Baseball 2002 Nl Central

March 31, 2002|By Profiles by Roch Kubatko

Houston Astros

Manager: Jimy Williams

2001 record: 93-69 (first)

What's new in 2002: Williams takes over for Larry Dierker, who didn't do much in Houston besides win division titles. Williams is being hailed as the man who will take the Astros to the next level: the World Series. No pressure there. The lineup will look fairly new without outfielder Moises Alou and third baseman Vinny Castilla. So will the pitching staff without Pedro Astacio, Mike Jackson and Mike Williams. Most of these losses were for budgetary reasons. Outfielder Brian Hunter, pitcher T.J. Mathews and catcher Gregg Zaun signed as free agents. None of them is a star.

On the spot: Daryle Ward gets his chance to start in left field after the front office let Alou walk. He hit 20 homers in 2000 but slipped to nine last season. That won't make Astros fans feel any better about losing Alou. And what about center fielder Richard Hidalgo, who batted 39 points below his 2000 average while his homers dropped from 44 to 19 and his RBIs from 122 to 80.

Where they'll be in October: Probably in second place, with the possibility of tumbling to third.

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Tony LaRussa

2001 record: 93-69 (second, wild card)

What's new in 2002: Life without Mark McGwire, which might not look so bad by October. Tino Martinez replaces him at first base, and Jason Isringhausen inherits all ninth-inning leads. Martinez won't challenge any single-season home run records, but it's hard to argue with his credentials. He batted .280 with 34 homers and 113 RBIs with the New York Yankees, which would have suited most teams just fine.

On the spot: It's a new league for Martinez, at a position where McGwire's shadow won't fade for a long time. Martinez has his share of doubters among baseball insiders who believe he's got little left in the tank. The Cardinals are gambling that they're wrong. May as well throw Isringhausen into this category, too. It's not as though he's automatic. He's an upgrade, however, and the Cardinals' bullpen looks strong.

Where they'll be in October: Chances are good the Cardinals will be sitting atop the division, with a legitimate shot at reaching the World Series.

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Don Baylor

2001 record: 88-74 (third)

What's new in 2002: Outfielder Moises Alou chose the Cubs over the New York Yankees. Maybe he knows something others don't. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez was acquired from Toronto. He batted .253 with 17 homers and 73 RBIs with the Blue Jays. The Cubs bolstered their bullpen, acquiring Antonio Alfonseca from the Marlins to fill the closer's role vacated by the injured Tom Gordon, but will miss set-up men David Weathers and Todd Van Poppel. On the spot: It's got to be Sammy Sosa. How would you like to be chosen as the favorite to break Barry Bonds' single-season home run record? And Baylor, in the third year of his four-year contract, will attempt to lead the Cubs to successive winning seasons for the first time since 1971 and 1972. He must smooth out a clubhouse that became an uncomfortable place last season, especially after the Cubs forced popular pitching coach Oscar Acosta to resign during the final week.

Where they'll be in October: Across the street from Wrigley Field, talking about next season over beers.

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Davey Lopes

2001 record: 68-94 (fourth)

What's new in 2002: Left-hander Glendon Rusch arrived from the New York Mets in the trade that cost them slugger Jeromy Burnitz but also brought outfielder Alex Ochoa. Rusch will be working with pitching coach Dave Stewart, who came over from the Toronto Blue Jays' front office. The hitters have a new coach, as well, in Gary Matthews. Second baseman Eric Young was signed to steal bases. In a trade of catchers, Henry Blanco went to Atlanta for Paul Bako.

On the spot: Chad Fox missed most of 1999 and all of 2000 with elbow and arm injuries. He spent a month in the minors last season before being used by Milwaukee in a set-up role. Now he's the closer. Manager Davey Lopes is skating on very thin ice as he approaches the final year of his contract. Much of his fate could be tied to Fox because late-inning leads must be protected. Perhaps that will become easier when closer Curtis Leskanic eventually returns from the rotator cuff surgery he had after the 2001 season.

Where they'll be in October: Low enough in the standings to possibly cost Lopes his job.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Bob Boone

2001 record: 66-96 (fifth)

What's new in 2002: Pitchers Brian Bohanon, Jimmy Haynes, Luke Hudson and Gabe White were added in the off-season. Outfielder Juan Encarnacion came over in a trade with the Detroit Tigers, who were more than happy to rid themselves of someone thought to be a bad clubhouse influence. Don't the Reds already have someone disrupting their team chemistry? But let's leave Ken Griffey out of this.

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