National League can forget it: Braves' new world better than old one

JIM HENNEMAN

February 28, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's not too early to book hotel rooms i Atlanta for October. In fact, it may be too late.

That's how certain it appears that the Braves will make a $H three-peat trip to the National League playoffs and World Series. It's been a long time, perhaps since the New York Yankees won 14 of 16 pennants between 1949-1964, that a team went into a season as a more prohibitive favorite than the Braves are this year.

It's not because manager Bobby Cox has an overpowering team -- his position players leave the Braves with some holes and question marks. But the pitching staff that general manager John Schuerholz topped off by adding free agent Greg Maddux is so strong it can again overcome the absence of a proven closer.

Left-hander Steve Avery could be the best of the talented bunch -- and he won't be 23 until April 14. On that day Maddux turns 27, which will make him the same age as Tom Glavine and Pete Smith. And John Smoltz (where have you gone Doyle Alexander) is still three months shy of his 26th birthday.

And remember, David Nied, the best pitching prospect in the National League expansion draft? He was taken from the Atlanta organization as the first pick by the Colorado Rockies.

All Cox has to do is keep his starters out of any arm-wrestling tournaments and off the same bus this spring. The Braves have four potential 20-game winners. If Mark Wohlers, who throws hard enough, can mature as a closer, the Braves won't have to score a lot of runs. But with Terry Pendleton, David Justice, Ron Gant, Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon they have the ability to create enough offense. And the pitching is good enough to offset some defensive liabilities.

One of the pitching prospects who has to contend with the Braves' awesome array of talent is Baltimore area native and resident Brian Bark. The Braves are probably stretching it when they list him as 5 feet 9, 160 pounds, but Bark (5-0 at Double-A Greenville, 50 strikeouts in 40 innings at Triple-A Richmond) will get some attention. He features a curveball as good as the one his father, Jerry, used to throw for City College in the mid-1960s.

It would probably take at least two bad arms for the Braves to stumble, and if they do it's hard to tell if there's a team in the NL West good enough to win. Marge Schott takes her leave of absence tomorrow, leaving rookie manager Tony Perez with seven players older than 31-year-old general manager Jim Bowden.

Left-hander Tom Browning has to come back from knee surgery and free agent John Smiley has to replace Greg Swindell. Norm Charlton is gone, and if the Reds have to depend on Jeff Reardon as their setup man, Rob Dibble may not come close to the 40 or 50 saves Perez thinks he can log.

The Reds are counting on Kevin Mitchell, obtained from the Seattle Mariners for Charlton, to regain his home run touch now that he's back in the NL. But his totals have dropped from 45

homers four years ago to nine last season. Roberto Kelly will help, and the Reds are counting on ex-Oriole Randy Milligan, but they still have questions.

Houston has made the most dramatic turnaround in the division, on the field and in the front office. Hometown heroes Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell were signed as free agents to step in front of ex-Orioles right-hander Pete Harnisch in the starting rotation.

Another ex-Oriole, Steve Finley, may be their best player, but the Astros still appear to be a little short.

Of the other teams, the Giants present the most interesting possibility if only because of the addition of Barry Bonds. The new ownership hopes its $43.5 million investment is a team shelter, making Will Clark an even better hitter and helping Matt Williams to regain his home run stroke.

But the Giants have a lot of uncertainty on the pitching staff. Rookie Kevin Rogers, a phenom in the Arizona Fall League, could help in the bullpen, but the Giants might have to eat the last two years of Dave Righetti's contract.

Despite three bona fide superstars -- Tony Gwynn, Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff -- you can forget the San Diego Padres, and it's hard to see how Tommy Lasorda can find enough pieces for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Colorado Rockies will add another scenic city to the division.

In the NL East, if Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland is going to solidify his genius reputation, he's in the right division. And, despite the loss of Bobby Bonilla, Drabek, Bonds and Jose Lind in the past two years, it might not be wise to dismiss the Pirates.

The organization has produced a lot of quality players the past 10 years, so it might be worth checking out the likes of left fielder Al Martin, first baseman Kevin Young and second baseman Carlos Garcia before making any rash predictions.

However, parity rather than quality is likely to be the division's trademark.

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