NL Central

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Houston Astros

Where they're coming from: The Astros had their third straight winning season, finishing second at 76-68 and missing a tie for the wild card by one game. They were first in the NL in on-base average and second in batting average, runs, hits, RBIs and steals.

Where they're going: Northern Virginia. Drayton McLane has threatened to sell the Astros if they don't sell 2.5 million tickets -- a total they've never reached. First, they'll detour to the playoffs.

Key newcomer: Third baseman Sean Berry (14 HRs, .318) adds sting to the Killer B's lineup of Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell and Craig Biggio.

What must go right: Todd Jones must fill in well again for 1994 All-Star closer John Hudek, who missed the second half of last season and now is out with a torn muscle on his left side. Starting pitchers Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell finally must justify the four-year contracts they signed in 1993.

What could go wrong: 1994 NL MVP Bagwell could break his wrist for a fourth straight season, and Bell, shortstop Orlando Miller, center fielder Brian Hunter and catcher Rick Wilkins also could miss a lot of time again.

X-factor: Where have we heard this before? A lightly supported dome team with electrifying offensive players wins its division in dramatic fashion, working the hometown fans into a frenzy and keeping the franchise from leaving town. Sleepless in Houston? Perhaps. But will the team's projected $20 million shortfall keep new GM Gerry Hunsicker from making key moves down the stretch?

Key stat: Houston was over .500 every month but August. Replace the club's 9-20 record that month with any of its previous five Augusts and the Astros would have been in playoff orbit.

St. Louis Cardinals

Where they're coming from: The Cardinals were last in the NL in batting average, on-base average, slugging average, runs, hits and RBIs, but somehow stayed out of last in the standings, finishing fourth at 62-81.

Where they're going: Into a new era. New ownership (headed by William DeWitt Jr.); new manager (Tony La Russa); new field (grass); new outfield fences (green); new outfield dimensions (shorter); new place in standings (second).

Key newcomers: More than even the Orioles. The best ones: left fielder Ron Gant (hit .418 late in close games), third baseman Gary Gaetti (35 homers), shortstop Royce Clayton, starting pitchers Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre (combined 391 1/3 innings) and closer Dennis Eckersley.

What must go right: Starting outfielders Gant, Brian Jordan (Milford Mill) and Ray Lankford need to come close to duplicating 1995 seasons in which each of them hit more than 20 homers and stole more than 20 bases.

What could go wrong: The Clayton-Ozzie Smith shortstop battle could divide the clubhouse. Catcher Tom Pagnozzi, injured the past three seasons, could get hurt again. Injured pitchers Donovan Osborne, Mike Morgan and Danny Jackson might not return in time to make a difference.

X-factor: Rookie Alan Benes might be the best pitching prospect in baseball, and a sibling rivalry with underachiever Andy Benes could spark both to great things. And just wait a few years until Single-A pitcher Adam Benes is ready.

Key stat: The Cardinals were 51-0 when leading after eight innings last year, but Rolaids Relief Man Award winner Tom Henke has retired. Eckersley, 41, blew nine save tries and had a 7.17 ERA after the All-Star break. Since 1969, only Woodie Fryman (1982) and Ron Reed (1984) among relievers 41 and over have had as many as 11 saves in a season.

Cincinnati Reds

Where they're coming from: Despite a 1-8 start and 13-15 finish, the Reds won the division by nine games with an 85-59 record. They swept the Dodgers in the playoffs, then were swept by the Braves, scoring just five runs in four games. As announced earlier in the year, manager Davey Johnson was dismissed after the season in favor of assistant manager Ray Knight.

Where they're going: Twelve times a playoff team has changed managers before the next season; six of those teams went on to finish first. But the Reds are less likely to repeat than they are to change managers yet again. With disciplinarian Knight already alienating his players, management, which yanked local hero Tony Perez after only 44 games in 1993, may make a switch -- to Sparky Anderson.

Key newcomers: The Reds brought in three players from their 1990 world-championship team: catcher Joe Oliver, third baseman Chris Sabo and outfielder Eric Davis; too bad Lou Piniella wasn't available to manage. Left fielder Vince Coleman must get significant playing time to keep the club the fastest in the league.

