CINCINNATI has high expectations for 1969. “Watch out for the Reds,” manager Dave Bristol says boldly. “We’re going to make some noise this year, and I mean a winning noise!” The Reds have a fearsome lineup, headed by Pete Rose (.307) and also featuring another of the majors’ select list of eight .300 hitters, Alex Johnson (.320). Cincinnati led both leagues last season with a whopping team batting average of .262, and even though GM Bob Howsam and Bristol traded away one of their better hitters in Vada Pinson. In exchange for Pinson, the Reds received 23 year old Bobby Tolan from the Cardinals. Cincinnati’s infield is well-established with Lee May at first, Tommy Helms at second, Tony Perez at third, and Woody Woodward at short. Catcher John Bench will need to improve from his .217 average, but all reports state he has the potential to do so. Woodward moves into Leo Cardenas’ shortstop berth. Cardenas, 30, was traded to Minnesota to fill a pitching need. That brings us to the Reds shortcoming: pitching. For Cardenas, they got Jim Merritt, 25, a left hander who won 18 and lost 11 for the Twins. Merritt started 34 games last season, and on the Reds’ staff only George Culver handled that many starts last year. Culver and Gerry Arrigo were the club’s leading pitchers with 12 wins. Tony Cloninger, obtained from the Braves in a June, 1968 trade, showed signs of recapturing his 20 game form, and Clay Carroll, obtained in the same trade, was helpful in relief. Sophomore Gary Nolan rebounded from a sore arm and finished with a 9-8 mark. Help on the farm include catcher Bill Plummer, 21, who batted .291 in the Arizona Instructional League, and 1B/OF Clarence Jones who led the PCL in homers with 24 for Tacoma.
SAN FRANCISCO’s past performances would dictate that you can’t go far wrong by picking the Giants to finish near the top. The Giants are in a tough division, and they’re not taking Cincinnati or Atlanta lightly. At 37, Willie Mays has to keep rolling along. At 31, Willie McCovey must approach his fabulous slugging record of 1968 again. At 30, Juan Marichal must continue to play his role as stopper on a good -if not deep- pitching staff. The Giants have a new manager, Clyde King, who is familiar with the youngsters in the organization, having managed Phoenix. King would like to surround Mays in center with Bobby Bonds, who broke in impressively with nine homers in 81 games last year, and Jim Ray Hart, his power-hitting 3B who seems to thrive more on an outfield diet. In the infield beyond McCovey, there are likely to be some changes. 3B Bob Etheridge and 2B Don Mason are expected to get good chances to break into the infield. Second baseman Ron Hunt may get a trial at third, but also available is veteran Jim Davenport and Cesar Gutierrez and Tito Fuentes are on hand for another look. For the fourth time in the last six years, Juan Marichal won more than 20 games. With 164 victories behind him, the Dominican right hander looms possibly as baseball’s next 300 game winner. Teammate Bobby Bolin (11-8) who started and relieved was eighth in the NL in ERA last year, and Gaylord Perry (15-10) pitched well. Ray Sadecki (12-16) was the second workhorse to Marichal, and Mike McCormick (12-10) was also a solid contributor. Rich Robertson, 24, is a fireballer who won 18 for Phoenix in the PCL.
ATLANTA may be one of the most improved clubs if Rico Carty comes back swinging this year. They jumped from 7th to 4th and restored themselves to .500 while Rico spent most of last season in a tuberculosis sanitarium. The medical report gives Carty a clean bill of heath and Atlanta fans are expecting big things from the 29 year-old Dominican outfielder. The Braves have a lot of other things going for them, one of which is the presence of Henry Aaron, their perpetual slugging kid who is seven home runs away from the 500 mark. Aaron slipped slightly with a .275 average but hit 23 HR, and finished an uncharacteristic tenth in the league in slugging percentage. With Aaron, Felipe Alou, and a healthy Carty in the Atlanta outfield plus another fine collective performance from the pitching staff (2.53 ERA, second in the NL), the Braves can go as far as their infield will take them. The infield probably wouldn’t have been so much a problem to the Braves last season were it not for injuries to Sonny Jackson and Clete Boyer. Boyer was hit in the hand last season by pitches from Juan Marichal and Don Drysdale. He missed the last month and a half prompting the Braves to trade for Bob Aspromonte, who is also one of several in line for the first base job vacated by the disappointing Deron Johnson, who was sold to the Phils. Two of Atlanta’s starters, Pat Jarvis and Phil Niekro ranked among the league’s ERA leaders and so did Cecil Upshaw, its relief standout who appeared in 67 games, finished 48 of them and won five. Niekro’s 16 victories were the most by any Braves’ pitcher since the club left Milwaukee. Rookies OF Ralph Garr (.293 with 32 SB in Texas League) and C Walt Hriniak (.346 Sept. avg. in Atlanta) were protected in the expansion draft, and both are likely to be around this year.
