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Reds Will Capture NL West; Mets to Rise in East

By Danny Su
Arts Staff

The western division winners have beaten the eastern division champions for the past four years. That's not going to change this year. The western division has far superior pitching -- the key in the National League. Despite my bias toward the Dodgers, I think the Reds will win the National League this year.

National League West

1. Cincinnati Reds

With off-season acquisitions of Tim Belcher and Greg Swindell, together with established starters Jose Rijo and Tom Browning, the Reds have one of the best starting rotations in the league. The bullpen is anchored by Rob Dibble, the most intimidating pitcher in baseball. Now that Randy Myers is gone, Dibble can concentrate on his job without looking over his shoulder. Additional help will come from Norm Charlton and Scott Ruskin.

Off-season acquisitions have transformed Cincinnati into a team of speed and power. Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, and Paul O'Neill are all capable of hitting 20 home runs and stealing 20 bases. Rookie Reggie Sanders, along with former Padre Bip Roberts and former Expo Dave Martinez, will hit around .300 and steal 30 bases. And first baseman Hal Morris is ready to win a batting title. The Reds were second in team batting last year, and they can only improve. Furthermore, they have depth on their bench. With veterans like Billy Hatcher, Bill Doran, and Glenn Braggs, the Reds will have plenty of pinch hitting power late in the game and in extra innings.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

When the Dodgers traded for Eric Davis, they created the impossible, the dream outfield of Davis and Darryl Strawberry, friends since their old school days. Sandwiched between them in center field is Brett Butler, one of the premier leadoff hitters in baseball, who was also errorless in 161 games last year.

Unfortunately, outfield is the only bright spot for the Dodgers. They have one of the worst infields in baseball. Every ground ball hit against the Dodgers is going to be an adventure. Back behind the home plate for another year is Mike Scioscia, the best human roadblock in the league. But he is 33 years old, and years of wear and tear have slowed him down.

The glory days are over for the Dodgers' starting pitchers, but the rotation is still solid, with Orel Hersheiser, Tom Candiotti, Ramon Martinez, Bob Ojeda, and Kevin Gross.

The bullpen could be a problem for the Dodgers if Jay Howell can't stay healthy, something he hasn't done for three years. And he is opening the season on the disabled list.

Tommy Lasorda has never gone four years without winning the division -- the Dodgers last won the division in 1988. I predict that the Dodgers won't win the division unless Tommy gains back some of the weight he had then.

3. Atlanta Braves

With plenty of help from the Reds, Astros, Giants, and the perennial post-season slumping Pirates, the Braves made it within one run of winning the World Series. But they are no longer the Cinderella team, and every team in the West will be gunning for them.

4. San Diego Padres

Last year, this bullpen blew 17 save opportunities. With the off-season acquisition of Randy Myers, the Padres now have a dominant closer. This should be the year that starter Andy Benes will blossom into a star, and Hurst will post his usual 15 to 20 victories. Unfortunately, there is no supporting cast for the team's superstars.

5. San Francisco Giants

The only bright spots for the Giants are the hitting tandem of Will Clark and Matt Williams. They combined for two Gold Gloves, 63 homers, and 214 RBIs last year. Otherwise, forget it. Last year's team ERA of 4.03 was the worst in the league. Despite several winter trades, they still lack a strong closing relief pitcher.

6. Houston Astros

The Houston Astros are young and doomed. No one on the team is over 30. They led the majors in errors last year, and were next to last in ERA. They can only improve, but not this year.

National League East

The Mets made all the noises during the winter, but the Pirates will steal the headlines with their blockbuster trades once the season gets underway. This division is pathetic: any team from the West, with the exception of the Astros, could easily finish first here.

1. New York Mets

This year, the Mets are the one-eyed man in a kingdom of blind men. The outfield trio of Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, and Howard Johnson will provide plenty of run production, but any fly ball hit to the outfield will become an adventure. Besides spending megabucks on Bonilla, the Mets also signed Eddie Murray and Willie Randolph to fat contracts. They also obtained Bret Saberhagen and Bill Pecota in a trade with the Royals. The starting rotation of Dwight Gooden, Saberhagen, David Cone, and Sid Fernandez is only good on paper. Gooden is trying to recover from surgery; Fernandez is still overweight; and this is an even year -- bad news for Saberhagen, who always pitches better in odd years.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

When the Pirates traded away pitcher Neal Heaton for outfielder Kirk Gibson, I thought the y were going to win the World Series this year for sure. Gibson has been a winner with both the Tigers and the Dodgers. And he brings a football atmosphere onto the baseball diamond, which is exactly what the Pirates need -- an emotional player to spark the rest of the team.

I was worried that Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, and John Smiley would be traded before the end of the season. All three are eligible for free agency after this year. Then I read this quote from the new general manager Ted Simmons. "My gut feeling? Barry Bonds is going to be our left fielder this season, and Drabek and Smiley are going to be our pitching staff." Two days later, Smiley was traded to Minnesota. I think Bonds will be traded to either California or the White Sox, when both teams are trying to stay in contention late in the season. Drabek will be traded to either Los Angeles, Boston, or the Yankees. Boston is a likely choice since the Red Sox need pitching help. I won't be surprised if Mo Vaughn and some other players go from Boston to Pittsburgh for Drabek.

The bullpen is shaky for the Pirates. Stan Belinda had a good season last year, but he needs to cut down his walks before he becomes an effective closer.

The starting rotation will be headed by Drabek if he's not traded. Zane Smith, who led the staff in complete games and shout outs, will take over the number two spot after the departure of Smiley. Rand Tomlin led the staff in ERA and should only get better. Bob Walk, at age 35, is capable of a big season if he stays healthy.

The Pirates were one of the best fielding teams last year with a fielding percentage of .981, and they were second in turning double plays. With Steve Buechele playing a full season at third base, the infield can only get better.

3. Chicago Cubs

Andre Dawson, Geoge Bell, Shawon Dunston, Ryne Sandberg, and Mark Grace will provide plenty of offense. But the Cubs have absolutely no pitching. The acquisition of Mike Morgan won't help, either. Although he pitched well for the Dodgers, he is going to be a different pitcher in Chicago. Without the help of Dodger Stadium and pitching coach Ron Perranoski, Morgan is just average.

4. Montreal Expos

This is a young and talented team. The only regular over 30 is Tim Wallach, who, despite last year's terrible season, has been having a great spring. I look for Wallach to have a big season. For those of you who play rotisserie league baseball, this a good player to get at a low price.

Last year, the Expo bullpen led the majors with 28 blown saves. But this year will be different. John Wetteland, acquired from the Reds for Dave Martinez, will be the closer. Wetteland is having an excellent spring, and if he develops a curve ball to accompany his blazing fastball, he will be a dominant closer.

5. St. Louis Cardinals

Joe Torre's magic won't work in St. Louis because he has no pitching. The bullpen is sound with Lee Smith and the return of Todd Worrell. But the starting rotation is below average with Joe Magrane, Omar Olivares Bryn Smith, Bob Tewksbury, and Jose Deleon.

6. Philadelphia Phillies

Len Dykstra is back, along with Darren Daulton, but the rest of the team isn't. Dale Murphy is past his prime, and Mitch Williams will blow saves left and right.