Once the ink on Matt Holliday's contract began to dry, it became safe to assume the St. Louis Cardinals would be clear favorites to win their fifth National League Central title in the last seven years.
From MVP Albert Pujols to Cy Young candidates Cris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright to the managerial savvy of Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals are primed to exceed last year's 91-71 mark. The sting of being swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS will also serve as motivation for a club that has dominated the division over the last decade with six Central crowns, two NL pennants and a World Series title.
Can anyone compete with St.. Louis?
*Chicago won't be as injury-prone as they were in 2009.
*Cincinnati's youth movement has the potential to pay off so long as manager Dusty Baker doesn't destroy the young arms of Homer Bailey and Arodis Chapman.
*As long as Milwaukee has Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the lineup, the Brewers will remain a threat.
*Even Houston and Pittsburgh -- with a series of earth-shaking breaks -- could join the argument.
How will it all shake out? Begin the slide show and find out....
The Astros have a solid foundation in P Roy Oswalt, 1B Lance Berkman and OFers Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. Once you get beyond this quartet is when the problems begin.
With Berkman beginning the season on the disabled list (knee), the Astros will have a less than stellar offense, particularly from the 5 through 8 spots. Geoff Blum (who will likely play first in place of Berkman), 3B Pedro Feliz, SS Tommy Manzella and C J.R. Towles are all below-average producers.
The Astros have crossed fingers that Berkman can return to his pre-2009 form. If not, a team that struggled to score runs last season will find the road more daunting, especially if LHP Wandy Rodriguez can't shake off his spring funk and Oswalt's hamstring continues to be a season-long ailment.
Houston has not finished in last place since a 65-97 campaign in 1991, but a perfect storm of aging veterans, a shaky starting rotation and a lack of immediate help from a weak minor league system could come together and return the Astros back to the cellar.
There is reason to be excited about Pirates baseball this summer.
The club will likely record an 18th straight losing season, but the foundation is being set for a drastic change. CF Andrew McCutchen is fast emerging as one of the game's top young stars, while troubled LF Lastings Milledge is finally realizing his vast potential.
Top 3B prospect Pedro Alvarez will make his debut at some point, giving the Pirates their best young trio since the days of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke.
Pittsburgh also has one of the best defensive teams in baseball as McCutchen and new 2B Akinori Iwamura are potential Gold Glove candidates.
In order to avoid last place for the first time since 2006, the Pirates need someone in the starting rotation to step forward and become an ace. Their best bet is lefty Paul Maholm since the club does not have a future top-shelf arm in the upper minors.
If there is a sleeper in the division, it's the Reds.
Opening Day starter Aaron Harang has rediscovered the form that produced a 32-17 record (3.75 ERA) in 2006-07. A 7-1 finish to '09 has the club excited about righty Homer Bailey finally living up to expectations. At some point, the Reds will bring up spring sensation Arodis Chapman, who could be a difference maker.
Brandon Phillips will remain one of the league's top run producers, but if the Reds want to make a serious run at the Cardinals, RF Jay Bruce and CF Drew Stubbs must take major leaps foreward. Joey Votto is an All-Star in the making at 1B, and if 3B Scott Rolen stays healthy, talk of the Bengals will be secondary come September.
Few teams in baseball can rival the firepower of LF Ryan Braun and 1B Prince Fielder. The duo combined for 78 home runs and 255 runs batted in 2009. With both just beginning to tap into their prime seasons, the Brewers won't struggle for thunder from their 3-4 hitters.
Unless SS Alcides Escobar and 2B Rickie Weeks can get on base consistently, Braun and Fielder will be hitting a lot of solo shots. The club would love to find out where RF Corey Hart's power disappeared and are crossing their fingers that CF Carlos Gomez can generate enough offense to justify the trade of former All-Star SS J.J. Hardy to Minnesota.
Yovani Gallardo continues to emerge as a star pitcher, but the club's fate may ride on whether LHP Randy Wolf can bolster the rotation or if they plunged nearly $30 million on a hurler who benefited from Dodger Stadium.
Scoring runs shouldn't be an issue for the Brewers, but a questionable rotation could result in another late season swoon.
The most valuable Cub may be new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Jaramillo's biggest project is LF Alfonso Soriano, who thrived under Jaramillo's advice when the pair were in Texas. A happy reunion would make the Cubbies a serious Central title threat.
Chicago would welcome a bounce-back season from C Geovany Soto and a full season of health from 3B Aramis Ramirez. The Cubs went from a .278 team batting average in 2008 to .255 last season; it was no shock that their run production fell off the cliff (855 to 707).
Pitching will determine the Cubs' fate. Lefty Ted Lilly will open the season on the disabled list, meaning Jeff Samardzjia must be able to tap into his ace-caliber stuff. A healthy -- and motivated -- Carlos Zambrano needs to return to the dominant workhorse he was before injuries curved his last two seasons.
RHP Carlos Marmol has the makings of an elite closer, but needs to regain the trust of manager Lou Pinella after a roller-coaster 2009.
Things can't be as bad for the Cubs as they were in 2009. With the right push and fewer visits to the disabled list, Wrigley will be rocking come late September as the push to end 102 seasons of futility kicks into high gear.
The duo of 1B Albert Pujols and LF Matt Holliday gives the Cardinals an intimidating presence in the 3-4 spot. Add the Cy Young-caliber arms of righties Cris Carpenter and Adam Wainright, and it spells another October of baseball.
This is not a perfect team, though. Questions remain about 3B David Freese and whether closer Ryan Franklin's September swoon (three blown saves) isn't an indication of challenging times ahead.
No matter. As long as manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are in the dugout, the Cards will have a decided edge over the rest of the division. Duncan's latest project -- free agent Brad Penny -- looks like he be primed for a solid season, while Kyle McClellan should make a successful transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation.
If CF Colby Rasmus improves in his second season, the Cards could run away with the division.