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NL filled with uncertainty


Special to ESPN.com

Feb. 8

It is as if the National League is listing to starboard.

Take the Braves. They've finished in first place 11 times since 1991, yet they begin 2003 without their two winningest starters and three out of their four top winners, as well as four relievers who totaled 262 innings and 18 victories from a bullpen that led the majors with a 2.60 ERA last season. To make things even stranger, Tom Glavine will face them as a member of the Mets, Kevin Millwood as a Phillie, and Mike Hampton's $8.5 million salary will be paid by the Florida Marlins, all of which makes the NL East seem like a chapter out of "The Sound and the Fury."

Ken Griffey Jr.
The Reds are hopeful Ken Griffey Jr. will stay healthy for the entire 2003 season.

The Phillies are now burdened with a beast called expectation after throwing money around like the Yankees, bringing in Jim Thome, Millwood and David Bell. Montreal is playing a quarter of its games in Puerto Rico. Craig Biggio, who successfully moved from catcher to second base earlier in his career, is moving to center field at the age of 37 to make room for another potential Hall of Fame second baseman named Jeff Kent. Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to San Diego for Phil Nevin, who nixed the deal and now is switching to left field after agreeing to switch from third base to first base last spring.

The Giants, who were eight outs away from winning last year's World Series in six games, have changed half their everyday lineup, traded their winningest starting pitcher and have essentially traded manager Dusty Baker for a Giant, Felipe Alou, so Dusty could move on to the Cubs. The Marlins tried to trade for Bartolo Colon, signed Pudge Rodriguez and are paying Hampton $8.5 million to try to beat them.

Unlike the American League, where there are clear power cells and some absolutely dreadful teams, there are no clear-cut favorites. Oh, the Cardinals should be good, again, and so should the Phillies, Giants and Diamondbacks and even the Astros, and given Braves GM John Schuerholz's two World Series rings (one with the Braves and the other while with the Royals) and track record, who has the right to dismiss his contention that Atlanta could be every bit as good as it was last year?

There are 10 teams that can envision scenarios in which they could make the playoffs, and that doesn't include Florida, which believes it has the pitching and defense to make a serious run in the scrambled NL East. It is extremely doubtful there are any scenarios in which the Padres, Rockies, Pirates and Brewers make the playoffs, but by the end of the season San Diego is going to have a really good young team ready for the 2004 opening of its new ballpark. Colorado is better than people think, the Pirates are in Year II of another reconstruction and while the Brewers are bad, they are not as bad as their 106 losses last season and at least now their general manager (Doug Melvin) knows how bad they are.

"What will be interesting will be to see what teams are willing to take on payroll to try and win," says one GM. "The Dodgers and Braves are for sale by their corporate owners."

"The baseball economy may be very tight," says another GM. "The economy, in general, is poor, a lot of owners have lost a lot of their own money and with the threat of war coming right in the middle of spring training, we may have a difficult time focusing fan interest."

That is a guns 'n butter discussion for another day. Here is a look at the NL heading into spring training:

A rush of blood to the head division
St. Louis Cardinals
It's remarkable that the Cardinals endured all they did last season and still won 97 games. It's also remarkable that they allowed 47 fewer runs than any of their division rivals and outscored their opponents by 149 runs when Jason Simontacchi was their second winningest starter.

But this is a very good team with stable veterans, four outstanding young position players (Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew), depth and an owner-management team unafraid to do what has to be done come July.

Albert Pujols
Left fielder
St. Louis Cardinals
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM AB R HR RBI AVG
157 590 118 34 127 .314

Fernando Vina's on-base percentage has dropped from .380 to .333 in three seasons, and they need him to get on base in front of Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Rolen, Tino Martinez, et al. But Renteria, at 27, is arguably the league's premier shortstop and last season's .364 on-base percentage and .439 slugging percentage were the best of his career. Drew, meanwhile, won't be back until at least June after a knee operation and another procedure to remove a cyst from his foot.

