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Will the Centrals continue to be grand?

Will the Centrals continue to be grand?

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Three years ago they were derided as the Comedy Centrals, but these days the American League Central Division and the National League Central Division are enjoying the last laugh after providing five of the last six World Series teams.

It has been quite a turnaround for two divisions which had gone six years without yielding a single World Series team entering Spring Training of 2004. At that time, the AL Central had never had a Wild Card team and in the six previous seasons had had just two teams make it as far as the American League Championship Series.

Things weren't much better in the NL Central. During 1998-2003 that division produced two Wild Cards, no World Series teams and just three teams (two franchises) that made it as far as the NLCS. Of that trio only the Chicago Cubs forced a seventh game, losing to Florida in 2003 NLCS. St. Louis was eliminated in five games in both the 2002 and 2000 NLCS.

Since then, the tide has turned for the Centrals, while it has ebbed for the other divisions.

Last year, St. Louis topped Detroit for the World Series. In 2005, another Central-ized showdown saw the Chicago White Sox sweep Houston. In 2004 Boston, the Wild Card winner from the AL East, swept NL Central champion St. Louis in the World Series.

Seven of the last 10 NLCS teams came from the Central. During the last three seasons, the two Centrals have claimed nine of the 24 playoff berths. The AL and NL East Divisions have accounted for eight and the two West Divisions seven. During that span, Central teams have won 14 postseason series, compared to just five by the East and only two for the West divisions.

There's no question the once downtrodden Centrals have turned things around. The question is,"Will this Central dominance continue in 2007?"

While it is impossible to say definitively, on paper the chances for continued excellence by the Centrals is good -- particularly because the AL Central is arguably the strongest division in baseball with at least four teams that could contend for playoff spots next fall and possibly a World Series berth.

AL Central members Minnesota, Detroit and the Chicago White Sox all won 90 or more games last season, the only division in baseball with three teams to reach 90 wins.

The talent level in the division is once again substantial, with stars like Minnesota's Justin Morneau (the 2006 AL MVP), Joe Mauer (the reigning AL batting champion) and Johan Santana (AL Cy Young Award winner).

They aren't alone by a long shot. Cleveland's potent offense has such young stars as AL slugging percentage leader Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, who led the league in runs, doubles and extra-base hits last season, to go with a strong rotation led by C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

The defending AL champion Tigers could be even better this year after adding Gary Sheffield. The White Sox, with sluggers like Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome and one of the strongest pitching staffs in the game, could reach 90 wins again in 2007.

It would not be a shocker if any of four AL Central teams make the playoffs. At least two -- the White Sox and Tigers -- are on the short preseason list of teams most likely to reach the Fall Classic in 2007.

The talent is certainly there.

"We don't get any breathers in this division," Kansas City manager Buddy Bell said. "Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, they're all playoff [caliber]."

The Central playoff teams the last three years have had outstanding pitching. The White Sox had it with Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras and Jon Garland, the Twins with Santana, Brad Radke, Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan and the Tigers with Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones.

Talent is also the biggest reason behind the NL Centrals' turnaround.

Albert Pujols joined St. Louis in 2001 and the Cardinals have been contenders every season since the slugger's arrival. Though Houston missed the playoffs last season, the Astros have reached the postseason six times in the last 10 years. Superb pitching was a common thread for both teams, such as Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals and Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens with Houston.

There are a few indications that the pendulum might be ready to swing back the other way. Liriano is injured and out for the year. Radke has retired and Clemens may retire or rejoin the Red Sox or the Yankees. The Astros lost Andy Pettitte to the Yankees. The Cardinals will have a rebuilt rotation behind Carpenter.

Those are significant defections, though perhaps the Chicago Cubs, after adding Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa, Ted Lilly, Cliff Floyd and new manager Lou Piniella during the offseason, could return to the postseason picture in 2007.

The NL Central had only two teams with records above .500 last year while the NL West, which furnished the Wild Card team, had two teams (Dodgers and Padres) with records a full five games better than the Central champ Cardinals (83).

The NL East, with the Mets, Phillies, Braves and the surprising Marlins, were a clearly stronger division than the NL Central last season and figure to be even stronger this season. The AL East and West had a combined five teams win at least 86 games last season and all made significant upgrades this winter.

Of course the other divisions are also due for a turnaround. Just like the Centrals were three years ago.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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