As always, the Atlanta Braves plan to ride their stellar starting rotation right back into the playoffs. Only this time they're counting on a different set of arms.
Tom Glavine is gone. So are Kevin Millwood and Damian Moss.
Brought in to replace them were Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd, as the Braves almost completely retooled the rotation that has carried them to a record 11 consecutive division championships.
''We lost some big names, but we also gained some big names,'' manager Bobby Cox said. ''I think we're strong as ever.''
The Braves did keep their ace, signing 36-year-old Greg Maddux to a $14.75 million deal -- the biggest one-year contract in baseball history.
Maddux has looked sharp all spring, but the starters behind him will determine whether Atlanta can hold off the improved Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets in the NL East. Hampton and Byrd are starting the season on the disabled list.
Philadelphia added free-agent slugger Jim Thome and grabbed Millwood, an 18-game winner last year, in a lopsided trade for minor league catcher Johnny Estrada.
Glavine, who spent the past 16 seasons in Atlanta, left to sign with the rival Mets, who figure to bounce back from a last-place finish.
''For years, I had to answer questions about other teams trying to catch the Braves,'' Glavine said. ''Now I'm on one of those teams trying to catch the Braves.''
Houston should win the Central after adding 2000 NL MVP Jeff Kent.
He joins a powerful lineup that already included Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, making the Astros good enough to finally advance past the opening round of the playoffs and all the way to their first World Series.
''We were a step or two from being champions and this is going to help,'' owner Drayton McLane said.
The West shapes up as a compelling three-team race between the NL champion San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the aging Arizona Diamondbacks.
A healthy Kevin Brown can pitch the Dodgers to the division title, while Barry Bonds -- fresh off his first trip to the Series -- and a slew of new teammates give the Giants the wild card again.
''I just hope that we're able to stay in contention, that's the most important thing,'' Bonds said. ''I just hope all the changes, they were the right changes.''
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
Hampton (7-15, 6.15 ERA) is the biggest question mark for the Braves after two awful seasons in Colorado, and his season will be delayed by a strained right calf.
If he can regain the nasty sinker and supreme confidence that made him one of the best pitchers in the league before signing a $121 million deal with the Rockies, Atlanta will win its 12th straight division title.
Ortiz (14-10, 3.61 for San Francisco) and Byrd (17-11, 3.90 with Kansas City) each surpassed 200 innings last year. Maddux (16-6, 2.62) will try to become the first pitcher in baseball history to win at least 15 games in 16 consecutive seasons.
The outfield of Gary Sheffield (.307, 25 HRs, 84 RBIs, 23 SBs), Chipper Jones (.327, 26, 100) and Andruw Jones (.264, 35, 94) anchors the lineup. Robert Fick (17 HRs, 36 2Bs for Detroit) should add some punch at first base.
The overhauled bullpen is a concern except for John Smoltz (55 saves) -- the last holdover from the 1991 team that started the streak of division championships.
The Phillies are coming off their 14th losing record in 16 years, but they should challenge Atlanta in their final season at Veterans Stadium.
An $85 million, six-year deal lured Thome (.304, 52, 118, .445 OBP) away from Cleveland. The suddenly free-spending Phillies also added third baseman David Bell and locked up young slugger Pat Burrell (.282, 37, 116) with a $50 million, six-year extension.
Millwood (18-8, 3.24) gives the team its first true ace since Curt Schilling was traded, and Vicente Padilla (14-11, 3.28) is a nice No. 2 starter.
The bullpen is the biggest problem. Jose Mesa (45 saves) must be reliable.
New York Mets
The Mets made a concerted effort to bring some classy guys into the clubhouse, but if that doesn't translate into wins on the field GM Steve Phillips could lose his job.
Glavine (18-11, 2.96), who will be 37 when the season starts, faded in the second half last year. The two-time Cy Young winner must show he still has enough left to lead a pitching staff.
Cliff Floyd (.288, 28, 79 with Florida, Montreal and Boston) could have a big year batting between Roberto Alomar and Mike Piazza.
