Mar 30, 2004 8:11 AM

Upgrades, downgrades and changes during the hot stove winter.

The baseball season begins this week in Tokyo, of all places, and this week I’ll look at some of the top teams from the National League.

Phillies (86-76 in 2003): Armed with ace Kevin Millwood and free agent Jim Thome last year, Philadelphia fell short of the playoffs. The Phils were able to retain Millwood and perhaps added the missing piece in closer Billy Wagner, making this a very dangerous team for 2004. One major change in Philadelphia is the move into brand new Citizens Bank Park.

The lineup remains intact and can hit, led by Thome, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and catcher Mike Lieberthal. The pitching staff is also strong with Millwood, lefty Randy Wolf (16-10, 177 Ks) and Vicente Padilla. With the possible demise of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, the new downtown stadium may be hosting a playoff game in its first year.

Cubs (88-74): If you build a winning team around pitching, the Cubbies are in great shape. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have replaced Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson as the best strikeout duo in baseball. Throw in Carlos Zambrano (3.11 ERA, 214 innings pitched), Matt Clement (14-12) and a free agent veteran righty named Greg Maddux, and it’s a good year to be a Cubs’ fan.

The offense added 1B Derrek Lee (31 HRs, 92 RBI) from the team that knocked the Cubs out of the playoffs (Florida). They have plenty more bats with RF Sammy Sosa (40 HRs), 3B Aramis Ramirez (27 HRs), Moises Alou and SS Alex Gonzalez. The Cubs could be playing in October again and hope to write a better script than last season’s heart-breaking collapse.

Astros (88-75): This might be the most exciting season for Astros baseball since 1986, when they stormed to the NL Championship series. This team has won 84 and 87 games the last two seasons and had a huge offseason, creating great hope for Houston fans. Veteran aces Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens jumped ship from New York and came home to Houston.

Combined with young Roy Oswalt (10-5, 2.97 ERA), the Astros have three standout starting pitchers while most teams don’t have one. Hard throwing Octavio Dotel (2.48 ERA) takes over as the new closer from departed Billy Wagner. The offense has star-power, too, with 1B Jeff Bagwell (39 HRs), Lance Berkman and 2B Jeff Kent. October hasn’t been kind to the Astros over the years, but there is pressure on manager Jimy Williams to guide this group to the next level.

Cardinals (85-77): From 97 wins in 2002 to 85 last season amidst a sea of injuries, St. Louis looks for good health and a return to the playoffs. This is one super-offense with 1B Albert Pujols (.359, 43 HRs, 124 RBI), CF Jim Edmonds (39 HRs), 3B Scott Rolen (28 HRs, 104 RBI), SS Edgar Renteria (.330, 100 RBI) and newcomer RF Reggie Sanders (31 HRs, 87 RBI with the Pirates).
The keys will be pitching and health. The bullpen is deeper with Mike Lincoln and Julian Tavarez, and the starting rotation needs ace Matt Morris (11-8, 3.76 ERA) healthy. Woody Williams (18 wins, 220 innings) and newcomer Chris Carpenter will keep this team competitive. The Cardinals will win more than they lose again, which says a lot in the NL Central.

Giants (100-61): With the remarkable Florida Marlins running to the World Series, it’s easy to forget that the Giants won 100 games and the NL West. They have plenty of hitting, pitching and defense to win again. Barry Bonds (.341, 45 HRs, 148 walks) anchors a solid offense, and the defense will be one of the league’s best with 1B J.T. Snow, CF Marquis Grissom, SS Neifi Perez and 3B Edgardo Alfonzo.

Ace pitcher Jason Schmidt (17-5) had the National League’s lowest ERA (2.34). He’s been hurt in spring training, however, and they can’t afford to lose him for long. Lefty Kirk Rueter (10-5) is reliable. Young Jerome Williams (7-5, 3.30 ERA) steps in and they added RHP Brett Tomko. Remember that the second place Dodgers trailed the Giants by 15 games a year ago. Health is the key with this talented group.