Nl East

March 30, 1997|By Andy Knobel

Braves

Where they're coming from: Atlanta managed to give a 96-66, first-place finish a disappointing spin by becoming the first team to lose a World Series after taking the first two games on the road.

Where they're going: Into Turner Field, which has a maximum of 45 feet between the dugouts and base lines, compared with 100 feet at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium; that means Greg Maddux and Co. will get fewer foul-outs and the corner infielders will be better able to hear Jane Fonda's snoring during those 14-3 thrillers with the Mets in June.

Key newcomers: CF Kenny Lofton, OF Michael Tucker, IF Keith Lockhart, RP Alan Embree, RP Paul Byrd.

What could go right: Lofton (75 steals) jump-starts a one-dimensional offense that resembled the Orioles': 14th in the NL in steals and second in homers. Denny Neagle (Arundel), who has 29 wins the past two seasons but struggled after being acquired by the Pirates last season, earns a Cy Young Award to display next to those of Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.

What could go wrong: Phenom RF Andruw Jones, who homered in his first two World Series at-bats and was named the sport's top prospect for a second straight year by Baseball America, had two RBIs in 60 spring at-bats; he's closer to returning to Triple-A than to winning Rookie of the Year.

X-factor: The Braves' 1995 World Series rings read "Team of the '90s." So far, they've got just one world championship to show for it, and the pressure to live up to the hype might have been what dealt them a classic fall last October.

Key stat: Braves pitchers struck out a major-league-record 1,245 batters. Even so, the fielding was so sloppy that only four NL teams made more errors.

$ 1996 by the numbers:

........................ No., NL rank

Batting avg. ........... .270, 2nd

Slugging avg. .......... .432, 2nd

On-base avg. ........... .333, 4th

Runs ................... 773, 4th

Home runs .............. 197, 2nd

Stolen bases ........... 83, 14th

ERA .................... 3.52, 2nd

Saves .................. 46, 4th

Fielding ............... .980, 10th

Marlins

Where they're coming from: A 39-47 start cost Rene Lachemann his job, but Florida rallied under interim manager John Boles to finish third at a franchise-best 80-82.

Where they're going: Ownership shopped for fish in the gourmet aisle last winter, spending $89.075 million for six free agents. The franchise also reeled in ex-Pirates manager Jim Leyland. The total haul should be good enough to get the team into the playoffs, probably as a wild card, and give Leyland a chance to avenge two playoff losses to the Braves.

Key newcomers: P Alex Fernandez, OF Moises Alou, 3B Bobby Bonilla, OF Jim Eisenreich, OF John Cangelosi, OF Cliff Floyd, RP Dennis Cook.

What could go right: Alou and Bonilla spark an offense that finished 13th in runs and provide lineup protection for MVP candidate Gary Sheffield (.314, 42 HRs, 120 RBIs). Bonilla and Eisenreich (.361 in 338 at-bats) have to make sure Florida raises its NL-low .251 batting average against right-handers.

What could go wrong: South Florida native Fernandez (16-10, 3.45 ERA) could continue a pattern of starting slowly, thus putting extra pressure on him to justify his big salary. 2B Luis Castillo, 21, could fail to hit, keeping the Marlins from fielding baseball's best up-the-middle defense: C Charles Johnson, Castillo, SS Edgar Renteria and CF Devon White. Bonilla's glove at third could keep Alou busy in left and wipe the smile off Leyland's face.

X-factor: How good was former Oriole Kevin Brown last season? His 1.89 ERA was 2.32 runs better than the league average, the sixth-widest gap in major-league history. Now, with some run support

Key stat: Florida started 24-5 this spring, further boosting playoff expectations for a team whose record has improved every season, but remember, the Angels began 10-0 last spring and finished last in the AL West.

$ 1996 by the numbers:

........................ No., NL rank

Batting avg. ........... .257, 9th

Slugging avg. .......... .393, 11th

On-base avg. ........... .329, 9th

Runs ................... 688, 13th

Home runs .............. 150, 6th

Stolen bases ........... 99, 12th

ERA .................... 3.95, 5th

Saves .................. 41, 8th

Fielding ............... .982, 2nd

Expos

Where they're coming from: Montreal was either in first place or leading the wild-card race every day from April 3 to Aug. 27. The Expos were eliminated from the playoff chase Sept. 28, finishing in second place at 88-74, the same record as the NL Central-champion Cardinals.

Where they're going: A slew of off-season defections and trades will send them down near the bottom of the NL East and extend the major leagues' longest postseason drought to 16 seasons. Except that's what we heard last spring, too, so maybe not.

Key newcomers: RP Lee Smith, C Chris Widger, P Jim Bullinger, P Matt Wagner, OF Joe Orsulak, RP Dustin Hermanson.

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