Imagine how different the NL East would look had there not been a work stoppage in 1994. The Expos were leading the division by six games, having widened their lead over the Braves by 2 more games the previous week. They had the best record in baseball and had one of the most talented teams ever. Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and Rondell White in the outfield, Cliff Floyd, Mike Lansing, Wil Cordero, Sean Berry and Darrin Fletcher in the infield. Every position player, with the exception of Fletcher was capable of double digit homers and steals, and all of them had good control of the strikezone and knew how to get on base, the importance of which the Braves (who have crumbled against supposedly inferior Phillies, Marlins and Padres teams in the postseason) still don't understand. The rotation had Jeff Fassero, Ken Hill, Kirk Reuter, Pedro Martinez and Butch Henry and the bullpen had three closer quality relievers in John Wetteland, Mel Rojas and Jeff Shaw. This team was the 1998 Yankees, only 4 years earlier. This team also had Felipe Alou, who's presence and managerial genius is hard to overestimate. And most importantly, the fans had started to pay attention in Montreal, and attendance was increasing each week by nearly 2000 per game before it all came to a halt. Had the season continued, the Expos might have even sold out a few regular season games and would have undoubtedly made a considerable impression on the fans in the postseason. Who knows but they might have been able to keep Walker, Grissom and Wetteland that off-season and established a true dynasty north of the border. But it never happened and we are left with only conjecture and the pitiful, empty claims of the Atlanta Braves "seven straight division titles" and "Team of the 90's".
Speaking of whom, Braves GM John Schuerholz made sure this off-season that his team would once again be touted as the best team in the NL in the preseason and come up pitifully short in the postseason. He signed Brian Jordan to take over right field duties from the Michael Tucker/Gerald Williams platoon. Jordan's career OBP is .339 and slugging is .474. The platoon he replaces had an OBP of .345 and slugged .484. The injury-prone Jordan is a better defensive outfielder, but has played 100 or more games in only 3 seasons in his seven year career. The Braves also traded starter Denny Neagle and the aforementioned Michael Tucker to the Reds for Bret Boone and reliever Mike Remlinger. Boone, with his career OBP of .311 and .411 slugging, will take over at second base. Keith Lockhart, the man he replaces, possesses a .325 OBP and .424 slugging for his career. And for those of you who think Boone had his breakout year last year, just check out Boone's post All-Star break .240 batting average and .315 OBP. And now he's playing in a tougher park to hit in. Presumably, the Braves wanted to make room in the rotation for youngster Bruce Chen, who has nothing left to prove in the minors. But who would you rather have taking the ball every fifth day, a rookie or a 20-game winner like Denny Neagle? And where does Remlinger fit in all of this? Who knows. The Braves already had a deep and talented bullpen, made all the more impressive if Mark Wohlers makes it back from his closing woes from last season. On a more serious note, the Braves lost 1B Andres Galarraga for at least this season to cancer found in his back. His leadership will be missed by the Braves, and his smile and upbeat attitude will be missed throughout baseball. Here's hoping for a speedy and complete recovery. As for the void left in the Braves line-up by that loss, Ryan Klesko has always had the talent to produce impressive numbers and under the tutelage of new hitting coach Don Baylor - ironically the same man who resurrected Galarraga's career in Colorado - he should finally reach his potential. Always an adventure in the field, Klesko would have eventually lost his job to prospect George Lombard. So instead of waiting until next year, the Braves will probably let Lombard take over in left field sometime this summer. When all is said and done, the Braves still have Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and the Jones', which should be enough to get them back to the postseason in spite of the Braves management.
