The Astros have Cy Young winner and erstwhile AARP member Roger Clemens -- and a healthy Andy Pettitte, too -- returning to the team that missed the World Series by one game last season. Up north, the Cubs still have Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and maybe the best rotation in the game.
So it would seem, at first glance, that the stacked staffs of the Astros and the Cubs will make another run at the top spot in the National League Central.
That is, of course, only if we're forgetting about the Cardinals again, who were relegated to also-ran status in preseason predictions last season.
Once the games started, though, the Central proved to be no contest. St. Louis led the major leagues with 105 victories, winning the division by 13 games over the wild-card Astros. St. Louis then blew through the Dodgers in the first round and dumped the Astros in the NL Championship Series before bowing to the Red Sox in the World Series.
The Cardinals' no-name staff was superb until the Series. The team's 3.75 regular-season ERA was second only to the Braves, and its bullpen posted the best ERA (3.01) in baseball. The Cardinals might not have had the names, but they had four starters who won at least 15 games (Jeff Suppan, Chris Carpenter, Woody Williams and Jason Marquis). And this season, they could be even better.
Williams departed for San Diego, but his defection was offset by the addition of a real big-name pitcher. Lefty Mark Mulder, who won 72 games over the past four years, joins the staff after a trade with the A's.
One reason the Cardinals' pitching is often overlooked, of course, is because the strength of this team remains its offense. The middle of the Cards' lineup, with MVP-like Albert Pujols and Gold Glovers Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, is the most potent in the game. The Cards had the best batting average, the best slugging percentage and the highest OPS in the NL last year, largely because of those three.
But the '05 Cardinals won't have it as easy as they did in '04. All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria signed with the Red Sox and second baseman Tony Womack went to the Yankees, so the Cards will have to make some adjustments.
But the pitching is there. The hitting's there, too. By now, everybody ought to know that.
Click below for the rest of John Donovan's NL Central preview.