If Chris Carpenter is healthy, the Cardinals could give the Cubs a run for their money.
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Location: Phoenix (Cactus League)
2008 record: 90-72 (2nd, NL Central), Lost in Division Series
Winter Grade: C
To no one's surprise, neither CC Sabathia nor Ben Sheets re-signed with the Brewers, and after the euphoria of 2008, the Beer City faithful can't be optimistic after an uneventful offseason. Trevor Hoffman -- who leaves the friendly confines of PETCO Park for Miller Park, site of one of his infamous blown saves in late 2007 -- is an intriguing addition to the bullpen, but the Brewers can't expect dominance from a 41-year-old who last season posted his worse ERA (3.77) since 1995. Braden Looper was a solid 11th-hour pickup for Doug Melvin, who badly needed an innings-eater to round out the rotation.
Key question: Is this the Year of Yovani?
With Sabathia and Sheets gone, the Brewers will need a big season from Yovani Gallardo, who possesses elite stuff but has yet to pitch a full season in the majors. Milwaukee has so much faith in Gallardo that they tabbed him the Game 1 starter in their first playoff series in 26 years. Before the addition of Looper, the Brewers were carrying only five starting pitchers to camp, a group that had a collective 4.38 ERA last year. Milwaukee is counting on a May comeback from Chris Capuano (coming off a second Tommy John surgery), and for Gallardo to emerge as an elite pitcher.
Prospect to watch: Alcides Escobar, SS
Regarded as one of the top defensive players in the minors, Escobar hit .328 with 34 stolen bases in 131 games at Double A Huntsville. Scouts are concerned about his overly-aggressive approach at the plate, but if J.J. Hardy goes down with an injury, the Brewers won't hesitate to tap the 22-year-old.
Position battle to follow: Third base
New Brewers skipper Ken Macha will be closely watching Bill Hall this spring at third base. While he proved to be a defensive upgrade over Ryan Braun when he shifted to the position last year, Hall was miserable at the plate (.225 average, .174 vs. righties). If he continues to struggle this spring, veteran Mike Lamb, as well as youngters Mat Gamel and Casey McGehee, will get a look.
Scout's take: "After they went for broke last year, everyone knew it could be a tough offseason, and it was. There's still a very good young core, but I have some serious issues with their pitching. Where are the innings going to come from? You can't count on Gallardo and Manny Parra to give them 150 innings, and if they go down, there's zero depth. I do think the bullpen's stronger with Hoffman there, but I don't see more than 85 wins in this team."
Location: Bradenton, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 67-95 (6th, NL Central)
Winter grade: C
The losing seasons continue in the Steel City, with no end in sight. The Pirates hope to end the streak at 16 seasons with a team that's virtually identical to the one that was 17-37 after trading away Jason Bay at last year's deadline. GM Neal Huntington's biggest acquisitions of the winter were (drum roll, please) Ramon Vazquez and Eric Hinske, who in 2008 actually had his best season since winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2002.
Key question: Will the Brothers LaRoche step up?
The Pirates want first baseman Adam to show up before the All-Star break for once; he's a career .253 hitter before the break and .297 hitter after, Adam was an All-Star last year in the season's second half (.304, .613 slugging, 14 home runs) after a dismal start. They want third baseman Andy -- the top prospect in the Dodgers organization not so long ago -- to finally live up to the hype. This winter Andy flew to Don Long's home in Washington state to work on his swing. The future of the Pirates will look a lot brighter if the LaRoche brothers play to potential.
Prospect to watch: Andrew McCutchen, CF
The Pirates would like to see MCCutchen hit for more power (the 22-year-old hit just nine homers in 590 plate appearances at Triple A Indianapolis last year), but he is just about ready to force Gold Glover Nate McLouth to left field. McCutcheon is an electric five-tool talent, potentially the face of the franchise for years to come, and he's due to arrive in The Show sometime in 2009.
Position battle to follow: Left field
While most positions are locked up, left field could still be up for grabs. Nyjer Morgan, who is a leadoff option for skipper John Russell, has the inside track, but Craig Monroe and Hinske will also get a look.
Scout's take: "They've still got a long way to go, and I'm not sure there's much help on the way. McCutcheon is an exciting player, but for me, he's still not ready; it looked like he tried to cut down his swing last year and his power numbers were way down. Pedro Alvarez can really rake, but he looks way too big; they really need to get him in better shape. It'll be interesting to see what new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan can do for the staff. I think he's a good coach, but he's not a miracle worker. There's nothing to work with. They've got a chance to be the worst team in the game."
St. Louis Cardinals
Location: Jupiter, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 86-76 (4th, NL Central)
Winter grade: C-
General manager John Mozeliak has done a fine job restocking the farm system, but this winter -- coming off a season in which the Cardinals had a winning record, drew over 3.4 million fans, and had the National League MVP -- he did little to improve the franchise's short-term prospects. The Cardinals' banner acquisition was Padres shortstop Khalil Greene, who hit .213 in 423 plate appearances last year. The bullpen, meanwhile, remains a huge question mark, and with third baseman Troy Glaus out until at least May, so does the supporting cast surrounding the best player in baseball, Albert Pujols.
Key question: Is Chris Carpenter really healthy?
Somehow, the Cardinals contended last year while getting only 15 innings from Carpenter. The 2005 Cy Young winner now says he feels great; if his elbow holds up, the Cardinals are contenders, but given Carpenter's track record, that's a huge "if." The early reports are encouraging: After a bullpen session last week, pitching coach Dave Duncan said Carpenter is at the same point of conditioning most starting pitchers are at this time of year. We'll find out more when Carpenter takes the mound for his Grapefruit League debut on Feb. 28.
Prospect to watch: Colby Rasmus, CF
The five-tool stud didn't make the club out of spring training last year, stumbled out of the gate in the minors, then had a knee injury end his season in June, just as he was heating up. This is the year we'll finally see why so many scouts call him the NL's version of Grady Sizemore.
Position battle to follow: Closer
The closer's role is up for grabs. Young fireballers Chris Perez and Jason Motte are the best options, though lurking are vets Ryan Franklin and Josh Kinney. Duncan has hinted that they're leaning toward a closer-by-committee, but a good spring from one of these hurlers -- Perez has the best stuff among the quartet -- would change that.
Scout's take: "Tony La Russa did wonders with this team last year to get them to  wins. Any club with Pujols has a chance, and Dave Duncan gets more out of his pitchers than anyone else. Duncan may be a wizard, but I just don't see the staff doing as well as they did last year. Everything rides on Carpenter. If he's healthy, Carpenter and [Adam] Wainwright might be the best 1-2 in the division, and they could make the Cubs sweat. But given [Carpenter's] history, I wouldn't bet on him."
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