in center field, and Reggie Smith, the offensive linkpin, seems injured, bitter and well past his prime. The Dodgers only win if less than 90 victories is enough.
It could be, because Houston, the pick of a weak West, is an easy team to overestimate. Adding Nolan Ryan and a reinvigorated Morgan to a team that already won 89, and didn't fold in September, seems like a lot.
However, the Astros only outscored opponents by one run. Manager Bill Virdon did a masterful job of milking what he had, and making hay at home.
Behind Ryan J. R. Richard, Joe Niekro and reliever Joe Sambito, the Astros have the potential to be an enormously uninterestisang team, despite their 190 steals.
Putting Cesar Cedeno back in center should help the defense, but it is the vast pride of two-time MVP Morgan, who is still a competent player and a true leader, that may spark this team. If Little Joe can stay in one piece. t
The rest of the NL consists of the unmanageable egos of the avaricious Chicago Cubs, plus four clubs that lost more than 90 games last season. Four of the five have new managers since last spring -- Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego and Atlanta -- while the fifth (New York) has a new owner and general manager.
The Braves have no pitching in a bandbox park (last in ERA). The Padres have no hitting in a cavernous park (last in batting average). And the Giants have no team spirit in their odious Candlestick cave of the winds. t
The Mets, once again, just have no nothing.