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NL PREVIEW ORIOLES '94

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES

1993 record: 104-58 (first, NL West)

Manager: Bobby Cox

Pitching: You don't have to say much more than Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. They combined for 75 victories a year ago. So anything Cox gets out of the No. 5 slot is like found money. Kent Mercker will be the fifth starter. Ex-Oriole Gregg Olson was signed to plug the only supposed weakness, that of a closer, but the Braves hardly lack for depth in the bullpen. Greg McMichael, Mike Stanton and Mark Wohlers provide plenty of options. No staff is deeper or more talented.

Offense: The Braves were third in the NL in runs but don't figure to be as high this season after losing Ron Gant (36 homers, 117 RBIs) and his likely replacement, Chipper Jones. Both are right-handed hitters who could have given balance to a lineup that features left-handed power hitters Fred McGriff and David Justice. Switch-hitting third baseman Terry Pendleton and right-handed hitting shortstop Jeff Blauser provide additional punch. With Otis Nixon gone, Deion Sanders will play center field full time. Rookie left fielders Ryan Klesko, a converted first baseman, and Tony Tarasco also are left-handed hitters.

Defense: The Braves were third in the NL in fielding percentage. They gave up the third-fewest errors and were sixth in double plays. The infield play is adequate.

Outlook: The Braves will be heavy favorites to win the division, but probably wouldn't be if they were still in the NL West. They will be vulnerable to left-handed pitching but should score enough to win a fourth straight title.

FLORIDA MARLINS

1993 record: 64-98 (sixth, NL East)

Manager: Rene Lachemann

Pitching: For a first-year team, the Marlins put together a credible staff, compiling a 4.13 ERA, just slightly above the league norm of 4.04. It will be tough for 46-year-old Charlie Hough, the Opening Day pitcher, to make 34 starts again. The rest of the rotation is young: Ryan Bowen, Pat Rapp, Dave Weathers and Chris Hammond. They have one of the game's best closers, as long as Bryan Harvey isn't traded. Ex-Oriole Richie Lewis proved to be an effective middle reliever.

Offense: All you need to know in this department is that the

Marlins were last in the NL in batting average and runs. They have an igniter in center fielder Chuck Carr, a proven hitter in right fielder Gary Sheffield and a good hitter in left fielder Jeff Conine. It will be easy to pitch around the legitimate threats in the lineup, meaning that scoring will continue to be a problem until some of the young players, such as outfielders Nigel Wilson and Carl Everett, are ready.

Defense: The Marlins were a respectable sixth in the NL in fielding percentage (.980), but they could have difficulty replacing shortstop Walt Weiss. Sheffield's move from third base will help.

Outlook: Both expansion teams avoided last place a year ago. That isn't likely to happen again. The good news for the Marlins:

They can't finish lower than fifth.

MONTREAL EXPOS

1993 record: 94-68 (second, NL East)

Manager: Felipe Alou

Pitching: The primary question is how much, if at all, the Expos will miss Dennis Martinez, their ace the past seven years. A return to form by Ken Hill, restricted to 28 starts last year, would help. So would the emergence of Pedro Martinez, a middle reliever for the Los Angeles Dodgers whose stamina as a starter is questionable. The staff gem could be left-hander Kirk Rueter (8-0, 2.73). John Wetteland is the bullpen workhorse (9-3, 43 saves, 1.37 ERA, 70 games). Montreal ranked fourth in the league in ERA and needs to stay in that range to be competitive.

Offense: The Expos were seventh in the NL in runs, a figure they need to improve. Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou form a potent outfield. First base phenom Cliff Floyd has power and speed. Replacing second baseman Delino DeShields' production could be a problem.

Defense: The Expos had the third-highest number of errors (159) in the NL, including 33 by rookie shortstop Wil Cordero. The infield is young, but outfielders Walker and Grissom are exceptional.

Outlook: The organization has continually turned out top prospects -- most as the result of good draft choices obtained as compensation for lost free agents. It is one of few routes to success for small-market teams.

NEW YORK METS

1993 record: 59-103 (seventh, NL East)

Manager: Dallas Green

Pitching: Any staff that includes Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen should have a solid nucleus. But Gooden is coming off two down years, and Saberhagen missed most of last year to injury and is on the trade market. Pete Smith was acquired from the Braves. Closer John Franco (10 saves, 5.20 ERA) needs to return to form.

