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  1. Archive

NL EAST PREVIEWS

1. ATLANTA BRAVES

MANAGER: Bobby Cox, 8th year (1,211-1,028 overall).

1996 FINISH: 96-66, 1st place.

WHAT'S NEW: Just a blockbuster trade Tuesday that brought in Kenny Lofton and shipped out Marquis Grissom and David Justice.

WHAT ELSE: Outfield situation is cleard up, allowing phenoms Andruw Jones and Jermaine Dye to get on the field. Fred McGriff now is there to stay. And, as always, starting pitching is the key.

WHO'S KEY: Can't afford a problem with closer Mark Wohlers, though new addition Alan Embree provides depth.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: The starting pitching staff makes it seven straight Cy Youngs. Lofton makes easy adjustment to NL.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Nothing short of a catastrophe would keep the Braves out of the playoffs. But once in the post-season they could again fall victim to a weak bench and poor middle relief.

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2. FLORIDA MARLINS

MANAGER: Jim Leyland, 1st year (851-863 overall).

1996 FINISH: 80-82, 3rd, 16 GB

WHAT'S NEW: Expectations in south Florida. A spending spree brought Leyland, OF Moises Alou, 3B Bobby Bonilla, OF Jim Eisenreich and P Alex Fernandez to town.

WHAT ELSE: To make room for Alou, Jeff Conine is moving to 1B. Gold Glove C Charles Johnson needs to hit better than .218.

WHO'S KEY: The young DP combo of Luis Castillo and Edgar Renteria must play beyond its years.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Fernandez, Kevin Brown and Al Leiter do a credible impersonation of Atlanta's staff. Gary Sheffield makes a run at the Triple Crown with better hitters protecting him.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: The Florida clubhouse has never been the most harmonious place. If huge egos clash, this could become the most overpriced club in baseball.

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3. MONTREAL EXPOS

MANAGER: Felipe Alou, 6th year (392-315).

1996 FINISH: 88-74, 2nd, 8 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: More one-way flights out of Montreal. Mel Rojas, Moises Alou and Jeff Fassero are the latest to jump ship.

WHAT ELSE: As usual, the Expos are counting on their farm system to replenish their losses, and they've got a good shot with OF Vladimir Guerrero. C Chris Widger, acquired in the Fassero deal, will try to prove his bat is as good as his glove.

WHO'S KEY: More pressure than ever on P Pedro Martinez.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Felipe Alou can continue to demonstrate why he is the most unsung manager in baseball.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: LF Henry Rodriguez proves to be the half-season fluke many suspected last year, CF Rondell White has another injury-filled season or no one steps up as a closer.

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4. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

MANAGER: Terry Francona, 1st year.

1996 FINISH: 67-95, 5th, 29 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: Philadelphia shopped the mid-range free-agent market. OF Danny Tartabull, P Mark Portugal, 1B Rico Brogna OF Rex Hudler arrive. But the Phils still won't contend.

WHAT ELSE: Keep an eye on youngsters Scott Rolen at 3B and C Mike Lieberthal because they're the future.

WHO'S KEY: Let's see if Francona has an impact on the club.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Lenny Dykstra's ailing back recovers by mid-season, Darren Daulton's ailing knees do not keep him from helping and Curt Schilling's ailing body does not betray him.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Philadelphia had so much go wrong last season, it's hard to imagine anything worse this year. Unless, of course, Schilling is traded.

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5. NEW YORK METS

MANAGER: Bobby Valentine, 1st year (593-624 overall).

1996 FINISH: 71-91, 4th, 25 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: 2B Carlos Baerga and 1B John Olerud want to recapture the magic. Surgery made new men of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson _ at least that's the hope.

WHAT ELSE: Were those career years for Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey in 1996? The Mets would rather think it was the beginning of an annual thing.

WHO'S KEY: Is Todd Hundley the second coming of Johnny Bench?

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Isringhausen and Pulsipher need to return from Triple-A completely healthy.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: New York got more than expected from Mark Clark, Pete Harnisch and Bobby Jones (they combined to go 34-31), so it would not be a shock to see them take a backward step.

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