Chuck Finley declined salary arbitration, although he may come back in May since any other team that would sign him would have to relinquish a first-round draft pick. Even then, the starting pitching is a question. Matt Morris (17-9) held on through the Darryl Kile tragedy to remain an elite pitcher, but the Cards need Woody Williams to be healthy and they need Brett Tomko to step up and be a big part of the starting rotation.

Then, they'll also look at Garrett Stephenson, Simontacchi, Cal Eldred and a regenerated Dustin Hermanson until and if Finley re-signs or Chris Carpenter is healthy. The bullpen is deep and has a healthy Jason Isringhausen at the end to close the game. Rick Ankiel is healthy as well; maybe they'll let him prepare this spring as a hitter and pitcher, which the Brewers are doing with Brooks Kieschnick.

Team song: "Willin' ("And I'm still on my feet ...")

San Francisco Giants
GM Brian Sabean had about 48 hours to enjoy the 2002 season. Then he had to go out and replace Dusty Baker, Jeff Kent, Reggie Sanders, David Bell and Kenny Lofton, which he did -- with Felipe Alou, Edgardo Alfonzo, Ray Durham, Marquis Grissom and Jose Cruz Jr. He needed to pare payroll, so he traded Russ Ortiz and got a left-hander in Damian Moss against whom opponents batted .221.

And they still have Barry Bonds. They're still a team someone has to beat, not bad for a club that has played 10 meaningless games in the last six seasons.

Durham and Alfonzo give the Giants excellent plate discipline and Durham and Grissom provide speed. The question will be who bats in front of and in back of Bonds: Cruz in front because he'll get fastballs to hit and Alfonzo behind because he's such a professional hitter?

Then, there are the pitching questions: whither Livan (Slammin' Sammy) Hernandez? Can Jesse Foppert and Kurt Ainsworth step into the startng rotation and produce? Most expect the duo to be fine. Will Felix Rodriguez have to be traded to get to budget? They led the league in fewest runs allowed (the opponents' OPS was a a miniscule .708), testament to a deep staff and the biggest home-field advantage in either league ... and Rodriguez was a major reason for that.

There are holes here, and while J.T. Snow's numbers get skewered, get him out of Pac Bell Park and his career would be rejuvenated. Of course, when one watches Snow and Bonds hit at Pac Bell, one gets another appreciation of just how great Bonds is. But while nothing's perfect, this team is very good, as long as Barry is healthy.

Team song: "I'm a King Bee."

Philadelphia Phillies
Yeah, yeah, yeah, this still is a team that was 80-81 and outscored 727-710 last season. And there's that spectre of the whole Excitable Boy (Larry Bowa) business. But they also had to deal with the management vs. Scott Rolen mess for half a season last year, and when it was over and they went 18-10 in August, then added a 50 home run hitter (Jim Thome), an 18-game winner (Kevin Millwood) and a third baseman (David Bell) who was such an instrumental part of the Giants making the World Series.

Bobby Abreu
Right fielder
Philadelphia Phillies
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM AB R HR RBI AVG
157 572 102 20 85 .308

Not many teams can throw anything better than Bobby Abreu (100 or more walks for four straight years), Pat Burrell (37 HR, 116 RBI) and Thome out there in the middle of the lineup. Mike Lieberthal can be a productive catcher. Marlon Byrd lost weight this winter and adds potential offense to center field. Now, they just need shortstop Jimmy Rollins to improve on his .306 on-base percentage from last year at the top of the order, batting in front of double-play partner Placido Polanco.

And Millwood gives them a horse to go along with Randy Wolf, who was one of the best starters in the NL in the second half, and Vicente Padilla. Joe Kerrigan has been hired as the new pitching coach, and his two pet projects are Brett Myers and Brandon Duckworth; Myers, Duckworth and Padilla saw their respective ERAs climb to 4.25, 6.58 and 3.60 in the second half. Bostonians criticized Kerrigan for his lack of development of young starters, but no one will ever criticize his ability to help change the careers of a number of different pitchers, which will make or break this bullpen with Terry Adams, Kerrigan's friend Rheal Cormier, Dan Plesac, Carlos Silva, Dave Coggin, et al in front of closer Jose Mesa.