Offense: The Mets were next to last in the NL in runs with 672, a figure that might fall without Eddie Murray around to drive in another 100 runs. Third baseman Bobby Bonilla still is a legitimate run-producer, and second baseman Jeff Kent has developed into a solid offensive player. Young outfielders Jeromy Burnitz and Ryan Thompson show promise but strike out a lot. Ex-Orioles David Segui and Joe Orsulak provide high batting averages but little pop. Left fielder Kevin McReynolds returns after a disappointing stint in Kansas City.

Defense: Even in their best years, the Mets were poor defensively. So, it should come as no surprise that they made 156 errors last year. The addition of first baseman Segui and shortstop Jose Vizcaino should help.

Outlook: This is a team in disarray. The Mets could finish last again.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

1993 record: 97-65 (first, NL East)

Manager: Jim Fregosi

Pitching: Even without Terry Mulholland, the Phillies have four solid starters: Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene, Ben Rivera and Danny Jackson. But the bullpen is a problem. Philadelphia traded closer Mitch Williams to the Astros for No. 5 starter Jeff Juden and reliever Doug Jones, who had 26 saves but also had 10 losses and a 4.54 ERA. Norm Charlton is expected to provide short relief when his surgically repaired elbow heals. Middle reliever Larry Andersen tore cartilage in his knee last week and could be out for up to a month.

Offense: The Phillies led the NL with 877 runs and may have to duplicate that if they're going to repeat as NL East winners. How long first baseman John Kruk is sidelined will be crucial, but the Phillies do have other people to produce runs. Center fielder Lenny Dykstra is the best catalyst in the NL, and catcher Darren Daulton has become one of the top run-producers. A healed wrist should improve third baseman Dave Hollins' production.

Defense: The arrival last year of Kevin Stocker to plug the shortstop hole was significant. But they still made 141 errors, a lot for a division winner.

Outlook: Fregosi is likely to go to a bullpen-by-committee, at least at the start. But it comes down to this: The offense will take the Phillies as far as the pitching allows, most likely no higher than second.

CENTRAL

CHICAGO CUBS

1993 record: 84-78 (fourth, NL East)

Manager: Tom Trebelhorn

Pitching: Supposedly a strength, the pitching staff cost the Cubs a run at the NL East title a year ago. Then, because of a budget crunch, management didn't offer contracts to Greg Hibbard (15-11) and Mike Harkey (10-10). Willie Banks (11-12 with the Minnesota Twins) is expected to shake off shoulder soreness to replace Harkey. Ex-Oriole Mike Morgan has been dependable since coming from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jose Guzman made 30 starts last year, but those two were just a combined 22-25. Anthony Young, who holds the major-league record of 27 consecutive losses, was acquired from the New York Mets this week. Closer Randy Myers, who had an NL-record 53 saves, is set up by former Oriole Jose Bautista.

Offense: The Cubs ranked sixth in runs despite second baseman Ryne Sandberg missing 45 games. First baseman Mark Grace is one of the game's more underrated performers, and catcher Rick Wilkins (30 home runs, 73 RBIs) and right fielder Sammy Sosa (33-93) provide power. In 31 games after being obtained from the Cleveland Indians, left fielder Glenallen Hill hit 10 home runs and batted .345. Left fielder Derrick May, son of ex-Oriole Davey May, emerged with a .295 average, 10 homers and 77 RBIs. Promising center fielder Karl Rhodes will bat leadoff.

Defense: The Cubs ranked second in the NL with 162 double plays. Shawon Dunston will flash his strong arm at shortstop; if his back gives out again, the position would go to Rey Sanchez, who has great instincts and range. With Steve Buechele at third and Sandberg and Grace protecting the right side, the infield defense is excellent.

Outlook: The Cubs, who finished over .500 last season for only the third time since 1972, need more pitching to contend. But in a division dominated by parity, they can't be counted out.

CINCINNATI REDS

1993 record: 1993 record: 73-89 (fifth, NL West)

Manager: Davey Johnson

Pitching: Jose Rijo is an anchor, but the best scouting report on the rest of the rotation could come from the medical department. Left-handers John Smiley and Tom Browning were coming off injuries last year, and pitched like it, combining for a 10-16 record. Former Seattle Mariners right-hander Erik Hanson (11-12, will fill a rotation spot. Tim Pugh was 10-15 -- acceptable considering the Reds' record -- but had a 5.26 ERA. Closer Rob Dibble had arm miseries and a monstrous 6.48 ERA; he starts the season on the DL. Jeff Brantley and Chuck McElroy are the only other closer candidates.

