March 26, 2003
Injuries might force St. Louis out of first, but they have rebounded from worse cases in the past and come out on top. The front half of the Cardinals' rotation is solid, but the rest is questionable. What separates them from the rest of the Central is the strong, versatile lineup. With guys like Marrero and Pujols available to play several different positions, the Cards should be able to withstand the likely injuries which occur throughout the season. Houston has the pitching and a new bat in Kent to contend for the title, but they lack the depth to compete with St. Louis the whole way.
Also just a couple players short of a division leading team is Cincinnati. If Griffey returns to form, their lineup will be dangerous from top to bottom and they should be able to outscore some teams regardless of their pitching. Over time, though, the lack of a true number one starter will catch up to them and they won't be able to win the close games when the hitting is slumping. They should still finish ahead of the Pirates, though. Pittsburgh won 72 games last year, added some veteran pitching in the offseason and got back ace Kris Benson from injury. On the offensive side, they added 2 of the 3 outfielders from last year's Giants' squad that went to the World Series. Of course, the third outfielder that stayed in San Francisco had a lot to do with that, but having Lofton in center with Sanders in right is a marked improvement on moving Giles over to center while guys like Matt Stairs and Craig Wilson platoon in right. The Pirates are headed in the right direction - north in the standings.
Right behind the Pirates will be Chicago. Jayson Stark of ESPN must be getting free newspapers for his whole family from the Chicago Tribune company to suggest that the Cubs have everything in place to win the division this year. In the offseason, they took a team 28 games under .500 and added some middle relief help and a serviceable catcher. Wood, Prior, and Clement are a nice trio to build a rotation around, but overpaid Grudzielanek, unproven Hee Sop Choi, past his prime Alou, and average Alex Gonzalez are not the guys you want to fill a lineup card. New manager Dusty Baker plans on resting Sosa more than his predecessors. That will change. When the Cubs get shut out on Sosa's first day off, he'll be in the lineup to stay. The pitching could carry this squad to a third place finish, but I've learned never to overestimate to potential of the North Siders. I will safely say that the Cubs will finish ahead of the lowly Brewers, however.
Milwaukee got a new ballpark a couple years ago. Now if only they could replace the team. The Brewers have some power and speed in their lineup and will be able to score runs, but the whole team is filled with players who can't finish a season without getting hurt, and this is not a deep team. Sanchez, Hammonds, Sheets, and Ritchie are all key components for this club to succeed, but they also can not be counted on to stay healthy. Where does that leave Milwaukee? Last in the Central, but playing in a nice ballpark.
1. St. Louis
well rounded team that can overcome diversity over the course of a season
new additions should help them contend
too many question marks in the rotation
should build on their 72 wins last year
their staff can't compensate for their miserable lineup
new stadium didn't help the team on the field