How they deal with expectations will be interesting, and if they struggle at all the first two months, how Bowa deals with it will be an issue; if he rubs pot roast all over his chest, they could know there's a problem. But there may not be, because Bowa knows what it is to win, and the talent here is good. Very good.

Team song: "Excitable Boy."

Arizona Diamondbacks
As long as Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling stay away from the wall, the Diamondbacks have a chance. Johnson believes he's in the best shape of his career as he moves into the Left-handers Parthenon with Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn and Steve Carlton.

The D-Backs' starters led the majors in quality starts with 101, their opponents' .686 OPS was the lowest in the league and they outscored their opponents by 205 runs, and the two big boys (Johnson and Schilling) were a huge part of it.

But we also know that Johnson is 39, Schilling 36, Steve Finley 38 and Luis Gonzalez 35. We appreciate that if Matt Williams is indeed relegated to the bench, they will have little power at third base (Craig Counsell), first base (rookie Lyle Overbay), catcher and shortstop. They do play brilliant fundamental baseball, Gonzalez is in his free agent year, they have Danny Bautista back to play right field and they did lead the NL in runs, but Greg Colbrunn and Erubiel Durazo are significant losses.

They traded Durazo to get Elmer Dessens, who before last season had a 4.78 career ERA. It appears rookie John Patterson is ready to step into the rotation, but one of the major spring questions is whether or not they make Byung-Hyun Kim a starter and are willing to hand the keys to the bullpen cart back to Matt Mantei. If so, the pen is a little question mark, although Mike Myers, Ricky Bottalico, Mike Jackson and Miguel Batista are all in line in front of Mantei.

Arizona's scouting and development staff is beginning to produce players, which may allow them to go get some offense come June if they so need. If you are the Rockies, don't look for D-Backs owner Jerry Colangelo to come calling on Larry Walker anytime soon.

Team song: "How Soon is Now?"
Not ready for "you know that you're over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can't fill."

Houston Astros
No one's ever done what Craig Biggio is trying to do, going from catcher to second base to center field. "He's a great athlete, he's in great shape and he's very determined," says Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker. "So don't bet against him."

If moving Biggio to center field works, it takes pressure of Lance Berkman's knees, and lets Berkman concentrate on what he does so very well -- hit. Having Kent bat behind Berkman and Jeff Bagwell makes a huge difference. Now if Richard Hidalgo, who has recovered from the offseason shooting incident and is down to 215 pounds in his attempted comeback from near-embarrassment (.235-15-48), can stretch the lineup down one more spot and Biggio can reverse his on-base slide (.415, 403, .386, .388, 382 to .330 last year) the Astros could add 100 runs and be the best offensive team in the NL Central, especially in that park. Kent won't need Bonds for another 100 RBI season. But cynics point to this number: .732, the composite OPSs of Julio Lugo, Geoff Blum, Jose Vizcaino, Hidalgo, Brad Ausmus and Biggio.

Roy Oswalt
Starting pitcher
Houston Astros
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
35 233 19-9 62 208 3.01

Houston has two huge pitching strengths: 1. Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller are two No. 1 starters who were a combined 34-13; and 2. Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel are 200 innings of gas to close games.

Hunsicker says Shane Reynolds believes he is healthy and his splitter is the best it's been in years, and hopes Brian Moehler can take the fourth spot, leaving the fifth hole in the rotation to lefty Jerome Robertson (12-8, 2.55 at Triple-A New Orleans last year), Kirk Saarloos or knuckleballer Jaret Fernandez (who may benefit from indoor games) with Carlos Hernandez down for the season. They all know that manager Jimy Williams likes to use his relievers early and often, which is why they hope that Brad Lidge, who also has dominant stuff, can be a sixth and seventh-inning strikeout man in front of Dotel along with Ricky Stone and Jesus Sanchez.

Few places have been harder hit by the economy than Houston, so don't look for Hunsicker to have much payroll flexibility. But in the spring he'll be watching Biggio, Hidalgo, Lidge, Moehler and Reynolds ... hoping that this will be the Astros team that finally wins a postseason series. Heaven knows they've been trying since George W. Bush was at Andover.

Team song: "A Prarie Chorus." From Jack to Zach Lind.

