NL Central close in '06? Prepare for '07

NL Central even closer in '07

The defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals are on top of the baseball world, but they don't have to look far to see the rest of the division. As close as the National League Central Division race was in 2006, it shapes up as an even tighter race in 2007.

Though the Cardinals or Houston Astros have won the NL Central in all but one of the last 11 years, with the Cubs' victory in 2003 the only interruption, the rest of their Central counterparts closed the gap last year and may be ready to make even more inroads in the coming season. Last year, the Cards won just 83 games as only 17 1/2 games separated St. Louis from the last place Chicago Cubs, the thinnest spread between the division's top and bottom since 1997, and that came before a sixth team, Milwaukee, was added to the division.

The Cardinals are once again preseason favorites to capture what would be a fourth consecutive NL Central crown, but also have more question marks and less of a clear advantage over the competition than previous seasons.

The Chicago Cubs spent more money this winter than any team, spending more than $300 million on Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa, Jason Marquis and others and bringing in Lou Piniella to manage. Houston signed free agent outfielder Carlos Lee for $100 million in a move the Astros hope will get them back to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

Milwaukee, which pried playoff hero Jeff Suppan away from the Cardinals, is a team on the rise capable of making some noise this year while Cincinnati, which finished only 3 1/2 games behind St. Louis last year, should be in the picture again this season.

Even Pittsburgh, winners of 67 games each of the last two years and which saw its division deficit drop from 33 games in 2005 to 16 1/2 games last year, figures to be better with the addition of Adam LaRoche to the lineup.

With no team clearly head and shoulders better than the bunch, it should be a very tight NL Central race.

The favorite

Beyond Chris Carpenter, the rotation is replete with question marks and the corner outfield production remains a concern. The Cardinals still have Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen and should be stronger up the middle with second baseman Adam Kennedy re-united with shortstop David Eckstein, the former Angels teammates. The bullpen should be decent and the defense again among the best in the league. But unless the Cardinals find some rotation answers, they won't repeat.

Projected regular-season finish: NL Central champions

Biggest ST challenge: Beyond Carpenter, the rotation is the biggest issue as newcomers like Kip Wells and youngster Anthony Reyes will get a chance to win spots. If Adam Wainwright goes to the rotation the Cardinals will need a closer, and there aren't many of them around.

Best position battles: The left-field spot shapes up as a competition between Chris Duncan, So Taguchi and Preston Wilson. Some of the bullpen roles probably won't be settled until the latter days of Spring Training.

Wild card: The Cardinals won 105 games in 2004, 100 games in 2005 and 83 last year, and yet the 2007 team might not be as strong as any of those three, especially if the rotation shortcomings lead to more innings for the bullpen.

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The challengers

With the worst record in the National League, the 14th-worst ERA in the league and an offense that ranked next-to-last in runs scored, there was nowhere to go but up for the Cubs. With the moves GM Jim Hendry made this winter, Chicago could soar. They picked up the best bat on the market in free agent slugger/leadoff man Soriano, filled a hole at second base by adding DeRosa, upgraded the outfield depth by signing Cliff Floyd and bolstered the pitching staff by adding Neal Cotts, Lilly and Marquis. Piniella has a team capable of playing in October.

Projected regular-season finish: Second place

Biggest ST challenge: Beyond Carlos Zambrano, Piniella must choose four other starters from no less than seven other candidates. There's also more arms than available jobs in the bullpen. However it plays out, the Cubs should have more pitching depth than they've had in years.

Best position battles: Most positions are set, but look for Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Theriot to battle for pecking order as backup infielders.

Wild card: If Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Wade Miller are 100 percent, this team could go a long way. But if they don't, this team still won't fall as far as last year's.

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Andy Pettitte is gone and Roger Clemens might be. But the Astros, who finished only 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis last year and who had the best record in the division (25-18) after Aug. 18, could be even better this season with the addition of Carlos Lee and pitchers Jason Jennings and Woody Williams. The Astros will also have Chris Burke playing every day in center field as well as right fielder Luke Scott, who hit .336 in 65 games after the break. Houston also picked up Mark Loretta to provide insurance at several spots.

