Nl Central

March 30, 1997|By Andy Knobel

Cardinals

Where they're coming from: St. Louis improved from 62-81 to 88-74, good enough for first place. The Cardinals beat the Padres in the playoffs before squandering a three-games-to-one lead to the Braves in the NLCS.

Where they're going: The post-Ozzie Smith era will begin with a back flip into the playoffs, if only by default, in what is easily baseball's weakest division.

Key newcomers: 2B Delino DeShields, RP Lance Painter, C Tom Lampkin.

What could go right: DeShields proves he's the leadoff hitter who was 9-for-13 in first-inning at-bats this spring, not the batter who had an abysmal .288 on-base average last season in Los Angeles. RF Brian Jordan (Milford Mill), who hit a major-league-best .422 with runners in scoring position, keeps producing despite a chronically sore hand.

What could go wrong: Staff ace Andy Benes must recover soon from a rib-cage injury. CF Ray Lankford, who had rotator cuff surgery on his throwing shoulder, was healthy enough to DH in spring training; too bad interleague play doesn't start until June. Injuries could mount on a team that has five regular contributors 38 or older: 3B Gary Gaetti, RP Dennis Eckersley, RP Tony Fossas, RP Rick Honeycutt and OF Willie McGee.

X-factor: Tony La Russa angered several other managers in the division by telling writers: "I guarantee you we will not relinquish the Central Division. Everybody here from the media you're going to be covering a championship club in 1997." Can the Cardinals go 37-15 in the division again with everyone shooting for them?

Key stat: No team that blew a three-games-to-one lead has reached the playoffs the next season.

1996 by the numbers:

........................ No., NL rank

Batting avg. ........... .267, 4th

Slugging avg. .......... .407, 5th

On-base avg. ........... .330, 7th

Runs ................... 759, 7th

Home runs .............. 142, 11th

Stolen bases ........... 199, 4th

ERA .................... 3.97, 6th

Saves .................. 43, 5th

Fielding ............... .980, 8th

Astros

Where they're coming from: Houston led the division by 2 1/2 games on Aug. 31, then lost 12 straight road games, costing manager Terry Collins his job. The Astros somehow finished second at 82-80 despite being 10th in the league in ERA, 10th in slugging average and 12th in fielding percentage.

Where they're going: Larry Dierker, who has no managing or coaching experience, moves from behind the club's broadcast mike to behind the eight ball. When Jerry Coleman did that for the Padres in 1980, the team finished 73-89. Sounds about right.

Key newcomers: P Sid Fernandez, LF Luis Gonzalez, C Brad Ausmus, RP Russ Springer, RP Jose Lima, SS Pat Listach.

What could go right: The move of 2B Craig Biggio to leadoff and the emergence of rookie RF Bob Abreu (16 runs this spring) spark the offense. The Astros converted only 63 of 85 hold-plus-save tries, the lowest rate in the majors, but closer John Hudek gave up just one run this spring and Billy Wagner (who led the NL last season with 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings) has been sharp, too.

What could go wrong: Fernandez was sidelined this spring by high blood pressure, then by concerns about his heart and then by tendinitis in his left biceps. Sound familiar, Orioles fans? 3B Sean Berry might not be fully recovered from off-season rotator cuff surgery until May.

X-factor: New Tigers reliever Todd Jones hated being with Houston so much that he said: "You've heard the old saying, '25 players, 25 cabs.' But with the Astros it was 25 players, 30 cabs. You'd jump out of one cab and get into another one just in case they were following you." Dierker's jovial nature could make the clubhouse a happier place.

Key stat: Ausmus, an excellent defensive catcher acquired from the Tigers, needs to reverse a major-league-worst 72-point slide in his batting average last season. The second-worst decline? Current teammate and CF Derek Bell (71 points).

1996 by the numbers:

........................ No., NL rank

Batting avg. ........... .262, 7th

Slugging avg. .......... .347, 10th

On-base avg. ........... .336, 5th

Runs ................... 753, 8th

Home runs .............. 129, 14th

Stolen bases ........... 180, 2nd

ERA .................... 4.37, 10th

Saves .................. 35, 14th

Fielding ............... .978, 12th

Cubs

Where they're coming from: Chicago still was in the race in mid-September before losing 12 of its last 14 games to finish fourth at 76-86.

Where they're going: Ahead into the past. Last year, Chicago welcomed back 2B Ryne Sandberg, this year SS Shawon Dunston. Good thing 3B Kevin Orie is such a hot prospect or else next year they would be bringing back 3B Ron Santo.

Key newcomers: Dunston, RP Mel Rojas, P Kevin Tapani, P Terry Mulholland.

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