National League Central

Spring Training 2003

February 13, 2003|By Peter Schmuck

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Tony La Russa

2002 finish: 97-65, first place

Story line: The Cardinals suffered through a tragedy-marred 2002 season and still managed to win the NL Central. They'll go into 2003 as one of the NL favorites to reach the World Series.

Changing faces: The pitching staff remains in an almost constant state of transition. Left-handed starter Chuck Finley became a free agent, right-hander Andy Benes retired and the bullpen lost veteran setup man Dave Veres, but the Cardinals added starters Chris Carpenter, Dustin Hermanson, Brett Tomko and Joey Hamilton to create a large pool of candidates for the starting rotation.

Burning question: The rotation should be very deep, but the bullpen could become a major issue if closer Jason Isringhausen cannot come back quickly from offseason surgery on the labrum in his right shoulder.

Houston Astros

Manager: Jimy Williams

2002 finish: 84-78, second place

Story line: The Astros added a major force with the signing of free-agent second baseman Jeff Kent, which might be just enough to boost them into the playoffs. This would be a good year to get there, because veteran stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio aren't getting any younger.

Changing faces: Kent and right-hander Brian Moehler are the major new arrivals. Pitchers Dave Mlicki, Pedro Borbon, Tom Gordon and Doug Brocail left via free agency. The Astros traded outfielder Daryle Ward and right-hander Nelson Cruz.

Burning question: Will Kent fit into the close-knit Astros clubhouse after feuding with Barry Bonds and grating on some other teammates in San Francisco? If he hits 45 home runs, no one will care.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Bob Boone

2002 finish: 78-84, third place

Story line: This was one of baseball's most banged-up teams by the end of the 2002 season, so there is room to wonder whether a healthy offense can lift the Reds back into serious contention in the NL Central.

Changing faces: The Reds signed free agents to bolster the pitching staff after trading Elmer Dessens and allowing Shawn Estes, Joey Hamilton and Brian Moehler to become free agents. They also dealt second baseman Todd Walker to dump salary. Marginal free-agent pitchers Paul Wilson, Felix Heredia, Kent Mercker and Jimmy Anderson will try to fill some big holes.

Burning question: Will the real Ken Griffey please stand up?

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Lloyd McClendon

2002 finish: 72-89, fourth place

Story line: The Pirates were one of six teams to improve by 10 games from 2001 to 2002, but that wasn't enough to persuade management to extend McClendon's contract. He'll likely have to lead a much-improved club to a .500 finish to come back in 2003.

Changing faces: The offense should have some added clout with the arrival of first baseman Randall Simon and outfielder Matt Stairs. The Bucs also strengthened their pitching depth tremendously with the acquisition of Jeff Suppan, Matt Herges, Jeff D'Amico, Julian Tavarez, Mike Holtz, Rolando Arrojo and Dennys Reyes, while not losing any significant players.

Burning question: Could the Pirates be the surprise team of the National League in 2003? It's not out of the question.

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dusty Baker

2002 finish: 67-95, fifth place

Story line: It will be all about Baker, who proved himself to be a very effective manager in San Francisco but will face a much greater challenge in Chicago. The Giants had enough talent to overcome their feisty clubhouse. The heavily revamped Cubs will need to come together quickly to get back into contention in the NL Central.

Changing faces: Baker is the most recognizable new face, but the Cubs made many other changes, acquiring first baseman Eric Karros and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek from the Dodgers and picking up catcher Damian Miller from the Diamondbacks. They also signed free-agent pitchers Shawn Estes, Dave Veres and Mike Remlinger, among others. Chad Hermansen and Todd Hundley were traded to Los Angeles, and Fred McGriff, Jon Lieber, Joe Girardi and Jason Bere topped a large group of players who became free agents or were released.

Burning question: Who are these guys?

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Ned Yost

2002 finish: 56-106, sixth place

Story line: Former Orioles executive Doug Melvin has taken over the front office and embarked on a long-term plan to rebuild what was once a very respectable franchise. It's a big job that will not show results this year.

Changing faces: The Brewers added free-agent pitchers Dave Mlicki and Todd Ritchie, shortstop Royce Clayton and outfielder John Vander Wal to a team that is trying to grow out of a 56-win 2002 season. They'll miss power-hitting shortstop Jose Hernandez, who blew town with Matt Stairs and Lenny Harris. It's going to take awhile.

Burning question: What do you do with a team that could improve by 10 games this year and still be the only sixth-place team in major-league baseball?

Teams are listed in order of last year's finish.

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