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Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

National League Preview: Braves stellar; Astros, Dodgers improved

March 30, 2003

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As always, the Atlanta Braves plan to ride their outstanding starting rotation right back into the playoffs. Only this time they're counting on a different set of arms.

Tom Glavine is gone. So are Kevin Millwood and Damian Moss.

Brought in to replace them were Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd, as the Braves almost completely retooled the rotation that has carried them to a record 11 consecutive division championships.

"We lost some big names, but we also gained some big names," manager Bobby Cox said. "I think we're strong as ever."

The Braves did keep their ace, signing 36-year-old Greg Maddux to a $14.75 million deal -- the biggest one-year contract in baseball history.

Maddux has looked sharp all spring, but the starters behind him will determine whether Atlanta can hold off the improved Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets in the NL East.

Philadelphia added free-agent slugger Jim Thome and grabbed Millwood, an 18-game winner last year, in a lopsided trade for minor-league catcher Johnny Estrada.

Glavine, who spent the past 16 seasons in Atlanta, left to sign with the rival Mets, who figure to bounce back from a last-place finish.

Houston should win the Central after adding 2000 NL MVP Jeff Kent.

He joins a powerful lineup that already included Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, making the Astros good enough to finally advance past the opening round of the playoffs and all the way to their first World Series.

"We were a step or two from being champions and this is going to help," owner Drayton McLane said.

The West shapes up as a compelling three-team race between the NL champion San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the aging Arizona Diamondbacks.

A healthy Kevin Brown can pitch the Dodgers to the division title, while Barry Bonds -- fresh off his first trip to the Series -- and a slew of new teammates give the Giants the wild card again.

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:

EAST

Atlanta Braves

Hampton (7-15, 6.15 ERA) is the biggest question mark for the Braves after two awful seasons in Colorado.

If he can regain the nasty sinker and supreme confidence that made him one of the best pitchers in the league before signing a $121 million deal with the Rockies, Atlanta will win its 12th straight division title.

Ortiz (14-10, 3.61 for San Francisco) and Byrd (17-11, 3.90 with Kansas City) each surpassed 200 innings last year. Maddux (16-6, 2.62) will try to become the first pitcher in baseball history to win at least 15 games in 16 consecutive seasons.

The outfield of Gary Sheffield (.307, 25 HRs, 84 RBIs, 23 SBs), Chipper Jones (.327, 26, 100) and Andruw Jones (.264, 35, 94) anchors the lineup.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies are coming off their 14th losing record in 16 years, but they should challenge Atlanta in their final season at Veterans Stadium.

An $85 million, six-year deal lured Thome (.304, 52, 118, .445 OBP) away from Cleveland.

New York Mets

The Mets made a concerted effort to bring classy guys into the clubhouse, but if that doesn't translate into wins GM Steve Phillips could lose his job.

Glavine (18-11, 2.96), who will be 37 when the season starts, faded in the second half last year. The two-time Cy Young winner must show he still has enough left to lead a pitching staff.

Montreal Expos

This should finally be the Expos' last season in Montreal. They play 22 "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to try to increase revenue, and baseball hopes to pick a city for them to move to by the All-Star break.

Vladimir Guerrero (.336, 39, 111, 40 SBs) and Jose Vidro (.315, 19, 96) are two of baseball's most exciting players -- although Guerrero is eligible for free agency after the season.

Florida Marlins

Florida is still waiting for all its talented young pitchers to emerge and could struggle in a strong division.

All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez (.314, 19, 60 with Texas) was signed to provide stability and help sell tickets.

A.J. Burnett (12-9, 3.30, 203 Ks) paces the rotation.

CENTRAL

Houston Astros

The Astros have won the division four times since 1997, but never advanced to the NLCS. This could be the year.

Biggio, a four-time Gold Glove second baseman, agreed to move to center field to make room for Kent (.313, 37, 108 for San Francisco).

Roy Oswalt (19-9, 3.01, 208 Ks) could win the Cy Young Award. He and Wade Miller (15-4, 3.28, 144 Ks) have the stuff to dominate a playoff series.

Chicago Cubs

Sammy Sosa is one home run shy of 500 and the Cubs are not far from contending after stockpiling young talent the last few years.

Kerry Wood (12-11, 3.66, 217 Ks) and Mark Prior (6-6, 3.32, 147 Ks) provide a hard-throwing 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Matt Clement (12-11, 3.60, 215 Ks) also appears ready to come into his own.

Three-time NL manager of the year Dusty Baker brings a winning attitude from San Francisco.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals pulled together after the death of pitcher Darryl Kile last season and reached the NLCS. It's hard to anticipate them going that far again.

Matt Morris (17-9, 3.42) is the staff ace, but there are questions about the back end of the rotation and in the bullpen. Woody Williams (9-4, 2.53 in 17 starts) must stay healthy.

Albert Pujols (.314, 34, 127) has crushed the ball all spring, and All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen (.266, 31, 110) is ready for his first full season in St. Louis.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates could have their first winning season since 1992.

GM Dave Littlefield made some fiscally shrewd moves in the offseason, signing RHP Jeff Suppan and ex-Giants OFs Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders (.250, 23, 85) for bargain prices.

Cincinnati Reds

As the Reds move into a new ballpark, they hope Ken Griffey Jr. finds his old swing.

Adam Dunn (.400 OBP, 26, 71) and Austin Kearns (.315, 13, 56 in 107 games) round out a nice outfield.

Milwaukee Brewers

New manager Ned Yost, a former backup catcher for the Brewers, wanted this job badly. Well, here it is.

Richie Sexson (.279, 29, 102) is the lone bright spot on offense. Ben Sheets (11-16, 4.15, 170 Ks) looks to rebound from a sophomore slump.

WEST

Los Angeles Dodgers

A deep pitching staff could put the Dodgers in the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

High-priced starters Brown and Darren Dreifort, both coming off serious injuries, appear healthy and confident.

The offense will probably still struggle to score runs at times, although Fred McGriff (.273, 30, 103 with the Cubs) should provide more protection for slugger Shawn Green (.285, 42, 114).

San Francisco Giants

Bonds, the only five-time MVP in baseball history, came within six outs of a World Series title last year. Now he wants another chance.

Jason Schmidt (13-8, 3.45, 196 Ks) has the stuff to be a true No. 1 starter. Robb Nen (43 saves) still anchors a solid bullpen.

Felipe Alou, 67, replaces Baker in the dugout.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Winners of three NL West titles in four years, this team always has a chance because of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. But Arizona is getting old.

Luis Gonzalez (.288, 28, 103) is coming off a shoulder injury, and the rest of the lineup could come up short. The trade of Erubiel Durazo might come back to hurt this organization.

Colorado Rockies

Jason Jennings took home Rookie of the Year honors after winning 16 games for Colorado.

Todd Helton (.329, 30, 109) and Larry Walker (.338, 26, 104) anchor a lineup filled with sluggers. The acquisitions of Preston Wilson and catcher Charles Johnson from Florida should help.

San Diego Padres

The Padres probably wish spring training never started.

They lost slugger Phil Nevin for the entire season and All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman until at least the middle of the year because of shoulder operations.

Ryan Klesko (.300, 29, 95) is the only big bat in the lineup.

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