Atlanta Braves
Every spring, GM John Schuerholz begins his staff meetings with a speech about "managing change effectively." This spring, it will resound louder than ever.

"Change has become an inevitable part of our business," says Schuerholz, "and how a staff deals with it can be the key to a franchise's success. (Manager) Bobby Cox has proven he can deal with change effectively. And he will again this year. I keep hearing that I must be a dummy for some of the things I've done. Well, most of the changes were mandated by economics, and when all is said and done, I still believe we're going to have a very good team." And you better believe run a lot better than other areas of the AOL world.

It's just that now that Tom Glavine is gone, John Smoltz is the only player left from the first Braves run in 1991. Heck, even former owner Ted Turner has been waived. Some would point out that if you judge batting average against as an indication of stuff, then Moss (.221), Millwood (.229), Glavine (.252) and Greg Maddux (.258) might have something.

Millwood and Glavine combined for 36 wins, 441 innings pitched and a 3.10 ERA. Schuerholz had no choice but to clear Millwood's salary, and when Boston wouldn't take him for Casey Fossum, there was no place to move the eventual $9.9 million salary. He points out that The Replacements -- Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd - all are 200- inning, All-Star pitchers. Byrd was 32-12 in 1999 and 2002, 20-24 the rest of his career, while Hampton's win chart reads 22, 15, 14, 10 ... but he is trying to regain his delivery and his confidence with pitching coach Leo Mazzone. The Braves also have a lot of promising pitching in the minors -- Trey Hodges, Horacio Ramirez, Jung Bond, Andy Pratt and Adam Wainright -- who could be called up if Jason Marquis slips.

Cox points out that he goes into spring training with a more settled bullpen than last March, but one of the biggest elements to Atlanta's success in a year when Maddux averaged 75 pitches a start, was that their starters threw as many innings as the Expos' starters did and they were fifth in quality starts. And their bullpen was spectacular, as evidenced by their gaudy 30-14 record, 2.60 ERA and a .622 opposing OPS. But Mike Remlinger, Tim Spooneybarger, Chris Hammond and Kerry Ligtenberg's 262 innings and 18 wins are gone. In their place are Ray King from Milwaukee, Roberto Hernandez from Kansas City and holdovers Darren Holmes and Kevin Gryboski.

The Braves upgraded first base with Robert Fick, expect Marcus Giles to add offense, Rafael Furcal to improve his .323 OBP in the leadoff position and are giving Mark DeRosa a chance to unseat Vinny Castilla at third base. Nine NL teams scored more runs than the Braves last season, so they need some upgrade, and the fact that Javy Lopez has dropped 20-25 pounds can't hurt.

That's managing his diet and routine. This team is all about managing change.

Effectively.

Team song: "Brand New Me."

The standing in the shadows division
Los Angeles Dodgers
If someone had told you the Dodgers would have a .320 on-base percentage (2nd worst to Milwaukee), get two wins as starters from the $26 million they paid Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort, lose Kazuhisa Ishii in September, get a .556 OPS from their shortstop, a .301 on base from their second baseman, 13 homers out of their first baseman ... and still win 92 games, you'd probably ask how Jim Tracy didn't get the manager of the year award.

Kevin Brown
Starting pitcher
Los Angeles Dodgers
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
17 63.2 3-4 23 58 4.81

GM Dan Evans worked very hard this winter to address the Dodgers' problems, but he will have to watch spring training to see if there are answers to their biggest questions: can Brown come back from making just 10 starts last year? Never bet against him, but no one knows. Can Dreifort come back? Doctors say his knee could be a problem is he gets up and down in the bullpen, so he may start, which along with Brown will require a sixth starter. Can Ishii bounce back from that line drive he took off the forehead last season? Reports are that he has looked very good. But the man does have a plate in his head and has yet to see a line drive hit through the box, and that's after walking 106 batters in 154 innings.

Remember, even without Brown and Dreifort, they had 97 quality starts, and got a monster season from closer Eric Gagne. They are not concerned about Andy Ashby's blister, and they know Odalis Perez is an elite pitcher. The bullpen is also deep and good, but the depth of the rotation is a concern unless offseason acquisition Wilson Alvarez can give them something. Evans also believes reliever Alfredo Gonzalez can come to camp and win a job.

