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NL preview

Griffey, McGwire, Sosa heat up Home Run Central

  Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have combined for 264 home runs since 1998. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

NEW YORK (AP) -- Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa might be the only ones tired of talking about the Home Run Central.

"It's not about home runs," Slammin' Sammy insisted.

"That's not why I play the game," Big Mac emphasized.

"I can't control what they do, so why think about it?" Junior asked.

Don't worry, guys. Just go out and hit 'em. Everyone else will do the counting.

As McGwire and Sosa once proved, a homer chase is more thrilling than a pennant race. And boosted by Griffey, the NL Central is now baseball's most exciting place.

Of course, the East and West winners might go further in the postseason than the Central champion. And there's a chance that neither Griffey, McGwire nor Sosa will even get there.

"Griffey is the best player in the game today, but that doesn't mean the Reds are going to go to the playoffs," McGwire said. "We can go 3-for-3 with three bombs and still lose the game."

Traded from Seattle to his native Cincinnati, Griffey (.285, 48 HRs, 134 RBIs) hopes to reach the World Series for the first time. The Cubs finished last despite Sosa (.288, 63, 141) while the Cardinals need more than McGwire (.278, 65, 147).

"The way the media portrayed myself and Sammy, now they're going to portray myself and Sammy and Griffey, and people are going to come see one aspect of the game," McGwire said.

Probably so. Fact is, these are the greatest three sluggers ever in one division. Might be the most fearsome threesome in league history, too.

Griffey, McGwire and Sosa have played in the same division before, by the way. They were together in the AL West from 1989-91, with far less fanfare.

In 1991, McGwire hit 22 home runs for Oakland, Griffey had 22 for Seattle and Sosa had 10 for the Chicago White Sox -- a total of 54, which all three of them could exceed this year.

A look at the National League in predicted order of finish:

NL East

Atlanta Braves -- Losing the World Series last October was only the start of the Braves' problems leading up to Opening Day. The John Rocker storm hovered over the team all winter, then it lost John Smoltz for the season when he tore an elbow ligament during spring training.

Even so, Atlanta should be strong enough to win its record ninth straight division title. The reason? Pitching, of course.

Sure, Greg Maddux (19-9, 3.57 ERA) and Tom Glavine (14-11, 4.12) are showing signs of age. Both will be 34 by mid-April, but with Kevin Millwood (18-7, 2.68) also in the rotation, that's a formidable start.

GM John Schuerholz thinks he has the depth to overcome Smoltz's injury, with versatile Terry Mulholland and Bruce Chen stepping in. Never rule out a trade, either.

NL MVP Chipper Jones (.319, 45, 110) should benefit from Andres Galarraga's return from cancer. All-Star C Javy Lopez has a healthy right knee and OF Reggie Sanders (.285, 26, 72) and 2B Quilvio Veras (.280, 30 SBs) arrive from San Diego.

The Braves need Rocker (38 saves) to return to form while former closer Kerry Ligtenberg's elbow heals.

It will be clear whether Rocker is fitting in with the Braves -- if he is, he could be pitching for them in the All-Star game at Turner Field. If not, he'll soon be gone long before Atlanta visits Shea Stadium on June 29.

New York Mets -- With newcomer Mike Hampton now pitching to Mike Piazza, the Mets hope they're ready to make a repeat trip to the postseason for the first time in team history.

The journey begins with opening day March 29 at the Tokyo Dome against the Cubs. OF Rickey Henderson says he doesn't want to go -- then again, manager Bobby Valentine and the wild-card Mets seem to thrive on turmoil.

The best-fielding infield ever (33 errors, 12 fewer than the 1964 Orioles) will have to adjust to 1B Todd Zeile. A third baseman in Texas, he's struggling at a position where he's played only 76 games.

3B Robin Ventura (.301, 32, 120) and SS Rey Ordonez (no errors in his last 100 games) won Gold Gloves and 2B Edgardo Alfonzo (.304, 27, 108) did not misplay a grounder all season. Piazza (.303, 40, 124) could win an MVP.

Al Leiter (13-12, 4.23) should do well as a No. 2 starter behind Hampton (22-4, 2.90 ERA). RHP Bobby J. Jones (3-3 for the Mets) and LHP Bobby M. Jones (6-10 for Colorado) could join them.

Armando Benitez (22 saves) keeps John Franco (416 saves, 62 behind career leader Lee Smith) as a setup man.

Philadelphia Phillies -- Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and rookie Pat Burrell give the Phillies loads of young talent, though their season hinges on 33-year-old Curt Schilling.

Schilling (15-6, 3.54) was limited to 24 starts -- he completed eight -- because of a worn-down right shoulder, and Philadelphia faded without him. The team wants him to take it easy, but the All-Star ace is trying to rush back.

Starter Andy Ashby (14-10, 3.80 ERA for San Diego) and closer Mike Jackson (39 saves for Cleveland) join the staff.

