Nl West

March 30, 1997|By Andy Knobel

Dodgers

Where they're coming from: A tumultuous season during which longtime manager Tom Lasorda retired and CF Brett Butler came back from throat cancer. Los Angeles lost its last four games, blowing the NL West lead and finishing second at 90-72. The Dodgers were eliminated from the playoffs in three games by the Braves.

Where they're going: The best pitching staff in baseball and a lineup with some of the best young hitters in the game will get the Dodgers back to the playoffs, where they'll be looking to end a six-game losing streak.

Key newcomers: 3B Todd Zeile, IF Nelson Liriano.

What could go right: 2B Wilton Guerrero (.383 this spring; .344 last season in Triple-A) beats out brother Vladimir of the Expos to become the sixth straight Dodger to win NL Rookie of the Year. RF Raul Mondesi, who struck out 122 times with 32 walks last season batting fifth, showed great patience this spring in his new batting slot, third. C Mike Piazza (.336, 36 HRs), who batted third last year, could clean up MVP honors hitting fourth.

What could go wrong: Butler turns 40 in June -- only a handful of players that old have played center field full time in the modern era. Zeile could be the team's best third baseman since Ron Cey, but he has just one career home run in his native Los Angeles. The lineup, heavy with right-handed hitters, could struggle again against right-handed pitching.

X-factor: Bill Russell did a good job after taking over for Lasorda last season, and he could be tougher on a complacent clubhouse than Lasorda buddy Don Rickles was. But he'll need to win to keep the manager's seat the kind of civil servant's job it became under Walter Alston and Lasorda.

Key stat: Piazza's career slugging average (.947) ranks first all-time among catchers with at least 500 games caught and 1,500 plate appearances.

1996 by the numbers:

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

Batting avg. ........... .252, 13th

Slugging avg. .......... .384, 14th

On-base avg. ........... .316, 14th

Runs ................... 703, 12th

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

Stolen bases ........... 124, 6th

ERA .................... 3.46, 1st

Saves .................. 50, 2nd

Fielding ............... .986, 2nd

Padres

Where they're coming from: San Diego recovered from a 4-19 tailspin in June to finish first in the NL West at 91-71, then was swept in the playoffs by the Cardinals.

Where they're going: If the Dodgers falter, the Padres should win the West on the strength of their pitching and veteran leadership.

Key newcomers: 2B Quilvio Veras, P Sterling Hitchcock, C Don Slaught, OF Phil Plantier.

What could go right: 3B Ken Caminiti (40 HRs, 130 RBIs), the NL MVP, is ready to produce after reconstructive shoulder surgery. RF Tony Gwynn recovers from last season's heel injury and vies for his eighth batting crown, which would tie him with Honus Wagner for the NL record. P Sterling Hitchcock, who complained about small AL ballparks and once said kiddingly he wanted Camden Yards "blown up," thrives in the NL.

What could go wrong: Veras, who has replaced Rickey Henderson atop the order, needs to resemble the player who stole 56 bases in 1995, not the one thrown out eight times in 16 tries last season. He was just 2-for-4 this spring -- but hit .511.

X-factor: LF Greg Vaughn, who batted just .206 after being acquired from the Brewers, must regain the stroke that got him 31 homers in 375 at-bats in Milwaukee; San Diego was just ninth in the league in homers.

Key stat: Joey Hamilton is 22-9 (.710) after a loss by his team during the past five seasons, better than Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina or Greg Maddux.

1996 by the numbers:

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

Batting avg. ........... .265, 6th

Slugging avg. .......... .402, 8th

On-base avg. ........... .338, 2nd

Runs ................... 771, 6th

Home runs .............. 147, 9th

Stolen bases ........... 109, 9th

ERA .................... 3.72, 3rd

Saves .................. 47, 5th

Fielding ............... .981, 3rd

Rockies

Where they're coming from: The Rockies were 55-26 at home and 28-53 on the road. It averaged out to a third-place, 83-79 finish.

Where they're going: Unfortunately for them, back on the road for 82 more games. Then again, the 1987 Twins won the World Series despite a 29-52 mark away from the Metrodome, so it's possible to take the low road to a mile-high finish.

Key newcomers: C Kirt Manwaring, RP Jerry DiPoto.

What could go right: Entering the final year of his three-year, $13.15 million contract, Bill Swift, a 21-game winner in 1993, finally looks ready to become the staff ace. The team needs one; the club ERA of 5.59 was the NL's highest since 1930. If RF Larry Walker, LF Dante Bichette, CF Ellis Burks, 1B Andres Galarraga and 3B Vinny Castilla all stay healthy, the 1996 Orioles' single-season home run record might not survive August. Manwaring, an excellent game-caller, helps settle down the pitching.

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