One of the great things about baseball is how quickly the tide can turn in just a year's time.
This time last season the Chicago Cubs were viewed as the heavy favorites in this division. One disappointing season later, the Cubbies have been supplanted by their rivals from the Gateway City, the Cardinals, as the class of the NL Central (at least for the moment).
In the past five seasons, four of the six teams in this division have made the playoffs. With the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, and Reds all having a realistic chance, it figures to be another close race in 2010.
Whether they're contenders or not, the Astros and Pirates at least look different than they did last year, which should give their fans reason enough to tune in.
2009 Finish: 83-78, 2nd Place
Offseason Grade (C)
The sale to the Ricketts family really prevented the Cubs from doing much this offseason. The most important move they made wasn't an addition but a subtraction, as they shipped malcontent Milton Bradley to Seattle in exchange for Carlos Silva.
Marlon Byrd is a solid player who plays hard and should continue to be successful under the watchful eye of his hitting coach from Texas, Rudy Jaramillo.
Strengths: Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are still dangerous hitters when healthy. When he isn't tossing out umpires or bludgeoning Gatorade coolers, Carlos Zambrano is a dependable number one starter. Geovany Soto should have a better season. Their bench is very solid with players like Mike Fontenot and Xavier Nady.
Weaknesses: Ryan Theriot is solid but the team could use a more prototypical leadoff hitter. The injury to Ted Lilly leaves a pretty big hole in their rotation. Carlos Marmol has some of the nastiest stuff in baseball, but he continues to be held back by subpar control.
Breakout Candidate: Jeff Samardzija. He has to win a job first and he has not looked sharp this spring. He still has great stuff and he's nearing the age when a lot of young pitchers start figuring it out. The Cubs have the luxury of there being potential spots for him in both the rotation and the bullpen.
2010 All Stars: Aramis Ramirez
2010 Outlook: The Cubs were one of baseball's biggest disappointments last season. While they didn't play up to their capabilities, their struggles were also due to injuries.
I don't see the longest title drought in sports ending this season, but with better fortunes health-wise, you'd think a rebound year would be in the cards for this franchise.
With some key players in contract years, the club could look drastically different in 2011 if they don't turn it around.
2009 Finish: 78-84, 4th Place
Offseason Grade (B-)
Considering how tight money supposedly was at the start of the offseason, you have to be thrilled with this offseason if you're a Reds fan.
In signing Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman, Walt Jocketty took a huge step in helping this franchise win in the future. Orlando Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez were good, cost-effective veteran signings.
Strengths: Their pitching staff has a nice balance of young talent (Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto) and veteran saavy (Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang). Joey Votto rebounded from anxiety to have a great season. One through eight, their lineup is pretty balanced. Cabrera and Scott Rolen should improve the infield defense.
Weaknesses: Volquez is on the DL right now and the rotation could struggle without him. With four-fifths of the rotation settled, Chapman in the fold, and his continued struggles, Homer Ailey is starting to run out of time. They may not have the flexibility to be active at the deadline.
Breakout Candidate: Drew Stubbs. Some would think Chapman would be the leading candidate, but I think he's headed for the minors. In a 42 game stint last season, Stubbs averaged .267 and hit 8 HR in 180 ABs. Word is that he can play center field with the best of them, so he could be a big asset on both sides of the ball.
2010 All Stars: Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips
2010 Outlook: For the third straight season, the Reds are a popular sleeper pick and it isn't without good reason. You have to like the mix of talented youngsters and experienced veterans on this roster.
Dusty Baker's task is taking those pieces and trying to forge a winner. Whether this is their year or not, the future looks bright for one of baseball's great franchises.
2009 Finish: 74-88, 5th Place
Offseason Grade (C-)
The Astros did do some good things this Winter. Brett Myers and Pedro Feliz are nice bargain signings, and Matt Lindstrom was a good low-risk, high-reward addition.
However, for the life of me, I can't understand why they would give Brandon Lyon $15 million over three seasons when a guy like Kiko Calero was signed to a minor league deal by the Mets.
The loss of Miguel Tejada is also a huge blow to their lineup.
Strengths: Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence are fine young players with many great seasons ahead of them. Wandy Rodriguez has been getting better and better the last few seasons. Feliz and young shortstop Tommy Manzella should improve their defense.
Weaknesses: Their organization seriously lacks depth, which could easily be exposed with a few injuries. The bullpen looks like it could be a problem as Lindstrom and Lyon are hardly as sure things as Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins were. As potent as he is at the plate, Carlos Lee has no business playing the outfield.
