1. HOUSTON ASTROS
THE BELTWAY B'S? First baseman Jeff Bagwell, second baseman
Craig Biggio and rightfielder Derek Bell, known around Houston
as the Killer B's, are crowd-pleasers. Unfortunately for them,
the crowds in the Astrodome aren't big. If attendance doesn't
reach 2.5 million this season--the Astros have never drawn that
many in their 34-year history and last season attracted only 1.3
million fans--Houston owner Drayton McLane Jr. has said he will
sell the club to a group of Virginia investors, who would
relocate it to the Washington, D.C., area in 1997.
OUT OF RABBIT'S FEET? Last July righthanded closer John Hudek
had one of his ribs removed because it was causing a loss of
circulation in his pitching arm. Now, for good luck, he wears
the whole four-inch rib on a chain around his neck.
TEXAS-SIZED FLOPS Houston-area natives Doug Drabek and Greg
Swindell have a combined 61-64 record since signing hefty
free-agent contracts with the Astros three years ago. If these
former All-Stars, who are not even the two top guns in the
Houston rotation now, pitch the way they did during their best
years with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians,
respectively, the Astros will be hard to beat.
BANKERS' HOURS Last year Houston's rotation, which went 46-52
with a 4.24 ERA, averaged only 5.9 innings per start. "We must
get one extra inning from each starter so we don't put a burden
on the bullpen this year," says pitching coach Brent Strom.
OUTLOOK The Astros, led by their solid offense, will win the
2. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
OZZIE OR ROYCE? Forty-one-year-old shortstop Ozzie Smith is more
than likely to retire at the end of this season and devote more
time to his business interests, including his temporary
employment agency, Ozzie's Alternative Staffing. Problem is,
Smith may soon be looking for a job himself. Though new manager
Tony La Russa hadn't said so as of last weekend, Royce Clayton,
who was acquired from the San Francisco Giants for three
pitchers in the off-season, probably will start, and Smith, who
is healthy after missing 77 games last year because of an ailing
right shoulder, will lose his starting job.
ALAN OR ANDY? "Andy, can I have your autograph?" a fan asked in
spring training. "I'm Alan," said 24-year-old St. Louis rookie
starting pitcher Alan Benes, who is four years younger, one inch
shorter, 30 pounds lighter and has pitched in 196 fewer big
league games than his brother Andy, a free-agent pickup by the
Cardinals. The Beneses do have some things in common: They look
alike, they are righthanders, they are members of the Cardinals'
rotation, they rely on the same two pitches (fastball and hard
slider), and St. Louis needs both of them to pitch well in '96.
CLEAN SLATE La Russa, who was the Oakland Athletics' manager for
the past 10 seasons, brought three coaches with him and has
acquired four former A's. The artificial turf at Busch Stadium
has been replaced with Bermuda sod, and for the first time since
1953 the Cards aren't owned by the makers of Budweiser. New
proprietor Bill DeWill Jr. and a group of investors paid $150
million for St. Louis and then spent $33 million on free agents
Benes and outfielder Ron Gant.
OUTLOOK La Russa's enthusiasm is infectious, and the Cardinals
will challenge Houston, but the St. Louis rebirth will take some
3. CINCINNATI REDS
RAPID RECOVERY On the top shelf of ace righthander Jose Rijo's
locker sits a rum bottle with a faded label and an oleaginous
substance inside. Something mysterious has settled at the bottom
of the murky potion. "Snakes," Rijo explains, as he rubs a
handful of the oil on his right arm. He had ligament replacement
surgery on his pitching elbow late last August, and though it
usually takes at least a year for a player to recuperate from
such an operation, Rijo was throwing 90 mph in March. He
attributes his rapid recovery to hard work and the snake oil. "A
lot of people think it's voodoo, but it really works. The snake
oil relaxes the ligament," explains Rijo, who should be back in
the rotation next month.
KNIGHT TIME Look for new manager Ray Knight to keep his players
on a short leash, but how will the Reds respond to his pit-bull
tenacity? Cincinnati won the Central Division last year under
laid-back former skipper Davey Johnson, who has the demeanor of
a basset hound.
OUTLOOK Marge Schott slashed $10 million from the payroll--to $25
million--and in the process lost Gant, who signed a five-year,
$25 million contract with St. Louis. That puts an even greater
burden on shortstop Barry Larkin, the National League MVP last
year; slugging rightfielder Reggie Sanders; and the indomitable
4. CHICAGO CUBS
WELCOME BACK After playing 13 virtually controversy-free years
with Chicago before retiring in the middle of the 1994 season,
second baseman Ryne Sandberg returned to the Cubs under intense
scrutiny (SI, March 11, 1996). Even Hard Copy broadcast a
segment on the upheaval in his personal life--he divorced his
wife and quickly remarried while he was away from the game--which
he finally admitted this spring was the main reason he quit
playing. If Sandberg gets off to his patented slow start, how
will he handle the attention?
FRIENDLY CONFINES? In 1995 the Cubs were the only major league
team to finish better than .500 (73-71) and have a losing record
at home (34-38).
HOT POTATO CORNER Since Ron Cey left after the 1986 season,
Chicago has used 26 players at third base. This season the Cubs
were counting on free-agent signee Dave Magadan at third, but he
will be out until May after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on
his left hand. For now, the oft-injured Leo Gomez will fill in,
and outfielder Luis Gonzalez also will be given a shot at third.
OUTLOOK It has been 88 years since the Cubs won a World Series.
Make it 89.
5. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
COMIC RELIEF Pirates All-Star lefthander Denny Neagle leads the
league in impersonations. His best stuff: Seinfeld's Kramer and
the train whistle at Three Rivers Stadium. If only the rest of
the Pittsburgh staff could impersonate his pitching. Take Neagle
(13-8 with a 3.43 ERA) out of the rotation, and last year's
starters were a combined 26-49 with a 5.27 ERA.
THE KING First baseman Jeff King refused to file for free agency
in the off-season and re-signed for less money--$5 million over
two years--than he would have received on the open market. King,
who hit 18 homers and had 87 RBIs in '95, decided to stay in
Pittsburgh because he liked the city, the team and its manager.
OUTLOOK The Pirates are too inexperienced to win
consistently--last year 16 rookies appeared in at least one
game. Expect another injection of youth this season, led by
21-year-old catcher Jason Kendall.
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL A comeback season by Drabek would better arm the Astros in their attempt to win this division. [Doug Drabek]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO The slide will continue for Brian McRae and the Cubs, who haven't won a championship in 88 years.