When Branch Rickey was winning pennants with the St. Louis Cardinals' Gashouse Gang and later the old Brooklyn Dodgers, he often sold or traded away some of his best players while they still had a year or two of productivity left.
Rickey's philosophy was that it is better to get rid of a star player too early than keep him around too long and not get anything for him. Of course Branch was always careful never to trade any player who could still help him until he was sure some youngster in his club's farm system had matured enough to take his place.
That scenario is being reenacted this year by General Manager Al Campanis of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a former player who broke into the executive side of the game under Rickey years ago when they were both in Brooklyn.Since the end of last season, the Dodgers have surrendered first baseman Steve Garvey and pitcher Terry Forster to free agency rather than meet their salary demands; dealt away veteran third baseman Ron Cey; and come up empty while trying to make a trade for a frontline catcher during the winter baseball meetings.
What Campanis is trying to do is prolong the competitiveness of a successful team that was beginning to wear out in several key positions by reaching into the Dodger farm system for replacements. Of course if L.A. didn't have some of the best young minor league talent in baseball, this wouldn't mean much. But the fact is owner Peter O'Malley and Campanis have planned well.
The two minor leaguers the Dodgers consider the most advanced are first baseman Greg Brock and right fielder Mike Marshall, who was the heir apparent to Garvey until Brock came along.
Greg, a left-handed hitter with power, goes to first base for the Dodgers this year because he's not good enough defensively to play anywhere else. This is not to suggest that Brock's glove was forged at the Saugus Iron Works, only that his range in the field is about what Garvey's was - adequate, but not that of Gil Hodges.
Marshall, who has a lot more flexibility defensively, will play right field. While the Dodgers probably would rather use Mike in left, that's Dusty Baker's territory until Baker retires.
The addition of Marshall to the outfield means that Pedro Guerrero, who started in right for L. A. last year but who was originally an infielder, can move in to take Cey's place at third base. Guerrero hits well no matter where he plays and is a big RBI man.
The reason Campanis is so high on Brock and Marshall is because both hit for power and average in the minors and because another year down on the farm probably wouldn't make them any more ready than they already are.
Brock gives the Dodgers another left-handed batter, something Campanis thinks they need very badly. Greg also has a history of hitting left-handed pitchers just as well as he hits right-handers.
But at the same time the Dodger general manager keeps pointing out that L. A. fans shouldn't expect too much too soon from either Brock or Marshall; that it took Garvey three years before he got his RBI totals up to respectable figures.
Steve Sax, the National League's Rookie of the Year last season, is back to play second base and lead off. Bill Russell, the only remaining member of a Dodger infield that had been together for nine years, will be the team's shortstop. But if rookie Dave Anderson develops on schedule, this probably will be Russell's last year as a Dodger regular.
Although outwardly Campanis says he is satisfied with Mike Scioscia as the team's first-string catcher, the club may still have something going with the Texas Rangers for veteran backstop Jim Sundberg. The problem there isn't so much in agreeing on what players the Dodgers will send Texas for Sundberg, but in lawyers finding a way to resolve the complexities of Jim's contract to L.A.'s satisfaction.
Campanis claims that Scioscia, who hit .219 last year while driving in only 38 runs, had mechanical problems with the bat that he can be taught to overcome.
Center fielder Ken Landreaux, who is coming off drug and alcohol rehabilitation, has a built-in value to the Dodgers if only because he gives them another left-handed hitter. But there are a lot of people who don't think that Landreaux has the physical ability to play every day in the big leagues. So if the St. Louis Cardinals are really trying to peddle George Hendrick, L. A. might be interested if they still think Hendrick can cover enough ground in center.
What continues to have the experts picking the Dodgers so high in this year's National League race is their pitching. Manager Tom Lasorda has an excellent Big Four in Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch, and Burt Hooton, although Hooton is still somewhat of a question mark after missing so much of last season following surgery.
If a fifth starter is needed, he will probably come from among Pat Zachry (obtained from the New York Mets), Dave Stewart, Joe Beckwith, or even Alejandro Pena. Alejandro is a former relief pitcher who had a high number of shutouts as a starter this year in winter baseball.
Where the Dodgers can't be absolutely sure of themselves is in the bullpen. Teams that expect to contend for a pennant need at least three dependable firemen, and right now the Dodgers don't have three. Steve Howe was effective in relief for part of last season and Tom Niedenfuer has the physical ability if he continues to improve, but the club is in trouble if it can't come up with a solid third man in Stewart, Beckwith, or one of the other candidates.
If Dodger pitching and defense can keep the team in the pennant race early, maybe Brock and Marshall and the bullpen can improve enough along the way to extend that situation into September.