How they add 50 runs is what Evans addressed. In place of Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek, he has Fred McGriff's power -- he slugged 100 points higher than the combined L.A. first basemen and also outhomered the Dodger first basemen 30-14, and only 11 of those homers came at Wrigley Field. Rookie Joe Thurston replaces Grudzielanek, and while he isn't pretty, he did hit .334 with 22 steals at Triple-A last season. They hope this is the year Adrian Beltre matures. Brian Jordan has recovered from knee surgery and Evans added Daryl Ward, who remains an intriguing bat, in a trade with the Astros and Todd Hundley, who adds power off the bench. One big factor is that with McGriff in the middle of the lineup, catcher Paul Lo Duca can go back to the two hole and stop trying to carry the team.

Team song: "Social Life." Hey, any band named Koufax that's good ...

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are the most popular answer to this spring's question: who can be the Angels of 2003? New manager Dusty Baker is one reason, a big reason.

762/704 is the next reason. Those are the strikeouts and innings pitched last season by this year's Chicago rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano, and if you take away the minor league numbers of Zambrano and Prior, the numbers are still 672/643. With four starters like that, a team can get good in a hurry, and even as they lost 95 games last season and slowly broke in Prior and Zambrano, the starters' OPS against was .707 -- better than the Giants'.

There are some obvious reasons they lost 95 games:

1. The defense early in the season. GM Jim Hendry tried to get a veteran third baseman and could not, so Mark Bellhorn remains at the hot corner. But, remember, they began last season with Chris Stynes, Delino DeShields and McGriff in their infield.

2. Defense and a bullpen that blew half its save opportunities were two big reasons they were 18-36 in one-run games. Antonio Alfonseca is still closing, but Mike Remlinger, Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Dave Veres, Mark Guthrie, the comebacking Rod Beck and the promising Francis Beltran give promise. A deep farm system will also allow them to go after someone like the Blue Jays' Kelvim Escobar in July.

The offense has to improve, and while Baker may like veterans -- Karros is completely healthy and Grudzielanek starts to get on base -- the front office wants Bobby Hill to play second base and Hee Seop Choi to play first. Damian Miller behind the plate helps while they hope Moises Alou comes back strong and someone can harness Corey Patterson's talent. In the second half of last season, Patterson had a .606 OPS with two walks and 79 strikeouts in 276 at-bats; if his name were Edward Moore Kennedy, he'd have been back in the minor leagues.

One thing they won't have to worry about is Sammy Sosa playing hard as he does so every day.

Team song: "There is a light that never goes out."

Cincinnati Reds
What's new in Cincinnati? Oh, a ballpark, a 6-6 leadoff hitter, a spurned Ken Griffey Jr., Aaron Boone at second base, the closer starting and a starter closing ...

What's old? Barry Larkin, Jose Rijo and Pete Harnisch are still around. Larkin, however, is still a key element, unless the young Felipe Lopez suddenly becomes the spring's hot-button item.

Adam Dunn
Left fielder
Cincinnati Reds
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM AB R HR RBI AVG
158 535 84 26 71 .249

This is a team that spent 106 days in first or second place last season before the injuries to Griffey, Larkin and Sean Casey wore them out. This time they could be an offensive show, because Adam Dunn (his .391 on-base percentage from last season will give him a shot to bat leadoff, the Dwight Evans of the 21st century), Griffey and Austin Kearns can be a dynamite outfield. Casey, if healthy, is a .300 machine, Boone has 20-something home run power if he can play second base and rookie Brandon Larson hit .340 with 25 homers and 69 RBI in 80 Triple-A games last year.

Defense, however, could be a problem, and this pitching staff needs defense. They're very hopeful that free agent Paul Wilson will be restored by pitching coach Don Gullett, that Graves could be this year's Derek Lowe ... but if the rotation is Wilson, Graves, Jimmy Haynes (291 baserunners allowed in 196 2/3 innings in 2002), Ryan Dempster and Jimmy Anderson, their 408 strikeouts in 718 1/3 innings will put inordinate pressure on a defense which allowed more unearned runs (84) than any other NL team.

