Boston is both an exciting and young team. If Tony Conigliaro is able to come back, it will make for one of the truly remarkable stories in baseball history. His eyesight seemed good in spring training but the real test of his ability to hit will come during the regular season. If he cannot hit, his younger brother, Billy—also an outfielder—could be brought in to take his place. Carl Yastrzemski, the winner of two straight batting titles who has shown no signs of letting up, is the leftfielder, and Reggie Smith will be in center. Smith, an excellent centerfielder and base runner, might just be ready to achieve stardom in his third year in the league.
Ken Harrelson, who batted in 109 runs and hit 35 homers in '68, has always been ready for stardom. If Conigliaro plays right field, Harrelson will be at first base. The former first baseman, George Scott, is now at third after a terrible season at bat (.171 as compared to .303 the previous year). Assuming that Scott's hitting improves, the Red Sox are going to be a menace to pitch against. Their own pitching may not be of the caliber of some teams, but with Lonborg, Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth, as well as rookie Ken Brett, it is not as bad as some have been saying.
But the solidest pitching in the league belongs to Baltimore. Virtually everything seemed to go right for the Oriole pitching staff this spring after two years of arm injuries. Marcelino Lopez, an often-disabled lefthander, was suddenly looking good again. Jim Palmer, a 15-game winner in 1966, continued to throw as well as he had in the winter league in Puerto Rico. If both can be added to Mike Cuellar, acquired from Houston in a trade, 22-game winner Dave McNally, 18-game winner Jim Hardin and 15-game winner Tom Phoebus, Baltimore should win this division.
Frank Robinson has looked like the Robinson of three springs ago when the Orioles won the pennant. The catching is strong with Clay Dalrymple and Andy Etchebarren, and John (Boog) Powell seems to have his weight under control. Powell was the leading RBI man on the team last season with 85. Brooks Robinson was 10 below him, and Frank, because of injuries, was 23 below Brooks. Paul Blair (.211 following an ankle injury) will probably improve that average considerably. Don Buford, who hit .282 last season, can play infield or outfield, while Merv Rettenmund (.297 in 64 at bats) has a good minor league record. He could play quite a bit. Last year the Orioles found themselves too far behind at the All-Star break to do much catching up on Detroit. If Baltimore starts well, watch out.
The New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians both fall into the category of playable long shots, but each appears short of hitting. Alvin Dark, who was given a five-year contract with an attendance clause, has excellent pitching at Cleveland with Luis Tiant (21-9 and a 1.60 ERA), Sam McDowell (15-14 and 1.81), Stan Williams (13-10) and Steve Hargan. Dark utilizes an exciting running game, and he could improve on the Indians' third-place finish if Zoilo Versalles, back with the American League, regains the form that made him the MVP in 1965 at Minnesota. Max Alvis, Tony Horton, Jose Cardenal and Duke Sims are the team's best experienced hitters.
New York, minus Mickey Mantle, is now into its rebuilding program in earnest, and the future seems brighter than it has in recent seasons. Manager Ralph Houk did an excellent job last year as the Yankees finished in fifth place, and his pitching seems good enough to make the team tough. The main concern is whether the new-style running attack will produce enough runs to support that pitching. Twenty-one-game winner Mel Stottlemyre leads the staff, but Stan Bahnsen (17-12) and Fritz Peterson (12-11, 2.63 ERA) came through excellently in 1968. Joe Pepitone will play first, and nobody ever knows what that might mean except that the reactions from the crowds will be tumultuous. The Yankees are banking heavily on young Bobby Murcer, who was tremendously exciting during spring training. Bill Robinson and Roy White will also help in the running attack, but Tom Tresh will have to hit more than .195 for New York to continue to improve.
If Caliente had a spring line on this division, the place to put your money would be in your pocket.