Nl Central

March 30, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dusty Baker

2002 record: 67-95 (fifth)

What's new: The Cubs have a new manager, a new starting catcher (Damian Miller), another veteran starting pitcher (Shawn Estes), a beefed-up bullpen and several new bats, but they still appear to be undermanned in the National League Central. They ranked 11th in the league in runs scored last year and 12th in ERA, so it would be a very long climb up the divisional ladder to get into position for a postseason berth.

On the spot: Baker will bring a new attitude to Wrigley Field, but the novelty will wear off in a hurry if the Cubs look like the same hapless bunch that finished with more victories among NL teams than only the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers.

Where they'll be in October: The Cubs will be headed home, probably with visions of free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada dancing in their heads.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Bob Boone

2002 record: 78-84 (third)

What's new: The Reds will unveil a new home, Great American Ball Park, and that's about all that's new about the club in 2003. The club is depending on a big comeback season from Ken Griffey, improving numbers from Adam Dunn and the quick emergence of third baseman Brandon Larson to power its renaissance. Danny Graves is hoping to make the successful switch from closer to starting pitcher, which would bolster a very questionable rotation.

On the spot: Barry Larkin, 38, is facing strong competition from newcomer Felipe Lopez after a disappointing offensive performance last year. He'll likely open the season as the starter but could lose playing time quickly if he struggles at the plate.

Where they'll be in October: Look for the Reds to score more, but that won't be enough to get them to .500.

Houston Astros

Manager: Jimy Williams

2002 record: 84-78 (second)

What's new: Free agent Jeff Kent has arrived to augment a power-packed, but aging lineup. He should hit 40 homers in the Astros' cozy stadium, especially with all the big hitters around him in the lineup. Craig Biggio has moved to center field to make room for Kent at second base. Otherwise, this is largely the same team that finished 13 games behind the Cardinals last year.

On the spot: Kent is coming off a strong performance (.313, 37 homers, 108 RBIs) in his final season paired up with Barry Bonds in San Francisco. Astros fans are going to expect at least an equivalent performance in his first year in Houston.

Where they'll be in October: If the young starting rotation holds together, this could be a playoff team, but the Cardinals still appear to be a clear division favorite.

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Ned Yost

2002 record: 56-106 (sixth)

What's new: Plenty. The Brewers enter the season with a new manager, a new general manager (Doug Melvin) and several new faces in the clubhouse, but they have not made enough changes to significantly alter the near-term outlook of the team. They'll be right back at the bottom of the NL Central standings, waiting for that big revenue-sharing check from the New York Yankees to help them turn things around.

On the spot: Nobody. There are no expectations for this year, and the new front office personnel have to be given sufficient time to upgrade the team. It's going to take at least two or three seasons to see major progress.

Where they'll be in October: In the same sorry state they are now, and we're not talking about Wisconsin.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Lloyd McClendon

2002 record: 72-89 (fourth)

What's new: The Pirates may be the team that took the greatest advantage of the glutted free-agent market, packing their training camp with low-priced veterans who could turn this into the surprise team of 2003. Too much has to go right for them to stay in the hunt for the division title, but they just might be the best of the rest in the NL Central.

On the spot: Aramis Ramirez was supposed to be one of the top run-producers in the league last year after a strong 2001 performance, but instead was one of the biggest disappointments. If he can bounce back with a 25-homer, 100-RBI season, the Pirates should score enough runs to be competitive.

Where they'll be in October: If their young starting pitchers step up, the Pirates could finish above .500 and enter the offseason with real hope for the future.

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Tony La Russa

2002 record: 97-65 (first)

What's new: The cast is somewhat different, but the Cardinals still have a deep rotation. Matt Morris will pitch in the opener, followed by Woody Williams, Garrett Stephenson and newly acquired Brett Tomko. Promising Jason Simontacchi is the fifth starter, with non-roster veteran Cal Eldred also available. The club looks forward to having third baseman Scott Rolen in the lineup all season.

On the spot: First baseman Tino Martinez is guaranteed $7 million for each of the final two years of his contract, but he'll have to produce better than he did in 2002 (21 homers, 75 RBIs) to justify that kind of money.

Where they'll be in October: The Cardinals figure to be back in the playoffs, but they've reached the point where they can't be satisfied with anything short of a World Series appearance.

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