ST. LOUIS – It’s frightening to envision the Cardinals as a stronger club in 1969, but frankly, it’s looks as though they are just that! Not only did GM Bing Devine succeed in plugging his outfield with another speedy veteran to go with Lou Brock and Curt Flood, he was able to bundle another package of surplus off to San Diego for Dave Guisti, a pitcher the Cards apparently wanted more than anyone knew. Vida Pinson, who batted above .300 four times in his 11 season with the Reds, is the new outfield playmate for Brock and Flood. Pinson takes over for the retired Roger Maris in right field, and gives the Cardinals the fastest outfield in all of baseball. First baseman Orlando Cepeda was shipped to Atlanta on St. Patrick’s Day, 1969 in exchange for catcher-first baseman Joe Torre. The rest of the infield is intact with Julian Javier, Dal Maxvill and Mike Shannon at the corner. The Cardinal pitching, of course, starts with Bob Gibson. Gibson’s 1968 MVP and Cy Young award campaign was breath taking. Gibson set an all-time NL record with an ERA of 1.12 that wiped out Grover Cleveland Alexander’s mark of 1.22 set in 1915. Gibson hurled 47 scoreless innings, a string that was broken on a wild pitch. Guisti, 29, led the Houston staff last season in several marks while pitching 251 innings and posting a 11-14 mark with a last place ball club. Nelson Briles and Ray Washburn round out the rotation. Mike Torrez, a right handed farm hand, may make a firm bid to join the rotation. The Cardinals are the overwhelming favorites to win the pennant in the National League for a third straight year. Odds in Las Vegas are posted at 5 to 7 for a Cardinal repeat.
PITTSBURGH, in the last 2 years has been losing more and enjoying it less. The Expansion Draft last October gave Pittsburgh a good chance to clean house. The Pirates were stripped of Donn Clendenon, Maury Wills, Manny Mota, and pitcher Al McBean, but three newcomers could be in the Opening Day lineup – catcher Manny Sanguillen, 3B Richie Hebner, and either Bob Robertson or Al Oliver at first. But right along with the degree of skill displayed by the rookies will be the Pirates’ success in dodging that big intangible called the casualty list. Bunning, Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski, and Alley were all hit by the injury bug last season. Pittsburgh’s OF is set with Stargell, Matty Alou, and Clemente from left to right. Mazeroski and Alley are expected to be sound to return as the keystone combination. Hebner, 21, is seen as a clinch major leaguer at third. Robertson, 22, missed last season due to surgery for a kidney obstruction, but he led the Southern League’s triple crown in 1966. Manager Larry Shepard says Robertson has as much power as Willie McCovey. Fred Patek and Jose Pagan will share the utility duties. In last year’s pitching emergency, Steve Blass blossomed as #1 starter. Bob Veale won 12 despite some tough luck and Dock Ellis (6-4) and Bob Moose (9-8) look promising.
CHICAGO moved away from their traditional stand-pat approach by acquiring Ted Aberanathy to help Phil Regan in the bullpen. Manager Leo Durocher undertakes his fourth season which a lot going for him. He has the best defensive team in the league, and good pitching anchored by Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Hands and the Regan-Abernathy tandem. It may come as a shock to some that Ken Holtzman, barely 23, is the “dean” of the Cub staff in point of service. He joined the club in late 1965 in the pre-Durocher days. LF Billy Williams, who has not missed a game in more than five seasons, will be playing in his 820th consecutive contest on Opening Day, 1969. Durocher seems satisfied with platoons of Willie Smith, Al Spangler, and Jim Hickman in right with Aldolfo Phillips in center. The infield is solid with Ernie Banks, whose retirement never seems to get any closer, at first, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Ron Santo at third. Catcher Randy Hundley is an iron man behind the plate. The Cubs finished the second half strong. This may be the best Cub team in more than 20 years, and should challenge St. Louis for divisional title.
