NL pennant favorite: There’s plenty of teams to choose

Apr 2, 2002 6:13 AM

While the New York Yankees and Seattle look to be the elite teams in the  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 in  strikeouts  and ERA. There is decent pitching depth with Brian Anderson, Miguel Batista and  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 Womack.

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 1998-99.

Jason  Marquis, 23, a hard-throwing hurler  on the verge of stardom. Marquis needs to improve his control  (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 was  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,  Alou and a crop of gifted young pitchers in Kerry Wood, Jon Lieber, Kyle Farnsworth and rookie Juan Cruz. The Cubs  rolled the dice by adding closer  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,  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 at  shortstop and the leadoff  position, but big years from Jordan, Green, Ishii or Nomo  may make skeptics forget Sheffield.