What must go right: Pete Schourek, waived by the Mets in 1994 and runner-up in NL Cy Young Award voting in 1995, must anchor a thinner staff. Pitcher Jose Rijo must come back from major elbow surgery in time to make a difference. Mike Kelly must come through in center now that Curtis Goodwin failed his spring audition.

What could go wrong: Bret Boone, an excellent second baseman, could be sidelined by a bone chip in his throwing elbow. Closer Jeff Brantley, who saved 28 games in 1995, is out with a fractured right foot; with young Hector Carrasco taking his place, Chuck McElroy aching and Mike Jackson gone through free agency, the bullpen is a mess. Schottzie 02 could be activated.

X-factor: Outfielder Reggie Sanders is an MVP candidate but must show he can carry a team. Last season, he batted just .189 in late-inning pressure situations compared with .320 in other situations, the worst drop-off of anyone still in the NL. In the playoffs, he struck out 19 times in seven games. Now, he has to anchor a lineup without Ron Gant.

Key stat: The Reds led the NL in combined steals and homers (351).

Chicago Cubs

Where they're coming from: The Cubs improved 24 games last season, finishing third at 73-71 record and missing a wild card only because they were 34-38 in the unfriendly confines of Wrigley Field.

Where they're going: Back to the past, thanks to the unretirement of second baseman Ryne Sandberg, and back in the standings, thanks to the departures of closer Randy Myers, shortstop Shawon Dunston and third baseman Todd Zeile.

Key newcomers: Reliever Doug Jones, who was 22-for-25 for the Orioles in save chances but had a 5.01 ERA. Third basemen Dave Magadan (out with bone spur in hand) and Leo Gomez.

What must go right: Kevin Foster, who gave up a major-league-high 32 home runs last season, must regain his 1994 form (2.89 ERA). Sammy Sosa, the only 30 homer-30 steal player in the majors last season, and Mark Grace, who had 51 doubles, must repeat career-best seasons.

What could go wrong: Terry Adams, the organization's hardest thrower, and Jones, its softest thrower, could fall flat trying to match Myers' 38 saves. Starter Jim Bullinger, whose ERA was 4.88 after the break, could falter.

X-factor: Sandberg, 36, an All-Star second baseman for 10 straight years when he quit in June 1994 with a .238 batting average, is Chicago's latest No. 23 to come out of retirement. Michael Jordan made it back. Sandberg is older.

Key stat: Steve Trachsel is 3-16 lifetime at Wrigley, 13-6 on the road. His ERA after the All-Star break last season was 6.40, begging the more relevant question: What is his record at Sec Taylor Stadium, home of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs?

Pittsburgh Pirates

Where they're coming from: The Pirates had the NL's worst record, 58-86. They were, at least, well-balanced -- fourth from last in runs scored, third from last in ERA and second from last in fielding percentage.

Where they're going: Nowhere in the standings, and nowhere in moving vans -- thanks to Kevin McClatchy's purchase of the team.

Key newcomers: Third baseman Charlie Hayes and center fielder Mike Kingery.

What must go right: Denny Neagle (Arundel) must duplicate his All-Star year. Catcher Jason Kendall, the Southern League MVP, must hold together a young pitching staff. The addition of Hayes must make the Pirates better against lefties than last season's 12-29.

What could go wrong: Through midweek, the rotation had a 6.13 spring ERA and .326 batting average against. Nonroster retreads Danny Darwin, 40, and Zane Smith, 35, have made the rotation, mostly by default. Al Martin could turn out to be the outfielder who hit .231 before the break, not the one who hit .329 after.

X-factor: They went from the worst record in their league (1986) to the best (1990) to the worst (1995) in less time than any team since the St. Louis Browns (1939, 1944, 1947).

Key stat: Key stat: (Light) Pirates management was very excited about adding Kingery, but his batting average fell from .349 in 1994 to .269 last season, the biggest drop of any player with at least 250 plate appearances both years.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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