Barring a rash of major injuries like pulled jaw muscles, you can pretty much count on meeting the Mets in the National League Championship Series. The possibility exists, of course, that someone else from Murmurers' Row will give an explosive interview: "Lenny Dykstra ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Mookie Wilson reveals in the latest issue of Jack and Jill.

Fact is, though, the NEW YORK METS are the best team in the National League East, with speed, power, fine defense and great pitching, a team with a surfeit of talent that almost—but not quite—justifies its insufferable attitude.

This is baseball's best division. As Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland says, "Not only do you have to be a damn good team to win this division, you also have to be a damn good team not to finish last." The middle teams will be packed as tightly as reporters around Darryl Strawberry's locker, waiting for him to talk trash about his teammates. Then again, if the Straw Man has the kind of year he had in '87 (.284. 39 HRs. 104 RBIs, 36 steals), he won't have to shut up. The controversy over his interview in the April Esquire, in which he trashed manager Davey Johnson, first baseman Keith Hernandez, catcher Gary Carter, second baseman Wally Backman and center-fielder Lenny Dykstra, passed over the club's Florida training camp like a flash rainstorm. Said second baseman Tim Teufel, "I'm sure Darryl said those things. I just wish he had included me." Another Met complained because he couldn't get through to the Trade Him phone number set up by the New York Post in a Play Him or Trade Him phone poll.

The Mets aren't about to trade Strawberry, even though a rumor was afloat that he was going to the Expos for Tim Raines. Trade him? Strawberry, 26, has more RBIs and more stolen bases than Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays had at similar stages in their careers, as well as more home runs than Mantle and more walks than Mays.

Johnson does have a few concerns. He will want to find enough playing time for Dave Magadan at first base behind Hernandez and at third behind Howard Johnson, and he also has to get utility man Keith Miller into the lineup once in a while. The manager will also need to rest Carter, or Co-Captain Kid, more often; he hit .285 in games after days off and .216 after starting the day before. Rick Aguilera and David Cone, the Mets' fifth and sixth starters, would be aces on other staffs. Relievers Roger McDowell and Randy Myers have yet to prove they can be trusted as the righty-lefty closer tandem. Davey's problems amount to a hill of beans, though, compared with those of other managers. This is one heck of a team.

Jack Who? "He's gone, and he wasn't the only player on this team," ST. LOUIS CARDINALS shortstop Ozzie Smith said this spring. "After all. we did make it to the seventh game of the World Series without him. We're moving on." To replace what's his face's bat, which accounted for 35 homers and 103 RBIs in 131 games, the Cardinals signed Bob Horner, late of the Yakult Swallows. The Cards were impressed with Horner-san this spring because he still has one of the quicker bats in baseball and he is a decided defensive improvement at first base over, um, the name escapes us. Still, St. Louis isn't in danger of having many of its bats examined for cork this season. The top returning Cardinal home run hitter is third baseman Terry Pendleton, who had 12. "When they find out my new restaurant is called Whitey Herzog's Powerhouse, they'll wonder," says manager Whitey Herzog.

The Rat got himself another pitcher just before spring training: righthander Jose DeLeon from the White Sox. The Cards already had John Tudor, Danny Cox, Joe Magrane, Greg Mathews and Bob Forsch as starters and Todd Worrell and Ken Dayley in the pen. "I'm not so sure our pitching can't be better than New York's," says Herzog. "I know it can be the best staff I've ever had."

Even without old No. 22—oh yes, Jack Clark is his name—these Cardinals could be as good as the ones that won 95 games last year. It's just that the Mets will be better.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this season's PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES are an enigma wrapped inside the Philly Phanatic's costume. Funny how a team with Milt Thompson (.302, 46 stolen bases in '87), Juan Samuel (28 homers, 100 RBIs, 35 steals), Von Hayes (21 homers, 84 RBIs), Mike Schmidt (.293, 35 homers, 113 RBIs), Lance Parrish (67 RBIs) and Chris James (17 homers in 358 at bats) can finish last in runs scored in the division. Funny how it can come within a whisker of finishing fifth, despite having reliever Steve Bedrosian, who won the Cy Young Award over teammate Shane Rawley. "The only explanation," says catcher Parrish, "is that we were simply screwed up."