GM Jim Bowden, who performs miracles with his payroll every year, thinks some of the kids like Josh Hall, Bobby Basham and Luke Hudson could get into the picture. If Scott Williamson holds up in the closer role, they will have a very good bullpen with Gabe White, John Reidling, Scott Sullivan, et al setting up.

There are a lot of strange things that could happen here. How will Griffey's relationship be with the coaching staff, knowing that manager Bob Boone personally tried to get Phil Nevin to accept the trade? Then there's the Boone issue. If they get off to a slow start, how long will it be before Bobby Valentine is the Reds' manager? Griffey is going to come back and do damage. For whom? Where? It should be in his hometown, for which he took what at the time was a sizeable discount.

Team song: "Cropduster."

New York Mets
Boys: are we done blaming everyone? Can we begin 2003 already?

Yes, the Mets finished in last place in the NL East, 11 games under .500, mainly because several veteran players with performance track records -- from Roberto Alomar to Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz to Roger Cedeno and even Mike Piazza -- underperformed and when the season was over they were so inept offensively that they scored the fourth fewest runs and had the third worst on-base percentage and defensively fell so far from their 2000 pennant team that they led the league in errors (144) and were second in most unearned runs allowed. Only a bullpen that had didn't allow the ball in play and had a 421/198 strikeout/walk ratio in 484 innings saved them.

So now former manager Bobby Valentine has been replaced by Art Howe, GM Steve Phillips has signed Tom Glavine, Cliff Floyd and Mike Stanton and the catch phrase above Shea Stadium is "last year was an aberration." Maybe.

Alomar should bounce back in his walk year. Cedeno did have a .388 on-base percentage in September, but has gone .386-.383-.337-.312 the last four seasons. Vaughn did hit 16 homers and slugged .520 after the All-Star break. And Burnitz can't be that bad again. Rey Sanchez was brought in to spare them Rey Ordonez and prepare them for Jose Reyes, when he's ready.

They would still like to find a third baseman, and Phillips even thought awhile about trading Aaron Heilman for Shea Hillenbrand after Joe Randa refused his deal to New York. But for now, the third baseman is Ty Wigginton, who slugged .431 in Triple-A in 2002, who may not do much for their sub-.500 record problems against left-handed pitchers; remember, they now have to go Alomar/Floyd/Piazza/Vaughn/Burnitz ...

And the defense is still a major concern, and it doesn't start with Piazza. Glavine has been been used to having Andruw Jones play center field behind him. Now, Cedeno will be in center? Glavine's changeup and Al Leiter's cutter require outstanding left side defense. Hmmm. Errr.

The pitching was good enough so that the Mets were the only team with an ERA under 4.00 that finished under .500. There is no Randy Johnson on the Mets staff, but Glavine, Leiter, Steve Trachsel (3.37 ERA) and Pedro Astacio (if losing eight of his final 12 decisions with an ERA over 7.00 doesn't tell another story) are reliable, with either Mike Bacsik or Jason Middlebrook taking the fifth spot, at least until Heilman comes in the door. Armando Benitez, Stanton, Scott Strickland, Grant Roberts, et al comprise a fine bullpen.

This is the second highest paid team in baseball, they invested $21 million in Glavine, Stanton and Floyd for this year and heaped a whole lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Valentine, and, indirectly, Art Howe. The entire division is a shell game, so they will be fascinating to watch.

Team song: "Nothing Breaks like a Heart."

Florida Marlins
At this time last year, the Phish weren't sure they even existed. Larry Beifest was in Montreal on Feb. 11, and three days later was in Florida being named GM. So finishing four games under .500 wasn't all bad. Then, with media suggestions that owner Jeffrey Loria was using Florida as a halfway house enroute to Washington or New Jersey, ownership has tried to make a commitment to the area and made some significant transactions, saving $24 million by shipping Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson to Colorado in a deal in which they pay the Braves to use Mike Hampton and get Juan Pierre to play center field and Tim Spooneybarger to pitch in relief. Then they axed their best hitter, Kevin Millar, to make room for a left-handed bat in Todd Hollandsorth, then shocked everyone by signing Pudge Rodriguez.

