Joe Katuska, Senior Sports Consultant

Moving on with our baseball preview, today we look at the NL Central. Last year, the Central was a three team race-with the Astros taking the division title on the final day of the season, the Cardinals winning the Wild Card and the Cubs finishing with 88 wins. This year expect much more of the same, as each team still harbors high hopes for the coming season.

St. Louis looks like the frontrunner in the division this year. Even though they lost Mark McGwire to retirement over the offseason, the Cardinals have the potential to be a much better team than last year-a season in which they lost to the Diamondbacks in the final inning of their five game playoff series. It is difficult to point to one key for the Cards but the play of their young stars will likely decide their fate. Albert Pujols was the Rookie of the Year last year and a legitimate case can be made that he deserved to be league MVP as well. It would be difficult for Pujols to match the impact he had last year, but if he can come close he will be a valuable part of the lineup. Right fielder JD Drew, who was injured for much of last season but produced at an All-Star level when healthy, will be another key. If healthy, Drew is a star waiting to break onto the national scene. Other keys for the Cards include their two big free agent acquisitions-Tino Martinez at first base and Jason Isringhausen as the closer-and the health of their starting rotation. A big question mark will be the return of Rick Ankiel. Ankiel could make the Cards a dominating team, but may still be haunted by control problems.

Surprisingly, many Cubs fans have a legitimate reason to believe that this is their year, finally. Any team that has Sammy Sosa will have a chance to win games, but until this year the Cubs had little else surrounding the slugger. This year Sosa will benefit from the protection given by Fred McGriff and Moises Alou behind him. The Cubs have a solid pitching rotation, an electric bullpen and a number of rising stars to build around, so their future looks bright. Still, the Cubs haven’t been able to capitalize on their talent in recent years, and it remains to be seen if the will do that this season.

Last year’s division winner, the Astros, did the least to add to its’ team this offseason and, with the gains of the Cardinals and Cubs, they will have a hard time winning the division again. Jeff Bagwell will be the key for the Astros, as he is every year, and it would be a surprise to see him slip in production. He is almost automatic to bat .300, hit 30 homers, drive in and score 100 runs and get on base all the time. Combined with his leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, he is a model franchise player. The big question for the Stros this year will be their outfield play. Even with Alou lost to the Cubs, the club should field a productive trio in the outfield. Lance Berkman, who emerged as an impact player last year, will be flanked by Darryl Ward and Richard Hidalgo and this trio should put up impressive offensive numbers in the corporate embarrassment known as Enron Field. The Astros pitching staff is loaded with young arms, led by Roy Oswalt, and the back end of the bullpen is shored up by closer Billy Wagner. The Astros have won five of the last six division titles in the Central, but it will be hard for them to repeat this year.

While the Central has three very competitive teams, it also has three doormats. The Milwaukee Brewers were the best of these three last year, but they have done little to improve during the offseason. Jeromy Burnitz, their slugging rightfielder, was traded to the Mets and the team got little in return. Also lacking was their action in the free agent market. In fact, the best possible thing that could have happened to the Brewers this offseason, the contraction of the Twins, which would have greatly expanded their market and fan base, was scrapped. Ben Sheets, a rookie of the year candidate last year until he was injured at the All-Star break, will have to come back healthy for the Brewers to improve. I won’t even say that the Brewers have a chance in the division, the top three teams are just too good.

The Cincinnati Reds have a number of bright prospects, but they too need much improvement if they wish to compete in the division race. Ken Griffey, Jr. is one of the most talented players in the game, but he has struggled with inconsistency and injury in his two seasons playing for his hometown team and he has much to prove this year. If he comes back strong, he is a frontrunner for the NL MVP, and the Reds will need him to do so. Surrounding Junior in the outfield should be two top prospects, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. Dunn tore up three levels of baseball last year, including the majors, and has all the makings of a future star. Kearns was the higher touted prospect entering last season, but he was sidetracked with injuries. After a healthy and productive offseason, it looks like he is ready to contribute to the majors. Other than these three players, there is very little to look forward to with the Reds. Sean Casey is a good hitter at first base and Barry Larkin shows flashes of his old brilliance, but overall the Reds are waiting for their new stadium to rescue the franchise.

The final team in the division is the Pittsburgh Pirates, which many of you may have forgotten with their dreadful play of a season ago. Unfortunately for Brian Giles, his team stinks, because he is one of the best players in the game. Since his trade he has blossomed in the Steel City. He is a cornerstone player to build upon. The Pirates do have a few other good players, such as catcher/outfielder Jason Kendall and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, but other than that they are very weak. The return of Kris Benson to the pitching staff should help, but he will be babied as he comes back from a serious arm injury last spring and, beyond that, the Pirates have very little to build around. The new stadium that the Bucs play in will likely continue to draw fans, but the team has a very small window in which to construct a winner before the fans leave.

Has the magic run out?

After what has been a storybook first half of the season, it looks like the clock has struck midnight for the Wizards and Michael Jordan. Jordan will have surgery on his knee, a joint that has bothered him all season, and with his absence it looks like the Wizards will fall back in the surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference.

When Jordan decided to come back, the biggest questions revolved around his age and health. Not many people questioned if Jordan would be able to play at a high level after time off, remember we are talking about the greatest player ever to play on the hardwood. But after taking two years off and missing much of the summer practice season with broken ribs, many questioned if Jordan could handle the pounding of the NBA for a full season. Now we know the answer.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Wizards spirited run towards the playoffs will go to the injured list with Jordan. While Jordan has not dominated games on his own this year, he has made his supporting cast better. Without Jordan in the lineup, the Wizards will return to their losing ways, barring some sort of miracle, and now all fans will have to hold their breath to see if Jordan returns for another year in the league.