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NL WEST PREVIEWS

1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

MANAGER: Bill Russell, 2nd year (49-37).

1996 FINISH: 90-72, 2nd, 1 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: Yet another managerial change. This is their third in 43 years. Jokes aside, Los Angeles is better off without Tommy Lasorda. Hall of Fame or not, recent Dodger teams were underachievers.

WHAT ELSE: Yet another Rookie of the Year candidate in 2B Wilton Guerrero. Todd Zeile plugs a hole at 3B.

WHO'S KEY: C Mike Piazza has to be an MVP favorite.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Starting pitchers Pedro Astacio, Tom Candiotti, Ramon Martinez, Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdes could win 75 between them.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: There could be a hole in CF (Brett Butler), a rookie at 2B (Guerrero) and an antique at SS (Greg Gagne). That's not the strong-up-the-middle blueprint for success.

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2. SAN DIEGO PADRES

MANAGER: Bruce Bochy, 3rd year (161-145).

1996 FINISH: 91-71, 1st place.

WHAT'S NEW: Forget the stretch drive, let's consider this a fresh start for Greg Vaughn. The Padres also picked up Quilvio Veras from Florida and LHP Sterling Hitchcock from Seattle.

WHAT ELSE: The OF of Tony Gwynn, Steve Finley and Vaughn has forced out aging superstar Rickey Henderson and could be the strongest all-around trio in the league.

WHO'S KEY: Trevor Hoffman saved San Diego's rear 42 times.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: If the stuff Joey Hamilton and Andy Ashby showed last year was no fluke, the Padres have a chance to keep up with L.A.'s starting pitching.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: NL MVP Ken Caminiti struggles to regain his stroke after a rotator-cuff problem.

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3. COLORADO ROCKIES

Manager: Don Baylor, 5th year (280-305).

1996 FINISH: 83-79, 3rd, 8 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: No new pitchers, but the Rockies got defensive catcher Kirt Manwaring. He'll help, but not enough.

WHAT ELSE: Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks will hit. So will every opponent at Coors Field.

WHO'S KEY: Rockies do not win if Bill Swift does not pitch.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Swift puts shoulder problems behind him and throws 175 innings. Bichette's surgically repaired knee allows him to put up 35 HR and 110 RBI. The Rockies get help from the young pitchers they've been stockpiling in the farm system.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Colorado's bullpen is often ridiculed, but the real problem is the starting staff. Beyond Kevin Ritz, the Rockies have no one they can count on.

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4. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

MANAGER: Dusty Baker, 5th year (293-290).

1996 FINISH: 68-94, 4th, 23 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: The booing isn't new, but it has reached higher levels. Following back-to-back last-place finishes, the Giants made the unpopular decision to trade 3B Matt Williams.

WHAT ELSE: Should be a half-dozen new starters on Opening Day. SS Jose Vizcaino and 2B Jeff Kent came in the Williams deal, CF Darryl Hamilton was a free-agent signee, RF Darrin Jackson came from Japan and 1B J.T. Snow and 3B Mark Lewis came in trades.

WHO'S KEY: The starting pitchers the Giants did not acquire.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: If Kent or Snow blossom, the Giants could make a little noise.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Barry Bonds comes to the plate 500 times and draws 446 walks. Without Williams to protect him in the lineup, Bonds is not going to see many pitches he can drive.

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