Nl East Preview

April 25, 1995|By Buster Olney

ATLANTA BRAVES

Where they're coming from: They didn't dominate the NL last year, as everyone had presumed they would, and were in second place with a 68-46 record when the strike began.

Where they're going: When Expos GM Kevin Malone traded CF Marquis Grissom to the Braves, he said he was basically dealing Atlanta a championship. He may be right.

Key newcomers: Grissom (.288, 36 steals), 3B Chipper Jones (out last season with torn knee ligament).

What must go right: The Braves do need to identify a closer once and for all, and they think they have one in young, hard-throwing Brad Clontz, who could save a ton of games behind starters Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, et al. The Braves must get offense from right-handed hitters Grissom, Jones and Blauser, because the lineup is overweighted with left-handed sluggers.

What could go wrong: The bullpen could flop again. The rotation could get hit by injury (John Smoltz went down last year with elbow trouble). Opposing teams could beat the Braves by loading up with left-handed starters.

X-factor: GM John Schuerholz. If the Braves need a closer, Bryan Harvey, Rick Aguilera and Jeff Montgomery would be available in the right trade.

Key statistic: It's really hard to quantify just how good Maddux is, but this may give you an idea: When he got ahead in the count last year, opponents batted .131 with two homers in 352 pitches. Incredible efficiency.

MONTREAL EXPOS

Where they're coming from: They were the best team in baseball last year when the strike began, with a deep rotation, a lineup loaded with tremendous athletes, such as CF Marquis Grissom, RF Larry Walker, 1B Cliff Floyd and OF Moises Alou. All that

changed in the fallout of the labor strife.

Where they're going: In all likelihood, to Northern Virginia. It seems that by dismantling the franchise -- trading away Grissom, P Ken Hill and P John Wetteland, and letting Walker leave as free agent -- they are preparing it to be sold.

Key newcomers: OF Roberto Kelly (.293), OF Tony Tarasco (.273).

What must go right: Floyd and OF Rondell White must star. Mel Rojas must prove that he can fill Wetteland's big shoes over a full season. Jeff Fassero must continue to pitch like one of baseball's top left-handers. SS Wil Cordero and Alou must be leaders, even though many teams will try to pitch around them.

What could go wrong: Bad question.

X-factor: Floyd. It's conventional wisdom that he's going to be a star. He walked into camp a muscular 245 pounds and looking ready to conquer the National League. He's capable.

Key statistic: The Expos dominated the Padres last year in a mismatch of the NL's best vs. the NL's worst, winning all 12 games. The two teams played 110 innings last year, and San Diego held a lead for 6 1/2 innings.

NEW YORK METS

Where they're coming from: The Mets made progress last year. They weren't contenders, but they weren't exactly embarrassing, either, finishing in third place at 55-58.

Where they're going: They're still not close to challenging the Braves, but the addition of CF Brett Butler gives them the leadoff hitter they needed last year. They could challenge the Expos for second place.

Key newcomers: Butler (.314), P Pete Harnisch (8-5).

What must go right: Right-hander Bret Saberhagen must continue to dominate hitters, although he's due for a bad year in his on-again, off-again cycle. Closer John Franco must keep his elbow healthy. 3B Bobby Bonilla must hit 25 to 30 homers. Butler, 37, must continue to defy age. Manager Dallas Green must refrain from giving in to his temper -- more than three times a week.

What could go wrong: Already has. The Dodgers and Giants left town in 1957.

X-factor: The Mets are building an extremely strong farm system, deep in pitching prospects. It reminds you of another team: the New York Mets, in the early 1980s, before they became a championship team.

Key statistic: You know how it's occasionally said that a starter is getting stronger as the game progresses (a development that would seem to defy science)? Well, in Saberhagen's case last year, that was true. In the first six innings, opponents batted .259 against him. From the seventh inning on, just .237.

FLORIDA MARLINS

Where they're coming from: Expansion oblivion. They struggled to score last year and finished 51-64, in last place.

Where they're going: Up. The Marlins are building a solid minor-league system, and made nice short-term additions to their current club.

Key newcomers: 3B Terry Pendleton (.252), P John Burkett (6-8), P Bobby Witt (8-10).

What must go right: Always, Gary Sheffield must remain healthy and drive in runs; he's one of the few legitimate offensive threats in the lineup. CF Chuck Carr must realize he is better hitting the ball on the ground than in the air. Witt must do something he never has done, throw strikes consistently. Rookie C Charles Johnson must step in for Benito Santiago, who left as a free agent.

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