Mesa, Ariz. — The players who may some day provide the Chicago Cubs with their first pennant since 1945 are still learning their trade in the team's vastly improved minor league farm system.But while this talent matures, general manager Dallas Green has given second-year field boss Lee Elia a cast that isn't bad.
Not all of it is ancient, either. That is, if you exclude pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, shortstop Larry Bowa, outfielder Jay Johnstone, and third baseman Ron Cey, all of whom are 35 or older.
The Cubs have several kids - all 26 or under - who are probably going to play regularly, including catcher Jody Davis, pitcher Rich Bordi, second baseman Ryne Sandberg, and outfielders Mel Hall and Leon Durham. In fact Davis, who has a great arm and drove in 52 runs last year as a rookie, looks like one of the best young catchers in the National League.
The key man off the field for this organization is the uncompromising Green, who picked Elia for his manager a year ago because he needed someone who could teach fundamentals and would work a 25-hour day.
When Green puts an athlete on the roster, the player shows up on time, slides hard, ignores fences in chasing fly balls, and bails out at the plate only at the risk of being traded. When Philadelphia won its first National League pennant in 30 years under Green, Dallas practically chased the Phillies with a stick in hand.
Green and Elia first joined forces at Philadelphia, where Lee was Green's third base coach in 1980 and '81. Upon taking over the operation of the Cubs last season, they inherited a team in almost total disarray. Players were in the habit of bringing their bodies to games, but not their minds. Defeats were treated as casually as a stroll in the park.
Every opposing team in the league figured that if it could stay within a run or two of Chicago for seven innings, there was a pretty good chance that the Cubs would find a way to lose as the hour grew late. Chicago players took the money, but they didn't always run.
Green and Elia put a stop to that last year, and by June it began to show in the standings. From June 14 on, the Cubs played better than .500 baseball. From Aug. 1 through Oct. 3, Chicago had the best won-lost record in the National League after the San Francisco Giants.
''What happened is that we began to believe in ourselves; we started winning games from the seventh inning on; and our bullpen solidified,'' Elia explained. ''I see that kind of positive thinking carrying over to this season, helping our confidence and making us a better overall team.
''Last year when we had runners on base, we didn't have anyone hitting in the No. 4 spot who could consistently drive in runs for us,'' Lee added. ''But I think we've filled that void by getting (third baseman) Ron Cey from the Dodgers. I might not bat Cey fourth all the time, but whether it's fourth or fifth, opposing managers are going to think twice before they pitch around Bill Buckner to get at Ron.''
Asked who would protect Cey in the batting order, Elia replied: ''I think we've got several batters who can do it, including Durham, Johnstone, or Keith Moreland, who is strictly an outfielder now after catching part of last season.''
So far Elia's biggest problem (and it hasn't been solved yet) has been putting together a four-man starting rotation that is worthy of the title. Once Lee gets past pitchers Jenkins and Dickie Noles, it's mostly a bunch of names. Chuck Rainey came from the Red Sox, Steve Trout from the White Sox, and Paul Moskau, once with the Reds, has arrived from the Pirate system. Bordi, a rookie , is also in the picture.
If the starters are shaky, at least the bullpen is strong. Lee Smith, the towering right-hander who had 17 saves in '82 plus a phenomenal 0.83 ERA over the final half of last season, can probably look forward to 75 or 80 appearances in '83. Joining Smith in relief will be Bill Campbell, Willie Hernandez and Mike Proly, plus veteran Warren Brusstar, who spent time with the Phillies and White Sox last season when not throwing for Oklahoma City in the minors.
Cey probably summed up the 1983 Cubbies best when he told reporters: ''From what I've seen so far, we've got a pretty good first team, but not much in the way of depth. Injuries would kill this team, and until our starting pitchers show they can do the job, we've got some question marks on the mound.
''Personally, I expect to drive a lot of balls out of Wrigley Field this season if the wind is right and the other team pitches to me. But for me to produce well in the fourth spot, the guy behind me is going to have to protect me in the batter's box by hitting for average. Also, for us to improve, the kids who played so well here at the end of last season will have to be even better this year.''
Translation: no pennant for Cub fans in '83, but an interesting team that should be in most of its games.