Nl East

March 30, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

Atlanta Braves

Manager: Bobby Cox

2002 record: 101-59 (first)

What's new: Most of the starting rotation. The Braves lost Tom Glavine to free agency and traded Kevin Millwood, but they pulled off a complicated, multi-club deal to get former 20-game winner Mike Hampton, acquired Russ Ortiz from the Giants and signed free agent Paul Byrd. It isn't the Big Three of the 1990s, but Greg Maddux still has some pretty good help.

On the spot: Hampton is coming off another difficult season in Colorado, where he was 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA. The air will be heavier in Atlanta and so will his sinking fastball, which makes him a good bet for a big turnaround.

Where they'll be in October: Where else? The Braves haven't missed the postseason since 1990. They should get back this year, but it won't be easy.

Florida Marlins

Manager: Jeff Torborg

2002 record: 79-83 (fourth)

What's new: The Marlins outbid the Orioles for free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who becomes the centerpiece of a team of uncertain direction. The low-flying fish also signed free agent Todd Hollandsworth and acquired speedy outfielder Juan Pierre from the Rockies to upgrade an offense that ranked 12th in the National League in runs, but they remain overmatched in a much-improved division.

On the spot: Owner Jeffrey Loria delivered a mixed message when he approved the signing of Rodriguez to a one-year contract worth $10 million. That's money that could have been spent at a later date, when the pitching staff is more seasoned and the club has a better chance to compete for a playoff berth.

Where they'll be in October: Home watching SportsCenter after a sub-.500 season.

Montreal Expos

Manager: Frank Robinson

2002 record: 83-79 (second)

What's new: The Expos will play 22 of their home games in front of projected sellout crowds in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which should add some excitement to another season in major league limbo. The eventual permanent destination of the Expos should be a hot topic throughout the summer, though it is starting to look like the club will split its 2004 home schedule between Montreal and Puerto Rico.

On the spot: The commissioner's office, which controls the industry-owned team and remains hesitant to make a deal to put the Expos in Washington. Somebody is going to have to make a decision one of these days, and there is no possible decision that won't cause a furor either in Baltimore or Washington.

Where they'll be in October: Probably not Portland.

New York Mets

Manager: Art Howe

2002 record: 75-86 (fifth)

What's new: The Mets spent big bucks to put two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine at the front of their rotation and signed top-flight setup man Mike Stanton. The improved pitching should be enough to get them back into the hunt in the toughened-up National League East, but it will take a major offensive resurgence - perhaps led by free-agent acquisition Cliff Floyd and a streamlined Mo Vaughn - to put them into the playoffs.

On the spot: General manager Steve Phillips will have no one to blame but himself if the Mets don't rise up from their disappointing 2002 performance.

Where they'll be in October: Too much has to go right to get the Mets into the postseason. They'll be in the wild-card race until September.

Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Larry Bowa

2002 record: 80-81 (third)

What's new: It just might be a new era for the Phillies, who spent the winter bolstering the club for 2003 ... and for a bright future in the ballpark that opens next year. The Phils spent big money to sign free-agent slugger Jim Thome and third baseman David Bell, and acquired marquee starting pitcher Kevin Millwood. They are much improved, but only time will tell whether they have improved enough.

On the spot: Bowa, whose hard-edged managerial style helped push premier third baseman Scott Rolen out of town, has been given the players he needs to compete for a postseason berth. If the Phillies flounder at any point this season, he could be in trouble.

Where they'll be in October: Probably cursing the fates after losing a close wild-card race to the Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros.

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