Breakout Candidate: Jason Castro. One of the few shining stars in a barren Houston farm system, Castro has looked good thus far in Spring Training.
He'll have to win the job as J.R. Towles has already been to the majors, but if Castro is the right man for the job, I'm sure the offense-craving Astros won't hesitate to bring him to the majors.
2010 All Stars: Hunter Pence
2010 Outlook: You look at the Astros roster, and there undoubtedly are a couple names that jump out at you; Lee, Oswalt, Berkman, Pence, Bourn, Rodriguez, etc.
Their season depends on whether or not the players around those guys step up. Sitting next to Terry Francona all those years, you'd think Brad Mills would know a thing or two about winning, but I just don't think he's been given enough to work with to be successful in 2010.
2009 Finish: 80-82, 3rd Place
Offseason Grade (B)
If you want to say they overspent, I won't disagree but the Brewers needed to improve their pitching and I feel they did that this offseason.
Randy Wolf and Doug Davis are solid if unspectacular veterans who should solidify the rotation. They compensated for the loss of Mike Cameron wonderfully by acquiring Carlos Gomez and signing Jim Edmonds.
Strengths: Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder headline a stellar offense. Rickie Weeks, Alcides Escobar, and Gomez gives their lineup quite a bit of speed to compliment the sluggers.
Yovani Gallardo is primed to build on a very nice 2009 season. 42 year old Trevor Hoffman was a rock for the club in the closer role.
Weaknesses: An All Star in 2008, Corey Hart has talent but the Brewers really need him to bounce back after a rough 2009.
There's no telling if Manny Parra will ever fulfill his potential, and now he's out of minor league options.
Hoffman and LaTroy Hawkins are still effective, but they aren't going to be able to do this forever.
Breakout Candidate: Alcides Escobar. As disappointing as it must have been to see the team have to give up on underachieving JJ Hardy, it really was a no-brainer for Doug Melvin with this kid in the fold.
Escobar has everything you look for in a leadoff hitter; he knows how to get on base and wreak havoc with his speed. If that wasn't enough, he profiles as an above average defensive shortstop.
2010 All Stars: Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder
2010 Outlook: In the tradition of Harvey's wall-bangers, these Brewers can rake. Few teams in the National League have such a potent mix of speed and power.
As we all know, however, offense can win games but pitching wins championships. If he stays healthy, I think Gallardo is going to post some great stats, but the pitchers behind him are going to have to come up big. This team should continue to be very fun to watch.
2009 Finish: 62-99, 6th Place
Offseason Grade (C)
After finishing with the second worst bullpen ERA in the NL in 2009, reinforcing the team's relief core was clearly a priority for Neal Huntington. Octavio Dotel was the biggest of the many reliever signings and he should be a solid closer.
Akinori Iwamura was a solid pickup; Bobby Crosby and Ryan Church could be decent bench players.
Strengths: Justifying the June trade of Nate McLouth with his great play last season, Andrew McCutchen should put up fine numbers in a full season. Zach Duke and Ross Ohlendorf took steps forward last season. Garrett Jones could put up some gaudy power numbers with 500 ABs.
Weaknesses: In 2009, Paul Maholm led their staff in strikeouts with a mere 119. Outside of Jones, their lineup really lacks power; they finished third to last in baseball in home runs last year. Their bullpen lacks dependable relievers leading up to Dotel.
Breakout Candidate: Daniel McCutchen. No relation to Andrew, though Daniel could be the breakout player for them this year that Andrew was in 2009.
After going 13-6 with a 3.47 ERA in 142 innings for AAA Indianapolis, McCutchen got called up in late August and looked pretty good, posting a 4.21 ERA in 36 innings of work. If he can win a job, he could be solid at the back of their rotation.
2010 All Stars: Octavio Dotel
2010 Outlook: For 17 years, this organization has been torturing their fans. The showings on the field have been lackluster and management has been so futile that Bud Selig had to chime in to try and convince Pirates fans that the organization was trying to be successful.
With a reloaded farm system due to last year's fire sale, maybe things are finally looking up for this historic franchise.
2009 Finish: 91-71, 1st Place (Lost NLDS)
Offseason Grade (B+)
The re-signing of Matt Holliday alone assured the Red Birds of a good offseason grade. They wouldn't have signed him if they weren't certain they were going to be able to resign Albert Pujols, so I'm not worried about that.
I like that rather than possibly overpaying Joel Pineiro, they made bargain signings in Brad Penny and Rich Hill, hoping Dave Duncan can work his magic on those two.
