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February 28, 1999

NL East Notebook

Potential Breakouts and Flops for 1999

by Keith Law

ATLANTA BRAVES

The bad news about Andres Galarraga has put several Braves players on the spot, and the team's anxiety over the loss of their top slugger from '98 has them hitting the trade market. Barring a deal, the spotlight will fall on Ryan Klesko. Klesko actually wanted to make the move to first early last season when he realized Dmitri Young had surpassed him as the biggest leftfield joke in the majors. More importantly, Klesko will spend more time in the lineup (again, if the Braves don't acquire another 1b) and should blossom with more consistent playing time.

Perhaps no player in baseball is more likely to collapse into a white dwarf than Bret Boone, given that he's already both white and on the small side. His 24 home runs made roto players swoon, but the superficial totals masked a .266/.324/.458 effort that was his best season since '94. He's very likely to fall back to earth and send the Braves scrambling for alternatives in June, much as the Cubs did to replace Jeff Blauser last year.

FLORIDA MARLINS

Which Marlin veterans are the most important factors on the team's '99 fate? Ha! Trick question: the Marlins have no veterans.

That's slightly disingenuous, because the team will return with about 2/3 of its year-end starting lineup. Mark Kotsay, Todd Dunwoody, and Derrek Lee will all be watched closely for steps forward that bring them up to the level of their pre-'98 hype; Dunwoody is the least likely of the three to do it unless he arrests his criminal lack of plate discipline in a big hurry. The team really needs all three to move forward this year, as the Marlins probably won't get much offensive production in the middle infield until about 2001.

Much focus will be on Cliff Floyd, whose 20/20 season last year returned him to the national stage he would have conquered in '95, were it not for one of the worst baseball injuries this decade. However, the focus may be on the wrong aspects: Floyd's career may seem to be on the upswing, but some ominous signs lay in his '98 performance. In particular, his plate discipline - long a strength - fell apart as he pushed to generate more power. He also only slugged .481, which represented a career high but is far below where he'll need to be to stay in the Marlins' plans.

Of greater interest is the status of three arms in the rotation: Alex Fernandez, coming off rotator cuff surgery, and Livan Hernandez and Jesus Sanchez, coming off of a year of severe arm abuse at the hands of Jim "Barney Fife" Leyland.

MONTREAL EXPOS

Like the Marlins, the Expos return few "veterans" in the traditional (grizzled) sense of the word. Instead, the team boasts two potential breakout players and two touted youngsters on the hot seat.

Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez both put up relatively disappointing stats in their first year in the majors last year, with Vazquez suffering from the twin maladies of a high ERA and no run support. However, either or both of the pair could break out this year, with Pavano very likely to break through as the intelligent pitcher continues to learn his way around the majors.

Brad Fullmer and Chris Widger should command your attention for a different reason: both could be pushed out by other young players if they fail to improve significantly this year. While Fullmer's numbers placed him on par with more touted players like Travis Lee, his final stats weren't great, his defense was poor, and he has both Fernando Seguignol and Jon Tucker behind him. Similarly, Widger has the oncoming bullet train of Michael Barrett in his rearview mirror, and at 28, Widger is hardly likely to make big strikes forward. Widger actually regressed last year, and his .233/.281/.388 was so poor that Gord Ash will probably want to trade Roy Halladay for him.

NEW YORK METS

Trumped again by their storied neighbors to the west, the Mets will rely on a veteran core to try to make some headlines and win the wild card. The attention will primarily fall on returning superstar (and new zillionaire) Mike Piazza, and on newcomers like Robin Ventura and Bobby Bonilla.

While Ventura and Bonilla are likely to see continued declines in their production, the Mets are counting on some players who might not be as reliable as the team thinks. While Al Leiter was simply incredible last year, he has a long history of arm injuries, and is just one year removed from a 4+ ERA and control troubles back in Miami. Masato Yoshii was a mediocre pitcher after his hot start last season. And Hideo Nomo ... well, there's a lot of coaching required there, and I doubt Bobby-san has the intestinal fortitude to wait Nomo's troubles out. Even John Olerud is likely to slip some, although he should still be one of the NL's top first basemen.

The Mets have few potential breakout candidates. One we've touted for some time is Roger Cedeno, who would have been a nice (and cheap) answer for the leadoff job before they signed Rickey Henderson. With Bonilla in need of a defensive replacement by the third inning of most games, Cedeno could see significant action spelling him or Henderson, who will probably get his share of days off to stay healthy.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Like the Mets, the Phils don't have many breakout candidates; they had a pair of players who made huge jumps last year in Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen, but the till is empty for the time being.

Paul Byrd will get plenty of attention because of his strong stint in the rotation down the stretch, although Terry Francona did his fair share to beat Byrd's reputation down. Byrd can easily be the team's #4 starter and do very well, but any pre-season hype that has him as more than that isn't worth your time.

Curt Schilling's hemming and hawing about where he wants to play this year has obscured one simple fact: since his last major arm injury in '96, he's thrown over 700 innings and faced over 2800 batters. He showed no signs of injury last year, but I'm reluctant to believe that a surgically rebuilt arm can tolerate that level of usage.

Finally, the team will surely be expecting a move forward from Doug Glanville. At 29, he's already closer to the end of his hitting prime than to the beginning, and he's a good bet to struggle and work himself out of the team's plans over the course of the season.

Related Content:  The Who,  Bobby Bonilla,  Year Of The Injury

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