National League Central

April 02, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dusty Baker

2003 finish: 88-74 (first)

On deck: The arrival of quality run-producer Derrek Lee and the return of four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux improves a club that came within a few outs of the World Series last year. Big expectations, however, have been tempered by news that ace Mark Prior likely won't pitch until May because of injuries to his elbow and Achilles' tendon.

Man on a mission: Sammy Sosa has put last year's corked-bat incident behind him and has remained largely immune from the steroid speculation that has dogged some of the game's other big boppers. At the age of 35, he could be ready for another monster season.

How it shakes out: The Cubs are in for a fight at the top of the NL Central standings but should be the last team standing if they stay healthy.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Dave Miley

2003 finish: 69-93 (fifth)

On deck: The most established pitchers in the team's starting rotation (Cory Lidle and Paul Wilson) combined last season to win 20 games ... and lose 25. The four hitters at the heart of the batting order combined for just 69 home runs, but there is a lot of upside potential.

Man on a mission: Injury-hindered superstar Ken Griffey could give the Reds a puncher's chance if he can rebound with some major offensive numbers this year. It's not out of the question.

How it shakes out: The Reds have a couple of things going for them this year: They aren't the Pirates and they aren't the Brewers.

Houston Astros

Manager: Jimy Williams

2003 finish: 87-75 (second)

On deck: Adding former Yankees standouts Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte gives the Astros one of the best starting rotations in the major leagues. They've also got more than enough offensive pop to come out of the gate very fast this season.

Man on a mission: Clemens has put a lot on the line to join his hometown team, so he'll be under tremendous pressure to put up at least one more big season before he rides off into the sunset.

How it shakes out: The Astros lost the division by one game last season and have added two starting pitchers who combined for 38 victories last year. They should reach the postseason one way or the other.

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Ned Yost

2003 finish: 68-94 (sixth)

On deck: The most interesting thing brewing in Milwaukee is the possible sale of the team. The Brewers traded their most dynamic player (first baseman Richie Sexson) and have only one pitcher on the staff who won more than 10 games last year. In short, enjoy the bratwurst.

Man on a mission: Outfielder Geoff Jenkins has a new contract and a chance to be a star, but it's going to be difficult to stay motivated in that lineup.

How it shakes out: The Brewers are trying to rebuild from the bottom up, but they'll be on the bottom for a while.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Lloyd McClendon

2003 finish: 75-87 (fourth)

On deck: Ten points if you are able to name three players on the Pirates without including Jason Kendall and Kris Benson. This nondescript team has so little star power that it wouldn't be picked up by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Man on a mission: Starting pitcher Benson, whose mission should be to persuade the Pirates to trade him as soon as possible.

How it shakes out: The Pirates figure to finish fifth only because there is a little-known clause in baseball's labor agreement that requires the Brewers to keep downsizing their payroll until they are reassigned to the International League.

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Tony La Russa

2003 finish: 85-77 (third)

On deck: The Cardinals traded outfielder J.D. Drew to bolster their pitching staff, which should make them a more consistent team this year, but they still appear to be a grade below the improved Cubs and Astros. La Russa and his players say they welcome the opportunity to be the underdogs for a change.

Man on a mission: Young slugger Albert Pujols deserved to win the National League Most Valuable Player award last year. He should be just as motivated to put up huge numbers in 2004.

How it shakes out: If ever there was a team that was a lock to finish third - no better, no worse - the Cardinals are it.

NOW STARRING

Andy Pettitte, Astros

Snatched out of the Yankees' rotation after a 21-win season. Houston probably suspected he would bring along a friend.

Roger Clemens, Astros

Came out of brief retirement to bulk up the rotation. Apparently, you can go home again, but only if Pettitte lures you back.

Greg Maddux, Cubs

It has been almost a decade since he won his fourth straight Cy Young Award, but Maddux fills out an exciting young rotation.

Derrek Lee, Cubs

Big run-producer solves a first base quandary for the Cubs, who got by with Hee Seop Choi and Eric Karros last year.

Reggie Sanders, Cardinals

Re-established himself as a power guy with the Pirates last year but probably isn't going to alter the prevailing balance of power in the NL Central.

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