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NL's teams target Mets; players take aim at milestones

MIKE FITZPATRICK • Mar 31, 2007 at 10:54 AM

Barry Bonds is approaching 755 homers, Craig Biggio is closing in on 3,000 hits and Tom Glavine is nearing 300 wins.

While some of baseball's oldest stars are set to pursue milestones this season, MVP Ryan Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies are gearing up to chase down the New York Mets in the NL East.

"We're the team to beat. I can't put it any other way," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "Look at our team and what we're bringing. Look at the improvements we've made."

Those improvements include adding Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton to a deep rotation. That's why right-hander Brett Myers figures Philadelphia has more starting pitching than the Mets, who will be without ace Pedro Martinez until at least midseason following shoulder surgery.

"It's competitive talk. We think we're good. They think they're better. It's fun," Myers said.

The Mets still have Glavine, who enters the season with 290 victories. But after coming within one win of the World Series last year, they weren't so amused by all the one-sided analysis coming out of Philadelphia's clubhouse.

"The Phillies, they can come out and talk as much as they want," All-Star third baseman David Wright said during spring training. "Until they prove it on the field, then it's just talk. As far as throwing out predictions and talking about it, talk is very, very cheap."

Nobody knows that better than Bonds, who re-signed with San Francisco in the offseason after plenty of haggling over his $15.8 million, one-year contract. Now, he needs 22 home runs to break Hank Aaron's career record of 755.

"I'll drag it. I'll let you guys wait," he joked. "You know how I do it, the anticipation, the hype, the talk. I'll let you guys talk about it."

The 42-year-old slugger is also 159 hits from 3,000 and 70 RBIs shy of 2,000. But what he wants most, he maintains, is his first World Series ring.

First, he and the Giants, with $126 million man Barry Zito pacing the pitching staff, might have to get past their oldest rivals in the NL West - the Los Angeles Dodgers, who added former San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt to the rotation, and brought back No. 3 hitter Nomar Garciaparra. But Greg Maddux jumped from the Dodgers to the San Diego Padres, who have won consecutive division titles.

The 41-year-old Biggio begins his 20th season with Houston needing only 70 hits to become the 27th player to reach 3,000. That achievement probably means a ticket to Cooperstown.

"It's not even the numbers anymore," Biggio said. "It's the clientele you're having your name associated with in certain categories. That is overwhelming."

Biggio and the Astros have another goal as well: beating out Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals for an NL Central crown.

Houston will get competition from the overhauled Chicago Cubs, who landed free-agent prize Alfonso Soriano during an offseason spending spree. The Cubs, who also acquired lefty Ted Lilly, handed out nearly $300 million in salaries and hired fiery manager Lou Piniella as they try to win the World Series for the first time since 1908.

Other players approaching milestones include pitcher Randy Johnson, back in Arizona after two disappointing seasons with the New York Yankees. He is 20 wins shy of 300.

Also, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman needs 18 saves to reach 500.

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:

EAST New York Mets

After a painful loss to St. Louis in Game 7 of the NLCS last year, the Mets will try to take another step forward. But getting all the way back is difficult to do. The biggest concern is an unsettled rotation. New York is counting on John Maine, Oliver Perez and rookie Mike Pelfrey to provide consistent starts. Glavine and Orlando Hernandez are both 41. Still, the balanced lineup is one of the league's best and the reliable bullpen could be the difference in edging Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies also boast a formidable lineup with Howard, Rollins and All-Star second baseman Chase Utley. They have scrappy winners, too: Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino. The bullpen, which features aging closer Tom Gordon, might be the weak spot. But after barely falling short the past two seasons, the Phillies finally win the wild card and return to the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

The Braves won an unprecedented 14 straight division titles before going 79-83 last season. They upgraded a shaky bullpen by acquiring Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, but traded power-hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche to get Gonzalez. John Smoltz highlights the rotation, and Tim Hudson hopes to rediscover the form that made him such a big winner with Oakland. Mike Hampton is injured again. Chipper Jones' health could be the key to the offense, which finished second in the NL in runs last year. Andruw Jones enters the final season of his contract.

Joe Girardi was fired after one year in Florida, then selected NL Manager of the Year. He was replaced by Fredi Gonzalez, who inherits an extremely young team that showed great promise last season. Hanley Ramirez was the Rookie of the Year. Dontrelle Willis leads the pitching staff, and Miguel Cabrera is one of the best hitters in the league. Josh Johnson (12-7, 3.10 ERA) is expected to miss at least the first two months with an ailing elbow. The bullpen is unproven, even with the late addition of closer Jorge Julio.

Playing in a tough division, this team could easily lose more than 100 games. The rotation is a complete mess behind No. 1 starter John Patterson, who is coming off an arm injury. Several youngsters and castoffs will get a chance to prove themselves - for better or worse. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is a budding star, but he might not get much to hit - especially while Nick Johnson is still recovering from a broken leg. Led by closer Chad Cordero, the bullpen isn't bad. Rookie manager Manny Acta replaces Frank Robinson.

