Baseball is too complex a game, with far too many intangibles, to be as simple as the defending National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers hope to make it look this season. Yet one peek at manager Tommy Lasorda's superb pitching staff and you have to think that, even if some other things don't go exactly according to plan, the Dodgers could still outlast Cincinnati and San Diego, their chief division rivals.
Maybe this comes from hanging around too long in the presence of Lasorda, whose optimism is dispatched with such flair that even visiting writers rush to pay homage to its logic. The Pied Piper himself would have trouble topping Tommy, whose very voice is a music of perpetual promise as it carries his listeners to new heights of confidence.
``Last year at this time we were a ball club with several unsolved starting positions,'' Lasorda reminded us. ``This year our infield is improved, with Bill Madlock at third base and Mariano Duncan at shortstop. And if Alejandro Pena [who missed all of '85 with injuries] can come back and pitch the way he did in '84, there is no telling where these people could take us.''
Who could forget last year and what Lasorda was talking about? Hadn't Tommy spent the winter of '85 convincing outfielder Pedro Guerrero that third base at Dodger Stadium was more desirable than the leather chair in the Oval Office?
At that same time Madlock, twice a National League batting champion, was still with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Duncan, a rookie who only appeared on opening day as a replacement at second base for the injured Steve Sax, was still considered a year or more away. And in left field? Who else but Al Oliver, who went after most fly balls like an ancient tugboat that had forgotten to weigh anchor.
No wonder Lasorda feels great about '86 with what he's got, plus yet another trade (according to GM Al Campanis) somewhere in the talking stages. Does anyone need to be reminded that Tommy already has two of baseball's best young pitchers in Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, plus veteran starters Bob Welch and Jerry Reuss coming off seasons in which both won 14 games?
Last year Hershiser was tremendous as he won 19 games, including his last 11 decisions, and was unbeatable at home. Thanks mainly to Hershiser, Valenzuela, Welch -- and Duncan -- Lasorda's club had the lowest earned-run average in baseball (2.96) and led the majors in shutouts, with 21.
A comeback by Pena would make things even rosier, since anything he contributes will be a bonus. There's also hope that Rick Honeycutt, who could start or do long relief work, is over the shoulder problems that have hindered his progress for more than two years.
The bullpen, secure on the right side with Tom Niedenfuer (19 saves) and Ken Howell (12), may have acquired the power left-hander it needs in ex-Mariner Ed Vande Berg. Although he leads all big-league pitchers in appearances over the last four years, Ed says there is no need to be concerned that he might be burned out. ``Anytime Lasorda wants to give me the ball, I'll be ready,'' Vande Berg says.
While center field now figures to be a platoon position (Ken Landreaux against right-handers and first-year man Reggie Williams against lefties), it won't remain that way if Campanis can make the deal he wants. There is also an outside chance that 21-year-old outfielder Jose Gonzalez might be able to make the jump from AA ball to a starting position, as Duncan did a year ago.
First base could also be a platoon position if Greg Brock doesn't hit consistently enough to satisfy Campanis and Lasorda. In that case, the man platooning with Brock would be Enos Cabell.
Offensively, any pitcher who gets careless with the middle of the L.A. lineup (Madlock, Guerrero, Mike Marshall, and probably Mike Scioscia) is going to pay.
Madlock, lighter than he's been in several years, has no known weakness as a hitter. Guerrero tied a major-league record last year with 15 home runs in June.
Marshall is coming off a year in which he had personal highs in average (.293), home runs (28), and RBIs (95). Scioscia has also become a tough out -- his .296 batting average in '85 was the best by a Dodger catcher since Roy Campanella's .318 in 1955.
Not to be overlooked, either, is the long-range planning of Campanis, who over the years has been most efficient at weeding out the withered plants in Dodger Blue and replacing them with young sprouts.