LOS ANGELES has a major emphasis on kids by the dean of big league managers, Walter Alston. “I’m going to give all our kids plenty of chances to chase the veterans to the sidelines this spring,” said Alston. A quick glance at the pitching staff indicates that there will be room for three newcomers. Jim Grant and John Billingham were both snatched away by Montreal in the expansion draft. Additionally, Mike Kekich was traded to the Yankees. The ERA of the Dodgers, 2.58, was third best only to the champion Cardinals and surprising Braves. Don Drysdale was again the workhorse with 15 victories but was on the shelf resting a balky shoulder for the final month of the season. Behind Drysdale, Don Sutton, Bill Singer, and Claude Osteen complete the main starting squad. Jim Brewer registered 17 saves (now an official statistic) in relief with a great screwball, and Pete Mikkelsen, 1.91 ERA at Tulsa, figure to head the relief corps. The Dodgers have chosen to tailor their outfield dimensions by moving home plate out 10 feet, reducing the “power alleys” to 375 feet. While this could increase the stress on Alston’s pitching staff, it should perk up the Dodger offense. With this in mind, they picked up Andy Kosco from the Yankees for Kekich. Kosko’s right handed bat will balance out the lineup of leftys Willie Davis, Ron Fairly, Len Gabrielson, and rookie Willie Crawford. Catcher Tom Haller was the Dodgers’ leading hitter last season and Alston is so satisfied with him that receiver Ted Sizemore, 23, has been making a shift to the infield and may enter the second base picture. Jim Lefebvre (.216) and Wes Parker (.208) did not hit enough to satisfy Alston, but their second and first base jobs seem secure. Late season impressiveness of Bill Sudakis at third and Paul Popovich at short has hiked their chances to win those jobs.
HOUSTON has never been a factor in the race since joining the NL in 1962. But until last year, they could say proudly that they never finished in the basement. In 1968, crippled by the loss of Joe Morgan with a knee injury and plagued with more than their share of military absenteeism, Houston slipped one game into the cellar. To the credit of GM Spec Richardson and his new manager, Harry Walker, the Astros did not sit still. Houston peddled one of its top pitchers in Mike Cuellar to Baltimore as part of a five player deal that brought slugger Curt Belfary to the Astrodome. The Astros shocked a lot of folks by sacrificing young Rusty Staub for Montreal’s Donn Clendenon and Jay Alou. Catcher John Edwards was secured from the Cardinals for pitcher Dave Giusti, pitchers Dooley Womack and Bill Monbouquette were obtained for lesser talent. Walker feels Houston now has more depth, speed, and experience – and is also improved behind the plate (Edwards) and in the outfield (Blefary and Alou). The reports on Morgan indicate that he will be sound again but he may have to look for a new job. Denis Menke apparently found a home in his spot. Doug Rader is groomed to take over third with the trade of Bob Aspromonte to the Braves last year. Larry Dierker (11-14), Don Wilson (14-7) and Denver LeMaster (9-17) will have to find new starting partners with the loss of Guisti and Cuellar. It may be determined that Danny Coombs will fill the bill or Wade Blasingame. Relief pitchiing will be in the hands of Fred Gladding who is all right after his elbow troubles and Womack who worked 51 games for the Yankees last year.
SAN DIEGO is the ball club of “Buzzy” Bavasi, and the former Dodger GM has surrounded himself with his old pals. Roger Craig and Wally Moon will serve as coaches. Duke Snider will be a scout and broadcaster, and Buzzy has tapped Preston Gomez, on of Walt Alston’s coaches, to be his field manager. Most of San Diego’s draft picks were chosen with an eye to the future. “We went with young players with the idea of building a contending club in three or four years. If we have to finish last, we’d rather do it with youngsters who are learning and improving,” said Bavasi after looking over his 1969 roster. Dick Selma could be the ace. He pitched three shutouts while winning nine and losing 10 for the Mets last season. Pitchers Al McBean (Pittsburgh) and Bill McCool (Reds), and rookies Al Santorini, Frank Reberger, and Dave Roberts all will contribute this year. Jose Arcia, the Cubs chief utility player last year, is tabbed for second while ex-Phillie Roberto Pena is the top shortstop candidate. Tony Gonzalez was a steal in the 4th round from the Phillies and will provide veteran leadership for this young club. Ron Davis, part of the 5 player deal that returned Dave Giusti to St. Louis, Ivan Murrell, Cito Gaston (Braves) and Larry Stahl (Mets) all are in the running for outfield jobs.