NL EAST PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

1992 record: 96-66 (first)

Manager: Jim Leyland

Pitching: The loss of Doug Drabek (15-11, 256 2/3 innings) takes a lot of innings away from the starting rotation, but the Pirates will have knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (8-1, 2.15 ERA) for the entire season rather than only 13 starts. Pitching coach Ray Miller is one of the best in the business and has molded a solid group despite the absence of a legitimate stopper. A more consistent Stan Belinda (6-4, 18 saves) would boost the bullpen.

Hitting: The Pirates can't replace Barry Bonds, but they lost Bobby Bonilla the year before and came within an out of the NL pennant. The Pirates have one of the game's most productive farm systems, and players like outfielder Al Martin, second baseman Carlos Garcia and first baseman Kevin Young figure to continue the tradition. This is a team that finds a way to score and win.

Defense: Solid through the middle, which is where it counts the most.

Outlook: First. The Pirates are reminiscent of the 1977 Orioles, a young team that wouldn't go away. They also have the game's best manager and play in the weakest of baseball's four divisions.

MONTREAL EXPOS

1992 record: 87-75 (second)

Manager: Felipe Alou

Pitching: Solid with ex-Oriole Dennis Martinez, Ken Hill, former Towson State ace Chris Nabholz and Mark Gardner leading the rotation. The Expos were 15 games over .500 in games started by those four last year, and marginal improvement is all that's needed. Brian Barnes is a capable fifth starter. John Wetteland had 37 saves (in 46 opportunities), and his effectiveness increased after Alou replaced Tom Runnels as manager May 21, when the Expos started their turnaround.

Hitting: Moises Alou, the manager's son (.282), Marquis Grissom (14 home runs, 78 stolen bases) and Larry Walker (23 home runs, 93 RBI) are one of the game's better outfield combinations. Second baseman Delino DeShields is the action man in a versatile lineup, combining a good average (.292) and speed (46 steals).

Defense: No real problems here.

Outlook: Second. Another productive organization, the Expos could break through this year.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

rTC 1992 record: 83-79 (third)

Manager: Joe Torre

Pitching: The workmanlike staff, under pitching coach Joe Coleman Jr., is headed by Bob Tewksbury, Donovan Osborne, Omar Olivares and Rheal Cormier. The Cardinals staff had the best control in baseball last season. A comeback by left-hander Joe Magrane would be a plus. If Lee Smith, 35, stays healthy, the Cardinals have a shot.

Hitting: This is not a dazzling lineup, but Gregg Jefferies is a nice addition in the middle. Ray Lankford is a quality player (.293, 20 home runs, 86 RBI, 42 stolen bases), and Baltimorean Brian Jordan appears to have completed the transition from defensive back to the outfield. Todd Zeile, once considered a top offensive prospect, could be the sleeper if he can put his game back together.

Defense: Ozzie Smith is at shortstop, and you won't find a better foundation than that.

Outlook: Third. In this division, first place might be out of reach for only one team.

NEW YORK METS

1992 record: 72-90 (fifth)

Manager: Jeff Torborg

Pitching: The signing of free agent Frank Tanana indicated that the Mets weren't satisfied with the depth of their rotation. Dwight Gooden has slipped, Sid Fernandez is as unpredictable as he is unhittable and David Cone is gone. Bret Saberhagen appears to be healthy again, and John Franco is a capable closer. But this staff doesn't measure up to the standards the Mets set in the 1980s.

Hitting: They desperately need Eddie Murray to continue his amazing streak of at least 75 RBI in each of his first 16 years -- the only player in history to do that. Howard Johnson is an all-around threat, and a trimmer Bobby Bonilla has to be able to produce more than he did a year ago (.249, 70 RBI). If Vince Coleman stays interested, his speed adds a dimension to the offense, but the Mets felt they needed ex-Oriole Joe Orsulak as protection.

Defense: Long an Achilles' heel, it should be better with Tony Fernandez at shortstop, Johnson at third base where he belongs, and Chestertown native Ryan Thompson in center field if he hits enough to play regularly.

Outlook: Fourth. The Mets have to be better than last year, but

by how much?

CHICAGO CUBS

1992 record: 78-84 (fourth)

Manager: Jim Lefebvre

Pitching: The Cubs are counting on quantity (Jose Guzman, Greg Hibbard, Dan Plesac, Randy Myers) to replace quality (Greg Maddux). Mike Morgan has been one of the NL's most consistent pitchers the past four years and is the staff ace. If he stays healthy, Guzman can be a quality starter. If Mike Harkey fulfills his potential, he will make his presence felt.

Hitting: The Cubs are trying to replace their offensive leader, Andre Dawson. Candy Maldonado and Willie Wilson don't exactly fill that bill. Derrick May (son of ex-Oriole Davey May) could be a star on the rise. But Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace are the keys to the offense, and both are capable of big years.

Defense: Shawon Dunston's uncertainty and Sandberg's broken wrist make the middle of the infield questionable for now.

Outlook: Fifth, with a chance to move up, just like everybody else.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

1992 record: 70-92 (sixth)

Manager: Jim Fregosi

Pitching: Terry Mulholland, ex-Oriole Curt Schilling, Danny Jackson, perennial prospect David West and Tommy Greene give cause for hope -- but how much? Mitch Williams (29 saves) can be effective, but his ERA last year (3.78) was much too high for a closer.

Hitting: The Phillies score runs, although with an unspectacular lineup. Center fielder Lenny Dykstra is a key as the leadoff hitter. John Kruk is a capable hitter and Darren Daulton (27 home runs, 109 RBI) shed his potential tag. Wes Chamberlain, Jim Eisenreich, Milt Thompson and Ricky Jordan work into the mix.

Defense: The Phillies entered spring training hoping Juan Bell would be their shortstop.

E9 Outlook: Sixth. With a chance to go as high as third.

FLORIDA MARLINS

Expansion team

Manager: Rene Lachemann

Pitching: Charlie Hough, 45, will pitch Opening Day, so the Marlins aren't starting with youth. Left-hander Chris Hammond, obtained from the Reds, will open as the No. 3 starter, behind Hough and Jack Armstrong. Cris Carpenter pitched decently for the Cardinals last year (5-4, 2.97) and could be a sleeper in the bullpen, where Bryan Harvey waits for a team to trade for his questionable arm and $3 million contract.

Hitting: Catcher Benito Santiago is a proven All-Star, and the Marlins are hoping Orestes Destrade can do a Cecil Fielder imitation after a year in Japan. Dave Magadan is better than average, and infielders Bret Barberie and Jeff Conine have possibilities. Outfielder Nigel Wilson, the second player picked in the expansion draft, is at least a year away.

Defense: The Marlins went to spring training with basically a set lineup, but how it functions remains to be seen.

Outlook: Last. In time youth might be served, but not this year. Not even in this division.

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