01/31/2003 2:58 pm ET
NL Central Spring Training preview
Division rivals close gap on favored Cardinals
| Jim Molony|
For the National League Central Division, Spring Training 2003 begins much as last year's commenced, with everyone chasing favored St. Louis.
The difference this time, however, is that the Cardinals' margin over the rest of the division should be smaller as every team appears to be improved on paper. A case could be made for at least two of the challengers having a strong enough team to win the division.
Every team made changes this winter and as Spring Training begins a glance at each roster indicates all should be stronger in 2003. No one knows this better than the six NL Central managers, who admitted as much during the winter meetings in Nashville.
The road to October begins with Opening Day, but how well teams are put together and prepared in Florida and Arizona during the next six weeks could go a long way in determining who will be on top when the regular season reaches the finish line next fall.
Every team has questions and pending position battles and this year there are plenty to go around in the NL Central. February and March could determine who's on second in Cincinnati and Chicago, who's in center in Houston and who will be the starting third baseman in Milwaukee.
Everywhere there is change, from new managers in Chicago and Milwaukee and approximately 60 new players on division rosters.
Comeback Player of the Year candidacies are usually launched out of Spring Training and the division has a few possibilities for that distinction, including Ken Griffey Jr., Shane Reynolds and Geoff Jenkins. There are a number of players seeking to bounce back after disappointing seasons in 2002, including Moises Alou, Aramis Ramirez, Richard Hidalgo and Tino Martinez.
There will be promising rookies trying to win jobs with Hee Seop Choi, Bobby Hill and Bill Hall among those getting shots to win a job this spring.
Now that everyone is back at the starting line, here's a look at how the teams shape up entering Spring Training listed in order of finish last season:
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals appear to be the strongest team in the division, but they are not without question marks as they head to camp in Jupiter, Fla.
Is right fielder J.D. Drew healthy and ready to play a full season for the first time since arriving in St. Louis in '98? Due to injuries, Drew has never received more than 424 at-bats or played in more than 135 games since he joined the Cardinals.
Now that he's had a year to get to know the National League pitchers, can first baseman Tino Martinez bounce back with the kind of year he routinely produced before last season?
Can Tony La Russa put together a serviceble rotation and bullpen that can get St. Louis to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year?
These questions aside, the Cardinals are set just about everywhere else and barring injury figure to have enough talent to challenge for the NL Central crown one more time.
After scoring a club record 938 runs in 2000, Houston's incredible shrinking offense scored 847 in 2001 and dropped again in 2002 to 749. Houston's nine-game drop from 2001 to 2002 was one the largest in baseball, trailing only the Cubs (-21), Brewers (-12), Padres (-13), Indians (-17), Tigers (-11) and Mariners (-23). Five of those teams have changed managers.
The offense clearly needed a booster shot, even before outfielder Richard Hidalgo, who had back-to-back subpar seasons, became the victim of a gunshot wound during an attempted car-jacking of his sport utility vehicle in Venezuela during the winter.
Enter former NL MVP Jeff Kent. Kent will take over at second base, with Craig Biggio, who has started there the last 11 seasons, moving back to center field where he played 50 games in 1991 for former Astros manager Art Howe. Incumbent center fielder Lance Berkman most likely will move to left field with either Hidalgo or Jason Lane expected to start in right field.
The question remains whether 37-year-old Biggio can play center field, especially in Minute Maid Park's huge expanse in straightaway center, and the Astros hope to answer that question this spring. If so, then perhaps the offensive downsizing is at an end.
The Astros also have uncertainties in their rotation beyond starters Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt and hope to clear up these questions this spring. Shane Reynolds was limited to 13 games last season and underwent back surgery. Carlos Hernandez is coming off shoulder surgery and Houston's other rotation options include veterans Brian Moehler, Peter Munro, Tim Redding, Kirk Saarloos and free agent acquisitions Jared Fernandez and Jesus Sanchez.
So many questions, so little time.
Perhaps the best news for Reds fans is the persistent reports out of Florida indicating Ken Griffey Jr. will report to camp ready to play 162 games. While all eyes will be in Griffey this spring there will be plenty of things to see in Sarasota as far as the Reds are concerned.
The Reds must determine:
Where will Barry Larkin play?
Where will newly acquire Felipe Lopez fit in? And Brandon Larson?
Is Danny Graves ready to be an effective starter after spending his career to date as a reliever?
Is Scott Williamson ready to re-assert himself in the closer's role?
The Reds must also settle on a rotation (the only experienced returning starters are Jimmy Haynes and Ryan Dempster) and the remaining spots in the bullpen.
After a Super Bowl between the Raiders and Buccaneers, perhaps 2003 really is the Year of the Swashbuckler. In that case, beware the Pirates.
Perhaps it is a stretch to think the Pirates are playoff bound -- they haven't finished above .500 since 1992 -- but this team should definitely be improved this year. How much they will be answered by how the Pirates address the questions surrounding their club during Spring Training.
Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield didn't make any blockbuster deals like the one he pulled off last winter for Josh Fogg, Kip Wells and Sean Lowe, but he did modestly strengthen his offense with the acquisitions of Randall Simon and Matt Stairs. Simon and Stairs should bolster first base and right field, respectively, as well as the Pirate bench.
Aramis Ramirez enters Spring Training 30 pounds lighter and in search of his 2001 form (.300, 34 HR, 112 RBIs) after a disappointing 2002.
After the signing of Jeff Suppan in late January, the Pirates rotation looks pretty set with Kris Benson, Fogg and Wells in the top three spots, followed by Suppan. A whole host of pitchers will battle for the fifth spot.
The bullpen, if everyone remains healthy, should be adequate. And if Littlefield can find a leadoff type hitter, preferably a center fielder, the Pirates could be ready to make some more noise in this division.
Dusty Baker takes over a team that lost 95 games in 2002, but the Cubs will open Spring Training as arguably the most-improved team in the division after adding Mike Remlinger, Dave Veres, Mark Guthrie and Rod Beck to a bullpen that already had Kyle Farnsworth, Antonio Alfonseca and Juan Cruz. The Cubs already boast the best rotation in the division (Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement, Shawn Estes, Carlos Zambrano), so if the theory that pitching wins championships holds true, the Cubs are in good shape.
The big questions for Baker (outside of learning his roster) involve the status of players who missed all or portions of 2002, particularly starting left fielder Moises Alou.
Of course there will be a few position battles that will draw most of the attention, especially at first base (Eric Karros vs. Hee Seop Choi) and second base (Bobby Hill vs. Mark Grudzielanek).
If the answers to these spring questions are positive and the Cubs stay relatively healthy, Baker should have a cast capable of challenging for a playoff spot in 2003.
Say what you will about the Milwaukee Brewers, one thing is certain: Spring won't be dull in the Brewer camp.
This camp should be extremely busy as new Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin and Assistant GM Gord Ash have a new manager (Ned Yost), new staff and a completely overhauled roster.
Numerous roster changes produce numerous questions and Yost will have a number of decisions to make in Arizona.
With only first base (Richie Sexson) and the outfield (left fielder Geoff Jenkins, center fielder Alex Sanchez and right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds believed to be set, the other positions are up for grabs. The best battle might be at third base, where newly-acquired Wes Helms is expected to win the job from holdover Keith Ginter.
The rotation appears to have four certainties -- Ben Sheets, Glendon Rusch, Todd Ritchie and Dave Mlicki -- with Nick Neugebauer also expected to be in the mix. The bullpen has been completely overhauled.
Yost and his staff will have just six weeks to answer these questions, so expect them to hit the ground running.
Jim Molony is a
reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League
Baseball or its clubs.