Offense: Virtually every key performer was sidelined for a significant period of time last year. Catcher Joe Oliver (14 home runs, 75 RBIs) led the team in games with 139, followed by right fielder Reggie Sanders (20-83), who had 138. Left fielder Kevin Mitchell's total of 19 homers and 64 RBIs came in only 93 games. Shortstop Barry Larkin (.315, 8-51) missed 62 games; center fielder Roberto Kelly (.319, 9-35) played in only 78 games; and first baseman Hal Morris (.317, 7-49) played in just 101. Tony Fernandez was signed as a free agent to play third base.

Defense: Oliver, Larkin and Kelly make the Reds strong through the middle -- if everybody stays healthy. Mitchell is a liability, but overall the Reds are sound in this department.

Outlook: Injuries turned the Reds into a disappointment -- and cost Tony Perez his job as manager. Johnson will be expected to reverse the slide in a hurry.

HOUSTON ASTROS

1993 record: 85-77 (third, NL West)

Manager: Terry Collins

Pitching: Even without Mark Portugal (18-4), the Astros have a formidable starting rotation -- if two of their key people recover after poor seasons. Doug Drabek (9-18, 3.79) and Greg Swindell (12-13, 4.16) were huge disappointments. The Astros raised their payroll considerably to sign the two free agents after the 1992 season and now are trying to cut costs. Nevertheless, ex-Oriole Pete Harnisch (16-9, 2.98) and right-hander Darryl Kile (15-8, 3.51) provide a good nucleus. The bullpen was a weakness, so the Astros are gambling that Mitch Williams can be as effective (43 saves) as he was dramatic for the Philadelphia Phillies last year.

Offense: The Astros finished in the middle of the pack with a .267 batting average, but were only ninth in runs. Those figures should improve as the young lineup matures. The infield of first baseman Jeff Bagwell (.320-20-88), second baseman Craig Biggio (.287-21-64), third baseman Ken Caminiti (.262-13-75) and shortstop Andujar Cedeno (.283-11-56) is especially productive. The outfield has ex-Oriole Steve Finley (.266-8-44) in center, Luis Gonzalez (.300-15-72) in left and prospect James Mouton in right.

Defense: Finley can be spectacular, and most of the other players do workmanlike jobs, but are somewhat erratic. Cedeno (25) and Caminiti (24) make too many errors on the left side of the infield, and Biggio is a converted catcher who has adjusted to second base. Defense is neither a strength nor a glaring weakness.

Outlook: In a division that doesn't have a clear favorite, almost anybody can win. If Drabek and Swindell come back, and Williams provides some relief, then Collins could have a lot of fun in his first year as a major-league manager. If not, it will be a long year followed by another salary slashing.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

1993 record: 75-87 (fifth, NL East).

Manager: Jim Leyland

Pitching: After a run of several strong years, the bottom fell out last year for ex-Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller. What once was one of the league's most formidable staffs is now made up of mostly anonymous pitchers. The season-opening rotation will be veteran Zane Smith (3-7, 4.55), second-year starters Paul Wagner (8-8, 4.27) and Steve Cooke (10-10, 3.89) plus left-hander Denny Neagle (3-5, 5.31) of Arundel High, promoted from the bullpen. Randy Tomlin (4-8, 4.85) will start when his arm is healthy again.

Offense: Even after such prominent losses as Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds, the Pirates still managed a respectable offense. Shortstop Jay Bell (.310-9-51) may be the most underrated player in the game. Third baseman Jeff King (.295-9-98), left fielder Al Martin (.281-18-64), right fielder Orlando Merced (.313-8-70), 1b second baseman Carlos Garcia (.269-12-47) and catcher Don Slaught (.300-10-55) are solid, but center fielder Andy Van Slyke (.310-8-50 in 83 games) is the only proven hitter. Finesse, not power, is the name of the game.

Defense: Bell and Garcia give the Pirates an excellent double-play combination and made just 11 errors each. Van Slyke is a Gold Glove winner, and Slaught is better than adequate. This is the only facet of the Pirates' game that hasn't fallen off significantly.

