The Biggest Changes Were in NL West : Baseball: The division isn't letting the strengthened Braves rest on their laurels.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether it was catching up or keeping up with the Joneses, changes were dramatic in the National League West, generally agreed to be the toughest division this season.

General Manager Dan Duquette of the Montreal Expos, watching from the NL East, said that the expenditures were characteristic of baseball's rampant stupidity.

Said Fred Claire, executive vice president of the Dodgers: "I certainly wasn't unaware of what the other clubs in the division were doing, but I never sensed that it was a chess game. We had to identify and react to our own needs. And I think what happened throughout the division wasn't so much a matter of keeping up with the Joneses as it was the impact of other influences.

"You had new ownership in Houston and San Francisco. You had a new and aggressive young general manager (Jim Bowden) in Cincinnati who was given the freedom to deal. And you had the successful Braves coming off a great attendance year, with the resources (from the gate and cable ownership) to move on a (Greg) Maddux."

The new San Francisco owners guaranteed $43.75 million to Barry Bonds.

The new Astro owner--"the right man at the right time and place," General Manager Bill Woods said of Drayton McLane--guaranteed $36.5 million to Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell.

Bowden, ignoring the controversy around owner Marge Schott, traded Paul O'Neill for Roberto Kelly, swapped Norm Charlton for Kevin Mitchell and gave $18.4 million to free agent John Smiley, as well as making more modest deals with free agents Jeff Reardon, Gary Varsho, Cecil Espy, Juan Samuel and others.

The Braves jumped in late, adding Maddux, the National League's Cy Young Award winner, to what many thought was already the best rotation in baseball, for $28 million over five years. The Braves then traded 15-game winner Charlie Leibrandt to Texas to recoup some of the Maddux investment.

"I thought Cincinnati and Houston got neck-and-neck with us," Brave General Manager John Schuerholz said of the attempts by those clubs to catch up with the Joneses. "Hopefully, by signing Maddux, we recreated some of that gap. We had focused on Maddux as the addition we wanted to make, but we didn't get serious until the Reds and Astros fired those shots across our bow and convinced us we were in for a dogfight this year."

With Maddux joining a rotation of Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Pete Smith, confidence reigns in Atlanta.

"If we just show up, we can't be anything less than .500," Smoltz said. "A losing streak will be a fluke. It's not feasible unless we have injuries."

Art Howe isn't conceding.

The Astro manager said that until Maddux wins his 16th game, one more than Leibrandt won last year, "he hasn't done anything to help that club. On the other hand, I replaced my fourth and fifth starters with a one and a two (Drabek and Swindell). I think our improvement is going to show more than theirs."

The Reds aren't conceding either.

"What have (the Braves) done?" Cincinnati catcher Joe Oliver asked. "They don't have any rings. Nobody will remember what they did in '91 or '92. At least we have a ring (for the 1990 World Series), and we plan to get another."

Said Claire: "With all the changes, I don't foresee a team so strong that it would produce a runaway. I feel we identified our own needs and addressed them as well as we could within our (changing financial) structure. As strong as the division is, I'm confident we're going to be in position to challenge. I'm happy with the attitude and health of our players."

Claire, whose $42-million payroll--for a last-place team--was baseball's third-highest last year, also wondered about the long-range impact of the Bonds and Maddux signings.

"Any team would be improved by players of that caliber," he said. "Only a fool would say otherwise, but at what price to the overall priorities and needs of the team?"

In the era of revolving rosters and rising payrolls, each team has its own perception of those priorities and needs.

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