The Giants would do anything to avoid repeating their 1979 season. A pitching staff once regarded as the league's finest just missed becoming the league's worst, finishing with an ERA of 4.16, only .02 better than Atlanta's. "The most pressing thing for me is to get our pitching staff in order," says Manager Dave Bristol. "We could never get them all healthy at the same time." Indeed, Reliever Randy Moffitt spent more than two months on the disabled list with an assortment of injuries, and starter Ed Halicki never fully recovered from a bacterial infection. John Montefusco, once the staff ace, won only three games, which computes to $100,000 per victory based on his annual salary, and Vida Blue, who won 18 in 1978, slumped to 14-14, with an abysmal 5.01 ERA.
When the Giants' pitching went, everything else seemed to go with it, including esprit de corps. In a year notable for clubhouse strife, the Giants' locker room seemed more like a bomb shelter. Players refused to speak to the press or even to one another, and after a plane trip during which Joe Altobelli's anti-liquor edict was openly defied, the manager lost control of team discipline, which Bristol hopes to restore. Not all the trouble can be blamed on the pitchers, of course. The Giants' dismal season—their 91 losses were the most they have suffered since moving to San Francisco in 1958—was a team effort, as witness the club's 163 errors. There were good moments, however. Mike Ivie hit 27 homers and drove in 89 runs, and Bill North, the centerfielder, stole a club-record 58 bases.
The Giants may have improved themselves by signing free agents Rennie Stennett, Milt May and Jim Wohlford. Stennett, coming off two unproductive years in Pittsburgh after breaking his leg in 1977, will be at second, and May, a .262 career hitter, will be the starting catcher. Wohlford will be an outfield fill-in. The Giants' bad luck last year extended into the off-season when Shortstop Roger Metzger sheared off the tips of four fingers on his throwing hand in a power-saw accident and Ivie severed a tendon in his throwing hand while washing a knife. Ivie recovered and Metzger bravely reported to spring training in search of a utility man's job. The regular shortstop figured to be Johnnie LeMaster under any circumstances.
If the pitchers can find their way back, the defense improves and the morale holds up, the Giants may be contenders. So can the Padres, whose most electrifying move in the off-season was hiring Jerry Coleman, the team's broadcaster for eight years, as the new manager. Coleman has never managed at any level and, except for his experience in the broadcast booth, has been away from active participation in baseball for all but two of the 23 years that have passed since he retired as a player for the Yankees.
The Padres were also busy in the marketplace, acquiring Jerry Mumphrey from Cleveland to fill a gaping hole in centerfield, Dave Cash from Montreal to play second base, Aurelio Rodriguez from Detroit to play third and Willie Montanez from Texas to play first. Only Shortstop Ozzie Smith survives from the 1979 Padre infield. The team also signed free-agent pitchers Rick Wise and John Curtis, who will join Randy Jones, Eric Rasmussen and either Steve Mura or Juan Eichelberger in the starting rotation.
Montanez will bat behind slugger Dave Winfield (.308, 34 HRs, 118 RBIs), providing that worthy some protection from pitchers reluctant to throw him balls he can reach. Winfield seemed to be reaching for the moon when he asked for a contract that would pay him $1.3 million a year for 10 years and give him the right to void it if the club should be sold. If he hits the free-agent market—which he will be eligible to do in the fall if the Padres fail to re-sign him—watch out.
The Braves, too, should be much improved, although their starting rotation still begins and ends with Phil Niekro, who at 40 led the league in starts (44), complete games (23) and innings pitched (342). But Atlanta did pick up First Baseman Chris Chambliss and Shortstop Luis Gomez to tighten up a porous infield and Al Hrabosky from Kansas City to help out in the ravaged bullpen. Chambliss will hit fifth behind Bob Horner, whom the Braves hope to have for a full season for a change. Horner missed 40 games last year while arguing about his contract and still hit 33 homers and drove in 98 runs. The Braves can hit; their lineup includes such sluggers as Horner, Chambliss (19 HRs for the Yankees), Gary Matthews (.304, 27 HRs, 90 RBIs) and Dale Murphy (21 HRs). Murphy will be in leftfield this year instead of at first or behind the plate. Still, pitching is a problem, although Hrabosky, the so-called Mad Hungarian, will be invaluable in one important respect, according to fellow-reliever Gene Garber. "Al is not a well man." says Garber, who, with his bushy-bearded, back-to-the-batter, nearly underhand delivery, is a bit weird himself. "And what this club needs is a little sickness." Obviously, they've got it now.