The New York Mets thought they had a good enough team to beat the Braves last year. They had an unbelievable September but ran out of gas with 5 games remaining and ended up missing the playoffs by one game. This year, the Mets again think they have a chance to unseat the Braves. The difference this year is that they just might. The Mets began last year with question marks in the outfield, at second base and at catcher. They took care of the catching position last year with the trade for Mike Piazza in May; they took care of the other troubled spots this winter. The Mets let 2B Carlos Baerga go, signed 3B Robin Ventura and moved 3B Edgardo Alfonso back to 2B, his strongest position. This improved both the offense and the defense dramatically over last year's squad. In the outfield, the Mets traded for Bobby Bonilla, who was coming off a subpar year due to a wrist injury. By most accounts, Bonilla is healthy and should be back to his .360 OBP/.480 SLG/90+ RBI career norms. In addition to Bonilla, the Mets signed the greatest lead-off hitter ever, Rickey Henderson. And although he is not what he once was as a player, he will be invaluable as a teacher. He had a profound influence on Quilvio Veras in his brief stint in San Diego and now Veras is one of the better lead-off men in the league, getting on base almost 40% of the time when healthy. So who will Rickey be tutoring? Almost unnoticed were the acquisitions of Jermaine Allensworth late last season, and Roger Cedeno, who came over with flame-thrower Armando Benitez in what amounted to a three-way deal with Baltimore and LA. Both Cedeno and Allensworth have the tools to be excellent lead-off hitters; now they have the supreme teacher. As for Benitez, he strengthens what was already a good bullpen and gives manager Bobby Valentine a right-handed closing option to veteran lefty John Franco. The Mets also picked up lefty Allen Watson, who has a 2.87 ERA as a reliever over the past 5 years. The rotation will almost certainly enjoy the return of Paul Wilson. Wilson was a can't miss prospect that was nearly ruined by Dallas Green's ridiculous overuse three years ago. Brothers-in-phenom-hood Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher still haven't recovered. Reports out of spring training indicate that Wilson is almost back to his can't miss form. The Mets would like to take their time with Wilson and allow him to join the rotation just before the All-Star break. If Nomo and Yoshii can hold the fort until then, Wilson will make the Mets starting rotation comparable to that of the Braves for the second half run. GM Steve Phillips has apparently done his homework this off-season and given the Mets the personnel they need to challenge for the NL East crown. The only question remains is whether volatile Valentine can keep this team focused enough to avoid the infighting that has plagued his clubs in the past.
In 1997, the Philadelphia Phillies chose JD Drew in the June draft and never offered more than $3 million to sign him, far short of his demand a $10 million deal. A year later, the Cardinals drafted Drew and signed him for $7 million. The Phillies meanwhile drafted Pat Burrell and ultimately signed him for $8 million. Did salaries suddenly double? No, but the Phillies finally realized how foolish it was to not bring a median offer to the table, which as it turns out, was enough to sign him. Had they gotten Drew, the Phillies would be looking toward possibly contending this year with All-Star talent (Scott Rolen, Drew, Bobby Abreu and Burrell) at all 4 corner positions. As it stands, they will have Ron Gant in the outfield which has both up- and down-sides. The upside is that he's reunited with hitting guru Hal McRae, which could translate into 30+ homers and 100+ runs driven in and scored. The downside is that he could strikeout 150 times and play anemic defense. The Phils will be trying out rookie Marlon Anderson at second base. He has decent speed and power for a middle infielder and decent defense, but he too struggles with the strikezone. The Phillies pitching is of greatest concern as they have had trouble keeping anyone not named Schilling healthy for a full year. Late season addition Paul Byrd and ex-Indian Chad Ogea should be solid contributors, as should Carlton Loewer coming of a rocky rookie season. Jeff Brantley heads up a short list of possible closers in the bullpen, along with interim closer Wayne Gomes and set-up man Ken Ryan. Left-handed prospect Randy Wolf will probably be called up sometime around midseason and could provide depth in either the rotation or the bullpen. The Phillies might still be decent, but not good enough to compete with the Mets and Braves.
