Giants, Tigers to Top Baseball Circuits
Pirates Loom as Dark Horse
The National League pennant will probably be decided one afternoon late in September after another long and grueling summer. It is nothing now to say that the '66 race will be a real dog-fight, with any of five teams having about an equal chance of squeezing in at the final gun.
If Los Angeles repeats, it will have to be with the same old faces, all a year older, Maybe Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale won't be hurt by their extra weeks of vacation, and the young pitchers can hold things together until the duo is ready to go. Phil Regan and 20-year old Don Sutton should add depth to last year's rather thin mound corps.
A hot spring for Nate Oliver has provided a possible answer to Walt Alston's infield problems. Oliver will open the season at second base, with Jim Lefebvre moving over to third. Tommy Davis should be back in left field, although his ankle remains somewhat suspect.
The Dodgers may be a better team than last season, but San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh have gained from off-season trades.
The Giants obtained Lindy McDaniel from Chicago and Joe Gibbon from Pittsburgh. These two veterans will relieve Frank Linzy of some of the bullpen burden, and will definitely place Bob Shaw on full-time work as a starter -- if Shaw signs his contract.
San Francisco needs solid seasons from Shaw and ace Juan Marichal to support younger hurlers like Bob Bolin and Ron Herbel. Otherwise the team is fairly deep in all positions. With a healthy Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Jim Ray Hart, the Giants have a scary clutch of brute power.
Cincinnati shipped 30-year old Frank Robinson to the American League to try his hand with Baltimore. In return, the Reds got Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson. Pappas will join Jim Maloney, Sam Ellis, and Joey Jay in the starting pitchers' rotation. Relief help will come largely from erratic Jim O'Toole and veteran Joe Nux-hall.
Baldschun figures in the bullpen along with Bill McCool, Roger Craig, and Ted Davidson. But both Pappas and Baldschun have had their troubles this spring and remain virtually unknown entities as the season opens. Hitting--even in the absence of Robinson--and defense should pose few problems for Heffner. Rookie sensation Tommy Helms, at second base, will add extra punch to the lineup.
The Braves have a new home, a new first baseman, and a new lease on life. Just being in Atlanta is bound to be a hypo for Bobby Bragan's team, and with Lee Thomas coming from Boston to take over first base, several problems are solved. Joe Torre can now concentrate on catching, and Gene Oliver can be platooned much more effectively.
The Braves' forte is the outfield, with Hank Aaron, Rico Carty, Felipe Alou, and Mack Jones. Bragan spots Tony Cloniger, Denny Lemaster, Ken Johnson, and Hank Fischer as his starters and looks to an array of youngsters to supply the rest. The Braves must have good years from veterans Eddie Mathews and Frank Bolling, plus a return to form by Denis Menke.
Every pennant race needs a dark horse, and the Pirates fill the role nicely this season. After a dismal start last year, the Bucs caught fire and were the most consistent winners after the all-star game. Harry "The Hat" Walker has virtually the same cast back, but this season he will open with a healthy Bill Mazeroski. Another plus is Matty Alou, acquired from the Giants. He fits into Bill Virdon's spot in centerfield, banked by Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente.
But all is not bright for Walker. It is doubtful that Vernon Law can duplicate his sensational comeback of last season, so pitchers like Steve Blass and ex-Yankee Pete Mikkelsen must take up the slack. Bob Bailey must switch back to third base after a year in the outfield. He and Law are definitely the key factors in any Buc flag chances.