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SPRING TRAINING 2004

THE BALTIMORE SUN

National League East

Atlanta Braves

Manager: Bobby Cox

2003 finish: 101-61 (first place)

On deck: The Braves are in an unusual position, needing to find a fourth starter to fill out a questionable starting rotation. The departure of free agent Greg Maddux leaves them with just reliever John Smoltz from the days when Atlanta perennially had the best pitching staff in baseball.

Changing places: Maddux is gone, and so is star outfielder Gary Sheffield, who signed with the Yankees. J.D. Drew was acquired from the Cardinals along with Eli Marrero for pitchers Ray King, Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright. Pitchers Antonio Alfonseca and Armando Almanza and catcher Eddie Perez signed as free agents.

Long-range outlook: This might be the first time in recent memory that the Braves are not viewed as the consensus NL East favorite, but they still have a solid offensive team and decent pitching depth. Don't count them out.

Florida Marlins

Manager: Jack McKeon

2003 finish: 91-71 (second place, wild-card winner, World Series champion)

On deck: The defending World Series champions went through their usual offseason contortions, losing Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina (among others) to free agency, but those great young starting pitchers are a year older, so who knows? Will A.J. Burnett bounce back from elbow ligament replacement surgery? Can Dontrelle Willis take the next step? It could be an interesting spring.

Changing places: Acquired first baseman Hee Seop Choi. Signed free-agent reliever Armando Benitez. Lost Rodriguez, starting pitcher Mark Redman, first baseman Lee, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and relievers Urbina, Braden Looper and Armando Almanza.

Long-range outlook: A great young pitcher, Josh Beckett, got the Marlins to the mountaintop last year, but a lot has to go right to get them back to the playoffs. Benitez has to re-establish himself as a top-flight closer, Choi has to prove he's a major league run producer and Ramon Castro has to adequately replace Rodriguez, which is a lot to ask.

Montreal Expos

Manager: Frank Robinson

2003 finish: 83-79 (fourth place)

On deck: The big question mark of the spring is promising pitcher Tony Armas, who underwent surgery last May and needs to fill the void left when Javier Vazquez was dealt to the Yankees. The Expos also have to hope that newcomers Nick Johnson, Tony Batista and Carl Everett can make everyone forget that the Expos' lineup used to feature Vladimir Guerrero.

Changing places: Acquired outfielder Everett. Signed free-agent third baseman Batista. Acquired first baseman Johnson in multi-player deal that sent Vazquez to the Yankees.

Long-range outlook: The Expos have been surprisingly solid the past few years, in spite of their annual talent drain, but this could be the year that they fall off the map. Too much has to go right and too many youngsters have to step up just to keep them mildly competitive.

New York Mets

Manager: Art Howe

2003 finish: 66-95 (fifth place)

On deck: This will be another spring when the Mets can only hope that they get a couple of headlines in the New York tabloids. They acquired Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui and signed a few veteran free agents, but the big story of camp probably will be Mike Piazza's ability to play regularly at first base.

Changing places: Signed Matsui as a free agent. Signed free-agent outfielders Mike Cameron and Karim Garcia and reliever Braden Looper.

Long-range outlook: The Mets went into last spring with unrealistic hopes of contending in the NL East. No such delusion will survive the spring this year. The Mets are depending heavily on Matsui to make them marketable during what probably will be another sub-.500 season.

Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Larry Bowa

2003 finish: 86-76 (third place)

On deck: This should be an upbeat spring for the Phillies, who move into a new spring training ballpark to get ready to move into a new stadium in April. The acquisition of closer Billy Wagner from the Astros and starter Eric Milton from the Twins should flesh out the pitching staff nicely.

Changing places: Wagner was acquired from Houston for pitcher Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers. Milton was acquired from the Twins for pitcher Carlos Silva and infielder Nick Punto. Signed free-agent pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Tim Worrell, utility player Shawn Wooten and outfielder Doug Glanville. Chose not to exercise options on pitchers Jose Mesa and Mike Williams. Allowed pitchers Terry Adams and Turk Wendell to become free agents.

Long-range outlook: The Phillies finally have the pitching depth to go into the season as the favorite to win the division title. The addition of Milton gives them four starters who won at least 14 games last year and four starters who have been to the All-Star Game in their careers. Wagner could be key to a big season in a new ballpark.