The bottom line is that the Marlins believe they are dead-serious contenders. They look at A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Mark Redman, with speed and manager Jeff Torborg's defense, and see a power staff that can propel them from 79 to 90 wins; considering they've had one winning record in the history of the franchise, that's progress. But while Burnett, who threw a ton of pitches last season, is an All-Star pitcher, the fact remains he's 30-30 lifetime, Beckett has eight career wins, Brad Penny is 26-24, Redman is 23-30, although in the latter case he is now with a contrasting staff and has the defense that helped him win 12 games in Minnesota in 2000. With Braden Looper, Spooneybarger and Armando Almanza, they have a power bullpen. Unproven, though.

There are many who buy into the Marlins' theory that this is Derrek Lee's year to become a 35-40 home run hitter, and that Luis Castillo is a fine on-base percentage second baseman and that Mike Lowell is an All-Star and that Pudge will hit anyone. But while Pierre is an energetic, character leadoff hitter, his non-Coors Field on-base percentage was .247. They have 19 homers from all the lefties on the roster, and Hollandsworth hit most of his at Coors. They must count on Juan Encarnacion to improve on his career .314 on-base percentage.

They will have a power pitching staff and they will run and they will catch the ball. How much they improve on being 12th in the league in runs is one matter, the other being how much Pudge and company improve the 2002 attendance of 813,000. Since arriving, they have made a lot of changes, but they have lost Floyd, and they lost Millar, who defined the chemistry that early last season seemed so good. When ownr Jeffrey Loria sold Millar to Japan, he told Kevin about a couple of art galleries in Tokyo.

"I really don't care about the art," Millar replied. "What I care about is the 1-2 slider."

Team song: "I'm a Junk Bond King playing Seminole Bingo."

Montreal Expos
Baseball retired the Expos jerseys, they watched them win 83 games and trade for Bartolo Colon and Cliff Floyd. Economic realty and baseball with subtitles returned their sense of reality, Floyd was dispatched to Boston in July and Colon was the first of the cutbacks this winter.

Vladimir Guerrero
Right fielder
Montreal Expos
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM AB R HR RBI AVG
161 614 106 39 111 .336

There are no guarantees this team is going to be in Washington D.C. or San Antonio in 2004, only that they will play a quarter of their schedule in San Juan. So, Vladimir Guerrero, 27, will be a free agent at the end of the season. If, after moving another $4-6 million, the Expos are out of it come July, do they trade him or hope that a buyer swoops in and makes him a Manny Ramirez type offer?

It's too bad, because this was the highest scoring team in the NL East and has a lot of talent, with Jose Vidro, Guerrero, Brad Wilkerson and, if he hits homers, Jeff Liefer. Javier Vazquez is still another year from free agency, and Tomo Ohka, Tony Armas, Orlando Hernandez and Zach Day have varying degrees of potential; Ohka was outstanding, Day can be, Armas underperformed but has ability and El Duque's mindset is ever a mystery.

If the Puerto Rican business doesn't drain them, they are one of those teams no one wants to play. Good enough to make the playoffs? Not likely. How likely will determine who goes where, and when.

Team song: "Alone."

The new day at midnight division
Colorado Rockies
GM Dan O'Dowd is learning that there may be no logical way to build a winner at Coors Field short of allowing them to carry 15 pitchers at home and 17 position players on the road. When he shelled out all the money for Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle prior to the 2001 season, it was based on projections for an $80 million payroll. Now, they're between $50 million and $60 million, with Larry Walker, Todd Helton and Neagle making close to two-thirds of that.

O'Dowd tried it with a speed/gap team, and now has gone back to clubbing seals eight miles high. With breaking balls straightening, a lineup with Helton, Walker, Preston Wilson, Jose Hernandez, Jay Payton and Charles Johnson should bring back some of those happy days, when the over/under was 30 and the time of game reached 4:31. Of course, these strikeout/walk ratios tell another story: Jose Uribe 49/120, Wilson 65/140, Hernandez 73/188 ... More feasts at home, famines on the road.

