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NL CENTRAL PREVIEWS

1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

MANAGER: Tony La Russa, 2nd year (1,408-1,257 overall).

1996 FINISH: 88-74, 1st place.

WHAT'S NEW: Ozzie Smith hangs it up, making Royce Clayton the full-time SS (and making the Cardinals stronger).

WHAT ELSE: The Benes brothers, Donovon Osborne and Todd Stottlemyre were among the NL's best rotations in the second half of 1996. A repeat performance would mean another division title.

WHO'S KEY: Ray Lankford is hurt, Gary Gaetti is old. Will they falter?

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Brian Jordan puts a season together that rivals Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield. 2B Delino DeShields plays like the early years in Montreal.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: When a team with older players wins, it is called a veteran outfit. When it loses, it is called washed up. The Cardinals are walking that line.

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2. CHICAGO CUBS

MANAGER: Jim Riggleman, 3rd year (261-336 overall).

1996 FINISH: 76-86, 4th, 12 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: There is life in the bullpen. Cubs spend to get Mel Rojas, making new starters Terry Mulholland and Kevin Tapani very happy. Losing Jaime Navarro will hurt.

WHAT ELSE: Hard not to like a lineup with Brian McRae, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa.

WHO'S KEY: Rojas is the man on the spot.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: In the NL Central, just about everything. Competition is not stiff, so the Cubs figure they can contend. They added a few pieces while the Cardinals mostly stood pat.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: No one looks like an ace on the starting staff. Steve Trachsel will be the No. 1 starter. Nos. 4 and 5 starters, Frank Castillo and Kevin Foster, went 14-22 last year.

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3. HOUSTON ASTROS

MANAGER: Larry Dierker, 1st year.

1996 FINISH: 82-80, 2nd, 6 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: Dierker never has managed and spent the last 18 years as a broadcaster. But the Astros are counting on his fresh attitude reviving a young team that wilted down the stretch.

WHAT ELSE: A trade with Detroit brought a new catcher (Brad Ausmus) and pitching help (C.J. Nitkowski and Jose Lima) but it came at the cost of losing promising CF Brian Hunter.

WHO'S KEY: Pat Listach is the latest in a line of shortstops.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: If the Killer Bs _ Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell _ score or drive in 100 runs, Houston is okay.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: That giddy atmosphere could turn into a lax, free-for-all. The front office will either look like masterminds or goofballs for entrusting Dierker.

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4. CINCINNATI REDS

MANAGER: Ray Knight, 2nd year (81-81).

1996 FINISH: 81-81, 3rd, 7 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: Certainly not the payroll. Mid-range payroll means a mid-range finish. Bargains like OF Deion Sanders, OF Ruben Sierra and P Kent Mercker were brought in to help.

WHAT ELSE: Deja Vu. The Reds expect Willie Greene to blossom at 3B. Again. Mike Kelly gets another shot to be phenom.

WHO'S KEY: This is Barry Larkin's team. Can he carry it?

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: If Pete Schourek returns to form following elbow surgery, the Reds have a shot. It would also help if Sierra drives in 90 and doesn't kill himself playing leftfield.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Nobody replaces Eric Davis' bat, which is now in Baltimore. The bargains could end up looking cheap.

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5. PITTSBURGH PIRATES

MANAGER: Gene Lamont, 1st year (258-210 overall).

1996 FINISH: 73-89, 5th, 15 GB.

WHAT'S NEW: Where do we start? The SS, the 3B, the 2B, the 1B, the RF and the top starting pitcher from last season are gone. As replacements, the Pirates have their Triple-A team from Calgary.

WHAT ELSE: Prospects like P Jason Schmidt, P Jose Silva and 3B Joe Randa have been acquired in various trades.

WHO'S KEY: C Jason Kendall has shown he can play. Now he's showing he's a leader by blasting teammates' lax attitude.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT: Another labor strike. Preferably one that lasts two seasons because it's going to be at least that long before the Pirates can think about winning again.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG: Money woes get worse because fans stay away while the club marches to 100 losses.

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