Spring Training 2004

National League

February 20, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

National League East

Atlanta Braves

Manager: Bobby Cox

2003 finish: 101-61 (first place)

On deck: The Braves are in an unusual position, needing to find a fourth starter to fill out a questionable starting rotation. The departure of free agent Greg Maddux leaves them with just reliever John Smoltz from the days when Atlanta perennially had the best pitching staff in baseball.

Changing places: Maddux is gone, and so is star outfielder Gary Sheffield, who signed with the Yankees. J.D. Drew was acquired from the Cardinals along with Eli Marrero for pitchers Ray King, Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright. Pitchers Antonio Alfonseca and Armando Almanza and catcher Eddie Perez signed as free agents.

Long-range outlook: This might be the first time in recent memory that the Braves are not viewed as the consensus NL East favorite, but they still have a solid offensive team and decent pitching depth. Don't count them out.

Florida Marlins

Manager: Jack McKeon

2003 finish: 91-71 (second place, wild-card winner, World Series champion)

On deck: The defending World Series champions went through their usual offseason contortions, losing Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina (among others) to free agency, but those great young starting pitchers are a year older, so who knows? Will A.J. Burnett bounce back from elbow ligament replacement surgery? Can Dontrelle Willis take the next step? It could be an interesting spring.

Changing places: Acquired first baseman Hee Seop Choi. Signed free-agent reliever Armando Benitez. Lost Rodriguez, starting pitcher Mark Redman, first baseman Lee, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and relievers Urbina, Braden Looper and Armando Almanza.

Long-range outlook: A great young pitcher, Josh Beckett, got the Marlins to the mountaintop last year, but a lot has to go right to get them back to the playoffs. Benitez has to re-establish himself as a top-flight closer, Choi has to prove he's a major league run producer and Ramon Castro has to adequately replace Rodriguez, which is a lot to ask.

Montreal Expos

Manager: Frank Robinson

2003 finish: 83-79 (fourth place)

On deck: The big question mark of the spring is promising pitcher Tony Armas, who underwent surgery last May and needs to fill the void left when Javier Vazquez was dealt to the Yankees. The Expos also have to hope that newcomers Nick Johnson, Tony Batista and Carl Everett can make everyone forget that the Expos' lineup used to feature Vladimir Guerrero.

Changing places: Acquired outfielder Everett. Signed free-agent third baseman Batista. Acquired first baseman Johnson in multi-player deal that sent Vazquez to the Yankees.

Long-range outlook: The Expos have been surprisingly solid the past few years, in spite of their annual talent drain, but this could be the year that they fall off the map. Too much has to go right and too many youngsters have to step up just to keep them mildly competitive.

New York Mets

Manager: Art Howe

2003 finish: 66-95 (fifth place)

On deck: This will be another spring when the Mets can only hope that they get a couple of headlines in the New York tabloids. They acquired Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui and signed a few veteran free agents, but the big story of camp probably will be Mike Piazza's ability to play regularly at first base.

Changing places: Signed Matsui as a free agent. Signed free-agent outfielders Mike Cameron and Karim Garcia and reliever Braden Looper.

Long-range outlook: The Mets went into last spring with unrealistic hopes of contending in the NL East. No such delusion will survive the spring this year. The Mets are depending heavily on Matsui to make them marketable during what probably will be another sub-.500 season.

Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Larry Bowa

2003 finish: 86-76 (third place)

On deck: This should be an upbeat spring for the Phillies, who move into a new spring training ballpark to get ready to move into a new stadium in April. The acquisition of closer Billy Wagner from the Astros and starter Eric Milton from the Twins should flesh out the pitching staff nicely.

Changing places: Wagner was acquired from Houston for pitcher Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers. Milton was acquired from the Twins for pitcher Carlos Silva and infielder Nick Punto. Signed free-agent pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Tim Worrell, utility player Shawn Wooten and outfielder Doug Glanville. Chose not to exercise options on pitchers Jose Mesa and Mike Williams. Allowed pitchers Terry Adams and Turk Wendell to become free agents.

Long-range outlook: The Phillies finally have the pitching depth to go into the season as the favorite to win the division title. The addition of Milton gives them four starters who won at least 14 games last year and four starters who have been to the All-Star Game in their careers. Wagner could be key to a big season in a new ballpark.

National League Central

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dusty Baker

2003 finish: 88-74 (first place)

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