During the offseason, the NL Central saw a substantial amount of big moves, injuries and roster changes, which will shape the landscape of a division that is wider open that it has ever been.
Some of the clubs only made slight tweaks to bolster their rosters; others changed drastically and have many new faces milling around their clubhouses.
Whatever the case, this division might be the hardest to predict in the Major Leagues.
The Chicago Cubs added three major pieces this year, moves that actually didn’t pile on to the terrible payroll problems they’ve already accrued (such as long and expensive contracts with Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Silva, Aramis Ramirez, etc.).
The Cubs picked up first basemen Carlos Pena, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays, who they hope will provide the left-handed power Milton Bradley was supposed to offer before he went off the deep end.
The Northsiders also added another former Ray in Matt Garza, who will anchor a staff that could remain mediocre, especially if Carlos Zambrano has another below average summer.
Then the Cubs added Kerry Wood, in kind of a reunion tour of sorts, to come out of the bullpen and set up for closer Carlos Marmol.
Cubs management has voiced its plan to pare down an expensive payroll, which is why it will field a lot of youth this year. Unless its staff pitches a lot better than expected, this season is likely only for rebuilding.
The Cincinnati Reds are one of the few teams in the division that didn’t make any drastic moves in the offseason.
With last season’s NL MVP, Joey Votto, and a supporting cast of five or six other guys who are capable of hitting 30-plus home runs, the lineup wasn’t an area that needed vast improvement.
What the Reds really needed was a healthy Edinson Volquez at the top of their rotation (as he had missed the bulk of the last two seasons with injuries) and one or two more arms to support the always-steady Bronson Arroyo.
It appears that Travis Wood might be the starter that the Reds needed. If Wood can pitch with consistency this season, the Reds will have three quality starters at the top of their rotation. And with a lineup that is capable of scoring runs in bunches, the Reds are in good shape to make a run at repeating.
The biggest splashes of the offseason, at least in the NL Central, came from moves made by Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
Melvin picked up former Kansas City Royal Zack Greinke and Toronto Blue Jay Shaun Marcum to add to the top of a rotation that already featured consistent starters in Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf.
The moves give the Brewers, on paper, the most formidable NL pitching staff West of Philadelphia.
The quality staff should keep the Brew Crew in the hunt for a division crown, assuming its offense can put up runs like it has over the past few seasons (which one would think it might, especially with Prince Fielder in a contract year).
Even though most will contend the Houston Astros are in the midst of a(nother) rebuilding year, the potential they have in their rotation might mean otherwise.
When the Astros moved Oswalt last season, they got in return a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in J.A. Happ, who is still improving as a young arm, and Brett Myers, who looked extremely strong in his opening day start against his former club, Philadelphia. Wandy Rodriguez has his ups and downs, but is, at the very least, a consistent pitcher and rounds out a better-than-average rotation.
The question for the Astros remains: Where are the runs going to come from? Carlos Lee will hit his 30-35 home runs this year, but if Michael Bourne doesn’t get on base, a lot of those dingers are going to be solo shots. They are relying on a lot of young talent this season in their lineup, which in the long run might prove curtains for their 2011 season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, also known as the minor league club for those teams with big payrolls, aren’t quite as strong as the Tampa Bay Rays of three years ago who brought up all of their young talent at the right time and made a run to the World Series.
However, their opening day roster consists of several nice pieces that could have big years. At the top of that list is Garrett Jones, who at the beginning of last season looked like a standout talent (hitting 21 home runs and 86 RBI).
In the middle of last season, the Bucs brought up third basemen Pedro Alvarez, who the organization feels could play the position for it for many years to come. Add in Andrew McCutchen and Lyle Overbay, and this team could score a lot of runs.
However, Pittsburgh’s perpetually young pitching staff might subjugate any chances for a division title.
Finally, probably the most interesting team, at least in terms of early storylines, is the St. Louis Cardinals.
Early talks around St. Louis this year have centered on the impending contract negotiations with some guy named Pujols. But beyond that, this team has some major issues.
In the offseason, Adam Wainwright underwent Tommy John Surgery, which will keep him out of the rotation for the rest of the season (and could possibly end his career).
The holes in their rotation and lineup means that the rest of the club is going to have to step up and contribute in ways it might not be able.
In past seasons, the Cardinals might have had enough talent on the roster to get by and still compete for an NL Central championship, but the rest of the division is much improved this year and certainly isn’t going to wait up.