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NL East; BASEBALL 2000

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Braves

That was then: Atlanta's 103 wins were the most in the majors. In October, the Braves cruised by the Astros, survived the Mets and were swept by the Yankees, relinquishing Team of the Decade bragging rights.

This is now: Andres Galarraga is back from lymphoma, Kerry Ligtenberg from elbow surgery and Javy Lopez from knee surgery, but this season brings new problems. John Rocker's insensitive diatribe tore apart clubhouse harmony, and John Smoltz's season-ending elbow surgery ripped a hole in the rotation.

Upside: Quilvio Veras and Reggie Sanders bring .370 on-base averages to the top of the order, where the 1-2 spots last year floundered at .312 and .316. Kevin Millwood held batters to an NL-low .202 batting average. MVP Chipper Jones hit .456 in late-inning pressure situations; no other major-leaguer was above. 400.

Downside: Jones has a bone spur in his right elbow that bothers his left-handed swing. That could be a big problem on a team with no other lefty power. The infield defense is suspect on a team with ground-ball pitchers.

Don't miss : the Team of the Decade rematch, June 2-4 against the Yankees at Turner Field, where the Braves play .667 ball.

Don't be surprised : if the Braves become the first team to win 100 games four seasons in a row. And maybe even a World Series.

Don't expect : Atlanta's aces to dominate forever. Greg Maddux led the NL in hits allowed, and his 3.57 ERA was his first over 3.00 since 1991. Tom Glavine was second in hits allowed.

Web site unseen: www.rockerbyebaby.com

Phillies

That was then: Philadelphia was 61-48 on Aug. 6, but a sore shoulder disabled ace Curt Schilling a week later and the team lost 34 of its final 44 games. It was a sadly fitting finale: No pro sports team in the 1900s lost more games than the Phillies' 8,345.

This is now: Schilling had surgery Dec. 13 and is expected back by early May. Meanwhile, the team will lean on pickup Andy Ashby. Philadelphia's record has improved for three straight seasons under Terry Francona, the majors' youngest manager; more progress could result in the franchise's second winning season since 1986.

Upside: Bob Abreu (third in the NL in on-base average), Mike Lieberthal (31 homers), Scott Rolen (26) have star potential. Doug Glanville bumped his on-base average 51 points to .376 and was 34-for-36 in steal tries.

Downside: New closer Mike Jackson failed a physical in St. Louis. Rico Brogna had the NL's second-lowest cleanup slugging percentage (.419), but, fortunately, Pat "The Bat" Burrell, the top overall draft pick in 1998, is nearly ready.

Don't miss : the first month and a half. Philadelphia was 18-40 against the NL's top six teams in 1999 and plays them in 24 of its first 38 games this year. Maybe Schilling should have had his surgery in October.

Don't be surprised : if Ashby has a big year. No active major-league pitcher has faced more hitters at Veterans Stadium without allowing a home run.

Don't expect : journeyman Byrd to repeat his 15-11 record. His 1999 run support of 7.08 per nine innings was the NL's best.

Web site unseen: www.whiz- kidsII.com

Mets

That was then: After no postseason appearances since 1988, the Miracle Mets returned, beating the Reds in a wild-card playoff, eliminating the Diamondbacks on Todd Pratt's walk-off homer and scaring the Braves in the NLCS with Robin Ventura's "grand slam" single and Game 6 rally.

This is now: Adding 22-4 Mike Hampton makes the Mets serious World Series contenders. The pitcher with the NL's best ground-ball/fly-ball ratio should thrive in front of baseball's best infield. If Bobby Valentine keeps his mouth zipped and his players away from the card table, New York could end Atlanta's NL East stranglehold.

Upside: The NLCS comeback is evidence the team has more backbone than it showed in losing the last five in 1998 and seven in a row last September. Fred Wilpon is willing to spend for a title before his likely sale of the team.

Downside: Without John Olerud and Roger Cedeno, the lineup is too right-handed. Derek Bell's combined .656 on-base/slugging average was sixth-worst in the majors; Rey Ordonez's was fourth-worst.

Don't miss : John Rocker's return to Shea Stadium on June 29. Can't wait for those tabloid headlines: "Hey, Punk Rocker, You Talkin' to Us?"

Don't be surprised : if spring training-cut Garth Brooks sings the national anthem before the first game of the World Series.

Don't expect : another major-league mark for fewest errors by a team. Olerud's replacement at first, Todd Zeile, had more boots in the '90s than any other major-leaguer and is at a new position.

Web site unseen: www.- queenszoo.com

Expos

That was then: Montreal lost 94 games and went a major-league-worst 18th straight season without reaching the playoffs, but it offered hope for the future with a club-record 18 wins in August.

This is now: New owner Jeffrey Loria expects to break ground this spring on a 35,000-seat park that would open in 2002, but support remains weak. The Expos drew just 9,547 a game in 1999 and still don't have an English radio deal for this season.

Upside: Cornerstones Vladimir Guerrero (second in the NL in total bases), Ugueth Urbina (NL-best 41 saves) and Dustin Hermanson (2.44 ERA in September) signed multi-year deals. Reliever Graeme Lloyd is the Expos' first free-agent addition since Elias Sosa in 1979, indicating a new willingness to spend. Montreal led the league in doubles and triples.

Downside: The young Expos' 160 errors were most in the majors. Montreal batters were last in the majors in walks for the third time in five years.

Don't miss : Hideki Irabu pitching against his former team, the Yankees, on June 5, 6 or 7. Will George Steinbrenner's former fat toad turn into a prince?

Don't be surprised : if Guerrero wins a Triple Crown. Just 23 last season, he hit .316 with 42 homers and 131 RBIs -- with an amazingly low 62 strikeouts.

Don't expect : general manager Jim Beattie to be bragging in October about this boast: "There's no doubt in my mind we can compete for the wild card, no doubt whatsoever." Remember, Montreal's payroll remains one-third that of the Mets and Braves.

Web site unseen: www.fattoadfat- chance.com

Marlins

That was then: Losing streaks of 10, eight and seven (twice) doomed Florida to the league's worst record, but the news wasn't all bad. The 64-98 record was a 10-game improvement over 1998's finish.

This is now: The pond is stocked with talent -- a major-league-high eight prospects on Baseball America's list of the top 100 -- but the team will continue to have to deal away its arbitration-eligible players until it gets a new stadium.

Upside: Antonio Alfonseca was 21-for-25 in saves after taking over for traded Matt Mantei. Mike Lowell, recovered from cancer, is a good bet to lead the team in homers. Ace Alex Fernandez is no longer on the 100-pitch limit he faced last year while coming back from surgery.

Downside: Alex Gonzalez, the first NL rookie All-Star shortstop in 55 years, needs to walk more often than 15 times and cut down on his 27 errors. Mark Kotsay led the majors in outfield assists for a second straight year but can't remain a regular with just 23 RBIs after the All-Star break.

Don't miss : the amateur draft. Look for Florida to pick Xavier Nady, a third baseman at California, with the first pick.

Don't be surprised : if Florida petitions for a transfer to the AL East. In interleague games, the Marlins are 31-18, including a win last July in which it scored seven runs in 3 2/3 innings off Pedro Martinez.

Don't expect : to see manager John Boles with any body piercings -- this year, at least. Boles has promised to get a nipple ring if ace-of-the-future A. J. Burnett wins 20 games.

Web site unseen: www.futealfish.com

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