While the New York Yankees and Seattle look to be the elite
teams in theÂ AL, the National
League race is a bit more wide open.
Arizona: The defending champions didn’t lose many
key contributors and have a legitimate chance to repeat. The D-Backs are led by
the top 1-2 punch of Curt Schilling (22-6) and Randy Johnson (21-6). Arizona, if
healthy, can beat anyone in a five or seven game playoff series. Age is a
concern, but last year Johnson and Schilling were 1-2 inÂ
strikeoutsÂ and ERA. There is
decent pitching depth with Brian Anderson, Miguel Batista andÂ
newcomer Rick Helling. Todd Stottlemyre would provide a big lift if he
can return from two seasons of arm injuries.
The Diamondbacks only lost one key player in outfielder
Reggie Sanders (33 homers). Erubial Durazo (12 HR in 175 AB) has the talent to
fill that void, though he will miss the first six weeks. Arizona still has CF
Steve Finley and the remarkable Luis Gonzalez (57 HR, 142 RBI, 100 walks, .327
BA), who has blossomed into one of the game’s best offensive threats.
The infield is loaded with quality veterans who are
unselfish team players, like 1B Mark Grace, 2B Craig Counsell and SS Tony
The bullpen is average and will be upgraded when closer
Matt Mantei returns in May. Last year’s set-up man/closer Byung-Hyun Kim will
be watched closely. Kim put up terrific numbers last season, striking out 113 in
98 innings, allowing only 58 hits with a 2.94 ERA. But Kim surrendered 10 homers
during the regular season and two memorable World Series bombs, which blew Games
4 and 5.
Atlanta: The Braves are always a threat as long as
Greg Maddux (17-11, 3.05) and Tom Glavine (16-7, 3.57) are atop the rotation.
Kevin Millwood only needs good health to get back to his stopper-status of
23, a hard-throwing hurlerÂ on the
verge of stardom. Marquis needs to improve his controlÂ
(59 walks), but he struck out 98 batters in 129 innings and yielded just
113 hits. The bullpen is strong and the defense is terrific.
The Braves made a big splash to shore up a weak offense by
acquiring Gary Sheffield (36 HRs, 100 RBI) from Los Angeles. Sheffield combines
with CF Andruw Jones (34 HRs, 104 RBI) and Chipper Jones (.330, 38 HRs) to form
the best outfield in baseball.
St. Louis: The Cardinals are loaded. There’s
plenty of starting pitching depth with Darryl Kile, Matt Morris, Garrett
Stephenson, Woody Williams and young lefties Bud Smith and Rick Ankiel. Rookie
of the Year Albert Pujols (37 HRs, 47 doubles, 130 RBI and a .329 average) and
acquisition Tino Martinez (34 HR last year with NewYork) lead a solid blend of
veteran, young talent. Tony LaRussa’s squad, which tied Houston for most wins
in the league (93), look even better going into 2002.
Houston: The Astros have old reliable Jeff Bagwell
and Craig Biggio leading the offense, behind a slew of talented kid pitchers in
Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Tim Redding and Octavio Dotel. The farm system is among
the best in baseball. The only significant loss wasÂ
Moises Alou, who heads to the Cubs.
Chicago: Those lovable Cubs haven’t won the World
Series since 1908 and are currently 12-1. Those odds are realistic with Sammy
Sosa, Fred McGriff,Â Alou and a crop
of gifted young pitchers in Kerry Wood, Jon Lieber, Kyle Farnsworth and rookie
Juan Cruz. The CubsÂ rolled the dice
by adding closerÂ Antonio Alfonseca.
Los Angeles: The Dodgers had everything go wrong last year and still won 86 games. Catcher Paul LoDuca is an emerging young star (.320, 25 HRs), as is 23-year old 3B Adrian Beltre. Outfielder Brian Jordan, acquired from Atlanta in the Sheffield deal,Â hopes to team with Shawn Green (49 HRs, 125 RBI) to offset loss. The pitching staff is deep, but Kevin Brown, Andy Ashby and Eric Gagne all coming off arm trouble. The Dodgers added Hideo Nomo, Odalis Perez and Omar Daal, but the key could be heralded 28-year old Kazuhisa Ishii. L.A. has holes atÂ shortstop and the leadoffÂ position, but big years from Jordan, Green, Ishii or NomoÂ may make skeptics forget Sheffield.