What looked like an intriguing multi-way battle in an improved division turned into a runaway by the end of the year in 2008. Chicago was the clear class of the Central, with Milwaukee clawing its way to a Wild Card after entertaining division-title hopes. Houston, as is its wont, started in a deep hole but somehow charged back to third place. St. Louis competed while it was healthy but ran out of gas thanks to injuries in its starting rotation and a shaky ninth-inning situation.
Then an odd and unsettled baseball winter fell. The Cubs did a lot of shuffling, but it's hard to say they got better. The Brewers lost a great deal more than they gained. The Cardinals did what they hope adds up to addition by subtraction, and, like the Brewers, will be hoping that some returns by injured players are tantamount to offseason acquisitions. Cincinnati may have been the most aggressive club, though it's still unclear how all of its pieces fit together. The Astros lost more than they added from a season in which a great deal broke right, and the Pirates are still trying to work their way back to contending status.
It may add up to a muddle, but at least it could be a very entertaining muddle -- which is to say, it's a year like so many years in the National League Central.
Milton Bradley, OF, Cubs
Khalil Greene, SS, Cardinals
Kevin Gregg, RHP, Cubs
Mike Hampton, LHP, Astros
Ramon Hernandez, C, Reds
Trevor Hoffman, RHP, Brewers
Braden Looper, RHP, Brewers
Ivan Rodriguez, C, Astros
Willy Taveras, OF, Reds
Mark DeRosa, IF/OF, Cubs
Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Reds
Jason Isringhausen, RHP, Cardinals
Cesar Izturis, SS, Cardinals
Looper, RHP, Cardinals
CC Sabathia, LHP, Brewers
Ben Sheets, RHP, Brewers
Salomon Torres, RHP, Brewers
Ty Wigginton, IF Astros
Randy Wolf, LHP, Astros
Kerry Wood, RHP, Cubs
Alfonso Soriano isn't really a leadoff guy, and they took a downgrade going from DeRosa to Aaron Miles, but these are still relatively small blemishes on a very potent Cubs lineup. Chicago features five players who hit at least 20 home runs last year, and seven of the eight projected starters posted on-base percentages better than .350 in 2008. When you can put a .563 slugging percentage in the six spot (Geovany Soto), a .359 OBP seventh (Kosuke Fukudome) and a .387 OBP eighth (Ryan Theriot), you have a nice lineup. Oh, and the heart of the order is pretty good too, with Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Bradley all very dangerous. Our selection: Cubs
Nearly every team in the division has at least one frontline starter at the top of its rotation: Roy Oswalt in Houston, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis, Edinson Volquez and Aaron Harang in Cincinnati, Yovani Gallardo in Milwaukee. What makes Chicago stand out is that it has near-frontline starters in the middle of its rotation, and a quality pitcher (Sean Marshall) in the No. 5 spot. Health is a question, especially in the case of Rich Harden, but when is health not a question when it comes to pitching? There are some better rotations in the Central than many people may think, but one through five, Chicago is tops. Our selection: Cubs
In a division not known for relief excellence, the answer here might surprise you. But the team that led the division in relief ERA, fewest relief losses and was second in bullpen strikeouts was the Reds. And they bring the bulk of their 'pen back, swapping in Arthur Rhodes for Jeremy Affeldt. Many of the bullpens in this division are alike: some intriguing arms, but a lot of uncertainty, especially in the ninth inning. The Reds have some intriguing arms and certainty in the ninth with closer Francisco Cordero. Our selection: Reds, by a nose
At the start of games, the Reds may have a slight edge over St. Louis -- it's close to a toss-up, at least. But by game's end, the team that the Cardinals can put on the field gives them the edge. The only question marks are at second base, where Skip Schumaker is getting on-the-job training, and left field, where Chris Duncan remains somewhat unrefined. Everywhere else, the Redbirds are at least average, and in most cases, quite a bit better. And at game's end, when they can plug in Brendan Ryan at second and Colby Rasmus in the outfield, there's not a weak link. Our selection: Cardinals
1. Bradley and Fukudome: For a heavy favorite, the Cubs have a ton of questions: the health of their starting rotation, the makeup of the back end of their bullpen, and also the outfield. Chicago will be counting on Fukudome to play center field, which he did very little of in 2008. Perhaps more daunting, the Cubs are expecting Bradley to play regularly in the outfield and stay healthy -- he hasn't played 100 outfield games in a season since 2004. Additionally, they'll both be relied upon to bring balance to a heavily right-handed lineup. Fukudome, a lefty, and Bradley, a switch-hitter, both have significant on-base ability and ideally could neutralize the disadvantage the Cubs have had against right-handed power pitchers in recent years.
2. Carpenter: The Cardinals got four starts from Carpenter over the past two years, and in that time they were all of four games over .500. In the previous three seasons, when Carpenter was healthy, they averaged 96 wins. It's not entirely that simple, but there's no denying Carpenter is pivotal to St. Louis' success. If he can make 30 starts at his 2004-2006 level, it makes the Cardinals' rotation better, and by extension it makes their bullpen better by easing the strain. Add 30-plus starts from Adam Wainwright (he made 20 last year), and the Redbirds look like a totally different team.
3. Gallardo: Milwaukee was willing to rent Sabathia, in part because of the draft picks it thought it would receive, but also with the notion that it had some serious front-line starting pitching on the way. Gallardo is the face of the new young Brewers rotation, and nothing in his record suggests he can't handle it. A knee injury limited him to four starts in 2008, but for his Major League career, the 23-year-old righty has a 3.35 ERA, 121 strikeouts, 45 walks and 11 homers allowed in 134 1/3 innings. If he takes the ball every fifth day and pitches like he can, it eases some of the sting in losing both Sabathia and Sheets.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Cubs; 2. Cardinals; 3. Reds; 4. Brewers; 5. Astros; 6. Pirates
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.