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Into the great wide open

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It is the last week of March and one thing is perfectly clear: there is no great team.

The Yankees may again be great in October, but as significant a signing as Mike Mussina will prove to be, they still won just 87 games and made it through the playoffs with a six-man pitching staff last season. They go into 2001 a year older, an opening rotation with a rookie (Christian Parker) who's never won a game in Triple-A and with uncertainty about Alfonso Soriano at second base, Chuck Knoblauch in left field and the health of Derek Jeter.

The Braves' bullpen may be its best ever, if Odalis Perez and Jason Marquis remain there, but they may not because of concerns about the starting pitching. Sound crazy? John Smoltz's tendinitis may be temporary, and so may Kevin Millwood's mechanical troubles, but with catching questions and a lineup that lacks a presence after Chipper Jones, they are not the paper lions of the past. Two different general managers this weekend said "the Braves could be in trouble." Not that the Mets don't have questions in the outfield and at the top end of their rotation.

Red Sox fans waved goodbye to the equipment trucks in February expecting that when the trucks returned the first week of April, playoff tickets would be on sale. But with Nomar Garciaparra's future uncertain, an infield defense that is offensive, and a post-Pedro rotation (Hideo Nomo, Tomo Ohka, Paxton Crawford and Frank Castillo) that was a combined 23-25 last season, that $108 million payroll and the highest-paid GM in the business must have prospective buyers thinking John Harrington likes to pay Neiman-Marcus prices for 7-11 items.

The consensus among baseball people is the team that looks the strongest in Florida is Cleveland. It is virtually unanimous that the best team in Arizona is Oakland.

One National League team gathered its scouts together this weekend and came away with this analysis:

National League
N.Y./Atl.    St. Louis   L.A./Arizona
Florida      Houston     San Francisco
Montreal     Milwaukee   Colorado
Philadephia  Cincinnati  San Diego

American League New York Cleveland Oakland Boston Chicago Texas Toronto Kansas City Seattle Tampa Bay Minnesota Anaheim Baltimore Detroit

The scouts' consensus is that Pittsburgh., San Diego, Detroit and Baltimore are bad teams. Cleveland, Oakland and Chicago are the best teams in the American League, and in the NL, any one of seven teams -- the Mets, Braves, Cards, Astros, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants -- could end up in the playoffs. Kansas City and Florida are the sleepers, especially if the Royals get any kind of frontline starting pitching.

"The problem with some of these teams like Toronto and the Royals is that while they have very good teams, their No. 1 starters are Esteban Loaiza and Jeff Suppan," says one scout. "At least Tampa has three or four quality power arms, and Paul Wilson is close to a front-of-the-rotation guy. Cincinnati has a tremendous team and bullpen, but the starting pitching is a big question, especially with Jim Bowden shopping Scott Williamson. There has to be something wrong with him."

But this is, after all, still March, and what the best teams look like in March doesn't mean they'll look this way come September, especially with what may available on the summer market because of the impending labor negotiation. Look at Cleveland and Atlanta. With their warehouses of young pitching talent throughout their systems, one would think that they have opportunities to plug holes they may have. The Yankees and Mets have the New York money. The Red Sox may just keep throwing Mike Lansing money at the wall, figuring the next owner and the season-ticket holders can digest any costs. Houston, St. Louis, San Francisco, Texas and the White Sox have good farm systems and the general managers with the evaluation skills to make key trades, but where their payrolls can go is uncertain. This appears to be a season in which who gets to October is decided by who gets what in July.

Things do happen fast, as well. All of a sudden, monster C.C. Sabathia looks as if he's won a spot in Cleveland's rotation with Steve Karsay, as Steve Woodard opens the season in the long role backing up Sabathia and Karsay. Saturday, Sabathia worked five innings, starting out at 90-91 mph and working the last two sitting right at 93-95 with a nice changeup. If this is a stretch, the way Jaret Wright threw his last time out -- 92-93 with a better breaking ball and change than he had before he was hurt -- and with Charles Nagy also on the way back, the Indians have a lot of depth.

