1. ATLANTA BRAVES
TO BE CONTINUED Over the past five seasons, Atlanta has been at
least 52 wins better than every other team in baseball. And
there's not even a hint of a decline. Among its starting eight,
its five-man rotation and its closer, only one player, first
baseman Fred McGriff, is older than 30. The entire world
championship team is back except for three reserve players, the
fifth starter and a reliever. The Braves are so well run that
their 1996 payroll of $47 million, including bonus payments, is
$200,000 less than last year's.
FAB FOUR FACTS Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve
Avery already have 304 1/3 combined innings of postseason
experience. (It wasn't until March that one of them, Glavine,
turned 30.) They are a combined 19-12 with a 3.22 ERA in 50
playoff and World Series appearances. Smoltz, who never has won
more than 15 games or been better than five games over .500,
looks ready for a career year. He blew away spring training
hitters with such force that manager Bobby Cox said he was "as
close to unhittable as anyone I've ever seen."
THE FIFTH BEATLE That would be Jason Schmidt, 23, who replaces
Kent Mercker in what for every other team is the low-profile job
of fifth starter. Not here. "It's a lot to live up to," says the
hard-throwing Schmidt, who spent a couple of months with Atlanta
in 1995. "Last year I was so nervous I could hardly stand up on
the mound. Now I feel comfortable, like I belong here." Alas,
Schmidt isn't a perfect fit--he doesn't play golf like the rest
of the guys in the rotation. "He's a grunge rocker," Glavine
says of Schmidt, who travels with his guitar.
SIGNS OF THE FUTURE In an attempt to ensure that their dominance
continues into the next millennium, the Braves signed third
baseman Chipper Jones for four years ($8.25 million, with an
option for a fifth year at $3.75 million) and tried to do
likewise with leftfielder Ryan Klesko ($9 million over four
years, plus an option for $4.5 million in the fifth). Klesko's
agent, Randy Hendricks, rejected the deal, saying, "Just because
Chipper Jones made a bad deal doesn't mean Ryan Klesko needs to
make a bad deal."
OUTLOOK Atlanta gets the Olympics and the World Series three
2. NEW YORK METS
LISTEN UP Moises Alou of the Expos was walking behind the
outfield wall at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach, Fla.,
last month when he heard one loud crack after another. "I
thought, It isn't time for batting practice," said Alou. When he
reached the end of the wall and peered into the stadium, he
discovered it wasn't batting practice. It was the sound of New
York rookie righthander Paul Wilson warming up in the bullpen.
The Mets are promoting Wilson, 23; righthander Jason
Isringhausen, 23; and lefthander Bill Pulsipher, 22, who injured
his left elbow and will be out a couple of weeks, as the
Untouchables. With the nasty break on Isringhausen's
knucklecurve, the sizzle on Pulsipher's fastball and the decibel
level on Wilson's heater, they could also be known as Snap,
Crackle, Pop. "That guy Isringhauser looks like something
special," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who'll quickly
become more familiar with this kid's name.
WHY IT'S GREAT TO BE YOUNG AND A METS PITCHER New York has
smartly backed its young staff with a solid defense, improved by
the additions of dazzling rookie shortstop Rey Ordonez and
veteran centerfielder Lance Johnson, who will be the best of the
Mets' nine Opening Day centerfielders over the past nine years.
WHY IT'S NOT GREAT TO BE YOUNG AND A METS PITCHER Nobody on the
club has ever hit more than 22 home runs or driven in more than
80 runs. How the pitchers deal with feeble run support will be
the key to their development.
OUTLOOK A buzz is back at Shea Stadium, bringing needed cheer to
the drabbest park in the majors.
3. FLORIDA MARLINS
THE FRANCHISE PLAYER No player in the league will have more of
an impact on his team than Marlins rightfielder Gary Sheffield,
who too often is battling health problems or the law. Florida
could grab the National League wild-card spot or finish in last
place--depending on Sheffield's availability. In the only season
in which he played more than 140 games (1992), he nearly won the
Triple Crown. The Marlins have seen what he can do if he plays
150 games: 43 dingers, 124 RBIs and a .295 batting average. Of
course, those are his numbers over the last two years combined.
THE MONEY PIT Florida shelled out $21.5 million for 31-year-old
righthander Kevin Brown and 30-year-old lefthander Al Leiter,
each of whom was 17-18 over the past two years. (Leiter also led
the American League in walks last year, has never made 30 starts
in a season and is 33-32 lifetime.) They should complement
righthander John Burkett, 31, another veteran with a losing
record over the past two years (20-22).
OUTLOOK Florida is still closer to .500 than the postseason.
4. MONTREAL EXPOS
EXPECTATIONS By giving a six-year contract to centerfielder
Rondell White, 24, Montreal showed it may be shutting down Expos
University, where talented young players put in four or five
years in Montreal before moving on to better-paying jobs with
other teams. White, who hit .295 with 13 home runs and 57 RBIs
last year, "can surely be the best player this organization has
produced," says Expos manager Felipe Alou.
EXODUS Signing White will only seem to be a conflicting signal
if Montreal, as expected, deals lefthanded starter Jeff Fassero
during the season. Fassero is a 43-37 lifetime pitcher pulling
down $2.8 million.
OUTLOOK A low-voltage lineup and lack of depth keeps Montreal
out of contention.
5. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
HIGH MAINTENANCE "Dude, let me show you what I'm driving,"
Phillies centerfielder Lenny Dykstra says. "I had to wait eight
months for it. There are only five others in the whole country."
And who might be driving those? "Ah, some rich dudes," says
Dykstra, as he proudly displays his spring training commuter
car, a powder-blue Bentley convertible. Price: $380,000. Like
his wheels, Dykstra is a rarity: A dynamo of a leadoff hitter
who is the heart of his team. Problem is, Dykstra has spent too
much time in the shop. He didn't start 39% of the Phillies'
games over the past five years. Philadelphia played .539 ball
with him and .425 without him. Ominously, now he has a
chronically sore back.
MOUND OF TROUBLE The Phillies brought 31 pitchers to camp, four
of whom were coming off serious arm injuries and none of whom
had won more than 10 or saved more than seven games last year.
The Phils' most reliable starter might be Sid Fernandez, who
hasn't made it through a season without a minor league rehab
assignment since 1992.
OUTLOOK As part of a new spring training regimen to stave off
injuries, the Phillies regularly walked over and under a long
row of wooden sawhorses. Picture the grace with which portly
pitchers Fernandez, Tyler Green, Bobby Munoz and David West
maneuvered through the course. Philadelphia may be even more
dreadful to look at on the field.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Jones, who was a big hit as a rookie in '95, should help the Braves get back to the World Series. [Chipper Jones]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO When reckless Dykstra is out of the lineup as the result of injuries, the Phillies tend to hit the skids. [Lenny Dykstra]