If manager Lee Elia can unscrew them, the Phillies could make a quantum leap. They have added a useful starter in free-agent righty David Palmer, and they got rightfielder Phil Bradley in a trade from Seattle. Over the last three seasons Bradley has averaged 57 extra-base hits and 28 steals and had an on-base percentage of .378. He might just be the best player ever with the same first name as his team. (His competition: Angel Moreno, J.J. Cannon and six Reds named Red.)

"Last year we were terrible fundamentally," says Parrish. "This spring, camp was run as if we were a bunch of Instructional League kids, and we needed that." Parrish took most of the blame for the fact that 80% of the opposition's base stealers were successful, but as he told the pitchers in a meeting, "God couldn't throw anybody out the way you hold runners on."

The starting staff of Rawley, Kevin Gross, Don Carman, Bruce Ruffin and Palmer could be anywhere from good to mediocre. Rawley, Carman and Ruffin are lefthanded, and the Mets, Cards and Pirates are all vulnerable to southpaws. The real worry is Bedrosian, who had shoulder trouble in the second half of last season and missed a lot of work this spring because of viral pneumonia.

Considering that many experts thought that the MONTREAL EXPOS might finish seventh in a six-team division last year, their 92-victory season was as unlikely as comebacks by, say, pitchers Dennis Martinez (11-4 after being called up in June) and Pascual Perez (7-0 after coming up in late August). The Expos look pretty good on paper, but as Tim Raines, the best leadoff man in baseball (perhaps in history) says, "We're not going to sneak up on anybody this time around." With that in mind, Raines vows to steal at least 100 bases, twice as many as he did last year. Montreal's lineup is fairly impressive through the No. 5 spot: leftfielder Raines, center-fielder Mitch Webster, rightfielder Hubie Brooks, third baseman Tim Wallach and first baseman Andres Galarraga. But then it plunges precipitously to catcher Mike Fitzgerald, shortstop Luis Rivera and second baseman Casey Candaele. The Expos can afford to carry two of those guys, but not three.

Besides Martinez and Perez, the Expos' rotation includes Neal Heaton, Bob Sebra, Bryn Smith and Floyd Youmans. One of them could be traded for much-needed bench strength. While Montreal doesn't have a bullpen ace, the team is deep in relievers, which is one reason that the Expos had such a phenomenal record in one-run decisions (28-14) and extra-inning games (12-1, the best percentage in modern baseball) last year. With only two-thirds of a batting order, though, Montreal may find it difficult to keep up with the big boys.

Almost as big a surprise as the Expos last year were the PITTSBURGH PIRATES, who won 27 of their last 38 games to tie the Phillies for fourth place. The unsung hero of the Pirates' rise to respectability was catcher Mike (Spanky) LaValliere, one of three plums—centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and pitcher Mike Dunne were the others—plucked away from the Cardinals for Tony Pena last April Fools' Day. The squat LaValliere, a former center for the University of Lowell (Mass.) hockey team, won a Gold Glove, threw out a major league-high 42.6% of the runners trying to steal against him, hit .300 and whipped the young pitching staff into shape.

During a spring training game in which LaValliere was not playing, he sat in the bullpen, dispensing advice. When Doug Drabek, who had just pitched three shutout innings, asked him how he liked his form in wind sprints, LaValliere said, "I want to see some more effort, Dougie." Drabek laughed, but complied. After three hitless innings, Brian Fisher asked, "Hey, Spanky, how was my curve?" Barked LaValliere, "You're not following through on it enough." After Jim Gott, who saved the 2-1 victory, mentioned that his pregnant wife was overdue back home in Utah, LaValliere said, "Tell her to eat some pizza. Something about the spices does it."

