'79 can't-lose Dodgers may just make it in '80
Last year the Los Angeles Dodgers were the Titanic of major league baseball. With the kind of outstanding pitching they figured to have in what was considered a weak division, there was no way the two- year defending National League champions could lose.
The iceberg that loomed up in the smog and sank the Dodgers was in the form of a collection of injuries (more than 40 overall), but especially those to starting pitchers Doug Rau, Bob Welch, and Andy Messersmith, plus reliever Terry Forster, who had 22 saves in 1978.
By the July All-Star break, LA was 21 games under 500 and playing pin the tail on the donkey in the bullpen. In addition, Reggie Smith, normally the team's best power hitter, was complaining of injuries and insisting he was being underpaid. Not all of his teammates agreed with him.
But here the story begins to change. In their final 69 games of 1979 the Dodgers went 43-26 for a .623 percentage, second only to the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
Since then Los Angeles has gone into the free-agent market and spent $5.1 million to sign pitchers Dave Goltz (from Minnesota) and Don Stanhouse (from Baltimore), plus streak hitter Jay Johnstone (from Philadelphia).
Manager Tommy Lasorda now has a starting rotation of Burt Hooton, Don Sutton, Bob Welch, Rick Sutcliffe (NL Rookie of the Year in '79 with 17 victories), and Goltz.
The bullpen, which even had trouble saving string last season, has acquired a rubber arm in Stanhouse and a much improved Bobby Castillo, who last year learned to throw a highly effective screwball and finished with a 1.13 ERA.
There's also Forster, of course, if he can return to something approaching his previous form, while others competing his previous form, while others competing for the three remaining jobs on the staff will include Rau, Charlie Hough, Ken Brett, Joe Beckwith, Dave Patterson, Gerald Hannahs, and Jerry Reuss, who has always been more effective as a starter than a reliever.
Joe Ferguson, who caught 122 games last year and has since had surgery on his throwing arm, had 20 home runs in 1979 and could win the job outright from Steve Yeager.
The Dodger infield this season will be starting its seventh consecutive year as a unit. That is, unless there is something to the rumor that third baseman Ron Cey will be traded to the Houston Astros for center fielder Cesar Cedeno.
Steve Garvey (204 hits in '79) will be at first, Davey Lopes at second, and Bill Russell at shortstop. If Cey should go to Houston, the Dodgers have a good hitting youngster to replace him in Mickey Hatcher.
If Smith has overcome the injuries that limited him to 68 games last season, Lasorda will have Reggie in right field and Dusty Baker (23 HRs and 88 RBIs) in left.
The most interesting and open position is center field, where Lasorda may have to bring in a policeman to direct traffic.
Darrel Thomas, who played there a good part of last season, is not really an everyday ballplayer. Often his bat takes long vacations after short bursts of effectiveness.
Then there are Gary Thomasson, who hit .248 last year; Rick Monday, who played only 12 games in '79 because of injuries; and rookie Rudy Law.
If Law, a youngster with great speed and potential, takes things into his own hands and adds hitting consistency to what is already considered a big-league glove, the fight could end quickly.
Lasorda, even without Smith, can put five players in his lineup (Garvey, Lopes, Cey, Baker, and Ferguson), who each hit between 20 and 28 home runs last year. And if Reggie were able to duplicate his 1978 statistics (29 homers, 98 RBIs, and a .295 batting average), the big inning could become a Dodger trademark.
But whatever happens, the money- counters in owner Peter O'Malley's treasure house should have a busy season. It is estimated that the Dodgers have already banked that the Dodgers have already banked approximately $6 million in season ticket money and, with a winner, would have a chance to pass the 3 million mark in attendance.
Most experts figure LA has to beat only two teams to capture the NL West -- Cincinnati (last year's winner) and Houston, which has added Nolan Ryan, the fireballing right-hander, to J. R. Richard and Joe Niekro.