Tucson, Ariz. — For the Cleveland Indians, who haven't finished higher than sixth in the American League East since 1977, this could be the most promising year in a decade.
Basically, talk here isn't so much about a pennant as about the possibility of a multiple jump in the standings, provided some traditional divisional powers like Baltimore and Milwaukee have off years.
''Except for a shortage of power hitters, I know I've got a well-balanced ball club, probably the best team since I've been here,'' said Dave Garcia, who became manager part way through the 1979 season. ''Our pitching is good; we've improved our defense; our bench is better; and we've got a lot of team speed.
''But it's hard to predict in a tough division like ours where anybody, except the Yankees, will finish,'' he added. ''If you're an opposing manager, you worry about how you can match that Yankee pitching and it brings you back to reality.
''What could help us is the fact that over a 162-game schedule, we can go to our bench now and still maintain a high level of talent. That's one thing a team needs to win consistently, and something we haven't always had in the past.''
Cleveland will have a new middle-infield combination in shortstop Jerry Dybzinski and rookie second baseman Jack Perconte, who came from Los Angeles in a trade for outfielder Jorge Orta.
If the Dodgers didn't already have a terrific young second baseman in Steve Sax, Perconte (.346 with 45 stolen bases at Albuquerque last year) would never have been available. In fact, Jack has looked so good that another Indian rookie , hard-hitting infielder Kevin Rhomberg, is having to think in terms of third base.
Garcia is expected to complete the corners of his infield with Mike Hargrove at first base and Toby Harrah at third. Backups include the veteran Alan Bannister and the rookie Rhomberg.
Mike Hassey, who hit his first major league home run off Nolan Ryan and is a tough out with men on base, will do the bulk of the catching. Ron's backup will be rookie Chris Bando, a switch-hitter and the younger brother of former Oakland and Milwaukee star Sal Bando.
Even though Garcia frequently calls Rick Manning the best defensive center fielder in the league, his opinion is not shared in several other AL cities -- particularly Boston, Oakland and Anaheim.
Manning, whose top batting average in the last three years was .259, is one of those players who always seems on the threshold of stardom yet never quite makes it.
Flanking Manning in left field will be Miguel Dilone, with former St. Louis and Philadelphia standout Bake McBride in right. Dilone, who stole 29 bases last season and 61 in 1980, also hit .341 the same year George Brett batted .390 for Kansas City, except nobody remembers it.
McBride, who has the maximum number of bad knees, was National League Rookie of the Year in 1974, has six times in his eight-year career hit .300 or better, and was a star of the 1980 World Series.
Andre Thornton who is approaching 500 lifetime RBIs will probably be the designated hitter coming out of spring training, although the door is still open for Joe Charboneau, who hit 23 homers and was the AL Rookie-of-the-Year in 1980 but disappointed last year as he failed to hit and wound up back in the minors.
Then there is Von Hayes, a promising youngster who was slated for regular right field duty until the Indians traded for McBride, and who may be tried in various outfield or infield spots.
Other outfield candidates who are more apt to windup battling for a chance as the DH include Charboneau, Pat Kelly and rookie Rod Craig, unless the latter is sent down so that he can play every day.
Garcia has the making of a deep pitching staff with potential starters Len Barker, Bert Blyleven, John Denny, Lary Sorenson, Rick Waits, and Rick Sutcliffe. Barker led the Indians with 19 victories two years ago and had eight including a perfect game in the abbreviated 1981 campaign; Blyleven is a former 20-game winner who topped the club with 11 wins last year; and each of the others has had at least one big league season in which he compiled 14 or more triumphs.
Dan Spillner, used both in relief and as a spot starter last year, will remain strictly in the bullpen this season. His helpers will probably come from among Silvio Martinez, Tom Brennan, Ed Whitson, and Dennis Lewallyn, plus those who don't make the starting rotation.
''I know we're going to score a lot of runs, and if our pitchers and defense can hold a lead, we'll win a lot of games,'' Garcia said. ''Naturally I'm concerned with every club in our division, but the team I think most about is the Yankees.''