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3. ATLANTA BRAVES
The bad news is that the Braves batted .234 last year, lowest in the majors. The good news is that the '85 Giants, the '86 Cardinals and the '87 Dodgers all finished last in the league in hitting, and within two years, each was a division winner. Not surprisingly, Atlanta finished last in hitting at four positions in '89: catcher (.191), first base (.230), third base (.213) and shortstop (.222). So general manager Bobby Cox did a very sensible thing: He acquired a catcher (Ernie Whitt), a first baseman (Nick Esasky) and a third baseman (Jim Presley) and moved Jeff Blauser third to short, his natural position. Those changes, coupled with the maturation of a talented pitching staff, have Atlanta unusually optimistic. 'This year [manager] Russ Nixon told us in spring training that we had a chance to be contenders." says Blauser. "Actually, he told us pretty much the same thing last year. Except this year, I believe him."
Nixon's credibility is helped by the arrival of the aforementioned newcomers. Presley will try to reverse the trend in his home run output, which has declined steadily from 28 in 1985 to 12 last season. Esasky has a history of hitting well in Atlanta from his days with the Reds. His 14 home runs in 112 at bats there project to about 30 for a full season, and that's just at home. Whitt, who was acquired as much for his handling of pitchers as for his bat, is one of the few catchers in the league capable of hitting 10 homers and driving in 50 runs.
The Braves have a nice rotation, led by Tom Glavine (14-8, 3.68 in '89) and John Smoltz (12-11, 2.94), and it will be even nicer when lefthander Steve Avery, the best pitching prospect in the game, comes up in mid-season. The bullpen, which lost 35 games last year, is still in a state of flux. That's why Cox continues to talk to the Red Sox about Lee Smith. If the Braves can't import a stopper, they'll go with rookie lefthander Mike Stanton, who looked brilliant in a brief audition last September.
4. HOUSTON ASTROS
The Astros chances depend not so much on newcomers but on two holdovers who had less than sterling years in '89: second baseman Bill Doran and centerfielder Gerald Young. "Nobody in America did their job as badly as I did mine last year," says Doran, who hit .266 with 49 RBIs before the All-Star break and .131 with nine RBIs after it. "I just stunk." As for Young, he hit .233 and stole 34 bases, which (for him) was disappointing because of his extraordinary speed. The club hopes that Young's impending eligibility for salary arbitration will be an incentive for him to improve his baserunning and bunting. Oddly, it was a catcher, Craig Biggio, who was the Astros' star on the base paths. He stole 21 bases in 24 attempts, a remarkable 88% success rate. Unfortunately, those who ran on him succeeded 83% of the time.
Last year the rotation was nicknamed Scott and Deshaies and Pray for Three Days. Houston was 45-22 in games that Mike Scott or Jim Deshaies started, and 41-54 in the rest. That record would have been even worse if Mark Portugal hadn't gone 7-0 after midseason. Portugal is back, but so is Jim Clancy, who finished just one of his 26 starts. Bill Gullickson is also in the rotation, though his junkball repertoire is not quite what the Astros had in mind. His last major league assignment was with the Yankees in '87, and he already senses that the Astros are closer in temperament to the Japanese than to the Yankees. "You could put the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in New York," he says, "and there'd be personality conflicts."
5. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Speaking of New York, the Dodgers are beginning to look like Yankees West. The current team might have won 125 games four years ago. Back then. Kirk Gibson, Eddie Murray, Hubie Brooks, Willie Randolph, Juan Samuel. Alfredo Griffin, Kal Daniels and Jim Gott were young, spry, eager—and with other teams. But now the Dodgers, whose organization once basked in the future, seem hopelessly intent on recapturing the past. Only two regulars, catcher Mike Scioscia and third baseman Jeff Hamilton, came up through the ranks, and Scioscia has been around since 1980. "It's hard to believe the two teams [the '88 world champions and the '90 Dodgers] existed in this same locker room," says pitcher Orel Hershiser. "The names have changed so much. There are personalities that have yet to mingle."
Gibson may have given the Dodgers more than just the '88 World Series; he may have given them his career. The left hamstring he injured in the playoffs that year has turned out to be a more serious ailment than expected, and his legs are so bad that he was taking batting practice on his knees this spring. Los Angeles keeps talking about Gibson's coming back, but nobody is counting on him. The other leftfielder, Kal Daniels, is coming off his fifth knee operation and can't go full tilt. With former second baseman Samuel in center, former shortstop Brooks in right and somebody limping in left, a fly ball to the Dodger outfield may be a bigger amusement than Space Mountain.