Abreu (.335, 20, 93, 27 SBs, 109 walks) is an unheralded star and Burrell (.333, 28 HRs at Double-A), maybe the minors' top hitter, might soon be with him in the outfield. Rolen (.268, 26, 77) dipped a bit, but with Mike Lieberthal (.300, 31, 96), Rico Brogna (102 RBIs) and Doug Glanville (.325, 34 SBs), this team can score.

Montreal Expos -- Hard to believe, manager Felipe Alou turns 65 in March. He probably feels even older than that, having worked so long with so little.

New owner Jeffrey Loria intends to help Alou. Montreal spent some money for a change, trading for Hideki Irabu (11-7 for the Yankees) and signing free-agent reliever Graeme Lloyd (74 games for Toronto).

But the Expos' future still is uncertain, and they did not even have a radio contract for the 2000 season by the middle of spring training. They do have RF Vladimir Guerrero (.316, 42, 131), a Roberto Clemente clone.

Florida Marlins -- Slowly, very slowly, all those moves the Marlins have made since breaking up their 1997 World Series championship team are bearing fruit.

Florida has a bushel of live, young arms, most of them unproved in the majors. At 30, Alex Fernandez (7-8, 3.38) is the old man on the staff. At 19, No. 1 draft pick Josh Beckett has a fine future.

NL Central

Cincinnati Reds -- Junior's arrival ensured a great spring, and the Hall of Fame induction of Tony Perez, Sparky Anderson and broadcaster Marty Brennaman will make for a wonderful summer.

Now, can the Reds pull off a fabulous fall?

Cincinnati won 96 games last year and came within one victory of making a surprising appearance in the playoffs. The addition of Griffey, along with OF Dante Bichette (.298, 34, 133) to a lineup that includes 1B Sean Casey (.332, 25, 99) and SS Barry Larkin (.293, 30 SBs) should be enough to do it.

That is, provided the pitching holds up. Pete Harnisch (16-10, 3.68), Denny Neagle (9-5, 4.27), Steve Parris (11-4, 3.50) and Ron Villone (9-7, 4.23) need to duplicate that success.

The emergence of Rookie of the Year Scott Williamson (12-7, 19 saves, 2.41) and Danny Graves (8-7, 27 saves, 3.08) bolstered the bullpen.

At 69, manager of the year Jack McKeon guides with a steady hand. Bench coach Ken Griffey Sr. may be the manager-in-waiting, but that shouldn't pose any problems in the dugout.

Houston Astros -- Three straight knockouts in the opening round of the playoffs have many Astros fans asking: Is that all there is?

Enron Field opens this season, with its odd wall angles and a 30-degree slope in deep center field. Jose Lima (21-10, 3.58 ERA) likes the dimensions, especially the 436-foot distance straightaway.

Houston will miss Hampton, sent with disappointing Derek Bell to the Mets for Octavio Dotel (8-3) and CF Roger Cedeno (.314, 66 SBs). Houston also traded OF Carl Everett (.325, 25, 108) after winning its third straight division title.

OF Moises Alou returns after missing the season with a wrecked knee and rejoins Jeff Bagwell (.304, 42, 126, 30 SBs) and Craig Biggio (56 doubles, 28 SBs).

St. Louis Cardinals -- Big Mac's home runs win fans at Busch Stadium. A better pitching staff, though, is what the Cardinals need to win games.

St. Louis tried to address its biggest need, bringing in former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen (11-12, 4.79 for Toronto), Darryl Kile (8-13, 6.61 ERA for Colorado) and Andy Benes (13-12, 4.81 ERA for Arizona). All should benefit from the change. Matt Morris and Alan Benes are mending.

Dave Veres (31 saves for Colorado) takes over for the departed Ricky Bottalico, Rick Croushore and Juan Acevedo in the bullpen. LHP Rick Ankiel blew away minor league hitters and, at 20, is baseball's best pitching prospect.

Jim Edmonds (.250, 5, 23) should shore up outfield.

Chicago Cubs -- With Kerry Wood on the mound and Don Baylor in the dugout, there's certainly a brighter outlook at Wrigley Field after a 67-95 finish.

A wild-card team in 1998, all of the Cubs' hopes for 1999 were dashed when Wood ruined his elbow in spring training. He won't be ready for opening day in Japan, but the 22-year-old phenom is expected back soon.

Baylor brings a no-nonsense attitude -- lose the earrings -- and wants Sosa to hit more to the opposite field and run frequently. The manager brought in C Joe Girardi and CF Damon Buford to improve the defense, and also swindled 2B Eric Young (51 SBs) and RHP Ismael Valdes (3.98 ERA) from Los Angeles.

Pittsburgh Pirates -- Watching Jason Kendall run around this spring, it's like nothing ever happened.

The All-Star catcher snapped his ankle at first base July 4 in a gruesome sight. A .312 hitter in his first 31/2 years, he seems all set for another big season.

