While the American League consists mainly of two-team division races, with only the West having three teams with a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, the National League has plenty of parity. In the East, the Braves are the favorite, but the Phillies, Mets and Expos all have a chance to topple the longest current streak of division championships in the Majors. The Central could also have a four team race, as the Astros, Cardinals, Cubs and Reds have playoff-caliber teams. Out West, the team that represented the N.L. in the World Series might not even make the playoffs if the Diamondbacks and Dodgers can help it. While many teams have little hope for the playoffs, the number of teams that have potential to remain in the hunt until late September will make for an exciting season.

East

1. Atlanta Braves – their run of 11 division championships nearly ended when Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood and Tom Glavine appeared on their way out of town. Although Glavine and Millwood ended up with division rivals, Maddux stayed and will spend two more seasons in a Braves uniform. The addition of Mike Hampton will help if he can return to top form, and Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz give them four great starters. Another division win is within reach.

2. Philadelphia Phillies – they want to make their last season at The Vet a good one. With slugger Jim Thome on board, in addition to Bobby Abreu and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies have one of the best lineups in the N.L. Signing Millwood to compliment Vincente Padilla gives them a pair of top starters. Barring injuries, they will battle the Braves for the top spot in the East.

3. New York Mets – they fired manager Bobby Valentine and replaced him with Oakland’s Art Howe. First baseman Mo Vaughn went on a diet after struggling to field grounders last season, and second baseman Robby Alomar has no more excuses with a full year in the N.L. under his belt. Catcher Mike Piazza remains the top offensive catcher in baseball, and Tom Glavine and Al Leiter give the Mets two top lefties, which could be just what they need to topple Atlanta.

4. Montreal Expos – they will play 22 home games this season in Puerto Rico, home of starter Javier Vazquez and second baseman Jose Vidro. The addition of half-brothers Orlando and Livan Hernandez should help their pitching if both stay healthy, and Vladimir Guerrero is an annual All-Star. Last season they were in contention until late July, this season they have the potential to be even better.

5. Florida Marlins – in A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett, they have two of the top young pitchers in baseball. Luis Castillo hit safely in 35 consecutive games, along with stealing 48 bases. He, along with outfielder Juan Pierre, newly signed catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Lowell form a strong top of the lineup. However, they still have a number of gaps to fill before they can contend in their division.

Central

1. Houston Astros – he will no longer be next to Barry Bonds in the lineup, but batting in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball, second baseman Jeff Kent could put up even better numbers than he did in San Francisco. Teamed up with sluggers Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, Kent will add to possibly the top lineup in the game. Roy Oswalt is a top starter, and if the rest of their pitching holds up, the Astros could advance in this year’s playoffs.

2. St. Louis Cardinals – if the Astros falter at all, the Cards will be right there knocking on the door. Last year’s unexpected and tragic death of pitcher Darryl Kile left them without their best pitcher, but the team rallied to make the playoffs. Matt Morris is ready to be the number one starter for this season, but beyond him there are questions regarding their rotation and pen. With a formidable lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, the Cards are division contenders.

3. Chicago Cubs – with Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Matt Clement, the Cubs have three solid young starters that will be counted on to carry the team. Mike Remlinger will help the pen, taking pressure off Antonio Alfonseca. Any lineup that includes Sammy Sosa is automatically dangerous, and if Moises Alou can remain healthy, Sosa will see more quality pitches and will go way beyond the 499 career homers that he starts with.

4. Cincinnati Reds – with just 30 homeruns over the past two seasons Ken Griffey Jr. looks to finally prove his worth to the Reds. He is just 32 away from 500, but since his career entered a downward spiral, what used to be given might take a few seasons. Adam Dunn hit 26 homers in his rookie year, but must improve his .249 average. Great American Ballpark is open, and the Reds should be motivated by a packed house every game.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates – the only two things keeping the Pirates out of last place in the Central are Brian Giles and the Brewers. Giles is one of the most consistent, underrated hitters in the Majors, despite a lineup void of protection. Jason Kendall has struggled the last two years after starting his career with five solid years. Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs should help their hitting, but their pitching remains among the weakest in the league.

6. Milwaukee Brewers – the Milwaukee fans would gladly trade one of the best stadiums for a winning team. Ritchie Sexson will give the punch in the lineup, and the offense will improve if Geoff Jenkins rebounds from injuries. Ben Sheets and Glendon Rusch are the only notable starters. At least no games in Milwaukee will end in ties this year.West

1. Arizona Diamondbacks – Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling will carry the load for an otherwise weak staff. Matt Mantei returns from injury as the closer and Luis Gonzalez will improve his numbers from last season as he too is healthy again. If this aging team can remain off the DL, they are the team to beat in the N.L. Once they get to the playoffs, Johnson and Schilling are nearly unstoppable.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers – if Kevin Brown can stay healthy and get support from Darren Dreifort, Kazuhisha Ishii, Odalis Perez and the return of Hideo Nomo, the Dodgers can contend in the West. Shawn Green leads a solid outfield, and Fred McGriff brings some much needed production to first base. Their season could live and die with closer Eric Gagne, who will need to have another great season if the Dodgers hope to get by Arizona.

3. San Francisco Giants – second baseman Jeff Kent and manager Dusty Baker are gone, and have been replaced by Edgardo Alfonso and Felipe Alou. Ray Durham is solid at leadoff in a lineup boasting Barry Bonds. Kirk Rueter and Jason Schmidt anchor a young rotation, and Rob Nen needs to repeat last season’s 43 saves if the Giants hope to return to the Series.

4. Colorado Rockies – excluding Jason Jennings, their pitching is awful, but with half their games at Coors Field, hitting matters most. Todd Helton and Larry Walker both had monster seasons, and will be counted on to carry the team. Preston Wilson and Jose Hernandez add offense, but strike out often. In a tough division with great pitching, they will struggle.

5. San Diego Padres – Ryan Klesko is their most dangerous hitter, and will be counted on even more with Phil Nevin out. Mark Kotsay and Rondell White are veteran outfielders who must remain healthy for the Padres to stay out of last. Brian Lawrence is a decent first starter, but beyond him they trail off drastically. If they can hang around until mid-season, the return of Trevor Hoffman will be a huge boost.

Swidler can be reached at dswidler@campustimes.org.



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