Even the poorest teams in this talent-rich division are not without means, and most seem to have improved their situations in heavy winter trading. But alas, it is the richest who have gotten richer. The Cincinnati Reds, winners of the division title the last two years, have added to their bulging coffers the spare change needed to make a down payment on the one property that has eluded them through these prosperous years—the world championship.
The Reds lost in the league playoffs last season to the Mets, principally, it is said, because they were one pitcher, one centerfielder and one shortstop shy of perfection. In Dave Concepcion they had the shortstop already in the bank, but he spent the last half of what had been his best season (.287 batting average) on the disabled list with a broken left ankle. Concepcion tested the mended bone in the Venezuelan winter league and diagnosed himself fit for a full season. He will rejoin Dan Driessen (.301), Joe Morgan (.290, 116 runs, 26 home runs, 67 stolen bases) and Tony Perez (.314, 101 RBIs) in the league's most offensive infield.
The Reds also had a centerfielder last year, but Bobby Tolan suffered a woeful .206 season that left him disgruntled and expendable. Tolan was dispatched to San Diego for Clay Kirby, the pitcher the Reds felt they needed to flesh out a frequently maligned but nevertheless competent staff. Then they traded Pitcher Ross Grimsley to Baltimore for a new and much more congenial centerfielder, Merv Rettenmund, who hit .262 in 1973 but has had back-to-back .300-plus seasons.
"I got lucky," said jolly Merv. "I've gone from a winner to a winner."
Rettenmund joins a talented outfield crew that includes Pete Rose, the swift young Ken Griffey, who hit .327 in Indianapolis and .384 in 25 games with last year's Reds, and the good-field, not-much-hit Cesar Geronimo.
Kirby will add a needed right wing to the pitching staff. Two of the four starters—Don Gullett (18-8) and Fred Norman (13-13)—are lefthanders. Kirby (8-18 with the last-place Padres) and Jack Billingham (19-10) are the righthanders, although both Roger Nelson and Gary Nolan are attempting to come back from injuries suffered last year. Nelson might even make it. Tom Hall and Clay Carroll, who slumped in 1973, ordinarily are capable relievers.
Behind the plate there is merely Johnny Bench who, though weakened by chest surgery last season, contrived to hit 25 home runs and drive in 104 runs.
"I can say we have the best team in baseball," says Manager Sparky Anderson, "but we have yet to prove it. We have not won the big one yet and the big one is the World Series."
Walter Alston's Los Angeles Dodgers have established in the past that they can win the big one. What they have not seemed to be able to do lately is get past the Reds. They led the division into September, then succumbed, a collapse which Alston can view with the detachment of a man who has occupied the same job for going on 21 years.
"We won a lot of games early in the year that we didn't deserve to win," he says. "We were lucky. We were a young team, and a lot of our kids were hitting .300. You expect young players to level off. The trouble was, all of our kids leveled off at the same time."