Mesa, Ariz. — The only thing in the world that may be safe from inflation this year is the Chicago Cubs baseball team, a major league franchise that regularly changes managers, coaches, and players, yet hasn't won a pennant since 1945.
"I think the chief reason the Cubs [64-98 in 1980] haven't done well in recent years is because they never really decided on a way to go," explained Joe Amalfitano, who replaced Preston Gomez as manager midway through last season. "This isn't a game where you can keep changing your priorities and expect to win."
"Basically what we've done since last season is agree that we'll build with young players we think we can develop ourselves," Amalfitano continued. "My feeling is the winter trades we made have helped our balance, improved our defense, and given us a future."
In order to strengthen itself at two starting positions (right field and third base), Chicago traded Bruce Sutter to the St. Louis Cardinals for Leon Durham, Ken Reitz, and rookie Ty waller.
Although Sutter is generally considered the best relief pitcher in the National League, the Cubs were willing to give up almost anything for Durham, a young power hitter they think will regularly drive in 100 runs while collecting 30 or more homers.
The sure-handed Reitz goes directly to third base in an infield that will have Bill Buckner at first, Joe Strain at second, and Ivan De Jesus at shortstop. Strain, who hit .286 last year with the San Francisco Giants, has more speed and range than either Mike Tyson or Steve Dillard.
Chicago's outfield will probably have Durham in right, the veteran Jerry Morales (currently signed to a minor league contract) in center, and Scot Thompson and Steve Henderson platooning in right.
Henderson, obtained from the New York Mets in exchange for Dave Kingman, plays well defensively, hits for average, and last year stole 23 bases. Thompson, who has been taking instruction in how to hit the breaking ball from former National League batting champ Harry Walker, is expected to improve greatly on last year's .212 average.
Barry Foote, 20 pounds lighter than last season, will be Chicago's No. 1 catcher. Tim Blackwell and Jody Davis will supply back-up help.
Amalfitano's biggest problem will be his pitching staff, which last year had the fewest complete games (13) of any team in the league and also gave up the most hits (728). Most of the Cub starters return -- Rick Reuschel, Mike Krukow, Dennis Lamp, and Lynn McGlothen, with Randy Martz also figuring in Chicago's rotation.
Although McGlothen was the group's top winner with 12 notches in the "W" column, he also had the highest earned-run average (4.80). It is a staff whose ability was mortgaged to the hilt last season and in baseball there are no second trust deeds.
With Sutter in St. Louis, Chicago's bullpen will rely chiefly on the young arms of Bill Caudill and Lee Smith, plus those of veterans Dick Tidrow and Doug Capilla.
If the Cubs do make a trade between now and the start of the season, it undoubtedly will involve front-line pitching.
"Defensively, we've already come a long way since last season, when we were giving opposing teams four and five outs an inning," Amalfitano said. "We've got people now who can catch the ball, who can throw the ball, and who can consistently make the double play. This alone will make our pitching better.
"Offensively we don't have as much power as we did in 1980, when we had Kingman and Jerry Martin hitting the long ball for us," Joe continued. "What we've got now, with the exception of Durham, is a team of contact hitters who are going to get on base a lot, move each other around, and score some extra runs because of their speed."
Part of Chicago's problem in moving up this season is that it is in the same division as the world champion Philadelphia Phillies, the Montreal Expos, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals, all of whom have better personnel. That leaves the New York Mets, who finished three games ahead of Chicago last season and are also rebuilding.