East

Atlanta Braves

Acquired in the off-season, petulant powerhouse Gary Sheffield can be counted on to produce big numbers. His presence in the lineup should help Chipper Jones, who is coming off a career best .330 season, see more fastballs.

If Rafael Furcal can bounce back from injury and “father-time teasers” Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz can escape again, then the Braves can contend for the division flag.

New York Mets

A vastly improved lineup highlighted by the addition of weight-watching slugger Mo Vaughn and perennial All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar (.336 BA, 20 HR, 100 RBI, 30 SB), makes the Mets sure contenders. With Mike Piazza, Roger Cedeno and Edgardo Alfonzo, this contingent can outscore a lot of teams.

Pitching will be the deciding factor. Al Leiter is a solid No. 1 starter. If ace reliever Armando Benitez can just learn to mix his pitches and not rely solely on a 99-mph fastball, then there may be a chance for a return Subway Series.

Philadelphia Phillies

Pat Burrell (27 HR, 89 RBI) must cut down on his strikeouts and become the leader of this team, as disgruntled All-Star 3B Scott Rolen prepares to show his stuff elsewhere next year.

Returning from injury, All-Star catcher Mike Lieberthal can bring out the best from the pitching staff, which has as much potential as any in baseball (ace Robert Person is followed by young guns Brandon Duckworth, Nelson Figueroa, David Coggin and Brett Myers). If the Phillies are to make a run, Bobby Abreu must fight off “big-contract blues” and repeat his numbers (31 HR, 110 RBI, 36 SB) from last year.

If the team can manage to focus on winning and avoid a 162-game circus featuring Rolen and manager Larry Bowa, Philadelphia should be in the thick of the playoff hunt come September.

Florida Marlins

The Marlins’ season is banking on the notion that defense wins championships. All-Star OF Cliff Floyd (.317 BA, 31 HR, 103 RBI) proved he’s the real deal, but he needs help.

The Marlins’ strength undoubtedly lies in its pitching staff. Already being touted as the best staff in baseball, each hurler has two things in common ? limitless potential and inexperience. “Veterans” Ryan Dempster and Matt Clement will join up with young stars Brad Penny, Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett and attempt to blow away the rest of the division.

Montreal Expos

Or should they be called the Washington Senators-North. On life-support from major league baseball, the Expos have some budding talent but not much in full bloom.

Vladimir Guerrero is a superstar and Jose Vidro is an offensive spark and talented defensive second baseman. Pitcher Javier Vazquez (16 wins, 3.42 ERA) is as good as it gets on the mound this side of Arizona.

The rest of the team can be best labeled “missing persons,” which is alright since nobody is there to see them.

Central

Cincinnati Reds

Ken Griffey, Jr. is still great, but one wonders if all the verbal attacks on Junior made by former Reds this off-season hold any truth? Is it a coincidence that the last time the Reds were in contention was the season before Griffey arrived? Most likely, yes.

If Sean Casey, Barry Larkin and Aaron Boone can round out the middle of the lineup, and young slugger Adam Dunn, who has drawn comparisons to McGwire, can come of age sooner than later, the Reds have a chance.

Unfortunately that hope is dimmed significantly by one of the weakest pitching staffs around. Not a starter with a winning record in sight, and their ace (Elmer Dessen) is less well-known than the owner’s deceased dog (St. Bernard Schottzie).

Chicago Cubs

Three words ? Sammy, Sammy, Sammy.

Sosa had gigantic numbers (64HR, 160RBI) last year and seems to keep going and going. Add Moises Alou to the batting order and the Cubs can hit. Their major weaknesses lie on the base paths and middle infield.

Their pitching can be strong featuring Jon Leiber (20 wins), Kerry Wood and Jason Bere, with super prospect Mark Prior anxiously awaiting his shot. The prognosis is “wait and see.”

Houston Astros

Start with “Mr. Baseball” Jeff Bagwell (39 HR, 130 RBI and the dirtiest uniform in the league) and add All-Star Lance Berkman (.331 BA, 34 HR, 126 RBI), and the Astros have a solid foundation to build from.

The question is can Craig Biggio still contribute big time? If so, the top half of their order will round out nicely.

