National League Central
In predicted order of finish.
1. Houston Astros
Who’s new: 2B Jeff Kent, P Brian Moehler.
Who’s gone: OF Daryle Ward, INF Mark Loretta, P Dave Mlicki, T.J. Mathews, Nelson Cruz and Doug Brocail.
Strengths: Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller give the Astros one of baseball’s best one-two pitching punches -- they are 64-24 (.727) the last two seasons, second only to Arizona’s Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who went 90-24 (.789). The addition of Kent, a perennial 100-RBI threat, turns a solid lineup into a lethal one. A deep bullpen is anchored by Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel, who had a 1.85 ERA in 83 games in 2002.
Weaknesses: The Astros led the NL with a .986 fielding percentage last season, but that statistic is deceiving -- they may catch the balls they get to, but with limited range at almost every position, they don’t reach many. Ward’s departure makes them better in left field, but they did not improve anywhere else. Craig Biggio is making the difficult transition from second base to center field.
Outlook: If the bullpen turns out to be as good as people think -- Brad Lidge, who has a 95-mph fastball and an effective breaking ball, could be a key -- the Astros’ overall pitching should give them an edge over St. Louis. Kent has fit in well, and should provide the offensive boost for Houston to overcome the Cardinals.
At Dodger Stadium: Sept. 1-3.
CF Craig Biggio
SS Julio Lugo
1B Jeff Bagwell
LF Lance Berkman
2B Jeff Kent
RF Richard Hidalgo
3B Geoff Blum
C Brad Ausmus
2. St. Louis Cardinals
Who’s new: P Chris Carpenter, Dustin Hermanson and Brett Tomko, C Joe Girardi, OF Orlando Palmeiro.
Who’s gone: P Chuck Finley, Dave Veres, Rick White, Andy Benes, Luther Hackman, Jamey Wright, C Mike DiFelice.
Strengths: With 2002 Gold Glove winners at third base, shortstop, second base and center field and a 2001 Gold Glove winner behind the plate, the Cardinals may have baseball’s best defense. Albert Pujols has quickly established himself as one of the top hitters in the game. The lineup is balanced, with four bats from the left side and four from the right.
Weaknesses: The Nos. 2 and 3 starters are not awe-inspiring. As good as Woody Williams was in 2002 (9-4, 2.53 ERA), a recurring rib-cage injury limited him to 17 starts. Jason Isringhausen underwent shoulder surgery over the winter and begins the season on the disabled list. OF J.D. Drew, recovering from knee surgery, will be sidelined until May.
Outlook: The Cardinals have won or shared the last three division titles, but they’re going to need career years from Williams and Tomko to make it four in a row. If Fernando Vina, whose on-base percentage dropped from .380 to .333 in three seasons, does a better job of setting the table, St. Louis could overcome its lack of pitching depth.
At Dodger Stadium: July 17-20.
2B Fernando Vina
SS Edgar Renteria
CF Jim Edmonds
LF Albert Pujols
3B Scott Rolen
1B Tino Martinez
RF Eli Marrero
C Mike Matheny
3. Chicago Cubs
Who’s new: P Shawn Estes, Mike Remlinger, Dave Veres and Mark Guthrie, 1B Eric Karros, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, C Damian Miller, OF Troy O’Leary.
Who’s gone: 1B Fred McGriff, C Todd Hundley, P Jon Lieber and Jason Bere, C Joe Girardi, OF Chad Hermansen, INF Chris Stynes.
Strengths: The Cubs have two of baseball’s top young power pitchers in Kerry Wood, who struck out 217 in 213 2/3 innings last season, and Mark Prior, 22, who struck out 147 in 116 2/3 big league innings. The addition of Remlinger, Veres and Guthrie provides depth in the bullpen, the defense should improve with Hee Seop Choi at first and Miller behind the plate.
Weaknesses: The Cubs led the major leagues with 1,269 strikeouts last season. They need to improve their on-base percentage to have any chance of winning the low-scoring games they expect this season. Antonio Alfonseca tied for the NL lead in blown saves (nine) and is out until May because of a pulled right hamstring.
Outlook: Some think Chicago, under new Manager Dusty Baker, could be the Angels of 2003, a surprise team that makes a strong run for the pennant. But while the Cubs may have the pitching to contend, they don’t appear to have the kind of lineup to keep up with Houston and St. Louis.
At Dodger Stadium: Aug. 8-10.
