Can't stop the tomahawk
By John Intini
In a season where all eyes will be on long-ball hitters, the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves will once again show that no matter how much power you might have, nothing beats great pitching nothing.
EAST The powerhouse Braves boast one of the finest pitching staffs in history. All five Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle and Dennis Martinez could easily be the opening day starters on any of the other 29 clubs in the bigs.
As well, with all being probable 20-game winners, the Cy Young Award will undoubtedly head back to Atlanta again. With Maddux, a.k.a. "pitching god," as the staff's ace, the rest of the league should start to plan now on how to get a ticket on the wild-card flight to the post-season.
Atlanta's depth is simply incredible with a heart of the order that includes infielders Chipper Jones and Andres Galarraga, outfielder Ryan Klesko and catcher Javier Lopez. The middle four accounted for 109 dingers and 403 runs batted in last year. Ted Turner has once again put together a club for manager Bobby Cox to lead to the big show. Hopefully for Turner, the club's post-season futility (one ring in the last seven years with similar teams) will end.
With the Tomahawk chop coming down on all East competition, the hitting power of the St. Louis Cardinals will certainly make them contenders in the Central.
However, even in a season in which first baseman Mark McGwire will break the 1961 home run record of 61, set by Yankee Roger Maris, by hitting 70 round-trippers, riding his bat will not be enough since their staff lacks any real leader. Todd Stottlemyre is too loose a cannon to truly be an ace, not to mention his lack of talent. If the Cards want any chance of competing for a trip to the October classic, centre fielder Ray Lankford will have to duplicate last year's numbers (batting .295, with 31 homers and 98 RBIs) and Mr. Olympian Ron Gant will have to use his 30-inch biceps for more than 17 home runs, 62 RBIs and a .229 batting average.
CENTRAL The Houston Astros will put in a tough fight all year in the central, but after losing last year's ace, Darryl Kile, to the Colorado Rockies, the club will lack the pitching to truly be consistent all year. Kile (19-7 with a 2.57 earned run average) was the club's workhorse throwing 255 innings and will leave behind a rotation with injury prone Shane Reynolds as the club's ace. With a staff this weak, manager Larry Dieker will surely be wondering where Nolan Ryan is come mid-season. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, although shoe-ins for the all-star game, will not be enough to make up for poor pitching.
WEST The most interesting race is the N. L. West, with four teams capable of making some serious noise. The Los Angeles Dodgers appear to pack quite a wallop with catcher Mike Piazza, infielders Eric Karros and Todd Zeile, along with outfielder Raul Mondesi in the middle of their line-up. The four are definitely the most explosive middlemen in baseball. If the Dodgers want to be serious contenders they will have to find a way to unite the cultural mosaic of starts, something they have been unable to do in the past.
Fleeing the sinking Florida Marlins ship, pitcher Kevin Brown will make the San Diego Padres wild-card hopefuls. As long as Tony Gwynn has a normal "Tony Gwynn year" the Padres will come in second in the West behind the Dodgers and pick themselves up a back-door invitation to the post-season.
The Colorado Rockies' Larry Walker and Dante Bichette will certainly take full advantage of the thin Denver air in their quest for 61 round-trippers. However, unless Triple-A phenom Todd Helton (batting .352 with16 homers and 88 RBIs) can step in for the departed Galarraga, the Rockies will simply be in a fight for the wild-card spot.
Although anything can happen come September it won't. The Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres may be good but they are not great. The Braves are too strong and with an expansion season depleting the pitching resources of almost every team, no team has the depth to get through the grueling 162-game schedule.