There are all sorts of positive things to say about the 1981 Milwaukee Brewers, who are expected to create a series of miniwars when it comes to assaulting opposing pitchers this season.
The problem is that even with the addition of catcher Ted Simmons, plus pitchers Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers from the St. Louis Cardinals, the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles still look stronger in the AL East.
"Although people probably will continue to think of us primarily as a team of power hitters, that's only going to be one part of our game," explained Bob (Buck) Rodgers, who has replaced the retired George Bamberger as manager.
"Basically what I want from us this year is a lot more flexibility, execution , and balance," Rodgers continued. "I want a team that knows when to hit the cutoff man on defense and when to take the extra base on offense.
"Even after the season starts we're going to have at least one day a week when we do nothing but work on our execution. If that means having to skip batting practice that day, when that's what we'll do. Often the difference between finishing first or simply doing well is how many one-run games you win and that's where I'm hoping we'll make our biggest improvement."
Defensively Milwaukee is expected to open the season with an infield of Cecil Cooper at first base; Jim Gantner at second; Don Money at third; and Robin Yount at shortstop. But playing time will also have to be found for free agent Roy Howell, who hit .269 last year in 142 games with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Rodgers is switching Paul Molitor, who can play anywhere in the infield, from second base to center field, partly because Molitor has the range of a Boeing 747. This will put Gorman Thomas in right and Ben Oglivie in left and, for the time being, make Larry Hisle the team's designated hitter. Hisle, who is coming off surgery, may eventually see some limited action in the outfield.
Simmons, one of the best switch-hitters in the game and a consistently fine RBI man, will be the starting catcher. Backing him up will be Buck Martinez and Ned Yost, the type players Mike Gonzalez years ago described in his broken English as "good field, no hit."
Despite Rodgers's crusade for better team execution, the key to the Brewers is probably going to be their pitching staff. There isn't a Don Drysdale or a Sandy Koufax on it; the nearest thing to them being right-hander Moose Haas, who won 16 games last year while turning in a 3.10 earned-run average.
Definitely joining Haas in the regular rotation will be Vuckovich (12-9 with the Cardinals) and Mike Caldwell (13-11). The other top candidates at this early stage of spring training camp in Sun City, Ariz., are Jim Slaton, who still has to prove he can pitch after injuries, and Bob McClure, who is getting his chance on the basis of 4-1,2.41 ERA performance last September.
Fingers, the onetime Oakland A's World Series hero who has been the National League's top relief pitcher in three of the last four years with the San Diego Padres, will head up Milwaukee's bullpen. Fingers, who won 11 games last season in relief while saving 23 more, still has enough rubber left in his right arm to start a tire factory.
When Rollie isn't working, relief will be provided by Reggie Cleveland, Paul Mitchell, Jerry Augustine, and John Flinn. That is, if Cleveland, Mitchell, or both don't become last-minuted starting replacements for Slaton and/or McClure.
Where Rodgers shouldn't have to compromise all season is in his batting lineup. It is awesome. Leading off will be Molitor (.304, 29 doubles, 36 stolen bases); then Yount (.293, 23 homers, 87 RBI); then Cooper (.352, 25 homers, 122 RBI); then Oglivie (.304, 41 homers, 118 RBI).
After that the order may change depending on who is pitching for the opposition. But still to be dealt with are Thomas (38 homers, 105 rbi); Simmons (.303, 21 homers, 98 RBI); Hisle (34 homers, 115 RBI in '78); Money (17 homers, 46 RBI); and Gantner (.282, 21 doubles).
Last year Milwaukee tied a major league record against Boston with two grand slam home runs in the same inning and just missed tying another with seven homers in a game against Cleveland.
"But we've never told our players to go out and just get home runs," Rodgers said. "What we preach are consistency and good contact. That is what gets you through the season and drives in the runs."
Nevertheless most opposing pitchers who draw the Brewers as a starting assignment would be better off working from bomb-proof shelters or praying for rain.