Volume 2, Number 4 -- April, 1997
By Dave Lind
Webster's Dictionary defines the word Dynasty as, "a group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time." Such describes the National League's flagship franchise, the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves have represented the National League in four of the past five World Series, winning one and coming within a Lonnie Smith base-running blunder of another. But as consistently dominant as the Braves have been over the past six seasons, a sense a of urgency has begun to develop in Atlanta of late. Many of the stars that fueled Atlanta's rise from the cellar have either moved on or soon will. Gone are Ron Gant, Terry Pendleton, Charlie Liebrandt, Steve Avery, and Lonnie Smith. Soon to join them are, in all likelihood, Fred McGriff, Dave Justice, Jeff Blauser, and either Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, since both are slated for Free Agency after this season and it would be extremely difficult to imagine the Braves being able to keep both.
Still, the cupboard is not entirely barren for Bobby Cox. He still has John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Marquis Grissom to fall back on. On the horizon are promising youngsters Andrew Jones, Jermaine Dye, Terrell Wade, and Tony Graffanino. If the Braves fall at all in the near future, it will not be far.
As for the Braves' chief competition in the National League, that distinction falls to last year's runner up in the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers spent most of last spring boasting that they would lay waste to the NL West and breeze into the World Series. They then spent the rest of the summer trying to back up those words and most of the fall picking bits of broom (courtesy the Atlanta Braves) out of their teeth.
Having learned from their past mistakes, the Dodgers still feel confident about their chances in 1997, and rightfully so. Their lineup boasts six previous Rookies of the Year, including the last five in a row. All-World catcher Mike Piazza, team leader Eric Karros, and Superstar-in-Waiting Raul Mondesi are joined this season by former Cardinal and Phillie Todd Zeile, who hopes to solidify the Dodgers' shaky third base situation. On the inspirational front, Brett Butler has battled back from cancer surgery and looks to have reclaimed the center field job.
But if there is one reason the Dodgers like their chances against the Braves, it is their pitching. Ramon Martinez, Hideo Nomo, and Ismael Valez lead a staff that is among the deepest and most talented this side of ... well, the Atlanta Braves. The bullpen is anchored by 1986 Rookie of the Year, Todd Worrell, who won his award with St. Louis.
On the down side, the Dodgers are still shaky up the middle. Having (finally) given up on Delino Deshields, the Dodgers hope their keystone combination of Greg Gagne and Nelson Liriano will be, at the very least, adequate.
The NL Central title is a jump ball between St. Louis and Houston. Both teams seem evenly matched on paper, but Houston will be starting the season off with a slight advantage due to injuries to the Cardinals' Ray Lankford, Andy Benes, and Danny Jackson. Derek Bell looks primed for a big season in Houston, as do up-and-comers Shane Reynolds and Billy Wagner, though the same can be said of St. Louis' Brian Jordan and Alan Benes.
The deciding factor will most likely come down to one man, Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell has, in the past, shown an uncanny knack for catching fastballs on the back of his hand. An annoying habit in that it has ended three of his past four seasons prematurely. If Bagwell can keep his hand out of a splint, the Astros should be able to hold off the Cardinals for the division title.
The wildcard looks to go to the Florida Marlins who, more than any other team, went all out in an effort to close the gap in the NL East. Their acquisitions of Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou to beef up the offense and Jim Eisenreich and John Cangelosi to strengthen the bench were noteworthy additions, but it was the signing of Alex Fernandez that was the real coup. Such additions, along with returning stars Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, and Al Leiter, who last year threw a no-hitter, should give the Marlins enough firepower to keep the Braves sweating well into September.
Of the rest of the league, only Colorado and San Diego have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Colorado because of (what else) its offense and San Diego because of Colorado's pitching.
The Rockies' Murderers Row of Ellis Burks, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, and Vinny Castilla will make sure the fans sitting in the outfield bleachers at Coors field take home plenty of souvenirs. Unfortunately, the same also can be said of the Rockies pitchers, who allowed more runs last season than Mexican tap water.
As for the Padres, the signing of Greg Vaughn came as a welcome surprise for everyone, particularly Tony Gwynn, who hopes to get one more crack at a World Series before his marvelous career winds down. The critical element will be second baseman Quilvio Veras, who battled chronic hamstring injuries all of last year. If he can return to his 50-steal form of his rookie year, the table will be set for Gwynn, Vaughn, and 1997 MVP Ken Caminiti.
Andy Ashby and Joey Hamilton anchor a pitching staff that is solid if not spectacular. Sean Bergman was a disappointment last year, but he has a live arm and the Padres remain convinced that he can be a good pitcher someday soon. If so, and if the ageless Fernando Valenzuela can squeeze yet another year out of his pudgy frame, the Padres could well surpass the Rockies and contend with the Marlins and Cardinals for the wildcard spot.
