NL Central; BASEBALL 2000

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cardinals

That was then: Mark McGwire hit 65 homers, missing his year-old record by five, but somehow the Cardinals lost 26 of their final 39 games. Amazingly, they were 2-7 in games in which he homered twice.

This is now: McGwire's hopes of reaching the postseason for the first time since 1992 improved when management added center fielder Jim Edmonds, closer Dave Veres (20-for-21 on save tries away from Coors Field) and starting pitchers Andy Benes, Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile.

Upside: The new starters all have won 18 games in a season, but the pitcher with the highest ceiling might be rookie Rick Ankiel, who has 416 strikeouts in 299 minor-league innings. 1998 All-Star Fernando Vina plugs holes at leadoff and second base; his lifetime on-base average is .350.

Downside: Setup relief remains a question for a team that lost an NL-high 20 games it led after the seventh inning. Much to the delight of fans in Philadelphia, J. D. Drew suffered a sophomore slump when he couldn't hit curveballs.

Don't miss : Oct. 1 against the Reds. McGwire and Griffey go for homer No. 71 on the final day of the season.

Don't be surprised : if McGwire is fourth in career home runs after this season. All he needs to do is hit 64, his average the past three seasons. And if he averages 64 in 2000, '01 and '02, he would tie Babe Ruth at 714.

Don't expect : McGwire to triple. His three-bagger last season was his first in 11 years. And don't expect Fernando Tatis to smash two grand slams in an inning again, though he may hit 40 homers.

Web site unseen: www.newaceswild.com

Reds

That was then: A major-league-best 51-30 in away games, the Big Road Machine stormed back from last place in mid-May to force a wild-card playoff. Ninety-six wins were the most for a non-playoff team in the wild-card era.

This is now: Cincinnati landed in middle-market heaven when Ken Griffey, perhaps the best player in the game, rejected a $160 million offer from the Mets and forced a trade to his childhood hometown.

Upside: Denny Neagle (Arundel) was 5-0 with a 2.00 ERA in September, proving he was over shoulder trouble. Dmitri Young hit .339 after the break. Sean Casey raised his batting average 60 points from 1998. Griffey should thrive in a division bereft of left-handed starting pitchers.

Downside: Sure, the bullpen had a major-league-best 3.36 ERA, but it threw an NL-most 530 1/3 innings, making it a candidate for meltdown. The Reds used the disabled list only 10 times last year; do they have the money to pay for injury replacements? Pete Harnisch's shoulder can go at any time. Runners stole 79 percent against the Reds.

Don't miss : the Hall of Fame inductions of Tony Perez, Sparky Anderson and announcer Marty Brennaman. Junior, take notes.

Don't be surprised : if Central foes tack this quote from Barry Larkin to their bulletin boards: "It is not a matter of whether we will win the division; it is a matter of by how many games."

Don't expect : Griffey to take the Reds to a World Series title while leading the league in homers. The last player to do both in one year was Mike Schmidt in 1980.

Web site unseen: www.huntforredoctober.com

Cubs

That was then: A 1998 wild card, Chicago started 32-23, then lost 72 of its final 107 games, the worst second-half collapse in the franchise's sorry history. The 95 losses were the Cubs' most since 1980.

This is now: The present may not be bright, but Cubs fans are too busy enjoying La Vida Sosa to notice. Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs in 1998 and 63 last year. It's up to manager Don Baylor to make sure Chicago doesn't become the first team with fewer wins than one of its players hits homers.

Upside: Eric Young's on-base average was fifth among NL leadoff hitters and 50 points higher than that of last year's table-setter, Lance Johnson. Closer Rick Aguilera gave up just six earned runs his last 31 outings. Catcher Joe Girardi is great with young pitchers, such as Kyle Farnsworth.

Downside: Though expected back soon from reconstructive elbow surgery, 1998 Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood is unlikely to flash his 20-strikeout form at least until next year. Ismael Valdes, who thrived in spacious Dodger Stadium, can't get away with high mistakes in Wrigley and is battling shoulder tendinitis.

Don't miss : Corey Patterson's midseason call-up. He's considered a Kenny Lofton with power.

Don't be surprised : if Baylor butts heads with Sosa. The manager has challenged the star to cut down on his strikeouts (NL-highs of 174, 171, 171 the past three seasons) and boost his stolen bases from seven back into the 30s.