The Mets are counting on Roger Cedeno, Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz to bounce back from extremely disappointing seasons. The defense (league-worst 144 errors) is still shaky, but the bullpen is solid.
Mellow manager Art Howe might be just the right guy for this bunch.
This should finally be the Expos' last season in Montreal. They play 22 ''home'' games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to try to increase revenue, and baseball hopes to pick a city for them to move to by the All-Star break.
Wherever they wind up -- Portland, Ore., Washington and northern Virginia are the leading candidates -- the Expos could bring the core of a promising young team.
Vladimir Guerrero (.336, 39, 111, 40 SBs) and Jose Vidro (.315, 19, 96) are two of baseball's most exciting players -- although Guerrero is eligible for free agency after the season. GM Omar Minaya was forced to trade 20-game winner Bartolo Colon, but the rotation is still capable if healthy.
No. 1 starter Javier Vazquez and right-hander Orlando Hernandez could miss the start of the season with injuries. Former World Series MVP Livan Hernandez, Orlando's half brother, was acquired from San Francisco late in spring training.
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson is back for his second season as manager.
Florida is still waiting for all its talented young pitchers to emerge and could struggle in a strong division.
All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez (.314, 19, 60 with Texas) was signed to provide stability and help sell tickets.
Josh Beckett hopes to overcome the blister problems that slowed his development last season. A.J. Burnett (12-9, 3.30, 203 Ks) paces a hard-throwing rotation.
The Astros have won the division four times since 1997, but never advanced to the NLCS. This could be the year.
Biggio, a four-time Gold Glove second baseman, agreed to move to center field to make room for Kent (.313, 37, 108 for San Francisco), who figures to enjoy the short left-field porch at homer-happy Minute Maid Park.
Good luck getting through a 3-4-5 trio that also includes Bagwell (.291, 31, 98) and Berkman (.292, 42, 128, .405 OBP).
Roy Oswalt (19-9, 3.01, 208 Ks) could win the Cy Young Award. He and Wade Miller (15-4, 3.28, 144 Ks) have the stuff to dominate a playoff series.
The bullpen is terrific, with closer Billy Wagner (35/41 saves) and setup man Octavio Dotel (6-4, 1.85).
Sammy Sosa is one home run shy of 500 and the Cubs are not far from contending after stockpiling young talent the last few years.
Kerry Wood (12-11, 3.66, 217 Ks) and Mark Prior (6-6, 3.32, 147 Ks) provide a hard-throwing 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Matt Clement (12-11, 3.60, 215 Ks) also appears ready to come into his own. Closer Antonio Alfonseca will miss the first month of the season with a hamstring injury.
On offense, Sosa (.288, 49, 108) needs more help from Moises Alou (.275, 15, 61).
Three-time NL manager of the year Dusty Baker brings a winning attitude from San Francisco. He'll have to be patient, however -- this team is probably a year or two away.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals pulled together after the death of pitcher Darryl Kile last season and reached the NLCS. It's hard to anticipate them going that far again.
Matt Morris (17-9, 3.42) is the staff ace, but there are questions about the back end of the rotation and in the bullpen. Woody Williams (9-4, 2.53 in 17 starts) must stay healthy.
Albert Pujols (.314, 34, 127) has crushed the ball all spring, and All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen (.266, 31, 110) is ready for his first full season in St. Louis.
Center fielder Jim Edmonds is already banged up and closer Jason Isringhausen (32/38 saves) will probably start the season on the disabled list following shoulder surgery.
The Pirates could have their first winning season since 1992.
GM Dave Littlefield made some fiscally shrewd moves in the offseason, signing RHP Jeff Suppan and ex-Giants OFs Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders (.250, 23, 85) for bargain prices.
Lofton and Sanders seem to win no matter where they go. They join two-time All-Star Brian Giles (.298, 38, 103, .450 OBP) in the outfield. Look for 3B Aramis Ramirez to have a bounce-back season.
Kris Benson (9-6, 4.70) appears fully recovered from elbow surgery two years ago and will start opening day. The rest of the young rotation has shown promise, and unheralded Mike Williams (46/50 saves) is one of the league's best closers.