CENTRAL St. Louis Cardinals

Even after their rotation was depleted by offseason defections, the Cardinals could win this mediocre division by default. Carpenter might be the best pitcher in the league, and Pujols and Scott Rolen are still around to anchor the lineup. Jason Isringhausen looks healthy again following hip surgery. As long as Isringhausen is closing games, Adam Wainwright can get comfortable in the rotation. Mark Mulder (shoulder surgery) should be back in July, and Kip Wells might prove to be a bargain. Braden Looper moves into the rotation after spending his entire career in the bullpen. Adam Kennedy was signed to play second base. Injuries are a concern for Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion. This team might look much different in August than it does on opening day.

Houston Astros

Carlos Lee should add punch to a perennially anemic offense. Signed to a $100 million contract, he teams with Lance Berkman to form a powerful tandem in the middle of the lineup. After Andy Pettitte left for the Yankees, newcomers Jason Jennings and Woody Williams hope to stabilize the rotation behind ace Roy Oswalt. Will Roger Clemens return in midseason again or simply stay retired this time? Chris Burke gets an everyday job in center field. Brad Lidge, the closer, looks to bounce back from a shaky season.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs certainly added talent while spending a fortune in the offseason. But after going 66-96 last year, they have a lot of ground to make up. Carlos Zambrano is a legitimate ace who enters the final year of his contract. Kerry Wood is injured again and Mark Prior is headed to the minors. A healthy Derrek Lee should provide a major boost to an offense that also features slugger Aramis Ramirez. Chicago has several pricey new pieces, but how will they all fit together?

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers signed NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan to a $42 million deal, hoping he can be part of a steady rotation that also includes Chris Capuano and oft-injured Ben Sheets. Milwaukee has up-and-coming talent in Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. Bill Hall is one of the most underrated players in the game. He shifts to the outfield. New catcher Johnny Estrada and infielder Craig Counsell provide a veteran presence. If everything goes right, the Brewers might be able to contend in this wide-open division.

Cincinnati Reds

Ken Griffey Jr. slides from center field to right after he broke his throwing hand in the offseason and missed much of spring training. NL strikeout king Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo form a nice 1-2 combo at the top of the rotation, but the other starters leave a lot to be desired. Cincinnati hasn't had a winning season since 2000, its longest drought since 1945-55. GM Wayne Krivsky seems to be sharp, though.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are excited about the addition of LaRoche. They think he can make a major difference on offense AND defense after he hit .285 with 32 homers and 90 RBIs for Atlanta last season. Freddy Sanchez not only won an everyday job last year, he took home the NL batting title. However, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday and will miss at least four games due to a sprained his right medial collateral ligament. Left-hander Zach Duke, part of a young rotation, hopes to rebound from a sophomore slump. The closer's role could be a problem. The Pirates have had 14 straight losing seasons, two shy of the major league record set by the Phillies from 1933-48.

WEST Los Angeles Dodgers

After winning the wild card last year, the Dodgers look like the team to beat out West in 2007. Center fielder Juan Pierre was a curious signing at $44 million over five years, but left-hander Randy Wolf made a lot of sense for an imposing rotation that also features Derek Lowe, Brad Penny and Schmidt. The bullpen appears solid, too. The lineup probably won't scare many foes, with several aging sluggers in the middle of it. Speedy shortstop Rafael Furcal injured his ankle late in spring training. The heart and soul of this team might be impressive catcher Russell Martin, a rookie last season.

San Diego Padres

The Padres led the league in ERA last season (3.87) and should have a strong staff again with Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Maddux and Hoffman. But they could have a hard time winning a third straight division title. The lineup looks lousy, though first baseman Adrian Gonzalez often gets overlooked. Second baseman Marcus Giles arrives from Atlanta and joins his brother, right fielder Brian Giles. Maddux and fellow fortysomething David Wells are quite a contrast in the clubhouse. Former Angels pitching coach Bud Black replaces Bruce Bochy as manager.

San Francisco Giants

Besides the two Barrys (Bonds and Zito), the Giants feature second baseman Ray Durham and talented young pitcher Matt Cain. They need to get something useful out of Matt Morris during his second season in San Francisco. Another key to success could be closer Armando Benitez, who has struggled through a pair of injury-plagued seasons. Bengie Molina is a sound acquisition at catcher, and newcomer Dave Roberts provides speed in the leadoff slot. Still, Bonds lacks protection in this lineup. Bochy takes over for Felipe Alou as manager.

Colorado Rockies

Todd Helton is still in Denver after the Rockies considered trading him to Boston. Now, he hopes to bounce back from two seasons hindered by injuries and illness. All-Star Matt Holliday, third baseman Garrett Atkins and outfielder Brad Hawpe are among the young players who have already established themselves in the big leagues. Next in line could be rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and catcher Chris Iannetta. The Rockies can hit - and they play excellent defense. But they probably don't have enough pitching to put together their first winning season since 2000.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The club is loaded with prized prospects, many of whom have arrived in the big leagues: shortstop Stephen Drew, center fielder Chris Young, right fielder Carlos Quentin, first baseman Conor Jackson. Now, let's see how fast they can produce - and how well they adjust to the everyday grind in the majors. The rotation looks pretty good on paper, but it might not be that strong behind Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb. The Big Unit - who is returning from offseason back surgery and was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday - and Livan Hernandez have logged a lot of innings over the years. The bullpen is largely unproven.

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