Two Teams Are Worth Watching : Baseball: The Astros and Mariners should be on the rise in 1994.

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Let's face it, one of the best things about baseball is looking ahead to next year. So as a great regular season ends and a fascinating postseason begins, what better time to start planning for 1994.

Sure, it's early. A winter of free agents, trades, arbitration, injury rehabilitation, salary dumping and name-calling between the union and owners lies between now and the opening of spring training. But let's go out on the limb.

We'll start with next year's surprise clubs, the Phillies and Giants of '94.

One is the Houston Astros. By being shifted into the N.L. Central, the Astros automatically lose the Braves and Giants as 100-victory divisional rivals. And Houston's talent seems better than the Cubs, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. And don't forget the Astros won close to 90 games this year with Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell combining for only 21 victories.

The Astros has already taken some steps, firing Manager Art Howe and General Manager Bill Wood, naming Bob Watson as the new G.M. Whoever Watson names as manager will inherit a talented club. And Watson has loads of options with his personnel.

Houston has a load of young prospects -- infielders Phil Nevin, Orlando Miller and James Mouton, pitchers Jeff Juden, Brian Williams and Shane Reynolds, outfielders Gary Mota and Chris Hatcher.

As a result, the Astros can listen to offers for any number of desirable veterans -- Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez or Swindell, for example -- for the club's biggest needs, bullpen help and a power hitter. And though Houston is on a limited budget, it is not likely to re-sign free agent Mark Portugal, which will free up money.

Meanwhile, look for the Mariners to make their first run at a division title.

Lou Piniella's club finished over .500 despite a devastating run of injuries that sidelined for long periods such key people as Norm Charlton, Edgar Martinez, Dave Fleming and Chris Bosio.

If everyone is healthy, the Seattle starting pitching is as good as any in the American League. It's so good that they likely will shop Erik Hanson this winter in hopes of finding a relief pitcher or a catcher. Any lineup with Ken Griffey Jr. is formidable. And there is no juggernaut in a new A.L. West that also includes Oakland, California and Texas.

"We've had to do a lot of force-feeding that is going to be important to us down the road," Piniella says. "We've established a positive tone for next year, and we'll be a contender from Day 1."

In the A.L. Central, watch out for the Indians. They were only too happy to rid themselves of Toronto and the Yankees among others in the A.L. East. And although they have the talented White Sox to worry about in the A.L. Central, the Indians seem finally ready next year to take the big step toward being contenders.

Their lineup is already fearsome and should be even better with kids Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez and a rejuvenated Sandy Alomar. And the pitching has to be better. Charles Nagy is healthy. So apparently is prospect Dave Mlicki. And with the financial and emotional boosts that will come with their new stadium, look for the Indians to be serious players in the free-agent hunt for pitching.

There are also teams that could fall swiftly.

Start with Baltimore. The Orioles overachieved simply to remain in contention as long as they did. If you match their talent against their division rivals, the Orioles come up woefully short. In fact, the only positions where they might be superior to the Blue Jays or Yankees is shortstop with Cal Ripken and bullpen closer with Gregg Olson. And Olson is a huge question mark because of an elbow that at any time could blow out and require ligament transplant surgery that would sideline him for two years.

Baltimore has gotten remarkable mileage out of a lot of minor deals. But in the meantime, they have become stalled at a plateau of mediocrity. And if the new ownership isn't willing to back aggressive, major moves for a 100-RBI hitter, a 15-game winner and some much-needed clubhouse heart, the Orioles could be a nonentity in the new A.L. East.

Another club that might plummet is Kansas City. As long as Ewing Kauffman owned the Royals, they were secure in knowing that if a need developed, Kauffman would be willing to spend whatever it took to acquire help. However, with Kauffman deceased and the Royals operating now as a real business, budgets become a much more important priority.

That means the Royals will be spending the winter looking for ways to drop salaries, not add them, at a time when they need help in several areas. As a result, Kansas City could slide.

And as for this year's elite, Philadelphia and San Francisco could be one-year wonders. In the Phillies' case, they have a roster full of players with a history of physical problems and a pitching staff that is far from stable. And those two negative ingredients can turn a 90-victory team around in a hurry.

As for the Giants, they got a lot of career years and remarkable mileage from a pitching staff in which durability is an open question. And it's an amazingly fine line that separates having everything break right for more than 100 victories and falling back to the pack as a team with 85 victories.

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The needy Mets are being heard in a lot of the initial trade scuttlebutt.

One report had the Mets making a strong effort to acquire Mark Grace from the Cubs, who might shop Grace as a way to rein in their payroll. There is also talk that the Mets are going to make a run at one of two Pirates infielders, Jay Bell or Carlos Garcia.

Plus, there are indications that the Mets might also make a run at Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton, whom Atlanta would at least talk about trading because Jeff Blauser and Chipper Jones are around to make into a third baseman. Of course, the trouble with Mets trade rumors is that New York has so precious little talent that it is hard to figure how they could put together enough to acquire anyone of substance.

Meanwhile, there is some speculation surrounding the Red Sox. Boston could be interested in Detroit's Mickey Tettleton. And the Red Sox are looking for a way to make an offer for Montreal's Marquis Grissom, who has had one of the season's most overlooked monster years and is quite likely untouchable. At the same time, there continue to be signals that Boston would not reject out of hand any inquiries into the services of Roger Clemens.

Finally, whenever the new Orioles owners take over the club and whenever they decide on who's running things, one player Baltimore will likely make a strong run at is Expos outfielder Larry Walker.

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Last Thursday, several all-sports radio stations wanted to pick up local broadcasts of the important Giants-Dodgers game, which was not being televised nationally. However, because of the way baseball's national radio deal is written, CBS had veto power over such programming and CBS nixed the whole idea. You'd think baseball and CBS would have realized that this was a race of epic proportions and any way to bring it to the masses was good for the game and thus good for everyone's ratings.

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Around the bases: The star-studded Blue Jays hardly need more great players. But most personnel people around baseball think Alex Gonzalez, who looms as the Blue Jays' shortstop in '94, is another Alan Trammell waiting to happen. ... There's a lot of talk that the Yankees will be seriously interested in signing Rickey Henderson. One reason is that there is such a thin supply of pitching in the free-agent market, New York likely will seek its pitching help via the trade route. And a name that is coming up more and more, not just with the Yankees, is San Diego's Andy Benes. ... More than a few general managers think the Braves will look to drop major payroll by dealing Otis Nixon and perhaps Ron Gant, among others. However, there is another school of thought that says if they trade Gant, it would only be to obtain someone such as Bryan Harvey. ... Montreal is already looking for ways to improve its catching depth, and one possibility is the Dodgers' Carlos Hernandez, who is buried behind Mike Piazza.

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