The Los Angeles Dodgers have a problem -- one that half the teams in major league baseball would probably like to have. They aren't sure if left-hander Steve Howe, just voted the National League's Rookie of the Year for 1980, can serve them best in the future as a starter or working out of the bullpen.
This isn't surprising, because nothing about Howe's skyrocket career so far has followed what would be considered a normal course of events.
After leaving the University of Michigan while still in his junior year to sign with the Dodgers and appearing in 13 minor league games with San Antonio in 1979, Steve went 6-2 as a starter, including five complete games.
Normally, all that that buys a 21-year-old kid is a positive scouting report to the parent club, plus maybe a recommendation that he be moved up the following year to a league with a higher classification.
What actually happened is that Howe was invited to spring training with the Dodgers at Vero Beach, Fla., as a nonroster player. He was there so the top brass could get a closer look at him, not with the idea of his making the club.
But when relief pitcher Terry Forster had to be placed on the disabled list and Steve allowed only four runs in five appearances out of the bullpen with a fast ball that hummed, Manager Tommy Lasorda decided to keep him.
Although being a left-hander would guarantee Howe a certain amount of work, the Dodgers were sure that their chief fireman would be free agent right-hander Don Stanhouse, who had saved 45 games in his two previous years with the Baltimore Orioles. But Stanhouse, with back and shoulder problems, went on the disabled list on April 18, stayed there until July 27, and generally gave the Dodgers 10 cents on the dollar, considering the reported multi-year contract that made him an instant millionaire.
Basically, the Dodgers' pennant hopes should have disappeared with Forster and Stanhouse. Instead, Howe without much more than a fast ball and great location of his pitches, kept this club from giving up on itself as a pennant contender.
Overall Steve won seven games, led the Dodgers in saves with 17, and had a string of 25 consecutive relief appearances between July 3 and Sept. 17, whenhe allowed only four earned runs in 41.2 innings of pitching.
"Most of the time last year I relied on my fast ball to get people out, and that was pretty much everything I had going for me except my control," Howe explained at a press conference held here this week to announce the rookie award. "I'm working on a breaking ball and a change-up, which I know I have to have to continue to win up here, and during the second half of last year I learned a lot of new things about setting up the hitters.
"Although starting would be nice, I learned to like the bullpen," Steve continued. "It wasn't that much of an adjustment for me, and I wouldn't mind staying there. I also felt good about the way so many Dodger veterans came to me on their own after a game either to tell me how to avoid certain mistakes or maybe just to suggest something that would make me a better pitcher."
Yet when contract negotiations broke down between Los Angeles and outfielder Dusty Baker in November and L.A. began to intensify its efforts to get Fred Lynn from the Boston Red Sox, Howe's career as a Dodger was suddenly in jeopardy. It wasn't that L.A. wanted to give up Steve, it was simply a case where the Red Sox wouldn't even talk about trading Lynn unless Howe was part of the package.
"What saved me was when Baker and the Dodgers were finally able to agree on a contract," Howe said. "In fact, for a while I was calling Dusty almost every day on the telephone and asking him to sign so I could remain a Dodger."
Although Los Angeles says it won't make its decision on whether Howe will start or remain in the bullpen until sometime in spring training, chances are Steve will go into the club's regular rotation.
Most teams, with any choice, would never keep a 22-year-old kid with the potential to win 17 to 20 games as a starter in the bullpen, particularly with the arm strain that often shows up with overworked relievers.
The Dodgers also have to find a replacement in their starting rotation for Don Sutton (signed by Houston this week as a free agent), and at this point they can only guess at what the future holds for former starters Rick Sutcliffe and Doug Rau.
Sutcliffe, who won 17 games in 1979, slipped to 3-9 last year.Rau, after a season away from the game with arm surgery, is at the same point in his career that Tommy John was six years ago.
As for the bullpen, Forster is still a question mark, but Stanhouse has to be given another chance to produce, if only because of the size of his salary. And then there is Fernando Valenzuela, the 20-year-old Mexican left-hander, who came up to the Dodgers late last season and, by changing speeds on his screwball, pitched 17.2 innings out of the bullpen without allowing a run.
Based on that kind of evidence, Howe probably will be starting every fourth day in 1981.