Outlook: That Pittsburgh won 75 games last year may be a better testimonial to Leyland's managing ability than any of the division titles he won the three previous years. The Pirates are in a serious decline and need a productive minor-league system to recover. That will take time.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

1993 record: 87-75 (third, NL East)

Manager: Joe Torre

Pitching: You've heard this one before -- but this is the Cardinals' biggest question mark. The loss of Donovan Osborne (10-7, 3.76) for the season opened a spot for ex-Oriole Rick Sutcliffe. However, the key performers figure to be Rene Arocha (11-8, 3.78) and Rheal Cormier (7-6, 4.33). If they can step to the next level -- and Bob Tewksbury (17-10, 3.83) doesn't slip -- then the Cards have a good shot at postseason play. Left-hander Allen Watson (6-7, 4.60) is a candidate for the rotation. Cormier and Watson had excellent springs. Late last year, the Cardinals came to the conclusion that Lee Smith had lost it and traded him to the New York Yankees. Now they must find a replacement. Mike Perez (7-2, 2.48, 7 saves) could be the answer.

Offense: The Cardinals tied for fourth in runs with 758 last year and should continue to generate sufficient offense. After a couple of frustrating years, third baseman Todd Zeile (.277-17-103) emerged as a run-producer. First baseman Gregg Jefferies (.342-16-83) is a pure hitter. Right fielder Mark Whiten (.253-25-99) came into his own last year, and Ray Lankford (.238-7-45), Bernard Gilkey (.305-16-70 in 137 games) and Brian Jordan (.309-10-44 in 67 games) of Milford Mill will share time the other outfield time.

Defense: Ozzie Smith (19 errors) isn't what he used to be, but he still is one of the game's best defensive shortstops. The rest of the infield is a problem, especially for a pitching staff that puts the ball into play more than any other. Jefferies isn't a gazelle, Zeile made 33 errors and second basemen Luis Alicea (11) and Geronimo Pena (12) combined to make 23 errors. Tom Pagnozzi, a former Gold Glove catcher, is out until May after knee surgery; Erik Pappas, who threw out 41 percent of would-be base stealers, will play in his place.

Outlook: At their best, the Cardinals can win the division. At their worst, they can finish fourth. The rotation is filled with questions, and the defense is below average. The Cardinals are one of six NL teams with more errors (159) than double plays (157).

WEST

COLORADO ROCKIES

1993 record: 67-95 (sixth, NL West)

Manager: Don Baylor

Pitching: It was a hardly a surprise that an expansion team playing in the thin air of a mile-high city finished last in the NL in pitching a year ago with a 5.41 ERA; don't expect much improvement this year. Baylor will use Armando Reynoso (12-11, 4.00) as his No. 1 starter and will fill in behind him with Mike Harkey, David Nied and Greg Harris. Kent Bottenfield is expected to be the fifth starter when he recovers from a broken hand. The bullpen made strides after a disastrous start. After being sent down to Triple-A, closer Darren Holmes returned and compiled a 2.47 ERA while converting 23 of 25 save tries. Bruce Ruffin and Steve Reed were decent setup men.

Offense: The Rockies can score runs, but not as fast as they give them up. First baseman Andres Galarraga (.370-22-98), third baseman Charlie Hayes (.305-25-98) and right fielder Dante Bichette (.310-21-89) are a strong threesome. Ellis Burks (.275-17-74 with the Chicago White Sox) should thrive in center field, and shortstop Walt Weiss (.266-1-39 with the Florida Marlins) should fit into the mix. Left fielder Howard Johnson (.238-7-26 in 72 games with the New York Mets) is coming off two down years. Second baseman Roberto Mejia shows promise.

Defense: The Rockies made a league-high 167 errors. The addition of Weiss should improve an infield that's already strong because of Galarraga and Hayes. Burks will be an asset.

Outlook: As long as the Padres are still in the same division, there's hope of avoiding last place.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

1993 record: 81-81 (fourth, NL West)

Manager: Tom Lasorda

Pitching: The 3.50 staff ERA was third in the NL last year and probably will have to go down for the Dodgers to win the division. Orel Hershiser (12-14, 3.59 ERA), Ramon Martinez (10-12, 3.44) and Tom Candiotti (8-10, 3.12) will be in the rotation, and Pedro Astacio and Kevin Gross might join them. But it has been South Korean right-hander Chan Ho Park who has attracted most of the early attention. He throws 95 mph but the Dodgers haven't decided whether he's a starter or a reliever -- or if he starts in the minor leagues. The bullpen is led by Jim Gott (25 saves) and Roger McDowell; rookie Darren Dreifort could make a big impact.

