The NL Central division race looks to be one of the more intriguing this year, as five of the six teams have made significant improvements this offseason.
The Houston Astros were leading the Central division last year by 3 games when they traded for Randy Johnson. They had forged that lead with top southpaw Mike Hampton struggling, starters Ramon Garcia and Chris Holt out with injuries, closer Billy Wagner recovering from being drilled in the coconut and virtually no production out of their third base platoon. Hampton, Wagner, Spiers and Berry all recovered and performed well down the stretch, helping the them win the central by 12.5 games, but it was clear that the Astros could have won the division without these guys or Randy Johnson. The keys were the emergence of Jose Lima and Sean Bergman. Long touted as superior pitching talents, the two finally lived up to their billing. So even though the Astros lost out on the Unit this winter, they still have enough pitching with ace Shane Reynolds, Hampton, Bergman, Lima, and rookie phenom Scott Elarton to be considered the class of the division. In addition, the Astros re-acquired Ken Caminiti to improve the production out of third base. When healthy, Caminiti has few peers either offensively or defensively. But as the Padres found out the last couple of years, health is his biggest question. If he can stay healthy enough to play in 140 games, Caminiti should offset the recent loss to injury of Moises Alou. And playing Richard Hidalgo and Carl Everett full-time will actually upgrade the outfield defense. If Alou can come back for the playoffs, the Astros will be formidable in October.
The Chicago Cubs had a miraculous year in 1998, with the efforts of Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood being most noteworthy. The Cubs should have a more consistent offense this year with Lance Johnson in the everyday lineup. How much Gary Gaetti has left at third base remains to be seen, but the Cubs can substitute super-utilityman Jose Hernandez should he or shortstop Jeff Blauser get off to slow starts. Catcher Benito Santiago will likely be an improvement over new-Giant Scott Servais in every aspect of the game except blocking the plate: Santiago has a much deserved reputation as a toreador when it comes to getting in a baserunners way. Ole! The big addition this offseason has been right-handed starter John Leiber. He'll take Mark Clark's place in the rotation behind Kevin Tapani and Kerry Wood. The 29-year old slider specialist has been occasionally brilliant over the past couple of years and looks poised for a break-out season. However, even if Wood and fellow youngster Jeremy Gonzales are past their arm woes, the Cubs may need an encore performance from Sosa to again threaten the Astros' hold on the Central crown.
The St Louis Cardinals have been a trendy pick to win the Central this offseason with the emergence of rookie outfielder JD Drew and the acquisitions of shortstop Edgar Renteria and outfielders Eric Davis and Darren Bragg. There's no question the Cards will be able to score runs as well as just about any team, and Renteria, Drew and Davis will go a long way toward preventing their opposition from doing the same. However, serious questions remain about the pitching. The health of the rotation is of primary concern, as Alan Benes, Matt Morris and Donovan Osborne missed most or all of last season with injuries. While Morris came back and pitched well down the stretch, Osborne has yet to show that he can stay healthy for a full season and Benes might miss the beginning of this season with his recovery from surgery. Newcomer Garrett Stephenson could be a huge sleeper in the 4th spot if he's recovered from his 1998 woes. The bullpen, which was one of the worst in the majors at holding leads last year, has been strengthened with the arrival of lefty Scott Radinsky and ex-Phillie closer Ricky Bottalico. If Bottalico is healthy, the Cards will have a great deal of flexibility, with the option of moving quasi-closer Juan Acevedo back into the rotation or, if their projected rotation is healthy, keeping him in the bullpen, making it one of the strongest pens in St. Louis since Whitey-ball in the 80's.
The Cincinnati Reds made headlines this offseaon by trading outfieler Reggie Sanders, infielder Damian Jackson and minor league pitcher Josh Harris for the 50-home run power of outfielder Greg Vaughn and pinch-hitter deluxe Mark Sweeney. What made this deal possible is an earlier trade that brought centerfielder Mike Cameron from the White Sox to the Queen City. Cameron's great defensive range allows the Reds to field the defensively limited Vaughn and Dmitri Young in the outfield corners. Vaughn will add some serious sock to the Reds line-up provided he can maintain at least a semblance of the patience at the plate he showed last year. Brian Johnson was signed to provide some right-handed help for Ed Taubensee at catcher. The Reds also dealt second baseman Bret Boone and lefty Mike Remlinger to the Braves for Denny Neagle and Michael Tucker. This deal opens up second base for either defensive wiz Pokey Reese or journeyman Mark Lewis. If Aaron Boone struggles, Lewis may be moved to his third base spot. If Cincy-native Lewis hits like he did last time he played there (.339 batting average) it'll be hard to keep him out of the line-up. The biggest benefit of the deal is the addition of Denny Neagle to the rotation. He, Pete Harnisch and Brett Tomko match up well against just about any opposing top three in the league. Lefties Steve Avery and rookie Dennis Reyes will probably finish out the rotation. The bullpen is dangerously thin and lacks consistency in finishing out games. Manager Jack McKeon will probably opt for a bullpen by committee with Danny Graves and Gabe White sharing most of the closing duties.
The Milwaukee Brewers could be interesting this year. In 1995, they moved Dave Nilsson from catcher to outfield in order to keep him healthy. After three injury-plagued seasons, they realized he's just injury prone. This year, Nilsson will be back at catcher, opening up his outfield spot for young slugger Geoff Jenkins. One of the more interesting moves they made this winter was replacing first baseman John Jaha with career third baseman Sean Berry. Both players have similar career slugging percentages, with Berry having the advantage in batting average, Jaha, in on-base. Presumably, the Brewers will be using Berry's superior ability to make contact and the team's decent speed to hit-and-run a lot more this year. The rotation is serviceable with Steve Woodard being the only potential standout. The bullpen is deep, so even if Bob Wickman can not hold down the closing duties - his second half ERA of 6.46 and trend of allowing nearly 2 baserunners per inning don't bode well - the Brewers have solid options in Chad Fox, David Weathers and Valerio DeLosSantos. If the Brewers can stay healthy, something they haven't done since the 80's, they could sneak up on the rest of the division.
In 1998, the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to commit to a full-scale youth movement and brought up uber-prospects Aramis Ramirez at third and Abraham Nunez at short. Unfortunately, they were badly overmatched and the Pirates stumbled to 93 losses. This season, the Pirates are being more cautious, bringing in Ed Sprague and Mike Benjamin to alleviate some of the pressure on the two. They also traded lefty reliever Ricardo Rincon to Cleveland for professional hitter Brian Giles, and Jon Lieber to the Cubs for center fielder Brant Brown. These moves should pay dividends in improving an offense that was second to last in the league last year. The rotation is solid especially if Chris Peters and Jose Silva continue to improve. Lefty Pete Schourek was brought in to offset the loss of Lieber. Jason Christiansen will step into Rincon's set-up role and pitched well enough last year to take over the closer's role should Rich Loiselle falter. However, the offense is still probably not consistent enough to make the Pirates serious contenders in the much improved Central.
3) St Louis