Pitching-rich Dodgers are confident in bid to repeat NL West title
General Manager Al Campanis says he thinks Manager Tommy Lasorda has another division champion with the 1984 Los Angeles Dodgers, who won 91 games a year ago despite relying heavily on rookies in their starting lineup.
The problem is that Campanis refuses to get specific about it. Al simply stops short after pointing out that, ''With all the personnel Tommy has, there are a lot of ways he can go - numerous options that are available to him. And, of course, we have the pitching.''
The fact is that if the pitching holds up as expected, it becomes almost academic as to whether Lasorda platoons at first base and shortstop, juggles his outfield, or eventually switches third baseman Pedro Guerrero (.298, 32 home runs, 103 RBIs) back to right field. The reason for the latter move would be simply to free Guerrero from fighting ground balls - which many observers believe might give him less to worry about and make him an even more devastating offensive threat than he is now.
Last season the Dodger pitching staff had the best earned run average (3.10) in the National League, the eighth time this has happened in the past 12 years. And Lasorda has back all five of his 1983 starters - Fernando Valenzuela, Bob Welch, Jerry Reuss, and Alejandro Pena, plus Rick Honeycutt, who was obtained from the Texas Rangers in late August and helped out in the stretch drive for the West Division title. Also available for spot assignments is the veteran Burt Hooton, who started 27 games last year and won nine, but who is slated primarily for bullpen duty now with Honeycutt on hand from the beginning.
While there is concern that L.A.'s bullpen might not stand the test of a 162 -game schedule with Steve Howe (18 saves with a 1.44 ERA in '83) serving a year's suspension from baseball for drug abuse, moves have been made to minimize Howe's loss.
The biggest was trading with the New York Mets for left-handed reliever Carlos Diaz, whose pinpoint control and 2.05 ERA in 54 games last year had great appeal for Campanis. The 26-year-old Diaz is scheduled to share late-inning relief assignments with right-hander Tom Niedenfuer, who had the most saves on the club in 1983 (11) after Howe.
Although what happens in spring training games will decide who the other main reliever will be, Hooton (once he accepts the team's position that his starting days are probably over), might be the answer. Otherwise Lasorda will be forced to rely on veterans like Pat Zachry or some of his rookies.
While first baseman Greg Brock's 20 home runs in his rookie season were acceptable to the club last year, his .224 batting average was not. If Brock's BA doesn't improve, he can look forward to sharing the position with Mike Marshall or possibly rookie Franklin Stubbs, who has hit everywhere he's ever played.
Steve Sax appears to have conquered his much-publicized problem with throwing errors (he didn't make any in the final 38 games last season anyway), and is set at second base, with Guerrero still holding down third, providing no more trades for infielders are made. At shortstop, the club would like to give Bill Russell more rest and plans to use either Dave Anderson or Bob Bailor in a spot reserve capacity. Bailor, who was with the Mets last year, can play as many positions as departed free agent Derrel Thomas and is a much tougher out at the plate.
If you are wondering why the Dodgers put the hard-hitting Dusty Baker on waivers after being unable to make a trade for him (he was claimed by San Francisco but so far hasn't signed with any club), at least part of it had to do with Dusty's diminished ability to pull the ball against good pitching.
Taking Baker's place in left field will be Marshall, who hit .284 last year as a rookie. The line on Marshall is that he never really had the throwing arm or the range to play right field, yet might actually be a defensive improvement over what the slow-footed Baker gave the team last year in left.
With the Marshall shift, right field is now open for Terry Whitfield, a former member of the San Francisco Giants who has spent his last three years in Japan with the Seibu Lions. What attracted Campanis to Whitfield, who was primarily a singles hitter with the Giants, were his 1983 Japan totals of 38 home runs and 109 runs-batted-in.
Asked if he really expected to get that kind of power from Terry against National League pitching, Campanis replied: ''Years ago when Jackie Robinson broke into baseball with our Montreal farm club, he was strictly a singles hitter. I know because I played next to him. Yet only a few months later, as the result of lifting weights, Robinson hit a lot of home runs for us as the team's cleanup hitter. And if you're looking for a more recent example, Brian Downing was never a long-ball hitter until he was traded to the California Angels and got started on a Nautilus body-building program.''
Veteran Ken Landreaux remains a fixture in center field, with youngsters Candy Maldonado and R.J. Reynolds in reserve outfield roles. Maldonado is a good defensive performer who still has to show he can hit big league pitching (he batted only .194 in 42 games with L.A. last year), while Reynolds had a big season at San Antonio (.337, 18 homers), and also showed some power in 24 late-season games with the Dodgers during the stretch drive.
Steve Yeager is expected to do most of the catching as usual, with Mike Scioscia and Jack Fimple behind him.
Meanwhile, spring training for the Dodgers at their Vero Beach, Fla., training facility is nothing if not loose. Explained Steve Sax about Lasorda's daily running drills, bearing in mind that Tommy ate his way through some 100 banquets during the off season: ''We can either run three laps around the playing field or once around Lasorda!''