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A year ago this division was home to some of the more intriguing storylines in baseball. This winter? Not so much. In no other division did clubs pinch their pennies like they did in the NL Central. Beyond the Cubs' signings of Ryan Dempster and Milton Bradley, the three biggest transactions were deals involving Ramon Hernandez (one-year, $9 million to the Reds), Khalil Greene (one year, $6.5 million to the Cardinals) and Willy Taveras (two years, $6.25 million). In other words, there are no significantly improved teams here, and that's good news for the heavily-favored Cubs, who last year were the best team in the National League, then in October flamed out faster than Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman's couch. The Cubs didn't improve themselves over the winter, but to win the division again they didn't have to.
Location: Mesa, Ariz. (Cactus League)
2008 record: 97-64 (1st, NL Central); Lost in NLDS
Winter grade: C+
With his team facing an impending sale, GM Jim Hendry couldn't pull the trigger on a deal for Jake Peavy, and the winter passed with the GM not making any major moves other than to add a much-needed left-handed bat (Bradley) to the lineup. The Cubs' bullpen -- an important strength in '08 -- did take a hit with the loss of closer Kerry Wood, and, even after scoring a league-best 855 runs last year, the Cubs sacrificed defense for more offense with Bradley's addition. The team's depth is also weaker without Mark DeRosa's versatility.
Key question: Is Carlos Marmol ready for his closeup?
Last year the Cubs featured a stellar bullpen, but now setup man Carlos Marmol shifts to the closer's role, and the Cubs are counting on Kevin Gregg or Chad Gaudin to step up as a lock-down eighth-inning option. Marmol's stuff is electric, but he has just eight career saves. A question of concern: Will the 26-year-old feel the effects of pitching in the World Baseball Classic?
Prospect to watch: Andrew Cashner, RP
If all goes well, Cashner, a former TCU closer, will join another rookie, Jeff Samardzija, in the bullpen sometime this season. A first-round draft pick a year ago, Cashner has the tools -- a high 90s heater and killer slider -- to make an impact at Wrigley this summer.
Position battle to follow: Center field
To make room for Bradley, Lou Piniella hopes to move Kosuke Fukudome from right to center, but the Japanese import has a long way to go in convincing Sweet Lou that his horrid second half was an aberration. Reed Johnson could take the job with a good spring.
Scout's take: "They're by far the best team in the division -- the biggest favorite of all the divisions. But there are issues there. I like their pitching, but health has to be a big concern. You can never pencil in Rich Harden for 30 starts, and I'm starting to get worried about Carlos Zambrano. He hasn't been as durable as he's been in the past, and the innings may be catching up to him. He's their horse. If he goes down, they may have some problems. Offensively, they're fine -- they're going to score a ton of runs. Lou loves it there, he's been a great match for that city. I expect them to be the best team in the National League this year."
Location: Sarasota, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 74-88 (5th, NL Central)
Winter grade: C-
The Big Donkey and Junior are gone, and a new era has dawned in Cincinnati. For the first time since 1999, the Reds open camp without either Adam Dunn or Ken Griffey Jr. -- huge presences both in the lineup and clubhouse. GM Walt Jocketty, in his first offseason in Cincy, had a mostly quiet winter, nabbing only Willy Taveras and Ramon Hernandez. He will count on his core of promising young players to make the Reds relevant again.
Key question: Will Homer Bailey ever break through?
For years now the Reds have been waiting on Bailey. Is this the year that he finally lives up to his potential? A year ago the hot-headed right-hander was 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA in eight starts with the Reds, and 4-7 with a 4.77 ERA in 19 starts at Triple A Louisville. Last year the Reds showed that they have young arms to build around in Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, and this may be Bailey's last chance to show he's a part of the Reds' future as well.
Prospect to watch: Yonder Alonso, 1B
The seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alonso is a future All-Star with big-time power and exceptional plate discipline. The question is where he fits in the Reds' plans with Joey Votto entrenched at first base.
Position battle to follow: Left field
Not exactly a battle to set your TiVo for, but left field is open, and the position will most likely be a platoon among Jerry Hairston Jr., Chris Dickerson and Jonny Gomes, but recent addition Jacque Jones could force his way into the fight.
Scout's take: "I like the core of players they have now -- Bruce, Votto, [Brandon] Phillips, Cueto, Volquez. If these guys are as good as they can be, I think they're just one or two pieces from making a real run at the Cubs. My concern is with Aaron Harang. They need 200 innings from him, but he scares me with his arm issues. I also wonder who's going to be the new leader with Junior and Dunn gone. Someone's got to step up in the clubhouse, and I don't know who it's going to be."
Location: Kissimmee, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 86-75 (3rd, NL Central)
Winter grade: C-
It's not a good sign when nearly every spring preview of your team says that your season hinges on a 36-year-old hurler who has made 13 starts in three years. Apparently, the savior of the Astros is Mike Hampton, Ed Wade's most significant addition to a team that was nowhere as good as its record indicated last year. (Worse, Hampton was diagnosed with a heart ailment, but after undergoing a minor procedure the team expects him to be OK.) Hampton joins a rotation that, outside of Roy Oswalt, poses more questions than David Frost.
Key question: Who will emerge as a bona fide No. 2 behind Oswalt?
The Astros think Wandy Rodriguez can be, but aside from his road struggles, his durability -- he made two trips to the DL last year -- is becoming a concern. Brandon Backe had a disastrous September after a bad August. Brian Moehler showed last year that he can still be a capable pitcher, but the 36-year-old is nothing close to a front-of-the-rotation starter.
Prospect to watch: Bud Norris, RP
Norris, who drew raves in the Arizona Fall League, becomes an intriguing possibility for the Astros. Scouts wonder about durability when it comes to this undersized right-hander, but Norris -- who was unleashing 97 mph fastballs in the Arizona Fall League -- could emerge as an important part of the bullpen this season.
Position battle to follow: Catcher
The Brad Ausmus Era is finally over in Houston, and before the Jason Castro Era begins (maybe sometime in 2010), the Astros need a catcher. Humberto Quintero, J.R. Towles, Toby Hall and Lou Palmisano are all in the mix, with Quintero the slight favorite at the moment.
Scout's take: "This is not a good team. They had one good month last year, and I think they were fooled into believing they're contenders, but they're not. I love Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman -- they're players you can really build around -- but the pieces on this team just aren't there. I don't know why they keep believing in guys like Wandy Rodriguez and Brandon Backe. This is an old, old team with not much in the farm system, so as bad as this season might go, it's going to get worse."