St. Louis was encouraged that the last time Rick Ankiel pitched, he found himself after walking the first three batters and giving up an opposite-field grand slam to Vladimir Guerrero. "I think it was encouraging, maybe better than just throwing three innings where nothing happened," says Ankiel. "I talked to Mike Matheny and Dave Duncan, figured out what I was doing with my shoulder, and came back."

In his previous outing -- when he walked eight in one inning -- Ankiel threw only two or three fastballs for strikes. Thursday he didn't have his usual breaking ball (which has never been the problem), then after the grand slam threw 26 of 34 fastballs for strikes. "I was very encouraged, because he showed me he can settle down," says Matheny.

"This thing isn't just going to go away," says Duncan. "He has to address it, and he's made a lot of progress. He's going to get there. He knows it's always going to be there, but he's learning what to do when it crops up."

The Cardinals are slowly getting Garrett Stephenson back, and Alan Benes is progressing, so they may have some alternatives after the front four of Darryl Kile, Matt Morris, Dustin Hermanson and Andy Benes.

Dodgers not doomed
Speaking of going away, one of the teams that may be a lot better than you think is Los Angeles. "Once Shef stood up in front of the whole team, apologized and said he was wrong about some issues," says Mark Grudzielanek, "this whole thing was over. He showed us all a lot of guts. But let me tell you -- Jim Tracy had everything going here before Shef faced us in the clubhouse meeting. I know Trace from the Montreal organization (the two won an Eastern League title together in Harrisburg), and he's a special man."

Where the Dodgers were a separate tables team that under Davey Johnson showed up at gametime, this spring there is an energy no Dodgers team has had in a long while. "There's a spirit here that we haven't had," says Shawn Green. "We came a long way last year and won 86 games, but this spring our attention to detail has been tremendous."

Tracy first had to deal with the Sheffield soap opera, and told his players, "With or without Gary, we're going to be a better team. But we all hope he's with us." Then Green hurt his thumb. And Adrian Beltre's botched appendectomy set him out for half the season, maybe more.

"Jim and his coaches like Glenn Hoffman and Jim Colborn were never set back by anything that went wrong," says Marquis Grissom. "I arrived here a couple of days into camp, and it was the players -- not the front office or coaches -- that were telling me how great it is here."

The emphasis all spring has been on mental fundamentals -- defensive, offensive and baserunning "We know that we're not going to blow anyone away," says Tom Goodwin. "We have to play 3-2, 4-3 games, and to win those we have to play the game right."

"Playing against the Dodgers," says Grissom, who was with Milwaukee last year, "they didn't do a lot of those little things. Well, we are this spring."

Where most question the defense behind Kevin Brown, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort and Andy Ashby, the players are effusive in their praise for the defense. "We are great up the middle," says Green. "Goodwin and Grissom have great speed. Alex Cora is a tremendous shortstop, and Mark doesn't get enough credit. Now he's in his second year moving over to second base, he's an unbelievable athlete and getting better all the time. Our catching (Paul LoDuca, Chad Kreuter) can handle the pitchers, and LoDuca isn't far from being Jason Kendall."

LoDuca is one of the talks of the spring, an athletic No.2-hitting catcher who can catch, throw and handle the pitchers. Oh, yes. The Dodgers do lead all teams in double plays turned this spring.

The Beltre loss is huge. Left-handed-hitting Chris Donnels, who'll be 35 next month, hit well in the Pacific Coast League last year after four seasons in Japan, and has had a good spring. The Dodgers would like another right-handed hitter to play the position since they're weaker against lefties and their three most important division rivals will start either seven or eight lefties, but nothing may happen early, and Tim Bogar or Jeff Reboulet may face left-handed starters.

Brown strained his Achilles tendon Friday, although Sunday he said, 'It's not serious,' and vowed to pitch Opening Day. That may be out of the question, but Colborn says, "The thought that this could be a long-range issue hasn't even been uttered. It isn't. But October is more important than Opening Day."

The problem for the NL West teams is that while everyone but the Padres have a chance to finish first, there is so much depth that it may be practically impossible for the wild card to come out of the division. "It just makes April and September that much more important," says Dodgers GM Kevin Malone. "That's good for the game."

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