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National League outlook
Which team holds the best hand?

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Yep, the Braves are still pretty darn good.

And though they strengthened their offense by signing Gary Sheffield during the offseason, it might not be enough to keep pace with a rising group of talented teams in the National League or propel them to a championship.

"But this is a situation," Sheffield said, "I'm sure any player would love to be in."

The Braves are only one reason the NL will be so enjoyable to follow this season.

Mets fans are praying for another Subway Series after general manager Steve Phillips bought a contender during the offseason.

Phillips lured Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn and Jeremy Burnitz and ... well there's almost too many to list. And while nothing is guaranteed in a league as wide open as it has been in years, the Mets will be tough if everything comes together.

But they'll have to contend with Atlanta, Philadelphia and possible sleeper, Florida, in the East. The Astros and Cardinals should again fight each other for the NL Central though there's a possibility of a surprise appearance by the Cubs, who added Moises Alou to an improving batting order.

The Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series thanks to a bloop single by Tampa-native Luis Gonzalez and will have the Giants to deal with in the NL West though Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson proved they could carry a team whose average age is 34.

But it's St. Louis that appears to have everything in place to vie for a World Series.

From top to bottom, the Cardinals are the most well-balanced club in the league. Tino Martinez, signed as a free agent from the Yankees, brings much needed experience and stability and talent to St. Louis. He should compliment the likes of rookie of the year Albert Pujols, who must avoid the sophomore slump, J.D. Drew and Jim Edmonds.

But back to the Braves.

They've still got pitching. They've still won 10 consecutive division championships. And they haven't won a World Series in six years.

Will it reach seven? Stay tuned.

East

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Out of Los Angeles and with a winner, Gary Sheffield is finally content. The always consistent and durable rightfielder could be just what Atlanta needs to get it an 11th consecutive division title and back to the World Series.

MANAGER ON THE SPOT: Mets GM Steve Phillips went out and bought a contender this offseason. It's up to Bobby Valentine to get this team, which now includes Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar, to play up to its potential.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Would the Rays choose Josh Beckett over the now injury-slowed Josh Hamilton if they had it to do over again? Who knows. But Beckett is in the majors. He never has had an ERA higher than 2.32 in the minors and brings a 97-mph fastball, good curveball and changeup to the Marlins rotation.

Central

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: There's no bigger shadow to try to escape than Mark McGwire's. But Tino Martinez could do it with the Cardinals, who are hoping he can play regularly at first base and duplicate his consistently solid numbers.

MANAGER ON THE SPOT: New manager Jimy Williams will try to do what Larry Dierker couldn't in Houston before he was fired -- win in the playoffs. The loss of Vinny Castilla and Moises Alou hurt, but Williams still has plenty of talent to work with.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: By adding a solid slider and changeup to his 97-mph fastball, Juan Cruz has the potential to lead the Cubs staff this season. The right-hander went 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings with Chicago last season.

West

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: He is 38 years old and coming off a magnificent season in which he set a single-season home run mark with 73, had a .328 average, a .863 slugging percentage, 137 RBIs and 177 walks. Can Barry Bonds do it again?

MANAGER ON THE SPOT: The Giants always seem to be on the cusp of the playoffs. If only Dusty Baker, who's terribly underrated and did his best job in 2001, can get them into the playoffs after a couple near misses.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: You may remember him best as the chunky kid who helped Long Beach to Little League World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. Sean Burroughs is 21 years old now and a pure hitter. Notice his .322 average in 104 games in Triple-A last season.

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