Pittsburgh needs a little seasoning before it can deliver, but the promise is there: In addition to the three from the Herzog Heist, the Pirates have second baseman Jose Lind, who can literally leap Volkswagens in a single bound, leftfielder Barry Bonds, who should be better than his father, Bobby, and third baseman Bobby Bonilla, who hit .300 with 15 homers in his first full season. Pittsburgh still lacks a shortstop and a bullpen savior. And while its three best starters—Dunne, Drabek and Fisher—have good stuff, it's pretty much the same kind of stuff.

Jim Frey and Don Zimmer, lifelong friends, are back together as general manager and manager, respectively, of the CHICAGO (Good Night to All Day Games) CUBS. That's nice, but their old Western Hills High team in Cincinnati might have had a better pitching staff than the Cubbies do. When the normally voluble Zimmer was asked about his starting rotation this spring, he would only reply, "Sutcliffe." Rick Sutcliffe has won 17 or more games four times, but beyond him Chicago has bupkis. Starters Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper, who were acquired from Boston for bullpen stopper Lee Smith, were no better than mediocre in the spring. Worse, Rich Gossage, acquired from San Diego for Keith Moreland to replace Smith, has been hobbled by a groin injury. So the last-place Cubs have given up Smith and More-land for three iffy pitchers.

With the exception of third baseman Vance Law, who will provide better defense but less offense than Moreland, the lineup is pretty much the same as it was in '87. Chicago's pride is its outfield-Rafael Palmeiro, Dave Martinez and MVP Andre Dawson—and its double play combination of Ryne Sand-berg and Shawon Dunston. But catcher Jody Davis is wearing down, and first baseman Leon Durham somehow ended up with only 63 RBIs while hitting 27 homers. The Cubs will still score runs. It's their lack of pitching that will drive them to distraction. And probably last place.

PHOTOTONY TOMSICEven without Jack Clark, the Cards could again win 95 games. They'll need to do better than that to lead the division.
PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe Mets have enough pitching, power and defense to almost justify their insufferable attitude.


Some good teams aren't good enough

LF: Montreal Expos

2. Vince Coleman St.L.
3. Phil Bradley Phi.
4. Barry Bonds Pit.
5. Kevin McReynolds N.Y.
6. Rafael Palmeiro Chi.

CF: St. Louis Cardinals

2. Andy Van Slyke Pit.
3. L. Dykstra—M. Wilson N.Y.4. Mitch Webster Mon.
5. B. Dernier—M. Thompson Phi.6. Dave Martinez Chi.

RF: New York Mets

2. Andre Dawson Chi.
3. Hubie Brooks Mon.
4. Chris James Phi.
5. Jim Lindeman St.L.
6. Darnell Coles Pit.

C: New York Mets

2. Lance Parrish Phi.
3. Mike LaValliere Pit.
4. Tony Pena St. L.
5. Jody Davis Chi.
6. Mike Fitzgerald Mon.

3B: Philadelphia Philies

2. Tim Wallach Mon.
3. Terry Pendleton St.L.
4. Howard Johnson N. Y.
5. Bobby Bonilla Pit.
6. Vance Law Chi.

SS: St. Louis Cardinals

2. Shawon Dunston Chi
3. Kevin Elster N. Y.
4. Luis Rivera Mon.
5. Felix Fermin Pit.
6. Steve Jeltz Phi.

2B: Chicago Cubs

2. Juan Samuel Phi.
3. Tommy Herr St.L.
4. Jose Lind Pit.
5. W. Backman—T. Teufel N. Y.
6. C. Candaele—T. Foley Mon.

1B: Philadelphia Philies

2. Keith Hernandez N.Y.
3. Andres Galarraga Mon.
4. Bob Horner St.L.
5. Leon Durham Chi.
6. S. Bream-R. Milligan Pit.

STARTERS: New York Mets


RELIEVERS: St. Louis Cardinals


Additional material for scouting reports was contributed by Bruce Anderson, Nicholas Dawidoff, Ron Fimrite and Peter Gammons.

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