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This will be a transition year in the NL Central, as the teams that
have been
at the top for years cede control to a pair of up-and-comers. Don’t
worry,
though: Those of you desiring sameness can still take comfort in the
Brewers.

Cincinnati Reds

I’m going with the Reds because of their upside, especially
offensively. They
have 15-homer power at every single lineup spot, and should be among
the
league leaders in OBP, led by young studs Adam Dunn and
Austin
Kearns
. The key to the Reds’ chances, however, is getting
late-1990s
performance from the bulk of their payroll. Ken Griffey Jr. and
Barry Larkin have to get 800 at-bats between them, and be the
kind of
hitters they were when they signed their big contracts. That means
.280/.375/.550 from Griffey and a .370 OBP from Larkin.

That kind of production is necessary because the pitching is
questionable. It
always seems to be for the Reds. They have a rotation loaded with #3
and #4
guys, backed by a deep bullpen filled with pitchers who can get
strikeouts.
Scott Sullivan has to be healthy and effective to replace
Danny
Graves’
innings in the pen and bridge the gap from the six-inning
starters
to Scott Williamson.

I’ve never been a big fan of Bob Boone, but his openness to new ideas
is
winning me over. He’s made Graves a starter, he’s shown a willingness
to
consider a four-man rotation
, he’s experimented with, or gone through
with,
three or four position changes, most notably moving his son, Aaron
Boone
, to second base. If the Reds have a clear-cut edge on the
Cubs than
makes up for the Cubs’ better rotation, it’s in the dugout.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have more talent than the Reds do, but they also have more
Dusty
Baker, and that will be the difference. Already, we’ve seen the problem
with
hiring a manager who prefers veterans, as Baker will open the season
with
Mark Grudzielanek (career OBP of .324) and Alex Gonzalez
(career
OBP of .306) at the top of the lineup, passing over Bobby Hill
(career
OBP of .327, .358 after last year’s All-Star break) in the process.

The Cubs may yet overcome Baker, and if they do, it will because of
their
great rotation. Mark Prior, two years removed from USC, is my
pick for
NL Cy Young. Maybe he doesn’t win it, but he’ll certainly be a
candidate,
likely providing 230 innings with an ERA in the 2.00s and more than 200
strikeouts. Behind him, the Cubs have three other power right-handers
in
Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano.

After you get past the dysfunctional top of the order, the Cubs have a
fairly
good offense. They’ll get power from all six spots, and if Corey
Patterson
shows even modest development–you decide what to call
five walks
in 56 at-bats this spring–the Cubs will score enough runs to win. They
need
Patterson as much to cover the ground between Moises Alou and
Sammy
Sosa
as to put runs on the board, so he’s going to play.

Overall, though, I keep coming back to Baker, who has already gotten
rid of
Bobby Hill, slid Shawn Estes in front of Zambrano and moved
Hee Seop
Choi
into a platoon role. There’s enough talent in the organization
to
win, but it may be wasted on winning the PCL.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals would probably be the safe pick, given their great
defense and
lineup core. I just can’t look at that pitching staff and feel any
confidence.
Only Matt Morris and Steve Kline are reliable; Woody
Williams
has been great as a Cardinal, but for just 28 starts in
eight
months, and with Jason Isringhausen out to start the year, the
bullpen
is a collection of retreads that makes the Reds’ staff look brand-name.

The biggest problem is the rotation, which consists of Morris and a
bunch of
guys who might be healthy or effective, but are unlikely to be both.
Grand
larceny in the theft of Scott Rolen aside, there’s little in the
farm
system that can be used to add pitching during the season, so what you
see is
probably what you get.

At the plate, the Cards have fewer questions. Albert Pujols,
Jim
Edmonds
and Rolen are about as good as it gets in the NL, and
Edgar
Renteria
gets a little bit better each year. If J.D. Drew
ever gets
healthy–I have a macro for that sentence, by the way–the Cardinals will
have a
championship-caliber offense. I can’t shake the idea, though, that this
is the
season in which Edmonds and Rolen combine to miss 100 games, and
there’s
nothing on the bench or in Memphis that can cover that.

Pittsburgh Pirates

I think Dave Littlefield has done a great job of acquiring talent, both
for
the major-league team and the organization. For a team that had an awful
bench
in 2002, employing Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs and
Reggie
Sanders
for less than three million bucks in 2003 is a pretty good
coup.
All three players can help any team.

That said, those players don’t fit this team, with its need to
play
Craig Wilson and its logjam at first base. As bad an idea as playing
Brian
Giles
in center field was, it’s not like Lofton is a good
flycatcher
anymore, so he doesn’t help much, either. It’s a case where each move,
individually, is completely defensible, but taken together–along with
the
Randall Simon acquisition–they represent an opportunity to cheat
a
young player out of playing time while creating a headache for Lloyd
McClendon.

In a weaker division, the improved depth might be enough to get the
Pirates
fringe-contender status. Their defense in the infield is very good, as
Pokey Reese and Jack Wilson are the best DP combination
no one
cares about. The pitching is deep, if unspectacular, thanks in part to
the
booty from the Todd Ritchie trade, Kip Wells and Josh
Fogg
. Kris Benson showed signs in the second half that he
might
be close to a full recovery as well, which would give the Pirates their
best
rotation since the early 1990s.

The guy to watch is Jason Kendall, two years removed from thumb
surgery. If his power comes back, he’ll have a chance at emerging from albatross status. If it doesn’t, the Pirates will be paying
$10
million a year for Brian Harper Lite, and that’s not something any
team, much
less a true small-market team, can afford.

Houston Astros

With apologies to Bill Simmons, can someone please let Drayton McLane
know
that forkectomies are covered by most major medical plans? The sooner
he gets
one done on his aging team, the sooner the Astros can leverage the
right arm
of Roy Oswalt into playoff appearances.

More than half of the BP staff thinks that the Astros are going to win
this
division, and I have absolutely no idea how. I see two above-average
players
in Jeff Kent and Lance Berkman, one aging star who will
probably
stay above average in Jeff Bagwell, and five positions where
this team
makes the Brewers look pretty good. Name I Can Never Remember Field is
something like 430 feet to deep center with a mogul and a rat’s maze
back
there, and the Astros think moving a 37-year-old second baseman who
can’t run
anymore out there is going to be a good thing? The nicest thing I can
say
about the left side of the infield is that it doesn’t take long to type
their
names, and Richard Hidalgo is recovering from the rare BP cover
jinx/bullet wound exacta, so it’s hard to be optimistic.

I love the Astros pitching staff, at least the guys not rejected by the
Tigers
and Reds, and the organizational belief in short right-handers pays off
this
year both in the rotation and bullpen. But the guys standing behind the
mound
don’t comprise a championship team, and the NL Central is no longer
there for
the taking by the first team to 85 wins.

Milwaukee Brewers

I swear that I could have had this column done four days ago, but I’ve
been
racking my brain trying to figure out what to say about the Brewers.
They’re
not young, they’re not talented, they’re not interesting…not even in
a
morbid way. They’re just boring. Royce Clayton and Eric
Young
up
the middle? Wes Helms and John Vander Wal in the lineup?
If a
baseball team loses in a spaceship and no one watches, does the game
count?

This is an awful team representing an awful organization, and it could
lose as
many as 112 games in 2003. The Brewers need three or four good drafts
to even
look like a real franchise.