NL Central

April 04, 1999

Astros

That was then: Houston won the Central with 102 wins despite having the lowest payroll of any playoff team, then fell to the Padres in the Division Series.

This is now: The Astros lost Randy Johnson to free agency, failed to trade for Roger Clemens, then learned that Moises Alou, third in MVP votes, suffered what likely will be a season-ending knee injury by slipping while trying to adjust the speed on his treadmill. That's no way to start the Astrodome's final season.

Upside: Other key NL Central injuries keep the Astros the favorites. If any team can absorb Alou's loss, it's Houston, which led the NL in runs scored and has Richard Hidalgo to step in. Rookie catcher Mitch Meluskey's .465 on-base average in the minors last season was the second best in pro ball.

Downside: It's unlikely Houston will win 27 games in its last at-bat again.

Inside pitch: Craig Biggio had 73 extra-base hits -- the second most for a leadoff man in 20 years -- but still fulfilled his table-setting duties with a .403 on-base average and 50 steals.

Outside chance: If a man can walk on the moon, might the Astros win a playoff series for the first time in their history? Neil Armstrong throws out the first ball Tuesday.

Coming distractions: Larry Dierker uses his bullpen less than any other manager. Will his reliance on starting pitchers for a third straight season wear them down?

Now playing: "Innerspace," "Houston, We've Got a Problem"

Cardinals

That was then: St. Louis, which won a world championship in 1982 with 67 home runs, couldn't compete last year despite a record-busting 70 by Mark McGwire alone. Only an 18-7 September finish boosted the Cardinals over .500.

This is now: Manager Tony La Russa says McGwire will hit 75 homers. He'd better hope his pitching-challenged team wins 75 games.

Upside: J. D. Drew, Baseball America's top-ranked prospect, slugged .972 to McGwire's .928 in their 14 games together. Ricky Bottalico and Scott Radinsky upgrade a bullpen that blew a major-league-high 31 saves.

Downside: Ace Matt Morris will miss the season with an elbow injury. Ray Lankford, who struck out an amazing five times in three different games, has a sore knee.

Inside pitch: It had been 19 years since a major-league pitcher hit in any position other than ninth; then La Russa, seeking more runners for McGwire without sacrificing his first-inning at-bats, batted his pitcher eighth in every game after the break. The Cards were 43-33.

Outside chance: McGwire might hit a triple. His last one came in 1988. Or 80 homers. "Geez, I'd definitely retire if I did that," he said.

Coming distractions: Anything fewer than 70 homers and McGwire will face questions about his "disappointing" season. Anything approaching 70 and the media circus will resume, culminating Oct. 1-3 against Sammy Sosa's Cubs.

Now playing: "Seventy Deadly Pills," "Tony, the Fiddler"

Pirates

That was then: This was no Lumber Company. Pittsburgh, which finished five back in 1997, hit a major-league-low 107 home runs last season and dropped 25 of its last 30 games to finish 33 games behind.

This is now: With revenue-generating PNC Park set to open in 2001, the team is boosting payroll from $14 million to $23 million in 1999.

Upside: The Pirates' 3.91 ERA was seventh-best in the majors and figures to improve as the pitchers mature; every team with a better ERA had a winning record. Kris Benson, the first amateur pick in 1996, made the rotation with a spring ERA of 0.75.

Downside: Jason Schmidt, the majors' toughest pitcher to pull last season, lost 13 of his last 16 decisions after becoming the first NL pitcher to win eight games.

Inside pitch: Jeff Newman (32) and Butch Wynegar (31) are the only catchers to bat leadoff more than 30 times in a year. Jason Kendall may be next. He gives new meaning to hit-and-run, being plunked by a major-league-high 31 pitches and setting an NL single-season record for catchers with 26 steals.

Outside chance: Emil Brown, Adrian Brown and Brant Brown might start in the same outfield one day. Asked if he'd ever played with that many Browns, Brant said: "In a family reunion Wiffle ball game."

Coming distractions: A lifetime .224 hitter with 21 homers in 10 years, utility man Mike Benjamin might collect on a $50,000 bonus for winning the Silver Slugger Award.

Now playing: "Private Benjamin," "Steel Preferred"

Reds

That was then: Despite winning 15 of 16 games at one point, the Not-So-Big Red Machine had its third straight losing season for only the second time in the expansion era.

This is now: Dog hair is out, and facial hair is in. Marge Schott, who used to rub Schottzie 02's clippings on players' chests for good luck, is selling her share of the team, and newly acquired Greg Vaughn has prevailed on management to let players grow beards, goatees and mustaches.

Upside: Pokey Reese, who made four errors in the first three innings last year, made just five errors the rest of the season. He moves to second base this season.

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