PHILADELPHIA initiated their youth movement prior to the 1968 season when they traded Jim Bunning away for Woody Fryman and a promising young shortstop named Don Money. This winter they continued it by letting some of their older hands escape in the expansion draft – as the Pirates did – and opening up a quick route to the big leagues to more kids. Money, 21, and Larry Hisle, also 21, are promising Phillie farmhands. Manager Bob Skinner announced Johnny Briggs has his first sacker as the Phils were successful in prying Deron Johnson from the Braves. Johnson, who seems better suited to first, finished fifth in RBI with 109 as recently as 1965, but has been in a slugging tailspin. Johnson can play third or outfield but it seems to most observers that Briggs, Johnny Callison, and Hisle provide the best outer defense, thus leaving Johnson to play third and the Phillies’ most outstanding hitter, Richie Allen, to play third. Cookie Rojas, the league’s top fielding shortstop, is a fixture at second with veteran Tony Taylor as a backup. Philadelphia clearly needs improvement in pitching. Fryman (13-14; 3.74), Chris Short (8-12; 3.18), and Rick Wise, who faltered in his third season (5-15; 4.67) are the rotation. Meanwhile, three farmhands, Barry Lersch, Lowell Palmer, and Bill Wilson are in contention, and Bill Champion, a Carolina League star, can be expected to forge his way into the picture.
NEW YORK will likely have to depend on their fine young pitching staff to keep them out of the depths this season. That is, until such hitters as Tommie Agee, Ed Kranepool and Ron Swoboda develop a little more consistency to go along with that of Cleon Jones and their All-Star catcher, Jerry Grote. At the head of Gil Hodges’ staff is Jerry Koosman, the left-handed Minnesota native, who was far and away the best rookie pitcher in the majors last season. Koosman flirted with being the first 20 game winner in Mets history with a 18-11 mark in 1968 with a 2.43 ERA. Tom Seaver, 13-14 with a 2.52 ERA, will also head the Mets’ brilliant staff. Three other young hurlers, none over 25, looked best in the Mets’ winter plans. Jim McAndrew’s emergence last season prompted the Mets’ to expose Dick Selma in the expansion draft. Hodges hopes that Nolan Ryan, barely 22, can overcome the handicap of blistered fingers and service stints to come up to his potential. Gary Gentry, the collegiate All-American at Arizona State two years ago, is the Mets’ top rookie pitcher. Kranepool, Ken Boswell, Bud Harrelson, and Ed Charles make up the infield. Because Boswell and Harrelson have military obligations, the Mets likely will carry added depth in Al Weis, Bob Heise, Kevin Collins, and Wayne Garrett, drafted from Atlanta. LF Cleon Jones finished 1968 fourth in batting in the NL with a .311 average and stole 21 bases. At 26, the Mets feel he should be capable of even bigger things this year. Agee, acquired from the White Sox last year, is also expected to improve from his .241 average last year. Swoboda, Art Shamsky, and rookie Amos Otis should round out the list of five outfielders.
MONTREAL was able to fleece existing National League rosters of enough established athletes to assemble a rather imposing and experienced “play now; pay later” baseball team. An outfield of Mack Jones, Manny Mota, and Ty Cline was not bad for a collection of outer gardeners who were found expendable. An infield of Rusty Staub, Gary Sutherland, Maury Wills, and Bob Bailey would never send a fan scrambling to “Who’s Who” to search for clues of identity. Neither would a pitching staff of Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Larry Jackson, John Billingham, Larry Jaster, and catchers John Bateman and John Bocabella. Yes, there is great joy in Montreal where one of the main concerns is manager Gene Mauch’s success in keeping the veteran acquisitions (Wills and Jackson) from retirement. Despite the “name” infielders, Mauch is high on the chances of Jim Williams, a 25 year old defensive whiz out of the Cincinnati system, to win the shortstop job. Likewise, Jose “Coco” Laboy, .292 with 15 HR at Tulsa last season, lasted until the sixth round of the draft before he was plucked from the Cardinals – probably because he is nearing 29.