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     Baseball '04

National League East

Atlanta Braves  |  Philadelphia Phillies
Florida Marlins  |  Montreal Expos  |  New York Mets

The Washington Post
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page D6

Team Capsules

National League

American League

1. Atlanta Braves
2003 Finish: 101-61, 1st.
Manager: Bobby Cox (22nd season overall, 1,906-1,456).
Ace: Russ Ortiz gets Cox's vote. There are options -- John Thomson and Mike Hampton were No. 1 starters elsewhere -- but Cox named Ortiz (21-7, 3.81) his Opening Day starter before the first spring training game. Ortiz averaged 105 pitches per start in 2003.
Best Young Arm: Some in the division may think third starter Horacio Ramirez (12-4, 4.00), who is only 24, is the present ace. Against him last year, Philadelphia batted .222, New York .175 and Montreal .172.
Closer: John Smoltz said he feels "better than ever" after offseason elbow surgery, his fourth. He saved 45 of 49 opportunities, with a 1.12 ERA.
Key Acquisition: Thomson was the No. 1 starter in Texas, is No. 4 here and, boy, is he happy to be out of Colorado and Texas, two notoriously bad places to pitch.
Core Question: Why are they so bad in October, a month in which the team is 60-56 since 1991? Maybe that's why there always are playoff tickets available in Atlanta.
Projected Finish: First, for the 13th straight season. Those who bet against a streak are wrong several times. Those who bet with a streak are wrong only once.

2. Philadelphia Phillies
2003 Finish: 86-76, 3rd.
Manager: Larry Bowa (sixth season overall, 333-360).
Ace: It's not Kevin Millwood, considering the Phillies were 17-18 in his starts last year. In a rotation with four former all-stars, Eric Milton could be the best. Leaving Minnesota's Metrodome was good move; he is 12-5 outdoors over the past three years.
Best Young Arm: Vincente Padilla, 26, has won at least 14 games and has pitched at least 200 innings each of the past two years. During the offseason in his native Nicaragua, however, he was injured in a car accident in which the driver, a close friend, was killed.
Closer: Billy Wagner (1.78 ERA, 44 saves) can only help the Phillies in close games. They were 20-18 in one-run games (Florida was 30-23) and, in the very, very remote chance he doesn't help, the Phillies got Tim Worrell (2.87 ERA, 38 saves with Giants).
Key Acquisition: Wagner. It has to be a relief (get it?) that former closer Jose Mesa is gone. Mesa gave up 102 base runners in 58 innings and had a 6.52 ERA.
Core Question: Are playoff tickets on sale yet? Since 1983, Philadelphia has been the site of some good movies -- "Trading Places," "Witness" (not the Amish parts), "Philadelphia" and "The Sixth Sense" -- but no major professional team championships. So with a new ballpark and an excellent team, there is a bit of excitement.
Projected Finish: Second, but with a longer playoff run than the Braves.

3. Florida Marlins
2003 Finish: 91-71, 2nd.
Manager: Jack McKeon (13th season overall, 845-782).
Ace: Josh Beckett is the No. 1 -- for years to come. Dontrelle Willis was rookie of the year -- or rookie of the half-year, considering he went 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA after the all-star break. Beckett (9-8, 3.04) was World Series MVP and had a 2.11 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 421/3 postseason innings.
Best Young Arm: The Marlins can choose from among Beckett (23 years old), Brad Penny (25) and A.J. Burnett (27) -- all throw in the mid-nineties. And imagine if Willis (22) rebounds.
Closer: Armando Benitez. In 1997, the Marlins traded most of the team a few months after winning the World Series. Signing Benitez means the Marlins went a more subtle route to ensure there would be no back-to-back titles this time.
Key Acquisition: Hee Seop Choi came from the Cubs and is the only power-hitting left-handed batter in the lineup.
Core Question: Did they really beat the Yankees?
Projected Finish: Third, unless that annoying Cubs fan helps them out again. There isn't offense and Benitez as closer will be the downfall for this team and its dozens of loyal fans.

4. Montreal Expos
2003 Finish: 83-79, 4th.
Manager: Frank Robinson (14th season overall, 846-909).
Ace: Livan Hernandez (15-10, 3.20 ERA) led the NL with eight complete games. With a little run support, his numbers could have been better: He had a 1.74 ERA against the Phillies and 2.37 ERA against the Marlins but was just 5-3 in those games.
Best Young Arm: Tony Armas was the Opening Day starter last year and had a 2.61 ERA when he had season-ending elbow surgery in May. Armas, 25, is expected to make a full recovery.
Closer: Rocky Biddle (34 saves) went 1-4 with a 9.53 ERA in August and had a 5.81 ERA after the all-star break. Maybe he was just confused: On his former team, the White Sox, those numbers would be considered good. Another possibility is Luis Ayala (10-3, 2.92, five saves).
Key Acquisition: Carl Everett. Stonewall Jackson once said an army marches on its stomach -- not literally, of course, he meant that soldiers need to be well-fed. Everett endeared himself to his new teammates by springing for pregame spreads, including pasta and seafood. The cash-strapped team was providing only sandwiches for the poor dears.
Core Question: How many home games do they have this year? The team will play only 59 games at Olympic Stadium; their other 22 home games are in Puerto Rico. This could be bad, considering Montreal was 30-51 in road games last year.
Projected Finish: Fourth.

5. New York Mets
2003 Finish: 66-95, 5th.
Manager: Art Howe (14th season overall, 1,058-1,046).
Ace: Steve Trachsel (16-10, 3.78) led the staff in wins last year and has been solid the past two years. Al Leiter is good, too, considering he had led the staff in wins in 2002 (13) and 2001 (11). Notice we haven't mentioned Tom Glavine?
Best Young Arm: Jae Weong Seo was 9-12 with a 3.82 ERA as a rookie. But really, the Mets' future ace is probably on Florida's or Montreal's roster, just waiting to be sold.
Closer: Braden Looper (3.68 ERA, 28 saves with Florida) was replaced by Ugueth Urbina late in the season and had a 9.82 ERA in the World Series. The Marlins didn't re-sign either of them. Looper is not an overpowering pitcher -- he had 56 strikeouts in 802/3 innings.
Key Acquisition: Mike Cameron is one of the best fielding center fielders in baseball and gives the Mets, along with SS Kaz Matsui and 2B Jose Reyes, an excellent defensive team up the middle.
Core Question: How will Glavine pitch? Especially with a poor bullpen, the Mets could use a strong season from him.
Projected Finish: Fifth, for the third straight year. Offense and relief pitching generally aren't good things to be without.

-- Christian Swezey

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