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League has some changes

A look at the how the National League teams stack up on the eve of spring training:


PHILLIES: About the only thing general manager Ed Wade was unable to do this winter was bring back Curt Schilling, and after keeping no-hit Kevin Millwood from leaving as a free agent, Wade's rotation is fine just the way it is. Wade gave pitching coach Joe Kerrigan former Twins lefty Eric Milton to fill out a rotation that will be even better if Dr. K can get 23-year-old righthander Brett Myers back on track. The biggest change comes in the bullpen, where Wade traded for lefthanded closer Billy Wagner and signed righthander Tim Worrell, who had closed for the Giants after Robb Nen went down. Slugger Pat Burrell hit just .209 last season and clashed with hot-tempered manager Larry Bowa, who may be the X factor in whether the Phillies surge ahead of the Marlins and Braves in the division.

BRAVES: Few people expect the Braves to make it 13 division titles in a row, not after they lost Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux, and Vinny Castilla to free agency -- just like last season, when there were predictions of doom when the Braves lost Millwood and Tom Glavine. GM John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox, both future Hall of Famers, may be faced with their greatest challenge yet. Schuerholz is gambling that injury-plagued J.D. Drew will remain healthy and blossom into the stardom long projected for him, and that pitching coach Leo Mazzone will make John Thomson another successful reclamation project. Rookie Adam LaRoche, who hit 20 home runs in the minors, is a top prospect, and the Braves are betting he's ready to claim the first base job.

METS: Jim Duquette, in his first full season as GM, doesn't have the luxury of time to overhaul this misshapen club. He bagged Japanese shortstop Kaz Matsui, electing to move top prospect Jose Reyes to second base, and signed free agent center fielder Mike Cameron, who slumped at the plate last season but is as good as they come defensively. Al Leiter and Glavine are still formidable lefties at the top of the rotation, and Glavine should be more comfortable in his second season in New York. Ex-Marlin Braden Looper doesn't inspire confidence as a closer.

EXPOS: The Expos remain in limbo for another year, which means Omar Minaya had to close his eyes and bid farewell to two more premier players, pitcher Javier Vazquez and outfielder Vladi Guerrero. And shortstop Orlando Cabrera and second baseman Jose Vidro can't be too far behind. Minaya did sign Carl Everett, and Tony Armas Jr. is expected to make a full recovery from shoulder surgery, joining another former Red Sox farmhand, Tomo Ohka, in the rotation. But sooner or later, Minaya and manager Frank Robinson will run out of miracles . . . and patience.

MARLINS: Unlike the last time the Marlins won the World Series and Wayne Huizenga blew up the roster, owner Jeffrey Loria kept the nucleus of this club, although he was unable to persuade the team's de facto MVP, Ivan Rodriguez, to stay for less money than he made in 2003. The Fish also lost emerging star Derrek Lee in a trade with the Cubs and closer Ugie Urbina to free agency. Armando Benitez, so inconsistent with the Mets, becomes the closer, and the Marlins will have full seasons from superstar-in-the-making Miguel Cabrera, original Marlin Jeff Conine, and 72-year-old manager Jack McKeon, who has some of the best young pitching in the game, led by Series MVP Josh Beckett.


CUBS: Three-run lead, five outs away from the World Series . . . the storyline is a familiar one in New England, but Cubs GM Jim Hendry responded to bitter disappointment just like Sox GM Theo Epstein, making moves designed to put his club over the top. Hendry is still waiting to hear whether Maddux wants to return to his roots, but even if he doesn't, the Cubs have four pitchers 25 or younger who threw 200 or more innings: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement. Lee could become a 40-homer man in Wrigley Field, and Aramis Ramirez was a great midsummer pickup. If Corey Patterson regains the form he had before being injured, this will be a potent offense, with Todd Walker coming from the Red Sox to add some lefthanded pop to Sammy, Moises, et al. Expectations are as high at the corner of Clark and Addison as they are on Yawkey Way.