Young and strong arms (Roy Oswalt 14 wins with a 2.73 ERA, Wade Miller 16 wins and a 3.40 ERA and Carlos Hernandez 12 wins, 3.69 ERA) make them dangerous. And new manager Jimy Williams knows how to win.

Milwaukee Brewers

A true small-market team with small-market talent, they are hoping to capture lightning in-a-bottle through oft-injured Jeffery Hammonds and Jose Hernandez. With suspect pitching and the only a reliable bat belonging to Richie Sexson (team record 45 HR), they should be out of the race early.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The team is held together by Brian Giles (.309 BA, 37 HR, 95 RBI) both on the field and in the clubhouse, where he leads the league in practical jokes. 3B Aramis Ramirez (.300BA, 34HR, 112RBI) snuck in under the radar last year, but there is no one else to rely on. Inexperienced pitching won’t help either.

St. Louis Cardinals

Mark McGwire is gone, but this team has plenty of sluggers that will jump at the opportunity to fill the power void in the lineup.

J.D. Drew will make yet another attempt at an injury-free year, and should improve on a very solid season at the plate in 2001 (.323 BA, 27 HR). Rookie of the Year Albert Pujols (.329BA, 37HR, 130RBI) returns a big bat to the lineup and with the addition of former Yankee champion Tino Martinez (34 HR, 113 RBI) they should contend.

Mike Matheny handles a pitching staff as well as any catcher in the league. The rotation has a healthy balance of young and old arms, and should pitch the team into the playoffs.

West

Colorado Rockies

As usual, big numbers tell the story ? high batting averages and even higher ERAs.

Todd Helton (.336 BA, 45 HR, 146 RBI) and Larry Walker (.350 BA, 38 HR, 123 RBI) can flat out produce, but with top starters Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton struggling to keep the opposition off the board, they just don’t have a good chance.

Look out for newcomers Juan Uribe, Jose Ortiz and Juan Pierre up the middle ? they should be fun to watch.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Are the defending World Series champs one-shot wonders?

Arizona is an aging veteran team that may be satisfied with finally getting the ring. It should be interesting to see if Luis Gonzalez can repeat last year’s monster season (.325BA, 57 HR, 142 RBI), but for this club pitching is the key.

Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling are two of the very best to watch and study as they work their way through a lineup. Do they have anything left in the tank? No doubt.

L.A. Dodgers

Shawn Green (49 HR, 125 RBI, 20 SB) is the new “do-it-all” leader of this team. With former Brave Brian Jordan brought in to protect him in the lineup, look for Green to prosper.

Catcher Paul LoDuca is an “out-of-nowhere” production story and he can hit (.320 BA, 25 HR, 90 RBI). If Kevin Brown can return from surgery and Hideo Nomo can provide a lot of innings they can win some games, but in the end they need more help.

San Diego Padres

Generally no defense means no hope, and that’s the case for the Padres. They have one of the worst fielding teams in the league

Phil Nevin (.306 BA, 41 HR, 126 RBI) and Ryan Klesko (30 HR,113 RBI, 23 SB) can produce. Former Little League World Series star Sean Burroughs is expected to contribute immediately.

Reliever Trevor Hoffman (no, not the Kent State point guard) is the best closer in the NL, but getting over the death of teammate, and clubhouse favorite, Mi

ke Darr may not be an easy task for San Diego.

San Francisco Giants

Yes, we all know it starts with Barry Bonds. But coming off perhaps the best offensive year (major league records for HR, walks and slugging percentage) in history, what does he do for an encore?

With Jeff “pop-a-wheelie” Kent starting the season on the DL, can Dusty Baker perform his magic again and make the Giants contenders?

Rich Aurillia had a career year (.324 BA, 37 HR, 97 RBI), but is now a target for opposing pitchers and will have a hard time repeating those numbers. Robb Nen is one of the league’s best closers, but besides Russ Ortiz (17 wins) the starting rotation is pretty thin?

At this point it’s a coin flip with San Francisco, but things could go downhill fast if, at the age of 37, Bonds gets side-tracked at all in his onslaught on NL pitching.



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