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TeamBoone
05-07-2006, 01:38 PM
05/07/2006

Central divisions are strongest
Marty Lurie

LAST FALL the White Sox swept the Astros to win the World Series.
Has the balance of power in the major leagues shifted from the East to the Central?

The last time the Central dominated the American League for any period of time you have to look back to the Kansas City Royals-Detroit Tigers battles of the 1980s.

In the senior circuit the last real dominance from teams comprising the current Central Division saw the Reds and Pirates battling through the 1970s.

The Central divisions in 2006 are strong.

The Houston Astros are off to their best start in franchise history. Not only is Roy Oswalt the best pitcher in the NL, but outfielder/first baseman Lance Berkman is the early favorite to unseat Albert Pujols as league MVP.

One concern for manager Phil Garner is Astros closer Brad Lidge. The All-Star right-hander might be suffering from the effects of pitching in the WBC, because his slider isn't biting with its customary ferocity.

Shortstop Adam Everett is the top defensive infielder in the league.

If Roger Clemens returns to Houston next month he will join two excellent young pitchers quietly filling spots in the Astros rotation, Wandy Rodriguez and Taylor Bucholz.

The Reds are the talk of the league.

Cincinnati outfielder Adam Dunn's power is a given. The Reds are scoring runs in their bandbox ballpark with timely hitting from Austin Kearns and Edwin Encarnacion. Scott Hatteberg is doing his part too. No surprise as the former Athletic is contributing with a healthy .420-plus on base percentage.

Starters Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are looking like all-stars. The bullpen, always a key to any team's success is strong with setup men Todd Coffey and Kent Mercker consistently handing the ball to closer David Weathers.

The Reds are a longshot to win, but they are bringing back memories of long forgotten winning baseball in Cincy.

The Cardinals are treading water until Pujols's aching back feels better. Injuries have slowed Tony LaRussa's team. Mark Mulder is complaining of back stiffness, Scott Rolen had bronchitis most of April, and Jim Edmonds has played all season with a sore shoulder.

The Cards are still the favorite in the Central mainly because the big guns are legit stars. Once everyone is healthy, the Redbirds will be tough to beat.

Milwaukee is the most underrated team in the division. The A's and Giants should seriously target the Brewers' slugging 2007 free agent-to-be left fielder Carlos Lee.

Young hitters Prince Fielder and Ricki Weeks are here to stay. It's the supporting cast that makes this team intriguing. Bill Hall, J.J. Hardy, Geoff Jenkins and Corey Koskie are all playing winning baseball.

Ned Yost has a reliable pen with Matt Wise and Jose Capellan setting up former Angel Derrick Turnbow.

Every few games the Cubs show flashes of being a contender. Unfortunately the injury bug has hit Dusty Baker's team hard, causing the team to struggle to score runs.

Starter Kerry Wood might be back by the middle of May, but fellow hurler Mark Prior's expected late May return is now very questionable.

If pitcher Carlos Zambrano finds his groove and first baseman Derek Lee returns from his wrist injury in top form, the Cubs still might make the summer interesting for the fans in Wrigley.

The major stumbling block to the NL Central's quest for an October date in the World Series resides in New York.

As each week goes by the Mets are gaining confidence. The Amazins' are the best team in the league right now, especially with pitchers Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez dominating like they did 10 years ago.

With strong teams in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit fighting it out for supremacy in the AL Central, for the first time in 20 years the power in both leagues has shifted to the midwest part of the country.

And that's good for the game.

Marty Lurie hosts "Right Off The Bat" and "Memories of the Game" on KYCY 1550 AM and KNTS 1220 AM before A's games. His Web site is loveofthegameproductions.com and his e-mail is luriem@earthlink.net.

http://www.insidebayarea.com/turn2/ci_3795450