National League Central

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dusty Baker

2003 finish: 88-74 (first place)

On deck: The Cubs are coming off a big 2003 season and they've gotten better at first base (Derrek Lee) and in their rotation (Greg Maddux). Now, if center fielder Corey Patterson is all the way back from knee surgery, the Cubs may be ready for another neck-and-neck race with the greatly improved Astros.

Changing places: Lee was acquired from the Marlins for first baseman Hee Seop Choi. Signed pitcher LaTroy Hawkins. Traded catcher Damian Miller. Signed free-agent infielder Todd Walker. Signed free-agent pitcher Maddux.

Long-range outlook: The Cubs will go as far as their even stronger rotation will take them. There is some concern that a grueling 2003 season may have taken a toll on the young nucleus of the pitching staff, but there are about 29 teams that would trade their starters for Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Maddux, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Dave Miley

2003 finish: 69-93 (fifth place)

On deck: There will be plenty of intrigue this spring, with Ken Griffey coming off the disabled list again and Danny Graves jumping back from the starting rotation to the closer role. Look for Miley to spend his first spring as manager trying to instill some fundamentals in a team that ranked last in the majors in fielding last year.

Changing places: Signed starting pitcher Cory Lidle as a free agent. Outfielder Reggie Taylor and left-hander Mike Matthews are in camp as nonroster invitees.

Long-range outlook: The Reds have some pop, until something goes pop during spring training. Eleven players - including offensive cornerstones Adam Dunn, Griffey and Austin Kearns - ended the season on the disabled list. Those three are expected to be ready for spring training. If they are healthy all year, the Reds could feature an interesting attack to go with a questionable pitching staff.

Houston Astros

Manager: Jimy Williams

2003 finish: 87-75 (second place)

On deck: The Astros have every reason to be excited about the opening of pitcher and catcher workouts. They signed two of the top pitchers in the game over the winter - Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens - to go with solid young starters Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. The lineup already is set, so the only question is whether Octavio Dotel can hold down the closer role.

Changing places: Signed Pettitte and Clemens as free agents. Traded reliever Billy Wagner to the Phillies for pitcher Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers. Signed utility player Orlando Palmeiro and reliever Dave Veres.

Long-range outlook: The Astros fell one game short in the NL Central last year, so the addition of two starting pitchers who combined for 38 victories last year should make them a favorite to outdistance the Cubs.

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Ned Yost

2003 finish: 68-94 (sixth place)

On deck: The Brewers spent the offseason rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but who cares? They make enough money in revenue sharing that they don't have to worry about it, and the club's most pressing issue is its potential sale. Discerning fans eventually will notice that they traded slugger Richie Sexson, who was the only reason to go to the ballpark last year.

Changing places: Dealt first baseman Sexson to the Diamondbacks for Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano and Jorge de la Rosa. Signed Ben Grieve to a non-guaranteed contract. Signed free-agent catcher Gary Bennett.

Long-range outlook: Abandon hope, all ye who enter Miller Park. The Brewers used to have this big, tall guy who hit a lot of home runs, but they replaced him with a whole bunch of people who are about as recognizable as the grounds crew. Fans can only hope the sale of the team happens quickly.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Lloyd McClendon

2003 finish: 75-87 (fourth place)

On deck: The Pirates didn't have much of an offseason either and entered the final week before spring training picking over the players still available in the free-agent market. The club will spend the spring deciding who will be the closer and hoping that promising young starter Sean Burnett will prove ready for prime time.

Changing places: Signed free-agent infielder Chris Stynes. Claimed right-hander Jason Boyd off waivers from Indians. Signed free agents Juan Acevedo and Daryle Ward to minor league contracts.

Long-range outlook: The Pirates have slashed their payroll to about $38 million this year. They figure to get what they pay for.

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Tony La Russa

2003 finish: 85-77 (third place)

On deck: La Russa has a big job this spring. He must fashion a competitive pitching staff with a fraction of the talent of the Cardinals' two main division rivals.

Changing places: Traded outfielder J.D. Drew and utility player Eli Marrero to the Braves for pitchers Ray King, Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright. Traded first baseman Tino Martinez to the Devil Rays. Signed free-agent pitchers Julian Tavarez and Jeff Suppan, second baseman Marlon Anderson and outfielder Reggie Sanders. Ray Lankford and Greg Vaughn will be in camp as nonroster invitees. Lost Fernando Vina, Brett Tomko, Miguel Cairo and Orlando Palmeiro to free agency.

