In what was really a remarkable effort last year by the San Francisco Giants, Frank Robinson managed to turn a question mark into an exclamation point when his team finished only two games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League West.
Considering that Robinson rebuilt his entire starting rotation prior to opening day, the word remarkable somehow does not seem out of place in this instance. In fact, the Giants posted the major leagues' best won-lost record (55 -33) over the final three months of the season.
However, if San Francisco expects to maintain that pace this year, it will have to do so without the services of first baseman Reggie Smith, second baseman Joe Morgan, and veteran relief pitcher Al Holland.
Smith, who had a big yen to play in Japan, is now overseas - reportedly earning $800,000 a year. Morgan, who had his finest season since 1977 and is a born leader, was traded to Philadelphia along with Holland for starting pitcher Mike Krukow, who was 13-11 with the Phillies. The Giants also received left-hander Mark Davis and outfielder C.J. Penigar in that deal, both of whom played in the minors last season.
Even with Holland gone, the Giants figure to have one of the most effective bullpens in the National League in right-handers Greg Minton and Renie Martin, and left-hander Gary Lavelle. Minton, whose new contract could bring him as much as $6 million over the next five years, was involved in nearly half his team's victories last season. He appeared in 74 games, won 10, and saved 30.
While Robinson was pleased to get another starting pitcher in Krukow to go along with Bill Laskey, Atlee Hammaker, and Fred Breining, Frank was never in favor of that trade if it meant losing Morgan and Joe's intangibles. Sources close to the club say that Robinson still hasn't forgiven the Giants' front office for asking his opinion of that trade and then making the deal anyway.
Robinson also did everything he could, he told me, to talk Smith out of going to Japan. More money would have kept Reggie in San Francisco, where he and Morgan combined for 32 homers and 117 runs batted in last season. Basically it was their left-handed hitting punch that enabled the Giants to go 61-49 against right-handed pitching. Only the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals did better.
Darrell Evans, who used to be good for 70 RBIs a year but barely got into the 60s last season, is scheduled to replace Smith at first base. There was speculation for a while that All-Star outfielder Jack Clark might be brought in to play first, but Clark apparently ended that himself after a talk with Robinson.
Duane Kuiper, who was a starter for Cleveland as recently as 1979 and who set a club record for pinch hits last year with 14, will play second base. The Giants seem to think that if Kuiper could hit .280 as a spot player, he might go .300 as a regular.
Tom O'Malley, a rookie who hit over .300 against every Western club last season except Atlanta and played well in the field, has third base locked up in a puncture-proof bag. Veteran Johnnie LeMaster, who never generates much offense but is steady as a rock in the field, will play shortstop.
Clark is a fixture in right and the Giants' best clutch hitter with men on base. Jeff Leonard will probably play left field, with Chili Davis in center. Davis, who pounded out 19 homers and drove in 76 runners last year as a rookie, has enormous potential both as a switch-hitter and as a far-ranging outfielder.
Chili also stole 24 bases and could easily get 40 or 50 this season if the Giants don't decide that he's actually more valuable to them batting third than leading off.
Although Milt May will again see a lot of action behind the plate, Bob Brenly , who hit .302 last year after the July All-Star break, is probably going to be the team's first-string catcher.
Robinson, who is more candid than most big league managers when it comes to predictions, is concerned more about his club's depth than any other department.
''With Smith and Morgan gone and Kuiper due to play regularly, we definitely don't have the reserves available that were there last season,'' Frank explained. ''So we've got to find some other people among our veterans and rookies who can do the job for us. Otherwise we won't be as strong as we were in 1982.''
There is also speculation that Clark, who tied Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League lead in game-winning hits last year with 21, won't be as effective without Morgan and Smith sandwiched around him.