Offense: Will the real Darryl Strawberry show up? That is the key question for the Dodgers, who were third-to-last in the NL in runs (675). Center fielder Brett Butler (.298, 39 steals) is an excellent leadoff hitter, and rookie catcher Mike Piazza (318-35-112) had a huge impact. Rookie Raul Mondesi will start in right field after a big spring, and Eric Karros is a force at first base. But the Dodgers need Strawberry, now a left fielder, hitting on all cylinders to have a reasonable chance to win the division.

Defense: At best, the Dodgers catch and throw the ball with mediocrity. Jose Offerman made 37 errors at shortstop, but second baseman Delino DeShields (.295, 43 steals for Montreal) should more than make up for the loss of Jody Reed, who overplayed his hand in the free-agent sweepstakes. Butler goes and gets the ball with the best of them, but has to play shallow to make up for a weak throwing arm.

Outlook: If the Dodgers don't finish in the top half of this division, they should be barred from the game indefinitely. But finishing second doesn't mean being in contention.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

1993 record: 61-101 (seventh, NL West)

Manager: Jim Riggleman

Pitching: This is as easy as A, B. The rotation starts, and some say ends, with right-hander Andy Benes. And that's if he isn't traded. Other than Benes (15-15, 3.78 ERA), the Padres don't have a pitcher who won more than six games. The rest of the rotation is Wally Whitehurst, Andy Ashby, Tim Worrell and Scott Sanders or Doug Brocail. Closer Gene Harris will be set up by Trevor Hoffman and Mark Davis. It is not a pretty picture.

Offense: The Padres have stripped themselves of all their name hitters except for right fielder Tony Gwynn (.358-7-59), a four-time batting champion. The other outfielders supply power: Left fielder Phil Plantier (.240-34-100) found a home in his hometown, and center fielder Derek Bell (.262-21-72) is an all-around threat. The infield -- first baseman Dave Staton, PTC second baseman Bip Roberts, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez and third baseman Archi Cianfrocco -- will not give pitchers the shivers.

Defense: The defense was nothing short of terrible, committing 160 errors and turning just 129 double plays. Only the Rockies (167) made more errors; only the Phillies (123) turned fewer double plays (123). Gutierrez, an ex-Orioles farmhand, did decently at shortstop and Brad Ausmus played well behind the plate, but there are few other bright spots.

Outlook: Pitting the Padres against the Mets last year might have provided the best matchup in baseball, with loser losing all. Between the two teams, they won 110 games, six more than the Atlanta Braves.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

1993 record: 103-59 (second, NL West)

Manager: Dusty Baker

Pitching: With a formidable staff already intact, the Giants countered the loss of first baseman Will Clark by adding starter Mark Portugal (18-4, 2.77 with the Houston Astros). Bill Swift (21-8, 2.82 ERA) stayed healthy all year and teamed with John Burkett (22-7, 3.65) to give the Giants a strong nucleus. Bryan Hickerson (7-5, 4.26) and rookie Salomon Torres (3-5, 4.03), who made the team after a rough late-season stint in 1993, complete the rotation. Rod Beck (3-1, 2.16, 48 saves) is one of the games top closers, and left-hander Steve Frey (2-3, 2.98, 13 saves with the California Angels) adds depth to an effective bullpen.

Offense: With left fielder Barry Bonds (.336-46-123) enjoying a career year, the Giants batted a league-high .276 and were second in runs with 808. The Giants will undoubtedly miss Clark's bat, but Bonds has a strong supporting cast. Third baseman Matt Williams (.294-38-110), second baseman Robby Thompson (.312-19-65) and shortstop Royce Clayton (.282 -6-70) make the infield productive. Catcher Kirt Manwaring (.275-5-49) never has lived up to expectations, but still is only 28. Todd Benzinger (.288-6-26) will play first base.

Defense: The Giants are a very good defensive team, leading the NL with a .984 fielding percentage last year. It wasn't a fluke. Bonds is as good as they come in left field, and Williams and Thompson are among the game's best at their positions. Clayton (27 errors) is more erratic. The Giants turned 169 double plays, most in the NL.

Outlook: After being involved in one of the greatest races in baseball history a year ago, the Giants should have an easy ride this time.

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