What O'Dowd has done is develop a deep pitching staff that isn't intimidated by the ballpark, especially with Hampton gone. Jason Jennings, Dennis Stark, Aaron Cook and Jason Young are the foundation of a good young staff, and O'Dowd has replenished the farm system. Jose Jimenez also had an unnoticed boffo year as the closer.

Attendance has fallen six straight years, and Walker's aborted trade to Arizona may have some residual effect. But Clint Hurdle, seemingly, is the right manager for the franchise, understands the park and may have a team that in the shadow of the Giants, D-Backs and Dodgers may be much better than a lot of people realize entering spring training.

Team song: "River Deep, Mountain High."

San Diego Padres
After Phil Nevin and Sean Burroughs went down with injuries, Trevor Hoffman required surgery and those 96 losses added up quickly, the one good thing about the Pads' 2002 season is that they get the fourth pick in the 2003 draft.

Oh, Nevin has moved to left field this spring to insert Burroughs, who had a shoulder impingement that ruined his ballyhooed rookie season, at third base. But the way to look at this season is that this is the dress rehearsal for the new park in 2004, and that by August the young talent should all be in place:

Rotation: Oliver Perez (Barry Bonds' pick as the best young lefty he's seen), Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton, Jake Peavey ... there aren't many better young rotations in the game.

Infield: Ryan Klesko, Mark Loretta or Jake Gautreu at second, either Ramon Vazquez or Khalil Greene at shortstop and Burroughs at third.

Outfield: Nevin in left, the underappreciated Mark Kotsay in center and Xavier Nady in right.

Team song: "When the Morning Comes."

The art of losing division
Pittsburgh Pirates
Owner Kevin McClatchy is such a fan that he went to the World Series and played pool with Giants fans at the hotel bar.

"We got ourselves where we are," he said one night of his Pirates team. "It's up to us to work our way out of it."

McClatchy and GM Dave Littlefield are realistic, and part of that realism is that 72-89 wasn't bad and can be better. But with the state of the farm system when Littlefield arrived in September, 2001, there are no promising lights. But there are reasons to believe that 2003 will be an improvement:

Kris Benson
Starting pitcher
Pittsburgh Pirates
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
25 130.1 9-6 50 79 4.70

  • With Kris Benson now two years off Tommy John surgery and ready to be an elite pitcher, the rotation with Josh Fogg, Kip Wells, Jeff Suppan and perhaps Littlefield's sleeper, Salomon Torres, isn't bad.

  • The bullpen, especially Mike Williams with his 46 saves in 50 opportunities, is good, as a lot of teams would love to have Scott Sauerbeck and Brian Boehringer.

  • Brian Giles is a core star player, and both Aramis Ramirez and Jason Kendall should bounce back. The rest of the offense, on the other hand ...

    But McClatchy and Littlefield know that. They also know that Lloyd McClendon has had this team play its heart out every day, and for those who go to the best unknown ballpark in baseball, that means something.

    Team song: "Stay Positive," by Original Pirate Material.

    Milwaukee Brewers
    "We have to change the mindset," says GM Doug Melvin of the Brewers. Not to mention the players.

    Melvin has spent his first winter with Milwaukee scrambling to find fill, and with Javier Valentin, Matt Kinney, Wes Helms, Todd Ritchie, Royce Clayton, John Vander Wal and Dave Mlicki, he has patched. A healthy Geoff Jenkins and Richie Sexson will hit for power, and Eric Young and Jeffrey Hammonds are in their free agent years.

    Ben Sheets and Glendon Rusch are at the front of the rotation, with what was one of the better bullpens. Brooks Kieschnick will be fun to watch: a pinch-hitter, backup first baseman and reliever; he was throwing 97 in Puerto Rico this winter.

    But when you're outscored by 194 runs, you have the worst on-base percentage in either league and the OPS against your starters was the highest in the league, Melvin has a lot more to change than the mindset. If you are a Brewers fan, take a look at the talent oozing out of the Texas organization, and give Melvin time.

    Team song: "Take the Long Road and Walk It."

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