ASTROS: On his way out the door to Philadelphia, Wagner ripped management for not being willing to spend what it takes to be a winner, then watched as owner Drayton McLane opened his wallet to sign homeboys Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, creating the most excitement this team ever has seen. On top of that, McLane stole the legendary Nolan Ryan from the Rangers to join the club's front office, where he presumably will enjoy, as much as manager Jimy Williams, what Pettitte and Clemens will do for a rotation that already boasts Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. Fixtures Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell are getting long in the tooth, as is Jeff Kent, but the whole club should get a boost from the two Bombers and their collection of Series rings. Octavio Dotel is being counted upon to replace Wagner.

CARDINALS: Put Albert Pujols in Boston, and you would be reading that at age 24, he compares to Ted Williams. Tony La Russa, who calls Pujols the best player he ever has managed, is now asking Pujols to move from left field to first base, a transition that should come easily. The Cardinals traded Drew to acquire Jason Marquis from Atlanta to bolster a rotation that doesn't match up with either the Cubs or Houston, but few teams do.

REDS: The Reds imploded last season, their first in Great American Ballpark, as GM Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired and the team was stripped of some of its best (and most popular players) -- Scott Williamson, Aaron Boone, and Jose Guillen -- leaving the clubhouse in chaos. GM Dan O'Brien and manager Dave Miley have been hired to restore order, but with the Reds trying to do it on the cheap, not even the return to health of Ken Griffey will make much of a difference.

PIRATES: Maine's Dave Littlefield has little hope of stemming a streak of 11 consecutive losing seasons by the Pirates, who could be headed toward a 100-loss season.

BREWERS: Team president Ulice Payne was fired for protesting after the payroll was slashed to $30 milliion. The Selig family announced the club was for sale. Richie Sexson, the team's top slugger, was dealt to the Diamondbacks. Tough time to be a cheesehead. At least GM Doug Melvin can take comfort from the breakout season by Scott Podsednik, who needed nine years to get here but topped .300, 100 runs, and 40 stolen bases.


DODGERS: New owner Frank McCourt made his first move yesterday, hiring Oakland A's executive Paul DePodesta as general manager. The Dodgers need offense, but where it will come from this close to the start of camp is a mystery. The Dodgers scored one run or were shut out a staggering 40 times last season, and despite the presence of the game's best closer, Eric Gagne, and some terrific young arms, led by Edwin Jackson, this could be a long summer in Chavez Ravine.

GIANTS: The BALCO drug scandal is certain to dog this club all summer, since Barry Bonds's personal trainer was among those indicted on charges of distributing illegal steroids and human growth hormone. Bonds has succeeded in setting aside long-held suspicions about his added bulk and had an MVP season last year despite losing his father, Bobby, to cancer. GM Brian Sabean has an enviable record of keeping the Giants in contention year after year with limited resources, but if closer Nen can't come back from three shoulder surgeries, the Giants may struggle. Still the class of a weakened division.

DIAMONDBACKS: The Diamondbacks sacrificed Schilling to clear the way for nine-player deal that netted the slugging Sexson. He'll help the offense, obviously, but Schilling leaves a big void on a staff led by 41-year-old Randy Johnson, who had knee surgery and missed 12 weeks last season. Brandon Webb, who made a strong bid for Rookie of the Year, takes Schilling's spot. GM Joe Garagiola Jr. signed veterans Steve Sparks and Shane Reynolds, and kids Edgar Gonzalez, John Patterson, and Andrew Good all have potential. But this appears to be a transitional year.

PADRES: The Padres move into a new ballpark that was Larry Lucchino's baby, and it's a beauty. GM Kevin Towers upgraded the club by trading for catcher Ramon Hernandez and outfielder Terrence Long, and signed former Yankees lefty David Wells, who returns home for a last hurrah. Jake Peavy, Brian Lawrence, and Adam Eaton are all young pitchers with great upsides, and rookie Khalil Greene looks like a keeper at short.

ROCKIES: They're in payroll-slashing mode, which doesn't bode well for a team that lives on offense yet last season posted the lowest batting average (.267) in its history.

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