Nobody's saying that the National League Central will be a six-team cage match in 2006. The division is still the Cards, the Astros, the Cubs ... and everybody else. No other team has won a Central title since '95.
But the Brewers are suddenly a .500 team, for heaven's sake -- and they're poised for their first winning season since 1992. The up-and-coming Pirates, of all teams, spent some money this offseason and made a good trade or two in a bid for their first winning season since '92 too. It seems that only the struggling Reds, still in dire need of direction (and a lot of pitching), have no chance at a winning record.
If all that's not making the top of the division at least a little nervous, maybe it should, because there's not a team in the Central without its flaws. And that includes the Cards, Astros and Cubs. Especially the Cards, Astros and Cubs.
The defending-champion Cardinals are favored to repeat, but they'll have to do it with a vastly different roster. The Cards lost a ton of players to trades, free agency or retirement over the winter, including outfielders Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, longtime starter Matt Morris, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and relievers Ray King, Julian Tavarez and Cal Eldred. They've plugged those holes, for the most part, and they still sport a killer rotation that is topped by Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis back him up, and the Cards have a marquee closer in Jason Isringhausen to hold down the new-look bullpen. Pitching's more than half the battle, so the Cards should be OK.
The wild-card winning (and NL champion) Astros, unlike the Cards, have been stuck in neutral this offseason because of a bloated payroll and the continued uncertain return of ace Roger Clemens and first baseman Jeff Bagwell. The Astros signed outfielder Preston Wilson to try to put some punch in a light-hitting lineup, but they're pretty much the same club they were in October. That's not all bad, especially if Clemens comes back in May to help out Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt. Their bullpen, one of the best in the game in '05, is intact too.
As usual, the Cubs are the real wild card of this division. General manager Jim Hendry, who sits on the hottest of seats in '06, missed out on shortstop Rafael Furcal in free agency but rebounded nicely by getting center fielder and leadoff hitter Juan Pierre. Shortstop's still a question, but it's not nearly as big a question as the health of the rotation. Kerry Wood may not be ready for the start of the season -- though he's reportedly close -- leaving Carlos Zambrano (he's good), Mark Prior, the ageless Greg Maddux (he'll be 40 in April) and Glendon Rusch to shoulder the load.
Either the Cubs, Astros or Cardinals -- the one, probably, that finds the most luck and good health -- undoubtedly will win the division. But if any of them slip up -- that's fairly probable too -- the Brewers or the Pirates may yet edge their way into the Central's top tier.