Montreal Gazette - April 10, 1980
Phils first, Expos to battle Pirates for third
By Ian MacDonald of The Gazette
PHILADELPHIA – The Pirates and the Expos will pick up where they left off in their dramatic neck-and-neck race in the NL East last year with one marked change.
Last year, they fought down to the wire for first place in the division. The Pirates went on from there to a dramatic World Series triumph. This time, the jostling back and forth will be in a battle for third place.
Philadelphia Phillies slipped to fourth last season 'after three successive division titles. But it's perfectly clear why the Phillies floundered.
While the Expos enjoyed unparalleled good health through the entire championship season, the Phillies were dealt death blows by injuries. Even a slight evening up of those accounts would bring about a complete turn around in the fortunes of the clubs.
So, the Phillies will win and then there are the Cardinals. This might have been the best offensive machine in baseball last year – and they're better.
Veteran base-stealing great Lou Brock made a remarkable last stand as an outfielder with the Cards. He contributed a .300 plus bat – one of six in the Cardinals' lineup.
But Brock had slowed down defensively. His arm was such that anything hit in his direction was an automatic extra base for the hitter.
Not only then do the Cards figure to be stronger without those liabilities, they have replaced Brock with a superstar in Bobby Bonds
The Cardinals have one weakness and that is in the bullpen.
What has happened to the Expos, who won 95 games last year, that they should not be able to stay right with those top two?
The Expos are heading into this season without a first baseman, with no proven cleanup hitter and with a pitching staff that has lost 20 wins from the year before.
To have been so close last season does not mean they will step in and take over this time. The way so many things went right for the Expos last year, they should have won everything then. Yet. they came up short.
The Expos disabled only one player last year when shortstop Chris Speier sat down for a spell in July with a bad back. Only one pitcher – David Palmer – missed a turn in the rotation because of a pitching-related injury. The 10 pitchers who started the season were there at the finish and there hadn’t been a change throughout.
The Phillies, on the other hand, disabled nine players, bad four players work with broken bones during the season and watched their muscle hitter Greg Luzinski bobble on a bad leg all year.
Perhaps those are intangibles but they do tend to balance out.
Then there are specifics. The Expos lost Tony-Perez, their slugging first baseman and cleanup hitter, to the Red Sox via the free agency exercise.
Warren Cromartie, who lost an outfield job when the Expos acquired Ron LeFlore over the winter, has been given the first base job.
'Cro’ is a hard worker and a spirited team man. He is a line drive hitter in the .280 range. He has no power and has not hit in the clutch.
Manager Dick Williams has chosen Ellis Valentine over Larry Parrish and Gary Carter to replace Perez in the cleanup department. Ellie has not batted fourth since Little League days on a regular basis.
Those 20 wins missing with the departures of Dan Schatzeder to Detroit in the LeFlore deal and Rudv May (to the Yankees as a free agent) should not be minimized.
'Schotz' was 10-5. May was 10-3. That's not just 20 wins then. It's 20-8. It's plus 12.
LeFlore gives the Expos their first bonafide leadoff man. With speedsters LeFlore, Rodney Scott and Andre Dawson leading off, the Expos figure to score it they get some clutch hitting.
An interestng aspect of the NL East race is that the first four teams can all play over .500. Ninety-two or 93 wins should win and a fourth-place Expos team could win as many as 84.
The reason for that is that the Cubs will fall right out by mid-season and the Mets will have established themselves in the cellar long before that.
Also, there are only two teams in the West sure of playing over .500. The Dodgers should run away. The Astros are going to win a lot of close games but they are going to lose a lot too. Their pitching is superb.
After that the West presents a lot of patsies. The ' Eastern teams should be able to fatten up on the bottom four clubs in the West.
1. PHILADELPHIA – Only Pete Rose among the regular 'eight' didn't miss a game because of injuries. The 'starting eight' started just 74 games. Warren Brusstar. Larry Christenson, Pete Mackanin. Manny Trillo. Larry Bowa, Doug Bird, Dick Ruthven twice on the disabled list. This team is loaded and any levelling off in the injury department should see them take even-thing.
2. ST. LOUIS The Cards' pitching is underrated. Their starters were second only to the Astros in the number of complete games. Their MVP Keith Hernandez is on the ascendancy. Their infield defence is excellent. And they CAN play offence.
3. PITTSBURGH The 'family' unity could be tested here. Right from the start young righthander Don Robinson has been disabled. Bill Robinson is not happy. The emotion and spirit which carried the Bucs will be difficult to duplicate when the prize is third place.
4. MONTREAL (Explanation above.)
5,6. CHICAGO, NEW YORK - Preston Gomez qualifies but he won't be one of those nice guys finishing last because his Cubs are in the same division as the Mets. Dave Kingman homers and Bruce Sutter's forkball in relief will keep the Cubs interesting for hali a season. The Mets should be buried by then.
The Dodgers were hit almost as hard as the Phillies with injuries. Not one of the five men who worked relief for the Dodgers in the second half started the season with the team.
Manager Bill Virdon's Astros will present awesome pitching for any single series. The addition of Nolan Ryan to the likes of J.R. Richard and Joe Niekro means the Astros will stifle a lot of opposition offences. But they can't score runs.
After that the West is up for grabs. With veteran Chris Chambliss added to a team that has future superstar Gary Matthews and budding power hitters Bob Horner and Dale Murphy, the Braves can be a factor – among the bottom four that is.
The Giants can count on better seasons from Vida Blue (14-14) and Bob Knepper (9-12) but Dave Bristol can't hope for anything better than a fight for third.
Bob McNamara performed miracles with the Reds last year but finally that group is ready to be rebuilt. And at San Diego, announcer-turned-manager Jerry Coleman is going to find out how much easier it was to say what should be done than to get it done.