Nl Central Preview

April 25, 1995|By Buster Olney

CINCINNATI REDS

Where they're coming from: The Reds had the best record in the division when the strike began, 66-48.

Where they're going: Cincinnati, a very good team in a weak division, should run away this year.

Key newcomers: LF Ron Gant (injured in 1994), C Benito Santiago (.273).

What must go right: They merely need to stay healthy, because this lineup is loaded, with SS Barry Larkin, CF Deion Sanders, 2B Bret Boone, 1B Hal Morris and RF Reggie Sanders. The bullpen doesn't have an ace, but is deep, with right-handers Hector Carrasco, Jeff Brantley and Mike Jackson.

What could go wrong: Jose Rijo is usually good for one arm problem a year, and John Smiley missed much of 1993. Pete Schourek rebounded off the scrap heap to have a respectable year in '94; a flash in the pan, perhaps? This is not exactly an invincible rotation.

X-factor: Jim Bowden, who generally is disliked by other general managers around baseball but is, nevertheless, the most aggressive executive in the game. If the Reds have a need, he works to fill it.

Key statistic: The Reds were an extraordinary offensive team last year, hitting .298 with runners in scoring position.

HOUSTON ASTROS

Where they're coming from: When the strike hit, they were 66-49, a half-game behind the Reds.

Where they're going: They have just enough talent to compete, but the big off-season trade with the Padres created glaring holes at shortstop and third base. 1B Jeff Bagwell (.368, 39 HRs, 116 RBIs)

and the starting trio of Doug Drabek (12-6, 2.84 ERA), Darryl Kile (9-6) and Greg Swindell (8-9) should enable the Astros to finish second.

Key newcomers: RF Derek Bell (.311, 24 steals), LF Phil Plantier (18 HRs).

What must go right: Craig Shipley, who will play shortstop or third, must stay healthy. Rookie OF Brian Hunter, who one day will be a threat to steal 50 bases, must make an impact. Closer John Hudek, who pitched miserably after the All-Star break, must rebound.

What could go wrong: The left side of the infield could (and probably will) be a disaster. Bell and Plantier may strike out so much that opposing managers will refuse to pitch to Bagwell. The injury-prone Swindell could get hurt.

X-factor: Owner Drayton McLane wouldn't mind if GM Bob Watson cut his payroll even more; a trade of Drabek and/or Swindell is very possible.

Key statistic: The Houston bullpen had a great year in '94. In the first six innings, opponents batted .277. From the seventh inning on, .242.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Where they're coming from: The Redbirds had a very disappointing season. Picked by some to win the division, St. Louis finished tied for third at 53-61.

Where they're going: Hard to say. They spent lots of money and stabilized the rotation by signing left-hander Danny Jackson and trading for right-hander Ken Hill, but lost free-agent 1B Gregg Jefferies to Philadephia. No way they can compete with the Reds.

Key newcomers: Jackson (14-6), Hill (16-5), 3B Scott Cooper (.282), P Tom Henke (15 saves).

What must go right: Todd Zeile, who moves to first base, must hit. Ditto Cooper and CF Ray Lankford, because the Cardinals don't appear to have much offense. Jackson, injury-prone throughout his career, must stay healthy. Henke, who seems close to retiring, must hold up the bullpen.

What could go wrong: The slow-footed Cooper could be a bust; many scouts can't figure out why the Cardinals think he can succeed on artificial surface. With Mark Whiten traded, OF Brian Jordan finally gets a chance to stand out.

X-factor: New pitching coach Bob Gibson. Many felt that the pitchers had underachieved in recent years, and the hard-nosed Gibson could find some way to motivate them.

Key statistic: Other than the Rockies', no NL pitching staff was hit harder in 1994. Opponents batted .289 against the Cardinals, with a whopping .470 slugging average (the major-league average was .424).

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Where they're coming from: The depths of small-market purgatory. With only two legitimate stars on their roster -- Andy Van Slyke and Jay Bell -- they really had no chance, and ended the year 53-61, tied for third.

Where they're going: Absolutely nowhere. Van Slyke left as a free agent after a terrible season, and rather than attempt to replace him, the Pirates just cut payroll. They are, without a doubt, the most boring team in baseball.

Key newcomers: Reliever Dan Plesac (1 save), reliever Jim Gott.

What must go right: They need a new ballpark, renewed interest in the team, more marquee players. Under manager Jim Leyland, they play sound, fundamental baseball and win more games than their talent merits, but they need a change of direction, and fast.

What could go wrong: Ownership could maintain the status quo. could trade Bell (as rumored).

X-factor: Leyland. As Van Slyke has said since joining the Orioles, no one manages personalities better than Leyland. If there's something to be drawn from the Pirates, no matter how mediocre they are, Leyland will do it. Despite their lack of talent, they could still finish at .500.

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