Strengths: They've got this guy over at first named Albert Pujols; word around the campfire is that he's pretty good. Holliday provides Pujols great protection.
Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are interchangeable as the one and two starter.
Yadier Molina is a defensive stalwart and fine hitting catcher who does not get the recognition he deserves.
Weaknesses: Though he's an ace while healthy, Carpenter is always an injury risk; even last year he spent time on the DL.
Third base looks like a big question mark at the moment. If Ryan Franklin has a down year, their bullpen could really be in trouble.
Breakout Candidate: Jaime Garcia. The Mexican lefty has been somewhat forgotten outside of St. Louis after missing most of last season due to Tommy John surgery.
He's looked awesome thus far in Spring Training, striking out 12 in just over 8.2 innings with a 1.04 ERA. As if he wasn't helping his chances enough, his competitors for the fifth rotation
spot have been hurting their chances lately.
2010 All Stars: Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright
2010 Outlook: A year after the Cubs were viewed as heavy favorites in this division, the Cardinals have supplanted them in this position. An offensive tandem of Pujols and Holliday and co-aces Wainwright and Carpenter sitting atop the rotation ensures their success going forward.
Aside from those four, there's some question marks, but few managers are better at working out problem areas than the legendary Tony La Russa.
While the Phillies get more press, the Cardinals are quite the NL powerhouse themselves.
1. Geovany Soto: He was such a vital part of the team's success in 2008, it's no surprise the Cubbies struggled so much as Soto hit .218 with only 11 home runs. If the good times are to return at the friendly confines, Soto is going to have to play a big role. Lee and Ramirez should be fine, and Alfonso Soriano has to be better than he was in 2009. If they could get a bounce back year from Soto on top of that, you'd think Lou Piniella would be giddy.
2. Ted Lilly: As disappointing as 2009 was for the Cubs, you certainly can't blame it on the pitching as the team finished fifth in baseball in team ERA. They're going to need pitching this year too, and Ted Lilly is a huge part of their rotation. When healthy, he's a fine left-handed compliment to staff ace Carlos Zambrano.
3. Aroldis Chapman: It's hard for me to imagine the Reds competing without Edinson Volquez, who the Reds say is out until at least July. However, if Chapman can make it right to the majors and be the electric front-line starter everyone knows he can be, then obviously life without Volquez might not be that bad.
4. Jay Bruce: While the power has definitely been there his first two years in the majors, the Reds could use Bruce hitting for a higher average. Hitting .223 and an OPS south of 800 certainly isn't going to cut it. If his game steps up, he could be just the sort of protection Joey Votto needs.
5. Manny Parra: A year ago, he was always being mentioned in the same sentence as Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo took off last year; Parra not so much. And now he's out of minor league options, so the clock is certainly ticking. Fortunately, with Randy Wolf and Doug Davis around, they're just asking him to be a solid fourth or fifth starter.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (93-69)
2. Chicago Cubs (85-77)
3. Cincinnati Reds (82-80)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (79-83)
5. Houston Astros (72-90)
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (65-97)
The only 6-team division, it would make sense for the NL Central to be one of the most competitive in the majors.
While that has been the case the last few seasons, there is one team that is clearly ahead of the rest and that is the St. Louis Cardinals. They have two of the deadliest hitters in baseball, two bona fide aces leading their rotation, and enough supporting pieces around them. Tony La Russa won't allow them to get too cocky or act like front runners.
If the age old baseball law of rebounds holds true, the Cubs are in for a good year. They've got several players who've had a lot of success in the majors, but they're far less of a sure thing than the Cardinals at this point. They're going to have to be far more consistent offensively and some guys in their pen are going to have to step up big time if they're going to challenge St. Louis.
The Reds and Brewers have the pieces to compete as well. Both clubs look pretty squared away offensively, but they do have issues with their pitching that they need to work out. Unless Harang or Chapman have big seasons, the Reds might fall out of the race before Volquez returns. The back end of the Brewers' rotation could be in pretty bad shape if Parra, Jeff Suppan, and Dave Bush can't bounce back.
The Astros and Pirates are clearly at the back of the pack but the two organizations are headed in different directions.
Personally, I think the Astros are headed for years of futility thanks to their startling lack of depth and refusal to trade some of their veterans to restock their farm system. They drastically need to change the way they do things.
The Pirates, on the other hand finally seem to be moving forward, as Neal Huntington seems committed to building from within and doing things the right way, whether the fans like it or not. They're not contenders yet but maybe winning seasons in Pittsburgh are finally in sight.