Projected regular-season finish: Third place

Biggest ST challenge: Settling on a rotation beyond Roy Oswalt, Jennings and Williams. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez has a leg up on one spot, but as many as five other candidates will also compete for spots.

Best position battles: Other than the rotation the Astros are fairly set, although Jason Lane and recently re-signed Richard Hidalgo could push Scott for playing time in right field.

Wild card: If Clemens returns, it could vault the Astros to the forefront of the division picture. This team essentially replaced last year's early-season outfield -- Preston Wilson, Willy Taveras and Lane -- with Lee, Burke and Scott. The Astros will miss Taveras' defense from time to time, but this will be a far more potent team offensively with the current trio playing every day.

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Last season, two-fifths of the starting rotation and three-fourths of the regular infield missed significant time with various health issues, so the Brewers never got a chance to improve on their .500 record and third-place finish of 2005. This time, the Brewers could field the strongest team they've had in many years as Suppan joins a rotation that already included Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano and Dave Bush and last year's injured regulars like Sheets, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks are expected to be healthy. New arrivals Johnny Estrada and Claudio Vargas will help at catcher and in the rotation, respectively.

Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place

Biggest ST challenge: If third baseman Corey Koskie is healthy, the Brewers will have a formidable infield, but the outfield contributions are hard to predict as Bill Hall will take over as the everyday left fielder and the other outfield spots will be open to competition this spring.

Best position battles: Which arms will bridge the gap from the set rotation to closer Francisco Cordero? There are plenty of candidates and as many question marks.

Wild card: If the key players are healthy, this team has a good chance to finish above .500, but the outfield production and the bullpen are potential concerns.

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The long shot

The Reds improved by seven games last season, a bigger improvement than any team in the division, despite an offense that went from first in the league in runs scored in 2005 to ninth in the NL in 2006, which shows you what better pitching can mean to a team's record. The Reds still have plenty of questions, but they return a solid 1-2 to anchor the rotation in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo and have significantly upgraded their defense with the addition of shortstop Alex Gonzalez and by re-acquiring infielder Juan Castro.

Projected regular-season finish: Fifth place

Biggest ST challenge: Solidifying the rotation beyond Harang and Arroyo. Kyle Lohse, Matt Belisle, Elizardo Ramirez, Eric Milton and Kirk Saarloos are among the candidates for the final three spots.

Best position battles: At least five others are competing with Ryan Freel for the starting job in right field, but that could change if Ken Griffey Jr. moves over from center field or Freel is once again used as a super-utility player.

Wild card: The Reds hung in the race into September last season and should be an even stronger team this time around. Big years from Adam Dunn and Griffey and continued improvement from youngsters like Edwin Encarnacion might be enough to propel this team into the playoff picture if the pitching comes through.

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Maybe next year

Even with the National League's leading hitter (Freddy Sanchez), an All-Star left fielder (Jason Bay), a former All-Star in shortstop Jack Wilson and a rookie catcher hitting .310 (Ronnie Paulino), the Pirates scored fewer runs in 2006 than every team except Tampa Bay. On the plus side, the Pirates had a winning record in the second half of a season for the first time since 1992.

Projected regular-season finish: Last place

Biggest ST challenge: Finding a closer to replace Mike Gonzalez, with veteran Salomon Torres the likely candidate entering Spring Training.

Best position battles: After Zach Duke and Ian Snell, the Pirates have a number of quality arms competing for rotation spots, including Shawn Chacon, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten.

Wild card: The addition of LaRoche is huge. The Pirates are also counting on bounce-back years by second baseman Jose Castillo and Wilson and the continued development of Paulino, Xavier Nady, Ryan Doumit, Jose Bautista and Chris Duffy to add more punch to the offense. The performance of Duffy, who was successful in 23 of 24 stolen base attempts after returning to the team on Aug. 1, could be key.

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You read it here first ...

1) One year after furnishing the three worst hitting teams in the league, the NL Central produces three of the top five hitting teams in the NL in 2007.

2) Gonzalez's impact on Cincinnati's defense is felt as the Reds commit 20 percent fewer errors in 2007 than they did in 2006 (128).

3) Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez combine for 100 homers and 300 RBIs.

Jim Molony is a writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.