Pitching questions hover over Brewers
Sun City, Ariz. — Here they are folks, the 1983 Milwaukee Brewers, not much different personnel-wise than the team that had the best record in baseball last year (95- 67) before losing the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
The Brewers don't so much have a manager in Harvey Kuenn, the only man around who could successfully imitate character actor Walter Brennan, as they have a field director. What's to manage?Cecil Cooper will once again play first base; Jim Gantner second; Paul Molitor third; and Robin Yount (the American League's Most Valuable Player in '82) shortstop. Milwaukee fans will tell you this is the best infield in baseball, and they may be right.
The Brewer outfield is also filled with familiar names - Gorman Thomas in center; Ben Oglivie in left; and Charlie Moore, a converted catcher with great range, in right. Ted Simmons, one of the best switch-hitters in baseball, is the catcher. For designated hitters - well, what about Don Money and Roy Howell?
Last year this crowd hit 217 home runs, scored 891 runs, and drove in 843 overall. Your Aunt Agatha could have sat in a dugout and knitted Bowie Kuhn a sweater while this team was winning the pennant, right? Wrong.
When Kuenn, a Milwaukee coach, replaced Buck Rodgers on June 2 as manager, the Brewers were in fifth place and struggling. Little more than a month later, Harvey had them in first place in the American League East.
What Kuenn did, he says, was put his players on the field and tell them to have fun. As a writer, I enjoy statements like that. But as a realist, I must give Harvey credit for knowing when to change pitchers, when to bring in his infield, and how to motivate, including whom to yell at and whom to pat on the back.
Actually five American League pitching staffs had lower earned-run averages in 1982 than Milwaukee.
Although the Brewers' Pete Vuckovich was the AL's Cy Young Award winner with 18 victories, he had only nine complete games. Vuckovich recently injured his shoulder so badly that there is speculation that he may miss the entire season. Milwaukee's other starters - Mike Caldwell, Bob McClure, Moose Haas, and Jim Slaton - were all good last year, but not great.
What rescued Milwaukee were 29 saves by relief pitcher Rollie Fingers, who sat out the remainder of the season, including the playoffs and World Series, after injuring his throwing arm on Sept. 3.
Besides Fingers, veteran pitcher Don Sutton was also a key contributor. Acquired in a late-season deal with Houston, he won four games down the stretch, the biggest being the pennant clincher against Baltimore.
Right now Kuenn is planning on a five-man starting rotation of Vuckovich, Caldwell, McClure, Sutton, and Haas. They have the potential to give Milwaukee the best front-line pitching it's had in a long time.
''If Vuckovich isn't available,'' Kuenn said, ''then we'll give the ball to somebody else who can win. But in my opinion, even without Pete, we still have enough depth left to repeat.''
The other unsettled assignment involves Fingers, probably the best relief pitcher of his generation, but right now an athlete in the process of finding out whether or not he can still throw.
If Rollie can't come back, that leaves Kuenn with Slaton and second-year reliever Pete Ladd, who is as famous for his size-15 shoes as he is for his fastball. Harvey has others in the bullpen that he can call on, of course, but none whose present credentials suggest anything more than mediocrity. The word is that Fingers probably won't be ready to pitch regularly until May or June, and maybe not at all.
The point is that Kuenn must manage after all. Yet with or without Fingers and Vuckovich, Harvey says he'll still have a lot going for him.
For example, MVP Yount hit .311 with 29 homers and 114 RBIs last season, while Cooper, who has become the Pete Rose of the AL as far as average is concerned, will be going after his seventh consecutive .300-plus season. But Cecil also manages to hit for power, as 32 home runs and 121 runs batted in proved a year ago.
Right in the middle of Milwaukee's batting lineup will be Thomas, who homered 39 times last year to share the AL home run championship with California's Reggie Jackson, plus Oglivie, who took opposing pitchers over the wall another 34 times.
Looking candidly at Milwaukee's chief division rivals, only the Baltimore Orioles, who finished a game out of first place last season, may be able to catch the Brewers.
General Manager Harry Dalton has basically elected to stand pat with the Milwaukee roster, but with several key players in their mid-30s, that particular move carries only a one-year guarantee.
When reporters asked Dalton about this, he replied: ''I don't think age will be a problem for us this year. We're so well balanced that we can win again. But after this season, whatever happens, I think a further evaluation of the Brewers will definitely be in order.''
Eventually, he says, places must be found for three kids on the roster. They are infielder Randy Ready, outfielder Dion James, and relief pitcher Bob Gibson, who is no relation to the Hall of Famer with the same name.