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BASEBALL 2003

National League East

March 30, 2003|MIKE DiGIOVANNA

In predicted order of finish.

1. Atlanta Braves

Who's new: P Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Paul Byrd, Roberto Hernandez and Ray King, 1B Robert Fick.

Who's gone: P Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Kerry Ligtenberg, Damian Moss and Tim Spooneybarger, OF Darren Bragg, INF Wes Helms and Keith Lockhart.

Strengths: Despite the loss of four pitchers from baseball's best bullpen in 2002, the relief corps, led by closer John Smoltz, should still be among the league's best. An outfield of Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones combined for 86 homers and 278 RBIs last season. A Maddux-led rotation has been overhauled but still looks deep and talented.

Weaknesses: There isn't much run production potential at the corner infield positions and no power threat in the infield. Hampton, put on the disabled list Saturday, is a question: If pitching coach Leo Mazzone can help restore his confidence and delivery, the Braves should be fine; if not, they could be in trouble. Byrd is also on the DL, with a sore elbow.

Outlook: The Braves appear to have excellent chemistry, Sheffield is sound after suffering early-season injuries in 2002, and Javy Lopez has lost about 25 pounds. Atlanta won't run away with the East again but should be strong enough to fend off the Phillies.

At Dodger Stadium: May 12-14.

PROJECTED LINEUP

SS Rafael Furcal

1B Robert Fick

RF Gary Sheffield

LF Chipper Jones

CF Andruw Jones

C Javy Lopez

3B Vinny Castilla

2B Marcus Giles

STARTING PITCHERS

Greg Maddux

Mike Hampton

Russ Ortiz

Paul Byrd

Horacio Ramirez

BULLPEN

John Smoltz

Darren Holmes

Kevin Gryboski

Roberto Hernandez

Ray King

*

2. Philadelphia Phillies

Who's new: 1B Jim Thome, P Kevin Millwood, 3B David Bell, INF Tyler Houston.

Who's gone: 1B Travis Lee, 2B Marlon Anderson, OF Doug Glanville, P Robert Person.

Strengths: Thome, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu, who are in the first year of long-term contracts totaling $199 million, combined for 109 homers and 319 RBIs last season. Bell also hit 20 homers for the Giants in 2002, and Mike Lieberthal is capable of hitting 20 homers. Some thought Millwood was the best pitcher in the Braves' rotation in 2002.

Weaknesses: Who will set the table for the Phillies' muscle? Jimmy Rollins had a .306 on-base percentage in 2002, and he struggled this spring trying to fulfill the Phillies' request that he bunt and hit the ball on the ground more. Closer Jose Mesa set a club record with 45 saves last season but also tied for the major league lead with nine blown saves.

Outlook: If Millwood responds to pressure of being a No. 1 starter, if Randy Wolf remains consistent, if Vicente Padilla pitches like the All-Star he was in 2002 and not one who struggled because of arm problems, if Brandon Duckworth (starting season on DL) pitches as he did in 2001 (3-2, 3.52 ERA) and not 2002 (8-9, 5.41) and Brett Myers fills his potential, the Phillies should challenge Atlanta.

At Dodger Stadium: April 28-May 1.

At Edison Field: June 9-11.

PROJECTED LINEUP

SS Jimmy Rollins

2B Placido Polanco

1B Jim Thome

LF Pat Burrell

RF Bobby Abreu

C Mike Lieberthal

3B David Bell

CF Marlon Byrd

STARTING PITCHERS

Kevin Millwood

Randy Wolf

Vicente Padilla

Brandon Duckworth

Brett Myers

BULLPEN

Jose Mesa

Terry Adams

Dan Plesac

Rheal Cormier

*

3. Florida Marlins

Who's new: C Ivan Rodriguez, OF Juan Pierre and Todd Hollandsworth, P Tim Spooneybarger and P Mark Redman.

Who's gone: C Charles Johnson, OF Preston Wilson, Kevin Millar and Eric Owens, P Julian Tavarez.

Strengths: Luis Castillo and Pierre were the top two NL base stealers in 2002, but speed isn't limited to the top of the order. Juan Encarnacion has the potential to steal 30 bases, Derrek Lee stole 19 last season, and Rodriguez can still run. The defense should be improved with Pierre in center and the strong-armed Encarnacion in right, and all four infielders and the catcher are Gold Glove-caliber.

Weaknesses: They won't generate much power -- they don't play in a hitter's park, and they might not have a player who hits 30 homers this season. Braden Looper lost his closer job early in 2002 but regained it with 13 scoreless innings to close the season. He won't have much room for error with Vladimir Nunez and Spooneybarger behind him.

Outlook: Florida is a popular sleeper pick because of its pitching potential, defense and speed, and if the rotation remains sound, the Marlins could contend for a wild-card berth. But a rotation filled with great young arms has been touted for years; now it's time for pitchers to start winning.

At Dodger Stadium: May 16-18.

PROJECTED LINEUP

2B Luis Castillo

CF Juan Pierre

C Ivan Rodriguez

1B Derrek Lee

3B Mike Lowell

RF Juan Encarnacion

LF Todd Hollandsworth

SS Alex Gonzalez

STARTING PITCHERS

A.J. Burnett

Brad Penny

Josh Beckett

Mark Redman

Carl Pavano

BULLPEN

Braden Looper

Tim Spooneybarger

Vladimir Nunez

Armando Almanza

*

4. New York Mets

Who's new: P Tom Glavine, David Cone, Mike Stanton and Graeme Lloyd, OF Cliff Floyd and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, SS Rey Sanchez, INF Jay Bell.

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