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Pheiffer Sees Three Fighting for Central

By Rory P. Pheiffer

Sports Columnist

There is no clear-cut choice to take home the National league central crown. It should come down to a three-team race though, between the Reds, Astros and Cardinals. Everybody is saying adding Griffey to Cincinnati will put them over the top, and though I don’t doubt Griffey’s talents and abilities, I think the Reds are still missing a key component. They were overachievers last year, and my gut feeling is that they will come down to earth some this year. On paper Cincinnati’s batting order looks very tough to beat, but I don’t think their players can maintain the same level of play as they did last year, even though they have added Griffey and Dante Bichette. Also, Cincinnati lacks a go-to starting pitcher, though their bullpen is very strong.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have some power in their line-up with Mark McGwire and Fernando Tatis, and J.D. Drew, but their real strength lies in their starting pitchers: Kent Bottenfield, Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen, and Andy Benes are all proven pitchers with the ability to win ball games. Kile, Hentgen, and Benes all struggled a bit last year, but I look for them to bounce back and give St. Louis one of the best rotations they’ve ever had.

However, outside of their power hitters, the Cards do not have a lot to write home about in their batting order. It is players like Fernando Vina and Eli Marrero who have to step-up their production for Tony LaRussa’s Cardinals to have a chance.

Houston Astros

That leaves the Astros. Their top five in the batting order is one of the best in the majors with Craig Biggio, Roger Cedeno, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti, and Moises Alou. They, like the Reds, are hurting a bit when it comes to starting pitchers, but I look for Jose Lima, Shane Reynolds, and Octavio Dotel to pick-up the slack.

The one wild card that remains is Dwight Gooden. If he finds his stuff, the Astros will have a good starting rotation, if not, hopefully Scott Elarton will be back from shoulder surgery soon. Either way, like I said before, I’m going to take the Astros to win the division.

The cellar dwellers

The Pirates have a strong line-up, but they lack any marquee players to lead them to a pennant run. They have enough talent stay in the middle of the Central.

That leaves the Cubs and Brewers as the cellar dwellers, and in this race, I’m going to have to give the nod to the Brewers for the worst team in the division, as well as in the National League. Outside of their one spotlight, Jeromy Burnitz, Milwaukee fans don’t have much of a baseball season to look forward to. Might as well start waiting in line for Packers tickets.

Concerning the Cubs, they have too many inconsistent players in their line-up. The heart of their line-up, Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, and Henry Rodriquez, can produce runs, but the rest of their line-up doesn’t have this ability. Add that with a starting rotation that isn’t very spectacular, with or without Kerry Wood, and you have another season in the doldrums for the Cubbies.