Don't expect : the bullpen to hold up. Baylor overworked his relievers in Colorado, and this group is thin after trading Terry Adams.

Web site unseen: www.knockonwood.com

Astros

That was then: Houston won the final two games of the season to win its third division title in a row but lost to the Braves in the Division Series, failing to bring the Astrodome its first World Series in the stadium's final year.

This is now: Home now is Enron Field, a retractable-roof stadium with a miniature 1860s-replica train running atop the left-field wall, a 30-degree grass hill in deep center field and a flagpole in fair territory.

Upside: Moises Alou (124 RBIs in 1998) is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Closer Billy Wagner was unscored upon the last seven weeks of the regular season and set a major-league record with 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Craig Biggio's 56 doubles were the most in the majors since 1950.

Downside: The trade of Mike Hampton (22-4, 2.90 ERA) exposes a thin middle-relief crew. Roger "Don't Call Him Cesar" Cedeno stole 66 bases for the Mets but doesn't have the pop of the departed Carl Everett.

Don't miss : Hampton's return with the Mets on Aug. 7-9. Houston hit an NL-best .295 against left-handers.

Don't be surprised : if Jeff Bagwell, who hit just 12 of his 42 homers at home last season, steals the NL long-ball title from his Power Central rivals. Enron's left-field wall is just 315 feet down the line.

Don't expect : a return to the postseason. Houston's payroll was 13th in the majors last year, lowest among playoff teams -- and that was with Hampton and Everett.

Web site unseen: www.traininvain.com

Pirates

That was then: Pittsburgh was at .500 when team leader and All-Star catcher Jason Kendall went down July 4 with a gruesome ankle dislocation. His replacements hit .181 and the team never challenged for the division lead, spending a major-league-high 1,490 days on the disabled list.

This is now: Kendall is back and will handle one of the best young rotations in baseball, including 1996 No. 1 overall draft pick Kris Benson, who led NL rookies in wins and ERA, and Todd Ritchie, the first Pirate to win 15 games since Doug Drabek in 1992. This is the final season at Three Rivers Stadium.

Upside: Warren Morris' 73 RBIs were the most by a rookie second baseman since Joe Gordon's 97 in 1938. Lumber Company II set a club home run record, thanks in part to Brian Giles' 39.

Downside: The team committed 147 errors, second most in the majors, and adds Aramis Ramirez (42 errors in Triple-A) at third base and DH Wil Cordero in left field. Closer Mike Williams had an 8.39 ERA the second half of the season.

Don't miss : April 28-May 7. The division's best young arms pitch 10 straight games against Ken Griffey, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Don't be surprised : if Chad Hermansen, who hit 32 homers in Triple-A, becomes the first Pirate to win Rookie of the Year.

Don't expect : manager Gene Lamont to keep his job if the team starts slowly. Management refused to give him a contract extension last winter and wants to enter PNC Park in 2001 off the team's first winning season since 1992.

Web site unseen: www.pitchburg.com

Brewers

That was then: The Brewers suffered through their seventh straight losing season in what was supposed to be the final year at County Stadium. Closing time was delayed a year, however, when a fatal construction accident put off the opening of Miller Park until 2001.

This is now: Davey Lopes, getting his first managerial opportunity, wants his feisty temperament to rub off on a franchise in a funk. If nothing else, he'll get the attention of a clubhouse that had tuned out Phil Garner.

Upside: Jeromy Burnitz hit 33 homers despite missing more than a month with a broken hand. Mark Loretta had a .392 on-base average, second in the league among leadoff hitters. Ron Belliard's .295 batting average was the best among NL rookies.

Downside: Ace Steve Woodard won 10 games before the All-Star break and one after. Every other starting pitcher is new to the staff and coming off a disappointing season. Jose Hernandez struck out 145 times. The trade of Jeff Cirillo and departure of Dave Nilsson stunt what had been a productive offense.

Don't miss : Sept. 28 against the Reds, Bernie Brewer's last plunge into the suds.

Don't be surprised : if Henry Blanco shuts down the running game. He threw out an NL-best 39 percent of runners in 1999 with the Rockies; Brewers catchers last year threw out 15 percent.

Don't expect : a lot of loafing on the base paths. "That is one area I will not tolerate guys not giving a maximum effort," Lopes said. Which raises the question: What areas would he tolerate not giving maximum effort?

Web site unseen: www.flatfinish.com

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