NL East

March 29, 1996|By Buster Olney

Atlanta Braves

Where they're coming from: After disappointments in 1991, 1992 and 1993, the Braves finally broke through and won the World Series last fall, beating the Indians in six games. They won the East with a 90-54 record despite off-years from several regulars: shortstop Jeff Blauser, right fielder David Justice and center fielder Marquis Grissom.

Where they're going: Atlanta may be even better this year, if Justice and Grissom come back. In spite of their long chase for the title, this is a young team. Pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine turn 30 this spring, and closer Mark Wohlers, third baseman Chipper Jones, catcher Javy Lopez and left fielder Ryan Klesko still are developing.

Key newcomers: Jason Schmidt takes over for Kent Mercker as the No. 5 starter.

What must go right: The rotation could withstand one injury, but not two; a rebound for Steve Avery would improve the best staff in baseball. Blauser must get better or lose his job, and the Braves must pick up a few veteran role players for the stretch drive, as they did last season.

What could go wrong: Think about it -- even if Maddux's ERA increased by a full run this year, he would have a chance to lead the league. He has won four straight Cy Young Awards, and Glavine won the last time he didn't. The rotation creates a significant margin for error.

X-factor: Justice. If he doesn't have a good year, opposing pitchers can continue to pitch around Fred McGriff, who is the key to the Atlanta offense.

Key stat: Maddux went 13-0 on the road last year, with a 1.12 ERA, allowing just 70 hits and 11 walks in 112 2/3 innings. A special player.

New York Mets

Where they're coming from: The Mets started poorly last year and by the end of June, they were ready to deal stars Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen. They made the trades at the end of July, and then played well in August and September (a 34-23 record), propelled by young pitchers Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen. New York finished tied for second at 69-75.

Where they're going: The fast finish raised expectations for this team, for the fans and the front office. GM Joe McIlvaine added center fielder/leadoff hitter Lance Johnson and traded for left fielder Bernard Gilkey. Pulsipher has been sidelined by elbow trouble, but the Mets should have enough to contend for the NL wild card.

Key newcomers: Gilkey and Johnson give the Mets two veteran hitters, but the more exciting additions are rookies Rey Ordonez and Paul Wilson. Ordonez probably won't hit much, but he plays shortstop with remarkable similarity to Ozzie Smith. Wilson was the first pick overall in the 1994 draft, and he has the ability to dominate.

What must go right: The Mets have to have power from first base, whether it's Rico Brogna or Butch Huskey (Huskey is at the end of an impressive training camp, tying Dave Kingman's Mets record for homers), because they lack power elsewhere. Closer John Franco must stay healthy. The young pitchers must come through.

What could go wrong: The 1990 Braves had John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, and they had a terrible season, finishing last. Pulsipher, Isringhausen and Wilson are very inexperienced, and it may take a year or two for their talent to manifest itself.

X-factor: The health of Pulsipher and Pete Harnisch. An elbow problem in such a young pitcher as Pulsipher -- particularly one with such funky mechanics -- is ominous. Harnisch is coming back from shoulder trouble, and a good year from him would solidify the rotation.

Key stat: In the first 75 pitches of Pulsipher's 1995 starts, opponents batted a pitiful .216 against him.

Florida Marlins

Where they're coming from: After signing right-handers John Burkett and Bobby Witt, club executives thought they had a shot to at least contend for the wild card. But they finished 67-76, a very disappointing fourth place.

Where they're going: After last season, the Marlins went on a spending spree, adding center fielder Devon White, left-hander Al Leiter and right-hander Kevin Brown. Florida goes into this year with tentative hopes of challenging the Braves for the division title. A wild card might be more realistic.

Key newcomers: White, Leiter and Brown, though there's plenty of reason to think all three could have problems. White is 33 now and a diminishing offensive force, though he still is a great center fielder. Leiter is 33-32 lifetime, and Brown's tremendous ability hasn't translated into victories for several years.

What must go right: Brown must win at least 15 games, and Leiter must pitch more consistently. Closer Robb Nen must settle down after a shaky 1995. Third baseman Terry Pendleton won't hit for much power, so he must hit for average. Second baseman Quilvio Veras must continue to steal bases and score runs.

What could go wrong: Right fielder Gary Sheffield could break down, almost an annual event. The Marlins could struggle to establish bullpen depth.

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