Astros class of NL Central

Before the Astros picked up Roger Clemens, I think most people figured the National League Central like this:



    everybody else

I didn't think that was quite right, and today I would group them like this:



    everybody else

Here's a salient fact: in 2003 the Cardinals scored 876 runs, which was 71 more than the Astros scored and 151 more than the Cubs scored. Yes, the Cubs had better pitching than the Cardinals ... but it wasn't that much better. It wasn't better enough to offset the difference in their runs scored.

So (you might be asking) how did the Cubs beat out the Cardinals by three games in the standings?

Simple: one-run games. The Cubs were 27-17 in one-run games (in the National League, only the Giants were better), and the Cardinals were 14-25 in one-run games (only the Mets were worse). There is one, and only one, legitimate explanation for those one-run records, and that explanation is blind luck. I know many of you believe that one-run records are determined largely by bullpens and/or "chemistry," but there simply isn't any evidence that either of those plays a significant factor in one-run games. Last year in one-run games, the Tigers had a winning record (19-18) and the Braves had a losing record (17-25).

If you accept the truth -- that the outcomes of one-run games are heavily freighted with luck -- then you also have to acknowledge the possibility that the Cardinals were actually better than the Cubs last season. After all, the Cards outscored their opponents by 80 runs, the Cubs by only 42.

Yes, the Cubs have improved this winter, with the addition of Derrek Lee and the presumed additions of full seasons from Corey Patterson and Aramis Ramirez. But Lee replaces Eric Karros (who was actually pretty decent last season), and Patterson's healthy days replace Kenny Lofton's productive fill-in time.

Of course, I'm simplifying for the sake of my argument. Full seasons of Lee, Patterson, and (especially) Ramirez represent real upgrades for the Cubs. And just getting Shawn Estes out of the rotation, no matter who takes his place, will help. Too, the Cardinals haven't exactly made a big splash this winter, their big moves consisting of signing Jeff Suppan and Reggie Sanders.

So yes, the Cubs are ahead of the Cardinals in the Hot Stove Derby. Not by a lot, though. They haven't separated themselves from the Cardinals. And they're still behind the Astros.

Runs scored and runs allowed? The Astros outscored their opponents by 123 runs in 2003, and since then they've added Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to the roster. Yes, they've lost Billy Wagner, but they've also "lost" Geoff Blum, who probably cost the Astros a couple of games last season with his .295 on-base percentage in 123 games.

The Cubs might have another big move in them. But if they don't sign Ivan Rodriguez or Greg Maddux, the Astros are the team to beat in 2004.

Postcript: Some of you might believe there's an x-factor here, goes by the name of Dusty Baker. I think it's been a few years since I've done this, so again I'll run a table comparing the records of Baker's teams to their "expected" records (based on runs scored and allowed)

    1993 Giants + 5
    1994 Giants - 3
    1995 Giants + 6
    1996 Giants - 3
    1997 Giants +10
    1998 Giants - 2
    1999 Giants + 1
    2000 Giants + 0
    2001 Giants + 4
    2002 Giants - 3
    2003 Cubs + 3

Baker's teams have outperformed their run differentials by roughly 18 games, and that's a lot.

On the other hand, as a predictive tool it doesn't say much, does it? For one thing, 18 extra wins over the course of 11 seasons is roughly just under two per season, and not many pennant races are decided by two games. And for another, most of that positive number came before 1998; over the last six seasons, Baker's teams have outperformed their runs scored and allowed by the grand total of three wins.

Baker's teams in one-run games? They've won 52.4 percent of them, just barely better than half of them and just slightly worse than Baker's .547 winning percentage in games decided by more than one run.

Dusty Baker is one of the best managers of this era. But whether you're talking about winning close games or winning more games than the runs say he should, Baker's touch is something less than magical.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.