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There's no wealth of surprises when predicting '97 contenders Money talks, so expect big spenders to fight for top billing again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite dozens of transactions, nothing has really altered the power structure in the major leagues this winter. The affluent teams, generally speaking, have the best players and the biggest dreams, and the poor teams have limited payrolls and ambitions for 1997.

An off-season ranking of the 28 teams, from best to worst:

1. Atlanta Braves: First baseman Fred McGriff is coming back from knee surgery and David Justice is being dangled for trade, leaving the everyday lineup uncertain. But there are four basic truths in Atlanta: Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Mark Wohlers. The best.

2. Seattle Mariners: There are questions about the health of ace Randy Johnson, and Ken Griffey seems injury prone. But, player for player, from shortstop Alex Rodriguez to catcher Dan Wilson, this is a solid team. The Mariners will miss reliever Mike Jackson.

3. Toronto Blue Jays: The most improved team in the majors, with the addition of second baseman Carlos Garcia, reliever Dan Plesac and right-hander Roger Clemens. If Juan Guzman and Clemens pitch capably, the Blue Jays should win the AL East.

4. Florida Marlins: New manager Jim Leyland will have to deal with some interesting personalities, from ace pitcher Kevin Brown to right fielder Gary Sheffield. But he's got three great starters in Brown, Alex Fernandez and Al Leiter, and excellent defense up the middle.

5. Cleveland Indians: They've replaced Albert Belle with third baseman Matt Williams, and the presence of Kenny Lofton keeps their lineup potent. But this is a club in decline, in need of a big-time starting pitcher, and Williams rarely plays injury-free. Could be in a free fall by August.

6. St. Louis Cardinals: There are cracks in the aging Cards, who desperately need a reliever or two. But they've got good enough starting pitching and a good, young core of players in outfielders Ray Lankford and Brian Jordan and infielder Royce Clayton.

7. Orioles: Defensively, they will be vastly improved, and the addition of Ray Miller as pitching coach, as well as left-hander Jimmy Key, should bring out the best in Mike Mussina. The bullpen is, perhaps, the deepest in baseball. However, they need another good starter (preferably left-handed), and Eric Davis absolutely must hit to provide some right-handed balance to a lineup heavy with left-handed hitting.

8. Texas Rangers: If Texas had a closer in October, the Rangers could've beaten the Yankees. Now they have John Wetteland to back up a good starting rotation (Ken Hill, Darren Oliver, et al.).

9. Chicago White Sox: They added Belle, whose presence should enable first baseman Frank Thomas to win the Most Valuable Player award. But this is a suspect defensive team that lost its best pitcher, Fernandez, as well as Kevin Tapani.

10. New York Yankees: It didn't take long for the World Series glow to wear off. Cecil Fielder wants to be traded, Wetteland departed and Joe Torre must figure out something for left-hander Kenny Rogers to do. Mariano Rivera's shift to closer weakens the bullpen.

11. Los Angeles Dodgers: The usual suspects, a slow, right-handed hitting club, helped by the addition of Todd Zeile, another slow, right-handed hitter. A good team that doesn't seem to aspire to greatness.

12. Milwaukee Brewers: The sleeper of 1997, the Brewers greatly improved their depth with some midseason trades, and they've got the best manager in the game in Phil Garner.

13. Houston Astros: New manager Larry Dierker goes from the broadcast booth to the dugout, a situation ripe for problems. But the Astros are anchored by Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and a solid trio of starting pitchers, Shane Reynolds, Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile.

14. San Diego Padres: The Padres' stockpile of power pitchers has dwindled, Ken Caminiti is coming off major surgery and San Diego is relying heavily on Joey Hamilton and Andy Ashby to have big years. Lots of question marks.

15. Minnesota Twins: The Twins will be better, with the addition of catcher Terry Steinbach and the maturation of Brad Radke, Frankie Rodriguez and Marty Cordova. But they're filling holes with veterans such as Steinbach, Paul Molitor and Rick Aguilera, and aren't making real progress.

16. Boston Red Sox: The epitome of mediocrity. Good hitting, bad defense. Decent starting pitching, an enigmatic bullpen and Jimy Williams as manager. Not nearly enough for the AL East.

17. Colorado Rockies: They are bruising bullies in Coors Field. But once the Rockies travel outside their neighborhood, they are utterly docile.

18. Montreal Expos: Same old story: lots of talent, but it's young, inexperienced talent, and Montreal has too many holes to fill to be a serious contender. Felipe Alou may be one of the best managers, but it's hard to compensate for the departures of pitcher Jeff Fassero and outfielder Moises Alou.

19. Anaheim Angels: They'll play harder under new manager Terry Collins. Fantasia for the Angels, however, would be the addition of a couple of front-line starting pitchers.

20. Chicago Cubs: A strange off-season for the Cubs, who qualify more as matinee idols than as contenders. Chicago fans still can watch Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace, and the bullpen is much better, but the starting rotation is very weak and there's little sock to the lineup.

21. New York Mets: The most bizarre team in the game, with fading stars John Olerud and Carlos Baerga teaming with alleged up-and-coming stars Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, both of whom are coming back from injuries. A strange mix that adds up to fourth place in the NL East.

22. Kansas City Royals: They added Jeff King and Jay Bell, which should improve a wretched offense. Nevertheless, it's an ill-conceived, unbalanced team.

23. Cincinnati Reds: General manager Jim Bowden takes chances on aging and injured players, and occasionally it pays off, as it did with Eric Davis. You can't win a pennant with retreads, though.

24. Oakland Athletics: Oakland plays hard, Mark McGwire hits lots of homers. The end.

25. San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds wanted help this off-season, and the Giants traded Matt Williams for a middle reliever (Julian Tavarez) and two journeymen infielders (Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent). Bonds is talking of moving on.

26. Philadelphia Phillies: The cleanup hitter may be Rex Hudler, the staff has been bolstered (cough, cough) by the additions of Mark Portugal and Mark Leiter. You can spell the Phillies B-O-R-E-D-O-M.

27. Detroit Tigers: They were the worst team in the majors last year. Making progress.

28. Pittsburgh Pirates: Albert Belle will make more than the entire Pittsburgh roster. Enough said.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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