Opening day is just three days away.

The National League, for the first time in recent years, doesn?t have its usual list of powerhouses. The same few teams remain on top, but the face of the NL is slowly changing.

With pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz leading the way, the Braves should be the NL?s top team again.

Also, third baseman Chipper Jones anchors the middle of the lineup, but the Braves have more questions than ever this year. Pitcher Kevin Millwood has been inconsistent at best since 1999 and his pitches have been knocked around this spring. The lineup also has a few weak spots that are occupied with some aging, injury-prone bats.

The Braves hope outfielders Rico Brogna, B.J. Surhoff and Brian Jordan can stay healthy and productive. With starting catcher Javy Lopez hurt, who?s catching? You guessed it ? Paul Bako.

Nevertheless, the bullpen is stronger than ever, and it is the Braves afterall. Without any strong competition in the NL East, the Braves should net another division title.

Last year?s NL World Series representative, the Mets, took quite a hit this off-season and aren?t nearly as good as last year. They lost an ace Mike Hampton and starting pitcher Bobby Jones, replacing them with two pitchers who got some contracts they didn?t deserve ? Kevin Appier and Steve Traschel. Don?t expect another Subway Series.

The Cardinals are shaping up to be a very good team. If first baseman Mark Mc-Gwire can stay healthy all year and outfielders Jim Edmonds and Fernando Vina do what they did last year, the Cards will have a potent lineup.

The pitching rotation is also fairly strong with veteran 20-game winner Darryl Kile, Dustin Hermanson, Andy Benes and Garret Stephenson. Lefty Steve Kline is a nice addition to the bullpen.

The Cards don?t really have the ace like other top-notch NL teams, but they are a virtual lock for the postseason.

In the NL West, it?s pretty much up for grabs. With this year?s unbalanced schedule resulting in more interdivisional play, the four solid teams in the West will likely end up pounding each other into 86-win seasons.

The Rockies went out and spent almost $200 million on pitcher Mike Hampton ? a good idea ? and pitcher Denny Neagle ? a stupid idea. The lineup is fairly solid with last year?s should-have-been MVP first base Todd Helton, third place Jeff Cirillo and outfield Larry Walker.

The Dodgers are again one of the league?s highest-paying teams. Perhaps if they can give their underpaid outfielder Gary Sheffield a $10 million and get their overpaid pitchers Andy Ashby and Darren Dreifort to perform, the team can put its talent to use in the post-season highly paid this year.

The Giants were baseball?s most successful team last year, but have lost outfielders Ellis Burks and Bill Meuller. They should still be a solid team, however.

The Diamondbacks are a veteran club. Okay, they?re old. Pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling lead a team of thirty-somethings that needs to win this year before they get dismantled in the next.

My favorite NL team this year is the Milwaukee Brewers. That?s right. They have a rising core of young talent in pitchers Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, Jeff D?Amico, Jamey Wright and Ben Sheets.

They might not be taking anyone on in the World Series, but they should have a much-improved season in their new ballpark.



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