Vero Beach, Fla. — Of perhaps half a dozen teams that have a real chance of winning the 1981 National League pennant, the Los Angeles Dodgers are probably the toughest to figure.
The talent is there all right, except that it has to be judged on what outfielder Reggie Smith, shortstop Bill Russell, and relief pitchers Don Stanhouse and Terry Forster did before they were injured.
Smith (coming off shoulder surgery) is the key to the Dodgers' offense. Russell (coming off finger surgery) is the key to their defense. And right now there are no guarantees that either will be able to start the season.
Stanhouse, who had a total of 45 saves with the Baltimore Orioles in 1978 and '79, pitched only 25 innings last year because of injuries; Forster threw in just 12, for the same reason. If Standhouse and Forster still don't produce, Manager Tommy Lasorda actually wouldn't be too badly off.
Lasorda coult forget any plans that he has of making a starter of Steve Howe, the 1980 National League Rookie of the Year, and keep him in the bullpen, where last season he saved a team-high 21 games. Joining him would be Bobby Castillo and Joe Beckwith, both of whom had impressive earned-run averages in 1980.
What makes the switch-hitting Smith so valuable is that he can often carry a club for long periods with his bat, his glove, his aggressiveness, and his RBI power. With Reggie, Lasorda has a bona fide cleanup hitter, the perfect player to bat in back of Steve Garvey and in front of Dusty Baker, or third, if that is what Tommy prefers.
Before last season, L.A. Coach Monty Basgall told me that the Dodgers would win the pennant if Smith played in at least 120 games and had his usual statistics, say 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
Well, Reggie played in only 92 games and produced 15 homers and 55 RBIs, and the Dodgers lost the National League West in a one-game playoff to the Houston Astros. Russell also missed the last few weeks of the season after being hit by a pitch that broke his throwing hand. Still, most people think the heart went out of the Dodgers when Smith was forced to the sidelines.
If Russell isn't in Lasorda's opening-day lineup at shortstop, Derrel Thomas, who plays almost every position, will be. Thomas is a very physical ballplayer who sometimes makes impossible stops of ground balls, who challenges outfield fences as though they were made of paper, and who often has hot streaks at the plate.
But since the shortstop position cries more for steadiness than brilliance, Thomas is basically just a good fill-in; valuable for a few games at a time but not consistent enough to play there for a whole season.
Los Angeles fans can recite the rest of the Dodger infield in their sleep -- Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, and Ron Cey at third, a ritual that hasn't changed in seven years. The outfield, assuming Smith can play right field, will have Baker in left and either Pedro Guerrero or Rudy Law in center.
Although Lasorda talks about having three No. 1 catchers in Joe Ferguson, Steve Yeager, and sophomore Mike Scioscia, all three are unhappy with their playing time. Yeager, with a .232 lifetime batting average, has become a liability at the plate and no longer throws with his old velocity and accuracy. Though too mechanical for most scouts. Ferguson is a tough out with men on base and will occasionally hit a home run.
If the Dodgers are going to spend time to find out whether Scioscia can do the job, they ought to make him a regular now instead of waiting until the 22 -year-old is ready to collect social security.
This year, with Red Adams in retirement, Los Angeles has a new pitching coach in Ron Perranoski, who was an outstanding reliever during a 13-year career with L.A., Minnesota, Detroit, and California.
Perranoski will develop a five-man rotation from among Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch , Burt Hooton, Dave Goltz, Rickj Sutcliffe, and Fernando Valenzuela, the kid who came up to the Dodgers late last season from San Antonio and worked 18 run-free innings in relief.
To pick Los Angeles first in the National League West this season, one would have to ignore all that pitching, defense, and balance in the spring training camp of the Houston Astros. In fact, over the winter the Astros undoubtedly picked up a few more wins by adding former Dodger right-hander Don Sutton (last year's ERA champ) and left-hander Bob Knepper from the San Francisco Giants.