2B M. Grudzielanek
SS Alex Gonzalez
RF Sammy Sosa
LF Moises Alou
1B Hee Seop Choi
CF Corey Patterson
3B Mark Bellhorn
C Damian Miller
4. Cincinnati Reds
Who’s new: P Paul Wilson, Felix Heredia and Kent Mercker, SS Felipe Lopez.
Who’s gone: P Elmer Dessens, Shawn Estes, Joey Hamilton and Brian Moehler, INF Todd Walker.
Strengths: Ken Griffey Jr. has been hitting the ball hard in spring training, a sign he could rebound from two injury-marred seasons, and if he makes a strong comeback, the middle of the Reds’ order could be potent, with Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn hitting behind him. The bullpen, with converted starter Scott Williamson returning to closing and Scott Sullivan and Gabe White setting up, is solid.
Weaknesses: At 39, Barry Larkin has lost a step or two at shortstop, and with converted third baseman Aaron Boone at second, Cincinnati won’t have much range or quickness up the middle. Sean Casey has limited range at first, Brandon Larson is an average third baseman at best, and with a rotation that doesn’t rack up many strikeouts, overall infield defense could be a problem.
Outlook: A powerful offense should generate plenty of excitement in Cincinnati’s new Great American Ball Park, and the Reds appear to have a good young nucleus, especially with Felipe Lopez poised to take over at shortstop. But they don’t have the pitching talent or depth to contend for a division title just yet.
At Dodger Stadium: Aug. 5-7.
SS Barry Larkin
2B Aaron Boone
CF Ken Griffey Jr.
RF Austin Kearns
LF Adam Dunn
1B Sean Casey
3B Brandon Larson
C Jason LaRue
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
Who’s new: OF Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs, 1B Randall Simon, P Jeff Suppan and Jeff D’Amico.
Who’s gone: P Jimmy Anderson and Ron Villone, OF Adrian Brown and Armando Rios, INF Mike Benjamin, C Keith Osik.
Strengths: The pitching staff had the biggest improvement in ERA from 2001 to 2002, dropping from 5.04 to 4.23. They should be better on offense with Lofton and Sanders, but that isn’t saying much -- Pittsburgh was last in the NL in batting the last two years, with a .244 mark in 2002. The Pirates led the league in double plays turned last season.
Weaknesses: There is little depth, and an injury to a key player such as Brian Giles or Aramis Ramirez could be devastating. Manager Lloyd McClendon is in the final year of a contract, and that could be a distraction. Lofton brings speed to the top of the order, but there aren’t many other fast runners in the lineup. Giles (38 homers, 103 RBIs) was the only Pirate with more than 18 home runs last season.
Outlook: The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992, and they’re likely to extend that string of losing seasons to 11, matching Milwaukee for baseball’s longest streak of futility. But if everything goes right, a .500 season is within reach.
At Dodger Stadium: May 2-4.
CF Kenny Lofton
C Jason Kendall
LF Brian Giles
3B Aramis Ramirez
1B Randall Simon
RF Reggie Sanders
SS Jack Wilson
2B Pokey Reese
6. Milwaukee Brewers
Who’s new: SS Royce Clayton, INF Wes Helms, P Matt Kinney and Todd Ritchie.
Who’s gone: SS Jose Hernandez, P Ray King, C Paul Bako, OF Matt Stairs, INF Ronnie Belliard.
Strengths: The Brewers have a solid bullpen, but with a questionable rotation, new Manager Ned Yost must find a way to prevent his relievers from being worn out by June. Richie Sexson, who hit .279 with 29 homers and 102 RBIs last season, is one of the game’s better right-handed power hitters, but he needs to cut down on his strikeouts (136). Yost’s boundless energy will help.
Weaknesses: There isn’t enough offense to support Sexson, and there’s not enough pitching behind Sheets for the Brewers to be competitive. The catching is thin, and Wes Helms has never played a full season in the big leagues. Outfielders Geoff Jenkins -- who will open the season on the disabled list -- and Jeffrey Hammonds are injury prone.
Outlook: The Brewers have posted 10 straight losing seasons, and there is no reason to believe the string won’t reach 11. The club has a solid core of players at the double-A level, and new General Manager Doug Melvin has a knack for finding gems off the scrap heap, but this team is years away from competing.
At Dodger Stadium: May 30-31, June 1.
CF Alex Sanchez
2B Eric Young
1B Richie Sexson
LF Geoff Jenkins
RF Jeffrey Hammonds
3B Wes Helms
C Eddie Perez
SS Royce Clayton
Valerio De Los Santos