The Los Angeles Dodgers are a team, like the Pirates of '79 and the Phillies of '80, that can, having vindicated itself in the World Series, go back to sleep.
Whenever a club full of veterans summons itself for one last rally-'round-the-flag effort, saying things like, "We may never have this chance again," then don't bet the rent on them the next season. In their hearts, they believe they've gotten their just reward and doubt that they deserve more.
The mood around the Dodgers this spring has been reminiscent of those Pirates and Phillies who couldn't get enough wrestling, teasing, Grapefruit League fun, then went out and played only moderately well in losing their crowns.
Already, Fernando Valenzuela, a bitter holdout, has been hit hard in his first spring start. Onetime Dodger captain Dave Lopes has been traded. Steve Garvey is mad at the ungrateful Dodgers' refusal to renegotiate his $350,000-a-year contract now that he's in his option year; L.A. thinks Mr. Dodger is in an old-age stat slide and would just as soon go with huge Mike Marshall in '83.
Of such things are dreams unmade.
Nonetheless, the Dodgers are awash in good pitching. Considering that they play in a hitters' park, the Dodgers' total staff is probably the game's best, although the Yankees and Astros both bested the Dodgers' 3.01 earned-run mark last year. It should be noted, however, that both Jerry Reuss (2.29) and Burt Hooton (2.28) had, by far, the best ERAs of their lives. When a club needs several personal-best seasons from key pitchers to win its title, it has trouble repeating.
The hard fact remains that the Dodgers had the best run differential in baseball in '81 (94), and no franchise has a richer farm system; they can retool on the fly.
Also to the Dodgers' advantage, their only realistic competitors--Houston and Cincinnati--have obvious crippling deficiencies. The Astros, despite their dazzling 2.66 team ERA last season, have an abysmal offense--even by Astrodome standards--which has neither power, speed nor cunning. The Reds, whose .611 percentage was the game's best last year, deserve to win the West this time on poetic justice alone; however, the Cincinnati outfield of George Foster, Ken Griffey and Dave Collins now plays in either the Bronx or Queens.
Although the Astros are criminally dull, the Houstonians are so good at their obnoxious, archaic virtues that almost nobody can beat them. Modern teams just don't want to play 1-0 or 2-1 games where a sacrifice bunt makes the highlight film and a run-scoring groundout makes you the star of the game.
The Houston rotation of Nolan Ryan, Bob Knepper, Joe Niekro, Don (Take the Money and Go Home to L.A.) Sutton and Vern Ruhle is superbly soporific. The bullpen's sinfully deep. The Astros' secret, however, is that their 200-theft speed of '79 and '80 is now almost completely gone. The steal of second was the heart of the Astros' cheap-run attack. Now, it's gone.
Nothing would surprise pundits more than a Cincinnati visit to the Series. It wouldn't take miracles. The new outfield of Clint Hurdle, Cesar Cedeno and rookie Paul Householder will likely equal the home-run and RBI production of the '81 crew while improving on its defense. If Johnny Bench isn't a complete klutz at third (he couldn't have less range than Rose), the Reds' infield will do nicely, too.
The question is pitching. Tom Seaver can't go 14-2 again; he's had a bad spring. Mario Soto is an ace, capable of 20 wins someday soon. But after that, Bruce Berenyi, Frank Pastore and various mystery men don't measure up to the Dodgers and Astros.
The rest of the West lives in a world of hopeful fantasy.
The Atlanta Braves are, as always, doomed because the gods of baseball will never allow selfish Ted Turner, who has damaged the game badly over the years with his irresponsible salary bidding, to win anything. Time was, the Braves could hit. Now, although their young pitching is improving, they can't hit enough to support it.
The San Diego Padres are only nine players away from being a contender.
In San Francisco, hard-nosed Manager Frank Robinson and second baseman Joe Morgan have built a professional attitude by weeding out head cases and malingering vets. Unfortunately, this necessitated replacing the entire known pitching staff. What remains is an unfathomable mystery. If these Giants are over .500 again, Frank Robby's a genius and should get the job he's already said he wants in '83: manager of the Orioles.