The Montreal Expos, or rather the soon-to-be Northern Virginia Expos, have had the most prodigious farm system in all of baseball for the past 5 years, but it probably won't be enough to save baseball in Quebec. The talent that system has produced and ultimately lost to greener pastures is mind-boggling. The Expos finally got smart and halted the talent exodus by signing uber-outfielder Vladimir Guerrero to a long term deal, but it may be too little too late. The Expos will have more great talent on display this year with the arrival of C/3B Michael Barrett. OF Fernando Seguignol has power out the ying-yang but starts swinging as soon as he passes the fungo circle. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera struggled initially last year but rebounded to hit .270 in the second half. And Wilton Guerrero will be challenged for his second base job this year by Puerto Rican winter league MVP Jose Vidro, who hit .417, with 10 home runs and 30 RBI in 144 at bats. The starting rotation is a truly impressive collection of power arms, 4 of whom have been gunned at 95 mph+. Dustin Hermanson is quickly becoming one of the better pitchers in the National League with Carl Pavano and Javier Vasquez only about a year behind on the learning curve. While the bullpen is thin, it does boast one of the most intimidating and, by far, the coolest named closer in the game: Ugueth Urtain Urbina. This flame-throwing Venezuelan held NL batters to a league low .130 batting average. If he can cut down on the walks, he'll may match or even surpass the standard of excellence that Trevor Hoffman set last year with the Padres - a 98% success rate in save opportunities. This year, he'll have help from strikeout wiz Guillermo Mota. Manager Felipe Alou will get more out of this talented bunch of youngsters than anyone expects, which probably won't be enough this year. But by the time they relocate to Virginia, watch out NL East!
After voters rejected his pleas for a new stadium to replace 10-year old Pro Player Park, Wayne Huizenga's hissy fit razing of the Marlin's franchise appears to be at an end. Two reasons: 1) there's hardly anyone left, and 2) Huizenga sold the team. New owner John Henry vows fiscal responsibility and appears to be at his word: GM Dave Dombrowski recently signed emerging outfield star Cliff Floyd to what will almost certainly be a bargain at 4 years, $19 million. Floyd was the best prospect in baseball in 1993 after his monster season in AA/AAA at age 20. Some thought his horrible wrist injury in 1995 would end his career, but after his performance last year, it appears he has overcome adversity and may still live up to his pre-injury projections of a 30-40 homer, middle-of-the-order hitter. With the trade of Edgar Renteria, rookie Alex Gonzales becomes the new shortstop. Always touted as being a great defensive player with home run power, skeptics have worried about his relatively high strikeout and low walk totals. However, he was quite good in winter ball this year, raising his walks and lowering his strikeouts while hitting a respectable .290 against good competition. Ex-Cub Kevin Orie and Ex-Yankee Mike Lowell will battle for 3rd base. Orie will probably start with the job as Lowell recovers from a bout with testicular cancer, but the job will eventually be Lowell's as he has a much higher upside and a more polished game. Jorge Fabregas will take over the catching duties from the parade of wannabes that followed the Charles Johnson trade last year. He will most certainly do a better job handling the Marlin's young pitching staff. Early indication are that ace Alex Fernandez is fully recovered from his rotator cuff surgery. He will definitely be needed to stabilize a staff that's average age is 24. Livan Hernandez and Jesus Sanchez were mercilessly abused by Jim Leyland, raising questions about possible long term damage to their arms. Leyland left his starters one the mound to throw 140 pitches 6 times last year, more than any manager in the majors since 1997. Veteran arms don't fare well under that kind of punishment, but to subject young arms is absolutely criminal. New/old manager John Boles, who managed the Marlins before Leyland came on board, will likely be more cognizant of such things. The bullpen finally found a closer last year after the departure of Robb Nen. Matt Mantei saved 9 in 12 opportunities and has been named the closer to start the year. Braden Looper, acquired in the deal for Renteria, is also capable but is probably a year away and will learn the job as a set-up man this year. Vic Darensbourg, who held lefties to a .168 average last year, will get the call as the left handed set-up. AJ Burnett, acquired in the Leiter trade and projects to be a top of the rotation type pitcher, will start in the minors but may see some time in the majors later this year. If the Marlins keep Fernandez, and it appears that they might, and if Hernandez and Sanchez weren't ruined by Leyland's abusive cluelessness, the Marlins could be competitive next year. As for 1999, they'll just have to see what the damage really is.
2) New York