National League East / National League West

April 02, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

Atlanta Braves

Manager: Bobby Cox

2003 finish: 101-61 (first)

On deck: The starting rotation is going to look strange without Greg Maddux at the front of it, and the loss of Gary Sheffield to free agency raises questions about the offense, but the Braves have enough talent to contend for still another NL East title. It just won't be easy.

Man on a mission: Newly acquired outfielder J.D. Drew cost the Braves some of their pitching depth, but he will be well worth the price if he comes back strong from an injury-filled 2003 season.

How it shakes out: The Braves have reached the playoffs every year there have been playoffs since 1991, but this could be the year the streak ends. They still have pop, but not the dominant pitching of old.

Florida Marlins

Manager: Jack McKeon

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

On deck: More high-profile departures have cast serious doubt on the Marlins' ability to defend their unexpected 2003 world title, but the team still has a highly regarded young pitching staff and some punch at the heart of the batting order.

Man on a mission: Some people think Miguel Cabrera, 20, is the next Alex Rodriguez. The Marlins will be thrilled if he simply picks up where he left off last year.

How it shakes out: Lightning already has struck twice in the same place - 1997 and 2003 - but the losses of Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Encarnacion will be too much to overcome.

Montreal Expos

Manager: Frank Robinson

2003 finish: 83-79 (fourth)

On deck: The departures of the team's top hitter, Vladimir Guerrero, and top pitcher, Javier Vazquez, make another surprising .500-plus season highly unlikely, though new arrivals Nick Johnson, Carl Everett and Juan Rivera should be able to keep it interesting for at least a while.

Man on a mission: Everett, whose volatile personality has turned him into baseball's most talented journeyman, appears to have matured. He needs to assume a leadership role commensurate with his ability.

How it shakes out: It's going to be a long, tiring season for the vagabond Expos, and it's going to be one of the most difficult managerial assignments of Robinson's career.

New York Mets

Manager: Art Howe

2003 finish: 66-95 (fifth)

On deck: Considering the intracity competition with the Yankees, the Mets had a surprisingly quiet offseason. Their most notable acquisitions were Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui, veteran outfielder Mike Cameron and closer Braden Looper, but they should be much more competitive after falling apart in 2003.

Man on a mission: Catcher Mike Piazza, who will play some at first base, comes back from an injury-filled season hoping to re-establish himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game.

How it shakes out: The Mets ranked next to last in the league in scoring last year, and it is hard to imagine they will be that much better with Matsui and Cameron new to the National League. This appears to be a .500 team at best.

Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Larry Bowa

2003 finish: 86-76 (third)

On deck: New closer Billy Wagner and starting pitcher Eric Milton (Maryland) should stabilize the pitching staff. Slugger Jim Thome was banged up in spring training but figures to hit 40-plus home runs. Good depth throughout the roster makes the Phillies the division favorites. A sparkling new ballpark doesn't hurt.

Man on a mission: Outfielder Pat Burrell, who batted a measly .209 last year, needs to re-establish himself as one of the game's bright young stars.

How it shakes out: The planets are lined up for a big season in Philadelphia. If Bowa can keep everybody happy and keep the clubhouse stress-free, the Phillies are going places.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

Arizona Diamondbacks

Manager: Bob Brenly

2003 finish: 84-78 (third)

On deck: The Diamondbacks used to feature the two top strikeout pitchers in baseball, but Randy Johnson is coming off a knee injury and Curt Schilling is in Boston. The club is banking heavily on young Brandon Webb to pick up some slack and hoping that the arrival of big-swinging Richie Sexson will put a charge into the batting order.

Man on a mission: Johnson, who was limited to 18 starts (and six wins) last year, threw very well early in spring training and wants to prove that he can still be a dominant pitcher in his 40s.

How it shakes out: If Johnson and Webb are healthy and productive, Arizona should hit enough to challenge the Giants for the division title.

Colorado Rockies

Manager: Clint Hurdle

2003 finish: 74-88 (fourth)

On deck: The Rockies added Jeromy Burnitz and Vinny Castilla to bolster a batting order that had lost altitude the past couple of years. Putting those guys in the same lineup with Todd Helton, Larry Walker and Preston Wilson should make the offense much more formidable. The pitching staff, however, is largely the same one that ranked last in the league with a 5.20 ERA last season.

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