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'97 shapes up as year of incumbents

Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar agreed to analyze the season for the Times. He shared these observations with baseball writer Marc Topkin.

This will be a year the fans in Tampa Bay will never forget, with us taking one step closer to Opening Day, the hiring of our manager, the continued growth of our entire organization and the highlight of the expansion draft.

But I think 1997 will also be a benchmark year when it comes to baseball overall _ coming off an extremely exciting World Series, finally the signing of a basic agreement which ensures our fans continuous baseball for years to come, the introduction of interleague play, and the feeling in my travels in Florida and Arizona that the fans are starting to come back, that the wounds of the strike are slowly being healed.

I think it will be not only a great season for Devil Rays fans but for baseball fans everywhere.

Looking at the NL, several teams helped themselves during the off-season, someone is going to have to unseat the Braves, Cardinals and Padres.

NL EAST: For the first time in recent years, the Braves have distinct competition for a division title. The Marlins are probably the most improved team in baseball. A lot of hoopla has been made about the money they spent, but don't forget that Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria and Luis Castillo are signs their home-grown talent will also play a significant part.

But I still feel the Braves are the team to beat. For 1997, some people may think the Indians got the best of Tuesday's trade. However, in my opinion John Schuerholz is the best in the business at knowing not only when a trade needs to be made but when to make it. I don't think they miss a beat with the combination of Kenny Lofton in centerfield and Andruw Jones in right. With the addition of Alan Embree, one of their two glaring deficiencies, a lefthander in the bullpen, seems to be taken care of.

The Marlins might have to win 100 games to beat them. It wouldn't surprise me if both teams make post-season play.

NL CENTRAL: Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa and company did such an outstanding job last year in building that division-winning club, and if they stay healthy, there's no reason why they can't repeat.

There's no question they'll receive a challenge from someone. Just who will come to the forefront has yet to be seen.

NL WEST: Coming off its first division title in years, San Diego seems to be even stronger. Improvement behind the plate, at second base and having Greg Vaughn through the entire year makes them the team to beat. But having seen Los Angeles in spring training, with as good a pitching staff as they have, I'm sure they'll challenge the Padres until the end.

The American League races shape up to be some of the most exciting in recent memory. You have the World Series champions that somebody has to unseat, and there's five or six clubs that might be capable of doing it.

AL EAST: After a storybook season as world champions, New York is still the team to beat. However, the Atlanta Braves can tell you how hard it is to repeat. I truly think Baltimore has improved themselves enough that they could dethrone the champions. The Blue Jays have done an outstanding job of rebuilding. With the improvements on their major-league club and the quality of their pitching prospects, they will surprise some folks this year on their way to being an outstanding team in 1998.

AL CENTRAL: Everyone seems to be picking the White Sox, who have assembled one of the finest offensive teams in years. However, I think the Indians in a lot of ways will have their finest team in 1997, and I felt this way before the big trade with Atlanta. I think the trade makes them the team to beat in this division. Not to be overlooked is the great job GM Terry Ryan and the Twins have done.

AL WEST: The Seattle Mariners might have the finest team in baseball from top to bottom, but no matter how talented they are, the Texas Rangers are not just going to roll over. This has a chance to be an extremely good race through the year. The Mariners may not only win that division, they may play a long time come October.

The great thing about baseball this time of year is that everyone is starting even. I'm sure there are several teams not mentioned here that could not only have great seasons but could be in championship play by the end of the year.

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