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NL Central: St. Louis | Cincinnati | Houston | Pittsburgh | Chicago | Milwaukee
  ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (47-38)
   .262 BA (8th in NL), 3.84 ERA (5th in NL)

Darryl Kile
The Good: Jim Edmonds (.314, 17 HRs, 44 RBIs) does everything. Albert Pujols (.294, 21, 55) is showing no slump -- he has the same numbers in homers and RBIs as he did in his rookie season. The staff has been fantastic, especially given what this team, and this city, has faced. Rookie Jason Simontacchi is 7-1 with a 2.77 ERA.

The Bad: The death of pitcher Darryl Kile has battered the Cards, who also lost longtime broadcaster Jack Buck. An injury to J.D. Drew has hurt them on the field, and first baseman Tino Martinez (.248) has not been his old Yankee self.

What's Next: They should contend for the Central crown. In fact, they should be favored. But with the hardships they've had to endure, there's no telling which way the Cardinals will go.  


  CINCINNATI REDS (46-41)
   .255 BA (12th in NL), 4.04 ERA (6th in NL)

Adam Dunn
The Good: Adam Dunn is a professional slugger with a great eye (78 walks). Juan Encarnacion (16 homers, 51 RBIs) adds some power, they have high-average guys in Sean Casey and, to a lesser degree, Todd Walker. Danny Graves has saved 24 games.

The Bad: How are the Reds contending? The 4.45 starters' ERA was worst among contending teams, and their bullpen is feeling it. The pen has been admirable, a 3.39 ERA, but they've pitched a whopping 313 innings, most in the NL. Also, is it time for Barry Larkin (.227) to just quit? And what about you-know who?

What's Next: We still contend that you-know-who -- Ken Griffey Jr. -- can carry this team. But he's gimpy and shows no signs of getting un-gimpy. The Reds can't make it through the second half with that pitching staff -- and without Griffey.  


  HOUSTON ASTROS (41-45)
   .260 BA (9th in NL), 4.36 ERA (12th in NL)

Lance Berkman
The Good: Lance Berkman, all the sudden, has power -- a whopping 81 RBIs to go with those 29 home runs. Go figure. The Astros still have one of the best closers in the biz in Billy Wagner, and they have first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who still has pop (15 HRs, 49 RBIs) in his bat.

The Bad: But the pop is gone from Craig Biggio (.245), injuries have hurt the starting pitching and Daryle Ward (3 homers, 30 RBIs) has bombed in replacing Moises Alou. This team should be better.

What's Next: Larry Dierker got fired because he couldn't get the Astros past the first round of the playoffs. What's that say for new skipper Jimy Williams? Bagwell and Biggio are disappointing, injuries across the roster have hurt ... they're not done, but they're close.  


  PITTSBURGH PIRATES (38-49)
   .241 BA (15th in NL), 4.09 ERA (9th in NL)

Brian Giles
The Good: Mike Williams (25 saves) is recognized as one of the best closers in the league, admirable considering the Bucs don't have nearly the chances other teams do. Brian Giles (.299, 22 HRs, 53 RBIs) should've been an All-Star. Kip Wells (9-6, 3.41 ERA) and rookie Josh Fogg (9-6, 3.56) are solid starters on anyone's team.

The Bad: Third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.217) can't find his hitting stroke. Kevin Young can't do anything, either (.233), Pokey Reese is poking along (.237) ... after a good start, the Pirates fell predictably back and now are mired in the muck of the Central.

What's Next: The muck is where they'll stay. The Bucs don't have the talent to stay with the rest of this division, bad as it is. And when they don't get performances from the talent they supposedly have -- Young, Reese, Ramirez -- it figures to be a tough go.  


  CHICAGO CUBS (35-51)
   .240 BA (16th in NL), 4.30 ERA (11th in NL)

Sammy Sosa
The Good: Sammy Sosa (28 homers, 58 RBIs) has persevered and continues to be one of the game's best sluggers. Baby-smooth righty Mark Prior will be an ace in the big leagues some day.

The Bad: The hitters have stunk up the joint. Fred McGriff is sporadic, and he's the best of a weak infield. Moises Alou (.133 in April and .211 in May) is just now starting to hit. The team is hitting under .240 with runners in scoring position. The 5.14 ERA among relievers is the worst in the NL. That's liable to get somebody fired.

What's Next: Whoops. Someone, Don Baylor, did get fired, replaced by Bruce Kimm last week. If the Cubs keep this up, they could lose 100 games. Tell us again, what's loveable about these guys?  


  MILWAUKEE BREWERS (33-55
   .263 BA (7th in NL), 4.58 ERA (15th in NL)

Jose Hernandez
The Good: All-Stars Richie Sexson (he'll drive in 100 or more) and Jose Hernandez (pay no attention to those strikeouts) are pluses. The Brewers are hosting the All-Star Game. There're three things right there. And third baseman Tyler Houston (.315). That's four.

The Bad: That pitching staff. It has a 4.99 ERA among starters. There is no ace. Young Ben Sheets has been thrown to the wolves (4-10 in 18 starts, with a 4.19 ERA in 109 1/3 IP). The Brewers canned manager Davey Lopes, a mercy firing if ever there was one. His replacement, Jerry Royster, still has the same team and goes into the break 12 games under.

What's Next: This may be the worst team in baseball, well on its way to a 100-loss season and a shocking -- well, maybe not so shocking -- drop in attendance at Miller Park. No fixes in sight.  


  Note: All stats through Sunday. All photos AP.

 


 
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