The San Diego Padres will win the National League West, followed by the disappointed Los Angeles Dodgers, whose force-fed youth movement is still a year or two away.
The defending champion Atlanta Braves, the fluke of '82, will battle the stubborn San Francisco Giants for third place, but fail. The fading Houston Astros will finish fifth, by default, because the Cincinnati Reds deserve their lock on last place.
What's a batch of previews worth without at least one wild prognostication?
True, the Padres only finished .500 last year, and the franchise has never won anything. True, free agent Steve Garvey has declined from star to solid vet, while Garry Templeton has long been overrated. True, Padres pitchers, fifth in the NL in ERA, have only one-season credentials behind them, and could fail.
Nonetheless, the stars seem aligned for a storybook Padre season. Getting Garvey was a $6.5-million psychological ploy by General Manager Jack McKeon. Mr. Dodger may only duplicate his modest stats of '82 (16 homers, 86 RBI), but he has the aura of a winner and, like Reggie Jackson, takes pressure off his mates by assuming the big-dog role.
Terry Kennedy, Ruppert Jones and Sixto Lezcano may surpass Garvey's power stats, but it'll be Garvey's acceptance of responsibility in the heart of the order that frees them; Tony Perez in Cincinnati, Lee May in Baltimore and Ted Simmons in Milwaukee have done it before. Leadership has many ancillary benefits; these swift Padres (165 steals) won't finish seventh in runs again.
The Padre keys will be pitching and health. Manager Dick Williams, who's as well-suited to the bumptious Padres as he was out of place with the malingering Expos, has a world of young arms--none great, but many good. If Tim Lollar and Eric Show give the rotation ballast, while Luis DeLeon (2.03) leads a deep bullpen, Williams can juggle the rest, revolving his versatile and willing young pitchers between spot starts and bullpen work like a college coach.
Atlanta, which led the NL in runs in '82, survived despite its rotten pitching (10th in ERA and 15 complete games). That was before injuries shredded the staff this spring. If 44-year-old Phil Niekro isn't 13 games over .500 again--and he'd never done it before in his life--how are these Braves going to win 89 games again?
They aren't. That leaves only one other solid contender in the West--wealthy but callow Los Angeles, the team that bleeds Dodger green.
This is the season when the Dodgers will pay for their lack of loyalty to Garvey, Ron Cey, and others like Tommy John and Don Sutton before them. When a franchise grosses nearly $40 million a season, it ought to be able to pay the going wage to the workers who've made it filthy rich. The Dodgers refuse.
That's why Pedro Guerrero is now at third base, Mike Marshall is in right field and Greg Brock is on first. Superstar Guerrero should never have been moved from a comfortable position (right) to the infield, where he's made nine errors in exhibitions.
Marshall's ready to play and may exceed Cey's 24 homers and 79 RBI in '82. However, Brock hasn't looked like the answer to anything at first base. With the scatter-armed L.A. left side, Garvey's gold glove at first will be missed.
Dodger pitching could compensate for all of this, however. Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch and Burt Hooton might win a pennant by themselves; that is, if one reliever would step forward to save 25 games. But none has. That, plus a shaky defensive infield, mediocre catching and a novice right fielder should give the Dodgers heartburn.
If the Giants stay in the race until the final weekend again, then Frank Robinson should have two plaques in the Hall of Fame, including one as a manager. Robby won 87 games with mirrors last season; now, he's lost his team MVP, Joe Morgan, and reliever Al Holland in a scary-looking trade for Mike Krukow.
The Giants' no-name pitchers--such as Bill Laskey, Fred Breining, Atlee Hammaker, Greg Minton and Gary Lavelle--had classy seasons in '82 despite the Giants' 173 errors. The Giants may be over .500, but they'll disappear from the race around Labor Day.
That Houston and Cincinnati, just two years after being prime contenders, could lose nearly 200 games between them is the work of John McMullen and Dick Wagner. Meddling Houston owner McMullen didn't understand baseball--firing GM Tal Smith and Manager Bill Virdon, while giving authority to disastrous GM Al Rosen. Wagner didn't understand the times, selling the Reds future down the river for the sake of making a Quixotic stand against the free agent era.