Long-range outlook: The Cardinals appear to have been reduced to the status of a second-tier team in the NL Central, with the Cubs and Astros both featuring outstanding starting rotations. St. Louis still has some pop, with Albert Pujols at the heart of the lineup, but looks like a lock to finish third.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

Arizona Diamondbacks

Manager: Bob Brenly

2003 finish: 84-78 (third place)

On deck: The Diamondbacks have upgraded their offense after hitting a franchise-low 152 home runs last season, but they did it at the expense of the pitching staff. Richie Sexson will fit right into the heart of the lineup, but the club is going to miss right-hander Curt Schilling.

Changing places: Schilling was traded to the Red Sox. Sexson was acquired from the Brewers for Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano and Jorge de la Rosa. Signed free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar, catcher Brent Mayne and pitchers Shane Reynolds and Steve Sparks. Lost starting pitcher Miguel Batista to free agency.

Long-range outlook: The Diamondbacks finished 16 1/2 games behind the Giants last year and gave up one of the most overpowering starting pitchers in the game, but they should be a more explosive offensive team.

Colorado Rockies

Manager: Clint Hurdle

2003 finish: 74-88 (fourth place)

On deck: The Rockies will be a little like the Orioles in one respect. They've got to build a rotation around one established starter, young Jason Jennings. There will be eight pitchers competing for the other four spots in the rotation. All-Star Shawn Chacon has come out of the rotation to assume the closer role.

Changing places: Did not re-sign third baseman Chris Stynes. Did not tender a contract to outfielder Jay Payton. Traded shortstop Juan Uribe to the White Sox for second baseman Aaron Miles. Signed free agents Jeromy Burnitz, Royce Clayton and Vinny Castilla. Also signed several other veteran players to minor league contracts.

Long-range outlook: The front office spent another winter shuffling the roster, but the Rockies still look like a middle-of-the-pack team. Burnitz is on the upswing, giving the offense another big bat, but the pitching situation is just too uncertain.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Manager: Jim Tracy

2003 finish: 85-77 (second place)

On deck: The major issue at the moment is not on the field. New owner Frank McCourt is in the process of restructuring the front office, which could create uncertainty and instability this spring.

Changing places: Traded starter Kevin Brown to the Yankees for Jeff Weaver. Lost Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Jordan and Paul Quantrill to free agency. Acquired outfielders Bubba Trammell and Juan Encarnacion.

Long-range outlook: If Weaver can collect himself after a bad experience in New York, the pitching staff should be able to weather the loss of Brown. It will be hard not to be competitive with the most overpowering closer in the history of the game in Eric Gagne.

San Diego Padres

Manager: Bruce Bochy

2003 finish: 64-98 (fifth place)

On deck: The Padres move into their new ballpark in April, and all they have to do over the next few weeks is figure out how to furnish it. New starter David Wells will be the physical question mark of the spring. Bochy will try to figure out how he's going to configure his outfield and whether he will hand the shortstop position to top prospect Khalil Greene or veteran Rey Ordonez.

Changing places: Signed Wells as a free agent. Traded for catcher Ramon Hernandez. Acquired Jeff Cirillo from the Mariners for Wiki Gonzalez, Kevin Jarvis, Dave Hansen and a minor leaguer. Signed free-agent outfielder Jay Payton.

Long-range outlook: The Padres can only hope to catch lightning in a bottle in new Petco Park, with late-season acquisition Brian Giles around for the duration and Cirillo hoping to recapture his old form. They should improve on last year's 64-win performance -- especially if Wells is healthy -- but won't be a real player in the NL West.

San Francisco Giants

Manager: Felipe Alou

2003 finish: 100-61 (first place)

On deck: The likelihood of successfully defending their division title may come down to the health of ace Jason Schmidt and closer Robb Nen. If both pitchers are effective, the Giants should weather the offseason loss of several veteran free agents.

Changing places: Acquired catcher A.J. Pierzynski from the Twins for reliever Joe Nathan and prospect Boof Bonser. Lost shortstop Rich Aurilia, outfielder Jose Cruz and closer Tim Worrell to free agency. Signed free-agent starting pitcher Brett Tomko.

Long-range outlook: The best thing going for the Giants is that the Dodgers and Diamondbacks each traded one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. That's going to make it tough for two teams that finished well behind San Francisco last year.

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