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National League Central

Chicago Cubs  |  Houston Astros  |  St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates  |  Cincinnati Reds  |  Milwaukee Brewers

 
The Washington Post
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page D6

Team Capsules

National League
East
Central
West

American League
East
Central
West



1. Chicago Cubs
2003 Finish: 88-74, 1st.
Manager: Dusty Baker (12th season overall, 928-789).
Ace: Is there any doubt? Mark Prior led the staff in wins (18) and the starters in ERA (2.43), but won't pitch until May because of a strained Achilles' tendon. Still, the Cubs are better equipped than any other team to suffer an injury to a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Best Young Arm: Prior will turn 24 in September. Carlos Zambrano (13-11 with a 3.11 ERA last season) will turn 23 in June.
Closer: Former Oriole Joe Borowski established himself as a reliable closer last season with 33 saves, becoming the first Cub to reach 30 since Rod Beck in 1998.
Key Acquisition: Greg Maddux, 11 victories shy of 300, will start in the middle of the rotation.
Core Question: The Cubs haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1971-72. The Cubs folded after the famous foul ball in Game 6 of the NLCS. The season is long, and things will go wrong. Will the Cubs be able to recover when they do?
Projected Finish: First. If a team with a starting rotation this deep can't win the division, then pitching and defense don't win championships.

2. Houston Astros
2003 Finish: 87-75, 2nd.
Manager: Jimy Williams (12th season overall, 866-746).
Ace: Roy Oswalt, who battled a groin injury that limited him to 21 starts last season, has a better ERA during the past three years (2.92) than newcomers Andy Pettitte (3.82) and Roger Clemens (3.90) -- and the former Yankees didn't have to pitch at Minute Maid Park. Oswalt will start Opening Day.
Best Young Arm: Oswalt will turn 27 in August, and he'll only get better after sharing a clubhouse with Pettitte and Clemens.
Closer: Octavio Dotel (four saves) is the only player on the Astros' roster who had more than one save last season.
Key Acquisition: Pettitte and Clemens will bolster a rotation that was last in the major leagues last year in innings pitched. Pettitte and Clemens each pitched more than 200 innings last year.
Core Question: Will Clemens really be a different pitcher now that he has to hit? Probably not. Under what scenario does Clemens back down?
Projected Finish: Second. The Astros improved, but not as much as the Cubs did.

3. St. Louis Cardinals
2003 Finish: 85-77, 3rd.
Manager: Tony La Russa (28th season overall, 2,009-1,789).
Ace: Matt Morris (11-8, 3.76) should be the ace but has topped 200 innings only three times in six major league seasons. Woody Williams (18-9, 3.87) led the Cardinals in victories and innings pitched (2202/3).
Closer: Jason Isringhausen missed most of the first half of last season and only appeared in 40 games. But he had 22 saves as opponents hit .200 against him.
Best Young Arm: This is an aging staff. Morris will turn 30 this year, and Williams 38. Does Rick Ankiel count? He's on the 40-man roster and will turn 25 in July but hasn't pitched in a major league game since 2001.
Key Acquisition: Jeff Suppan (13-11, 4.19) should eat innings.
Core Question: This team can hit, but how many runs will it allow before getting 27 outs?
Projected Finish: A distant third. It's not that the Cardinals got that much worse; it's that the Astros and Cubs got that much better.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
2003 Finish: 75-87, 4th.
Manager: Lloyd McLendon (fourth season, 209-276).
Ace: Kip Wells (10-9, 3.28) is better than his 42-44 record indicates. If he can escape Pittsburgh, he should flourish.
Best Young Arm: Wells, acquired from the White Sox in 2002, has been the Pirates' most consistent starter.
Closer: Jose Mesa (24 saves, 6.57 ERA with Phillies) should make the ninth inning interesting.
Key Acquisition: They failed to trade Jason Kendall and his $8 million salary during the offseason. Does that count?
Core Question: Will former No. 1 pick Kris Benson (14-15 in 43 starts during past two seasons) stay healthy long enough to be traded?
Projected Finish: Fourth. The Pirates didn't get better, but they're still not as bad as the Reds or Brewers.

5. Cincinnati Reds
2003 Finish: 69-93, 5th.
Manager: Dave Miley (second season, 22-35).
Ace: Can this team get anyone out? Cory Lidle (12-15, 5.75) arrives from Toronto to bolster a staff whose ERA (5.09) was better only than the Rockies', and this staff didn't have to pitch half its games at Coors Field.
Closer: Danny Graves saved 94 games from 2000 to '03. Then the Reds made him a starter. He's back in the bullpen this season.
Best Young Arm: Brandon Claussen (will turn 25 in May) struck out five and allowed one earned run in 61/3 innings with the Yankees last season. Claussen was thought to have a good chance to make the rotation, but the Reds decided to send him to Class AAA to pitch every five days.
Key Acquisition: Lidle had a 3.59 ERA in 2001 and a 3.89 ERA in 2002 with the A's. Despite his poor showing with Toronto last season, he's a proven starter on a team that needed pitching.
Core Question: Will Ken Griffey Jr. spend more time in the training room or center field?
Projected finish: Fifth, perhaps sixth if Barry Larkin, Griffey and Austin Kearns can't stay healthy.

6. Milwaukee Brewers
2003 Finish: 68-94, 6th.
Manager: Ned Yost (second season, 68-94).
Ace: Ben Sheets (11-13, 4.45) led the team in wins, but his ERA crept up, and he has only three complete games in 93 starts.
Closer: Dan Kolb saved nearly a third of the Brewers' wins last season (21), and was impressive doing it, with a 1.96 ERA.
Best Young Arm: Sheets starts his fourth major league season and will turn 26 in July.
Key Acquisition: The Brewers got six players from the Diamondbacks for 1B Richie Sexson (.272, 45 HR), and not one hit more than 15 HR last season.
Core Question: Wasn't the opening of Miller Park supposed to mean the Brewers would be fielding better teams?
Projected Finish: Sixth. The next time Bud Selig talks about contraction, he should look in the mirror.

-- David Murray

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