MLB's only six-team division is right where we all thought it would be at this point in the season—about as close as Delonte West and LeBron's mother.
The Houston Astros taking up the rear of the NL Central is no surprise, nor is the one game separating the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds atop the division. Yet with the Pittsburgh Pirates sitting one game under .500 and the Milwaukee Brewers buried at five games under, the outlook for the division remains a mystery.
This could all change—and very soon.
No, the Cardinals will not trade Albert Pujols—but there are still plenty of big names that could find new homes outside of the division.
Considering the NL Central appears to be the most capped-out division—financially—in all of baseball, I would expect more players to leave the party than to join in on the fun. But that is what makes the MLB trading season so exciting—you just never know.
Here are 10 moves (in no specific order) that could get the ball rolling in the NL Central.
The Astros in all likelihood will not contend in 2011, although they did put together a good run during the last portion of the 2010 season.
After trading away both Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt last season, the Astros are clearly in rebuilding mode. If they do end up waving the white flag before July, expect the Astros to listen to offers for their staff ace.
Houston would want young pitching and maybe a power bat in return, but it all depends at what price teams are willing to pay for Myers' services. Myers is in the first year of a two-year, $21 million extension (with an option year), so his services could come relatively cheap.
Myers, who will turn 31 this season, went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA in 2010—although he has been slow out of the gate to start 2011.
Teammate Carlos Lee could also be put up as trade bait, but the former All-Star outfielder is signed for $18.5 million per season through 2012—a steep price for a soon-to-be 35-year-old with weight concerns.
I feel bad for Maholm—a talented young pitcher wasting away in the handicapped Pirates organization.
Luckily for him, he may have a one-way ticket out of PNC Park come July.
Maholm hasn't put up eye-popping numbers the last couple of seasons—but given an opportunity on a competitive squad, he could change all of that.
You might laugh, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Maholm end up in pinstripes at some point this season.
Among all active pitchers Maholm ranks 12th in career home runs against per nine innings, making him an attractive option in any ballpark.
With a meager $5.75 million salary this season and a $9.75 million club option for 2012 that the Pirates in no way want to pay, GM Neil Huntington will not hesitate to ship away Maholm for a couple of young prospects.
It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the Pirates listen to offers for new closer Joel Hanrahan—who has been lights out with a 1.42 ERA to go along with 11 saves so far this season.
It's no secret that the Cubbies want to shed some of their bloated contracts, yet they would end up having to eat a large portion of the money either way.
Dempster has been one of the lone bright spots on disappointing Cubs squads the past three seasons, but so far in 2011 he has been arguably the worst pitcher in all of baseball.
At 34 years old and set to earn $13.5 million this season with a $14 million player option in 2012, the Cubs would have to eat a chunk of his salary to move him. With 87 career saves, Dempster may be best suited for the back end of the bullpen for the twilight of his career.
Zambrano, on the other hand, makes about $18 million per season through 2012 with an unlikely $19.25 million vesting option in 2013. The Cubs may not find suitors at that price.
Although Zambrano has fared well since coming back from "therapy" last season, he has been too inconsistent since signing his huge contract extension for any team to pay a large chunk of his salary.
The Cubbies may be stuck with them both.
Speaking of aging, overpaid and under-achieving members of the Chicago Cubs—Soriano, Ramirez and Fukudome could all see their names pop up in trade rumors.
Soriano is locked up through 2014 at $18 million per season—probably the worst contract in all of baseball.
Ramirez and Fukudome are both in the final years of their respective contracts, and the Cubbies may end up finding potential suitors for one or both of them.
Regardless, the Cubs will have to eat most (if not all) of the salary for any player they are able to trade. They may not care, so long as they can land a couple of prospects in return.
Any salary they are able to get off the books is a plus for the Cubs, as they will be looking to go after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder this coming offseason.
If you look at the Brewers' depth chart from top to bottom, they probably have the most complete team in the NL Central.
Yuniesky Betancourt has more than held his own at shortstop as of late, and with Nyjer Morgan and Mark Kotsay on the bench, the Brewers have no needs on offense (other than the ability to score runs at a consistent rate).
Their starting pitching has been very good so far and should only get better with the recent return of Zack Greinke.
The bullpen, however, has blown a number of games for the Brewers this season.
After a shaky beginning to the 2011 season, incumbent closer John Axford has seemingly worked out his kinks and rediscovered his ability to find the strike zone. Yet Axford projects as more of a setup man or maybe even a seventh-inning man in the long term.
LaTroy Hawkins is finally back from injury and is pitching well, and Takashi Saito should be soon too.
It may be possible to pry Matt Capps away from the Minnesota Twins, while Jon Rauch may be had from the Blue Jays for a lesser price. Even a guy like Juan Cruz could be stolen away from the Tampa Bay Rays.
Somehow, some way, the Brewers need to shore up their bullpen if they want to make a run at the NL Central title.
If they choose not to fix their porous bullpen, then Brewers GM Doug Melvin will have no choice but to trade Prince Fielder before the trade deadline.