The best of the rest would have to be Cincinnati. The Reds have fallen on hard times since they were swept in the NLCS two years ago by Atlanta. Their 81-81 record of a year ago is a pretty fair assessment, not only of where this team is, but of where it is going. Most of the Reds' marquis players remain, but they are either old or aging and there is little help on the way from a farm system gutted by owner Marge Schott's penny pinching.
It may be debatable in many cities whether or not Barry Larkin is the best shortstop in baseball, but not in Cincinnati. Larkin is the heart, soul, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, brain, digestive tract, and central nervous system of the Reds. Whither he goes, so goes the Reds, both offensively and defensively. In 1996 he won the MVP award and then followed it up last year by becoming the first shortstop ever to reach the 30-30 plateau.
One team that could surprise people this year is the San Francisco Giants, who completely overhauled their roster and, in the process, alienated many fans.
The biggest name to be shown the door was fan favorite Matt Williams, who's departure, though painful, cleared the path for the Giants to acquire J.T. Snow, Darryl Hamiliton, Jeff Kent, and Jose Vizcaino. All four will start and will plug many of the holes that plagued the Giants last summer.
On the pitching front, the Giants are still as shaky as ever. Mark Gardner is being counted on to provide veteran leadership to a young but talented staff. The ace of the staff, if all goes well, will be lefty Shawn Estes, whose name was called out repeatedly over the winter in trade talks, mostly by other GM's.
The New York Mets are hoping their promising young trio of pitchers, Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson, can return to health and resume their quest to overtake Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz as the best rotation in the majors. All three suffered arm problems last season and all three underwent surgery. Of the three, Pulsipher looks to be the closest to returning while Wilson's return date will most likely be after the All-Star break. Until they return, Pete Harnish, Bobby Jones, and Mark Clark will have to take up the slack.
Much has been made of the Expos' history of developing top-shelf talent only to see them flee to larger markets once they achieve free agency. Alas, this trend continued this past offseason with the departures of Moises Alou and Mel Rojas. In fact, it was in anticipation of such a loss that they dealt away Jeff Fassero to the Mariners for Matt Wagner, who most likely will have a spot in the Expos rotation this summer.
For now, Montreal still has fireballer Pedro Martinez and the youngest Perez, Carlos, who returns from missing the entire 1996 campaign to injury. On offense, the Expos turn to Rondell White and Henry Rodriguez to pick up the slack for the departed Alou. Keep an eye on youngsters Vladimir Guerrero and Ugueth Urbizia, who should be the latest in the continuing line of up-and coming stars to win over Expos fans before breaking their hearts a few years down the line.
In Chicago, all the attention has been focused on the White Sox, who fattened up at the free agent buffet by signing Albert Belle, Doug Drabek, and Jaime Navarro. Meanwhile, across town, the Cubs were left with the table scraps, settling for Terry Mulholland, Shawon Dunston, and Mel Rojas.
Oh, well. Cubs fans are used to losing.
Which brings us to the final two teams, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who look set to bring up the rear in the National League for a good long time.
The Phillies acquisition of first baseman Rico Brogna from the Mets was a steal, but it won't be enough to lift them out of the NL East cellar. Greg Jefferies looks great with a bat in his hands but somehow just doesn't look comfortable wearing a glove. Mickey Morandini is a wonderful guy and a hard worker, but is not exactly the guy you want to see batting leadoff. In fact, the only real bright spot for the Phillies is Scott Rolen, who seems a lock for stardom at third base and is already drawing comparisons to Mike Schmidt.
Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates have fallen to rock bottom and have ordered shovels. If anyone should be happy the National League realigned it would be the Pirates, who are guaranteed no worse than a fifth place finish because of it. If I were a Pirate fan, I'd lobby for seven divisions, so I could at least say "Dang, second again!"
In all seriousness, the Pirates lost more than just players last year, they lost Jim Leyland, and with him goes any chance the Pirates had at winning more than 60 games. Also gone are three-fourths of the Pirates starting infield from a year ago, including their most productive hitter, Jeff King. In their place are such names as Mark Johnson, Kevin Elster, Joe Randa, and Tony Womack. The wildcard in the mix is perennial headcase Midre Cummings, whose ability will guarantee him a shot in the outfield.
The pitching staff will be headlined by Braves washout Jason Schmidt and on-again/off-again prospect Jon Lieber. After that, its a crapshoot. Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Cordova seem like good bets while Christian Peters, Rich Loiselle, and Steve Cooke figure into the mix. Paul Wagner, who is trying to rehab from elbow surgery, could provide a boost after the All Star break.
The following is bow the National League should shape up in 1997.
Atlanta def. Florida
Los Angeles def. Houston