NL Central wide open after barrage of moves

NL Central wide open after barrage of moves

NL Central wide open after barrage of moves
If it wasn't crystal clear before, Monday -- the day the Brewers committed a reported $36 million to make Aramis Ramirez their third baseman for the next three years -- practically made it official.

Both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols will almost surely be playing elsewhere in 2012 and beyond.

That means the National League Central is now more wide open than ever.

It means the Reds have a good chance to get back on track and return to postseason glory, the Pirates have a better shot at reaching the playoffs for the first time in 20 years and the Cubs have an opportunity to become contenders again. The Astros? Well, if they were unhappy about being moved to the American League West in 2013 before, you have to believe they're really averse to the idea now.

Short-term, of course, the Brewers and Cardinals should be fine.

Milwaukee could be in a real bind if Ryan Braun's reported failed drug test forces the reigning NL Most Valuable Player to miss 50 games. But the Brewers' pitching staff is solid from top to bottom. And while the addition of Ramirez can't replace the bat of Fielder, his presence alongside that of promising young slugger Mat Gamel can help keep the Brew Crew's offense relatively sustainable.

Pujols' departure from St. Louis -- by way of a stunning 10-year, $254 million contract agreed upon with the Angels on Thursday -- means Lance Berkman plays first base, Allen Craig starts in right field and the Redbirds have millions of dollars to allocate wherever else they see fit. And it's worth pointing out that they'll have Adam Wainwright back in 2012.

"Even without Albert, we still have a very deep lineup, I think, that will have tough outs from one through eight, and that's a recipe for a winning team," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said. "I think we have a team that has a chance to win. But we're going to miss Albert."

Yeah, there's really no way of avoiding that. And at the end of the day, this is still the scenario: The top two teams in the NL Central will each be losing arguably its greatest player.

Consider the floodgates open.

"I think it's a positive," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said upon hearing Pujols had left his division, bringing a level of excitement comparable to the fictional killing of the Wicked Witch of the West. "When they lose a guy of that stature, it's pretty amazing."

Jocketty's Reds were a playoff team in 2010, then finished 17 games out in 2011. If they can get the right pieces in a deal for Yonder Alonso -- the first baseman who's blocked by Joey Votto -- they could be on their way to competing for the postseason once again.

The Pirates stunned the world by being six games above .500 and tying for the division lead as late as July 25 this past season. Now, even though they're not spending a lot this offseason, they have hopes of contending if their arsenal of young talent performs as projected.

More than anything, though, this is the Cubs' chance to make a real statement with one simple yet expensive move: Sign Fielder.

The allure of the Windy City, the familiarity of new manager and ex-Brewers coach Dale Sveum, the hope for a brighter future and the temptation of being the centerpiece of the team that reverses the greatest championship drought in sports history can all appeal to Fielder.

Theo Epstein and company just has to fork over the money.

With payroll giants like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies set at first base, and Fielder's market still a relative unknown, this is the Cubs' chance to steal the big bat from their division rival, get fans excited and acquire an impact player who could still be in his prime once the new front office turns that franchise around.

Problem: Since taking the job, Epstein, the Cubs' new president of baseball operations, hasn't sounded like a man willing to go on a shopping spree.

"Just look at the history of long-term free-agent contracts -- they tend not to work out," Epstein said from the Winter Meetings. "As tempting as they are and as great a way they are to improve your club in the short term, there are two sides with free agency."

But maybe the reality of a wide-open division will prove too much to ignore.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.