The sooner they trade him, the more they will get—so if the Brewers are going to contend this season, they had better turn things around soon.
In Los Angeles, Prince would provide a power bat from the 1B/DH spot. I previously wrote an article on why the Angels would be a good fit for Fielder—they have the young first baseman and pitching that Melvin would desire in return for Prince.
The Giants match up well with their crop of young pitching and may even overpay for Fielder because of how flaccid their offense has been this season. It might be a reach to get top prospect Brandon Belt, but it would definitely be worth listening to their offer.
Although the Rays are not usually buyers—at least not for players with Fielder's $16.5 million price tag—with Manny Ramirez retiring and the Rays looking to be in the thick of things for the whole season, this trade matchup is possible.
The Rays have one of the best farm systems in baseball, and Melvin would have an array of trade options available to him.
The reigning NL Central division champions are off to another solid start to kick off the 2011 season.
If they keep it up, the Cincinnati Reds may put themselves in line to make another run at the NL pennant. To do so, however, the Reds may need to acquire another bat and glove for the left side of their infield.
Jose Reyes is most likely available at shortstop, but he may be out of the Reds' preferred price range. If healthy, Rafael Furcal could be a good fit as well.
Incumbent shortstop Paul Janish has a great glove, but he can't seem to figure out major-league pitching. Edgar Renteria is solid as a one or two games a week player, but anything more than that is a reach.
Two utility infielders that would fit well with the Reds are Jorge Cantu of the San Diego Padres and Bill Hall of the Houston Astros—especially with the 38-year-old Scott Rolen struggling to stay on the field at the hot corner.
If for some reason the Reds fall out of contention soon, expect closer Francisco Cordero to be the first name on the chopping block.
Cordero is starting to look more like Mo Vaughn than any version of his old self, and it's a foregone conclusion that the Reds will not exercise his $12-million team option for 2012.
The Reds recently gave out contract extensions to many of their young core stars—making Cordero's departure at the end of this season inevitable. Some guy named Aroldis Chapman could step in and do fine in the closer's role this season should they manage to trade Cordero.
There is also upcoming free-agent second baseman Brandon Phillips, who is all but out the door in Cincy.
Phillips could bring in quite the haul if the Reds decided to trade him—power-hitting second basemen with a couple of Gold Gloves to their names don't come around very often.
The Cardinals are in a tough spot.
Do they spend excessively this season to make a run in what could be Albert Pujols' last season in St. Louis—bribing Pujols to stay in the process?
If they do go after some big names at the trade deadline, will it leave enough money to give Pujols what he wants in the offseason?
In my opinion, they should go for it.
David Freese breaking his hand was a huge blow to the Cards, but Lance Berkman's resurgence has offset any loss that would have been felt. Berkman can't stay on this tear forever, and they will eventually need another bat in the lineup to complement Pujols, Berkman and Matt Holliday.
Jorge Cantu and Bill Hall would fit the bill here as well, along with giving them a utility player off the bench upon the return of Freese.
As for starting pitching, I have three concerns—Jake Westbrook is a bust, Kyle Lohse will get hurt and/or his performance will nosedive and Kyle McClellan's arm will tire.
McClellan has a career high of 75.2 IP, and he is already at over 43 IP this season. The Cards would be better off getting an arm at the trade deadline while moving McClellan back to the bullpen to prevent injury or arm fatigue.
With the Pujols contract looming, the Cards would not do anything more than a rental for their rotation. Dave Duncan has worked miracles with pitchers in St. Louis, so they can afford to take a chance on a potential arm.
If the Chicago White Sox continue their early-season struggles, the Cardinals may inquire about Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson—both of whom have expiring contracts following this season. There is also the aforementioned Paul Maholm, but the Pirates may want too much in order to trade within the division.
As far as their closer situation, Ryan Franklin gave up the job after blowing a few saves early in the season. The Cardinals have some great young bullpen arms, yet they may elect to get some experience at the back end of their bullpen.
Similar to the Brewers, the Cards could inquire about guys like Matt Capps or Jon Rauch to assume closing duties for the remainder of the season.
If the Cardinals fail to pull away in the NL Central, they will not hesitate to shed payroll in order to save up for a Pujols deal next offseason.
Carpenter—who is 36 years old and is making $15 million in the last year of his contract—would draw plenty of interest on the trade market. The team holds a $15 million option on his services for next year, but with or without Pujols there is almost no way they exercise it.
Carpenter may have finally fallen victim to age, as he is slow to start the 2011 season. He could still demand plenty of top prospects on the trade market—maybe from either the Yankees or the Rangers.
Berkman has been a great story so far in 2011, reviving a career that once seemed headed towards retirement.
The smart move would be to flip him while his value is highest—unless they plan on keeping him around to man first base in case Pujols decides to jet out of town.
Either way, things are shaping up just as we expected them to in the NL Central, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the division winner decided at the passing of the trade deadline.