As the Reds move into a new ballpark, they hope Ken Griffey Jr. finds his old swing.
Junior (.264, 8, 23) had only 197 at-bats last year because of hamstring injuries and has been a major disappointment since coming home to Cincinnati before the 2000 season. But he's had a huge -- and healthy -- spring training.
Adam Dunn (.400 OBP, 26, 71) and Austin Kearns (.315, 13, 56 in 107 games) round out a nice outfield.
Closer Danny Graves (32 saves) is being converted into a starter, which says an awful lot about the rotation. Jimmy Haynes (15-10, 4.12) is the best of the bunch.
New manager Ned Yost, a former backup catcher for the Brewers, wanted this job badly. Well, here it is.
Richie Sexson (.279, 29, 102) is the lone bright spot on offense. Ben Sheets (11-16, 4.15, 170 Ks) looks to rebound from a sophomore slump.
Yost was a coach in Atlanta the past 12 years so he'll have to get used to losing -- a lot. The Brewers set a franchise record with 106 losses last season, and it could get even worse.
Los Angeles Dodgers
A deep pitching staff could put the Dodgers in the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
High-priced starters Brown and Darren Dreifort, both coming off serious injuries, appear healthy and confident. Odalis Perez (15-10, 3.00) flirted with a perfect game three times last year and is poised for a breakout season.
Hideo Nomo (16-6, 3.39, 193 Ks) and Kazuhisa Ishii (14-10, 4.27) are also back.
The offense will probably still struggle to score runs at times, although Fred McGriff (.273, 30, 103 with the Cubs) should provide more protection for slugger Shawn Green (.285, 42, 114).
Rookie second baseman Joe Thurston hit .334 at Triple-A last season, Brian Jordan (.285, 18, 80) is a winner and Jim Tracy is a bright manager.
The bullpen is missing an experienced lefty, but GM Dan Evans has plenty of time to shop.
San Francisco Giants
Bonds, the only five-time MVP in baseball history, came within six outs of a World Series title last year. Now he wants another chance.
The lineup around him looks completely different: Kent, Bell, Sanders and Lofton are gone, while Ray Durham, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jose Cruz Jr. and Marquis Grissom have arrived.
Alfonzo (.308, 16, 56 with the Mets) will bat behind Bonds, hoping to prevent pitchers from walking him a record 198 times again -- 68 intentional.
Jason Schmidt (13-8, 3.45, 196 Ks) has the stuff to be a true No. 1 starter. Robb Nen (43 saves) still anchors a solid bullpen.
Felipe Alou, 67, replaces Baker in the dugout.
Winners of three NL West titles in four years, this team always has a chance because of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. But Arizona is getting old.
Still looking for reliable starters to follow their two aces, the Diamondbacks added Elmer Dessens (7-8, 3.03 for Cincinnati) and moved reliever Byung-Hyun Kim (8-3, 2.04, 36 saves) into the rotation.
That leaves questions about the bullpen, where Matt Mantei is trying to return from elbow surgery and assume the closer's role again.
Luis Gonzalez (.288, 28, 103) is coming off a shoulder injury, and the rest of the lineup could come up short. The trade of Erubiel Durazo might come back to hurt this organization.
Jason Jennings took home Rookie of the Year honors after winning 16 games for Colorado, but offense still rules at Coors Field.
Todd Helton (.329, 30, 109) and Larry Walker (.338, 26, 104) anchor a lineup filled with sluggers. The acquisitions of Preston Wilson and catcher Charles Johnson from Florida should help.
Jose Jimenez (41/47 saves) is an underrated closer, but contending in this division is a long shot.
San Diego Padres
The Padres probably wish spring training never started.
They lost slugger Phil Nevin for the entire season and All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman until at least the middle of the year because of shoulder operations.
Ryan Klesko (.300, 29, 95) is the only big bat in the lineup. Maybe Rondell White, recently acquired from the Yankees, will help.
There's hope for the future in third baseman Sean Burroughs, outfielder Xavier Nady and pitcher Brian Lawrence (12-12, 3.69), but the Padres could challenge Milwaukee for the worst record in the league.
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