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With 108 victories and a world championship last season, the Reds left themselves a tough act to follow. But neither a pitching staff allegedly short on depth nor the prospect of marked improvement in the rest of the division should preclude an encore for Cincinnati. Although the Reds are coming off their finest season, they may be better on the field—if not in the won-lost column—this year.
In 1975 strong offense and fielding allowed the Reds to run away from their pursuers, the closest of whom, the Dodgers, finished 20 games back. Cincinnati's relentless march to the pennant tended to obscure the fact that Manager Sparky Anderson had no pitcher who won more than 15 games. He lost his best man, lefthander Don Gullett, for nine weeks and endured a record stretch of 45 games during which no starter went the distance.
Unbelievably, another subpar position for the Reds was catcher. Johnny Bench toiled with a lot of smashed cartilage in his left shoulder. Still, he hit .283, had more than 25 homers (28) for the seventh consecutive season, knocked in more than 100 runs (110) for the fifth time and won his eighth straight Gold Glove. It is no solace to Cincinnati's rivals that Bench's shoulder is healthier following off-season surgery.
Further sad tidings for Reds opponents is that the shortening of spring training seems certain to benefit Cincinnati more than any team in the West, because it has both a set lineup and a glut of pitchers accustomed to working only six or seven innings. As for the opposition's lone remaining hope—that the Reds will grow fatheaded from success—Second Baseman Joe Morgan says, "I don't see any problems. We don't have the kind of guys who would let each other get complacent." He's right.
Critics rap the Reds' staff for having pitched only 22 complete games last season, but they ignore the fact that Cincinnati had an excellent 3.37 staff ERA and that Gullett was superb. Although his injury limited him to 22 starts, he was 15 and 4, with a 2.42 ERA and eight complete games.
To go along with a sound Gullett, Anderson has Fred Norman (12-4 last year), who won nine of 10 decisions between June 21 and the end of the season; Gary Nolan, who came back after missing nearly two seasons to ring up a 15-9 record and allow only 29 walks; Jack Billingham (15-10); and Pat Darcy, an 11-game winner as a rookie. The rotation could be in trouble if Norman and Billingham, both 33, falter. Even if they do not, Anderson often will bring in Rawly Eastwick or Will McEnaney, last season's remarkable rookies who combined for 37 saves.
On offense, George Foster's taking over in left field was a key to Cincinnati's success. He hit .300 with 23 homers and 78 RBIs. Rightfielder Ken Griffey, who scored the winning run in both the Series and league championships, batted .305, stole 16 bases and beat out 38 infield hits. Pete Rose, who moved to third base on May 3 to open a spot for Foster in the outfield and now plans to make the position his fourth on the All-Star team, batted .317 and had his seventh 200-hit season. Shortstop Dave Concepcion won his second straight Gold Glove and stole 21 bases in a row, and Morgan did everything. According to a complex formula involving a variety of statistical categories, he was the top offensive player in the league. At first base, Tony Perez leads all active major-leaguers in RBIs. Last year he quietly drove in 109.
The Reds were first in defense, second in hitting and third in pitching. "They were a great team that had a great season," says Pirate Manager Danny Murtaugh. Barring an epidemic of bad arms, the Reds should be great again.
The Dodgers are banking on the recovery of a bad arm—the one attached to Tommy John's left shoulder—not only to give the Reds a stiffer challenge, but also to take up the slack created by Andy Messersmith's journey into free agentry.
In mid-1974 John was 13-3 when he ruptured a ligament in his throwing arm. Surgeons grafted a tendon from John's right forearm into his left elbow, and purists now may argue whether he qualifies as a southpaw. John himself is more interested in regaining his spot among the Los Angeles starters; toward that end, he pitched impressively this winter in the Arizona Instructional League.