A division of power and more; NL Central: Formerly a low-rent district, it's Home Run Central since Ken Griffey joined Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and several clubs have made off-season moves that point toward a wide-open race.; BASEBALL 2000

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From the start, the National League Central seemed doomed to middle-market obscurity. Baseball's rush to regional realignment isolated several of the league's low-revenue clubs in the same division, and it only got worse when the 1997 expansion pushed the economically challenged Milwaukee Brewers into the picture.

If not for the exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa the past two years, the division would have had trouble finding itself on a map.

Not anymore.

The arrival of superstar Ken Griffey in Cincinnati has added a dimension to the home run chase, and major off-season additions to several clubs have changed the chemistry of the division.

The Cincinnati Reds won 96 games last year and added two of the top hitters in the game. Dante Bichette hit .298 with 34 home runs and 133 RBIs for the Colorado Rockies last year. The other guy is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

The St. Louis Cardinals no longer want to be known as Mark McGwire and his supporting cast. They spent the winter stockpiling experienced starting pitchers -- including Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen and Andy Benes -- and recently traded for premier center fielder Jim Edmonds.

The Chicago Cubs, who went from the playoffs to the cellar in consecutive seasons, acquired starting pitcher Ismael Valdes from the Los Angeles Dodgers and hope that the starting rotation is further enhanced by the return of injured phenom Kerry Wood.

The Houston Astros still have to be considered the favorite to win the NL Central title, if only because they have won it the past three years, but there appears to be no team in a position to dominate the division race.

The Astros won fewer games in 1999 than the year before and felt compelled to trade pitching ace Mike Hampton to the New York Mets because of concerns about their ability to re-sign him when he becomes eligible for free agency at the end of the year.

Outfielder Moises Alou is back from a severe knee injury -- which should flesh out the lineup -- but there are enough question marks to justify optimism in several other NL Central cities.

Even the two clubs at the bottom of the economic ladder -- the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers -- are not without possibilities, though money still speaks as loudly as ever.

"It's going to be a very exciting division," said McGwire, whose 135 home runs the past two years would have been sweeter if they had carried the Cardinals into the postseason. "I don't think you can take anybody lightly in this division. "I think the team to beat is Houston. There are going to be a lot of expectations for Cincinnati. Nobody expected them to do what they did last year, but now there will be expectations. The Cubs have made a lot of changes. Pittsburgh has some great young arms. Even Milwaukee, you really don't know because their roster has changed so much."

Indeed, it should be a great race, and yet much of the focus will be on the three-headed home run chase. McGwire and Sosa hit more than 60 homers each in both 1998 and '99. Griffey has never reached 60, but he has averaged 52 a year for the past four years and is the most accomplished all-around player in the game.

Welcome to Home Run Central.

The three of them combined for 176 homers last year -- more than 12 of the 30 major league teams.

"We've got the three highest-profile players over the last five years in our division," said Cubs general manager Ed Lynch. "It's going to be a little disturbing seeing those two guys [McGwire and Griffey] hitting in Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out, but I think it's great for the division and for the National League.

"It's going to help all of us attendance-wise to have those guys in the same division generating a lot of interest."

Even outside the division. The economically challenged Minnesota Twins are heavily marketing a string of five straight interleague games against the Cubs and Cardinals -- or, more accurately, against Sosa and McGwire -- at the Metrodome. It figures to be the highlight of the season, at least from an attendance standpoint.

"It put Cincinnati back on the map," McGwire said of the Griffey deal. "They're going to be a national TV team. They'll probably set a road attendance record, with people wanting to see Griffey for the first time."

McGwire knows all about that. He has accounted for unusually large road crowds during his amazing two-year home run barrage, but the Cardinals would like to be more than just his supporting cast.

"We haven't really enjoyed the fact that it's like Mark and whoever is with him," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "Now, it's the Cardinals and he's one of the star players.

"This isn't tennis or golf. It's still our team vs. their team. You try to have a good time with it, but it won't be fun unless we're having a good year and were in the middle of it."

The fans are certain to love the three-pronged homerfest, but the principals, with the occasional exception of the free-spirited Sosa, tend to try to deflect attention from the individual competition.

Still, the underlying theme is the same for all. The home run chase will be fun if there is a pennant chase attached to it. The arrival of Griffey clearly has enhanced that possibility for the Reds.

"I think last year our players learned that they could play with the big boys," said Reds GM Jim Bowden. "To bring in Ken Griffey and Dante Bichette to go along with a Barry Larkin, that just builds more confidence. Obviously, we expect to do something this year."

So do the Astros. So do the Cardinals. And, in spite of last year's last-place finish, so do the Cubs.

"It's awesome," said Reds pitcher Denny Neagle. "The division is going to be fun this year, and rightfully so. The fans deserve it."

Three amigos

Mark McGwire (65), Sammy Sosa (63) and Ken Griffey (48) combined to hit 176 home runs last year. That's more than each of the following 12 entire major-league rosters:

Pittsburgh 171 Anaheim 158

Houston 168 San Diego 153

Milwaukee 165 K.C. 151

Montreal 163 Tampa Bay 145

Chi. W.S. 162 Florida 128

Phila. 161 Minnesota 105

New faces

The National League Central has undergone sweeping personnel changes since the end of the 1999 season. Here's a look at who came and went:

Houston Astros: Traded LHP Mike Hampton to Mets for RHP Octavio Dotel and OF Roger Cedeno; signed OF Matt Mieske.

Cincinnati Reds: Acquired OF Ken Griffey from Mariners for RHP Brett Tomko, OF Mike Cameron and minor-league players; acquired OF Dante Bichette from Rockies for OF Jeffrey Hammonds and RHP Stan Belinda; acquired OF Kimera Bartee from Tigers for player to be named.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Signed free-agent OF Wil Cordero; acquired OF Bruce Aven from Marlins for OF Brant Brown.

St. Louis Cardinals: Acquired RHP Darryl Kile, RHP Dave Veres and RHP Luther Hackman from Rockies for SS Justin Butler, RHP Manny Aybar, RHP Rick Croushore and RHP Jose Jimenez; acquired RHP Pat Hentgen and LHP Paul Spoljaric from Blue Jays for C Alberto Castillo, LHP Lance Painter and RHP Matthew DeWitt; signed free-agent RHP Andy Benes; signed IF Fernando Vina; signed free-agent OF Larry Sutton.

Chicago Cubs: Acquired RHP Ismael Valdes and 2B Eric Young from Dodgers for RHP Terry Adams and RHP Robert Ricketts; acquired Damon Buford from Red Sox for IF Manny Alexander; signed RHP Brian Williams; signed free-agent C Joe Girardi.

Milwaukee Brewers: Acquired RHP Jimmy Haynes, RHP Jamey Wright and C Henry Blanco from Rockies for 3B Jeff Cirillo and LHP Scott Karl; signed free-agent RHP Jason Bere; acquired RHP Curtis Leskanic for LHP Mike Myers; signed 3B Jose Hernandez; signed OF Mark Sweeney; signed RHP Juan Acevedo; acquired RHP Jaime Navarro and RHP John Snyder from White Sox for RHP Cal Eldred and IF Jose Valentin.

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