OF Brian Giles (.315, 39, 115) blossomed into a bopper and 2B Warren Morris (.288, 15, 73) impressed as a rookie.

Milwaukee Brewers -- Manager Davey Lopes takes over a team that appears headed for its eighth straight losing season.

A crane crash at Miller Park delayed the ballpark's opening for a year, and the Brewers did not help themselves in the offseason.

All-Star C David Nilsson went to a Japanese team that will let him play for his native Australia in the Sydney Olympics. 3B Jeff Cirillo, 2B Fernando Vina and pitchers Hideo Nomo and Scott Karl are gone, and not a lot came in return.

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers -- Baseball's biggest disappointment last season, Los Angeles will try to bounce back and make the playoffs. They haven't won a postseason game since 1988.

Kevin Brown (18-9, 3.00) did his part in his first year for the Dodgers. Yet all those big numbers in his $105 million contract added up to a big zero on the team's part -- it finished eight games under .500.

Manager Davey Johnson did not get much from his rotation, other than Brown. Chan Ho Park (13-11, 5.23) and Darren Dreifort (13-13, 4.79) might be better than their records show, but they've got to prove it soon. Carlos Perez (2-10, 7.43) ran into legal problems this spring.

Orel Hershiser (13-12, 4.58) returns to the team he pitched to the World Series title 12 years ago and young Eric Gagne (12-4 in Double-A) shows promise. Jeff Shaw (34 saves) will get setup help from newcomers Terry Adams and Gregg Olson.

OF Shawn Green (.309, 42, 123) got a huge payday once he was acquired from Toronto for Raul Mondesi. OF Gary Sheffield and 1B Eric Karros each hit 34 home runs and 3B Adrian Beltre (.275, 15, 67) returns for his second full season.

Todd Hundley (.207, 24, 55) is on the spot. Once an All-Star catcher, he's struggled to regain his form since elbow surgery in 1997.

Arizona Diamondbacks -- Owner Jerry Colangelo hit the jackpot, just like he said he would. His big spending paid off as the Diamondbacks zoomed into the playoffs in only their second season.

The trick now is to stay on top with a team that improved from 65 wins to 100. Arizona must like what is has - the team made no major acquisitions in the winter.

Cy Young winner Randy Johnson (17-9, 2.48, 364 strikeouts) was the dominating ace everyone expected and Omar Daal (16-9, 3.65) established himself as a top starter.

2B Jay Bell (.289, 38, 112) showed amazing pop and 3B Matt Williams (.303, 35, 142), LF Luis Gonzalez (.336, 26, 111) and CF Steve Finley (.264, 34, 103) sparked a potent lineup. Rookie 1B Erubiel Durazo hit over .400 in the minors, then batted .329 with 11 homers in 155 bats in the majors.

Tony Womack (NL-leading 72 SBs), who moved from second base to right field last season, shifts to shortstop this year.

Colorado Rockies -- Coors Field became a revolving door this winter, with new GM Dan O'Dowd revamping Colorado's whole roster. The reason? He wants to change the Rockies' emphasis from power to pitching, speed and defense.

The approach was noticeable this spring. Minus sluggers Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette, the Rockies hit only one homer in their first 13 exhibitions. RF Larry Walker (.379, 37, 115) and 1B Todd Helton (.320, 35, 113) are still in town, though.

Manager Buddy Bell takes over for Jim Leyland, driven crazy by all those wild games at Coors. 3B Jeff Cirillo (.326 for Milwaukee) will like the high altitude, but RHPs Masato Yoshii (12-8 for the Mets), Rolando Arrojo (7-12 for Tampa Bay) and Scott Karl (11-11 for Milwaukee) must adjust.

San Francisco Giants -- Barry Bonds could be the first player to take advantage of the neatest feature at new Pacific Bell Park -- with the right-field wall only 307 feet away, balls hit far over the fence will land in San Francisco Bay.

Tickets will be scarce at the 40,800-seat stadium. Whether wins are plentiful for manager Dusty Baker might depend on whether opening-day starter Livan Hernandez (8-12) and closer Robb Nen (3-8, 3.98, 37 saves) return to form.

San Diego Padres -- The Padres made three big trades this winter, though the big deal in San Diego is still Tony Gwynn.

Gwynn, a career .339 hitter who turns 40 in May, starts the season with 3,067 hits and ranks 18th on the career list. He is 216 hits away from tying Willie Mays for 10th.

San Diego got 1B Ryan Klesko (.297, 21, 80) and 2B Bret Boone (20 HRs) from Atlanta for OF Reggie Sanders, 1B Wally Joyner and 2B Quilvio Veras. The Padres also sent P Andy Ashby to Philadelphia for P Carlton Loewer (2-6, 5.12) and acquired troubled OF Al Martin (24 HRs, 20 SBs) from Pittsburgh.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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