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Posted: Tuesday November 10, 2009 11:42AM; Updated: Tuesday November 10, 2009 12:50PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL Central: Cubs and Brewers look to close the gap on the Cardinals

Story Highlights

St. Louis will make keeping Holliday its top priority, but it won't be easy

Pretty much all of the young talent that was in Cincy in March is still there

The Pirates' only strategy is to draft and develop, so they won't be very active

Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols
The Cardinals would love to keep Matt Holliday in St. Louis as support for Albert Pujols, but can they fend off the Yankees and Red Sox?
AP
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Breaking down each team in the NL Central heading into the offseason. Teams are listed in order of 2009 finish. Check out the other division previews here:

AL East
AL Central
AL West
NL East
NL West

St. Louis Cardinals

PENDING FREE AGENTS: LF Matt Holliday, 3B Troy Glaus, UT Mark DeRosa, OF Rick Ankiel, SP Joel Pineiro, SP John Smoltz, SS Khalil Greene, 3B Brian Barden, C Jason LaRue, SP Todd Wellemeyer.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 3B David Freese, SS Tyler Greene, SP P.J. Walters.

BUILDING FOR: Another division title.

BIGGEST HOLES: Left field, second base, back of the rotation.

TARGETS: Holliday, LF Jason Bay, RF Jermaine Dye, 2B Orlando Hudson, 2B Placido Polanco, SP Jarrod Washburn, SP Randy Wolf, SP Doug Davis, SP Vicente Padilla, Pineiro.

BREAKDOWN: The Cardinals took advantage of the Cubs' lost season with pitching, another MVP performance from Albert Pujols and the deadline acquisition of Matt Holliday. The Cards led the Central by 1 1/2 games when they acquired Holliday and surged to 11 1/2 games up thereafter before a small swoon in late September. They will make keeping Holliday their top priority this winter -- their opening salvo being hiring Holliday's pal Mark McGwire as hitting coach -- but will face steep competition from the Yankees and Red Sox for his services, and early word is that Holliday would prefer to join the defending world champs. Losing Holliday would hurt a lot, as no one else in the Cardinal order was much better than average in 2009, leading to Pujols being intentionally walked 34 times before Holliday's arrival. Giving third base to Freese (.308/.384/.532 in his minor league career) could help, as could some growth from Colby Rasmus in center, but if the Cards fail to keep Holliday, they owe it to their MVP and their pitching staff to replace him. St. Louis could also upgrade its offense by taking Skip Schumaker off second base, where he's something of a butcher, making him a super sub, and signing a proper keystoner such as Hudson or former Cardinal super sub Polanco, either of whom would be an upgrade on both sides on the ball. As for the rotation, with Dave Duncan back in the dugout and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in the top two spots, the Cardinals can pick up just about anyone for the underside while using Mitchell Boggs and Walters as insurance. Mixing in a lefty might help, while Padilla clearly passed his audition.

Chicago Cubs

PENDING FREE AGENTS: SP Rich Harden, RP Kevin Gregg, RP John Grabow, OF Reed Johnson, RP Chad Fox.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SP Mitch Atkins.

BUILDING FOR: A return to the postseason.

BIGGEST HOLES: Outfield, one rotation spot.

TARGETS: SP John Lackey, RF Jermaine Dye, OF Rick Ankiel.

BREAKDOWN: New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has pledged to increase payroll in pursuit of the sort of annual playoff appearances that could lead to the franchise's first championship in more than a century, so anything is possible on the north side this winter, but what the Cubs need most of all are good health and rebounds from players such as Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano, whose struggles wreaked havoc on many a preseason prediction. Look for the Cubs to test the trade market and try to unload some past mistakes, such as Milton Bradley, though some of those contracts, such as Soriano's, will likely prove untradeable. If they can clear some holes through trades, they could be a major player for the top free agents (moving Bradley could make room for Holliday or Bay), but even if they can't move one of their disappointing outfielders, they should bring in an upgrade anyway, much like the Angels did after giving a bad contract to Gary Matthews Jr. A smaller deal for Dye or a flier on someone like Ankiel would at least give them options and depth.

Milwaukee Brewers

PENDING FREE AGENTS: CF Mike Cameron, 2B Felipe Lopez, C Jason Kendall, RP Claudio Vargas, IF Craig Counsell, OF/1B Frank Catalanotto, CF Corey Patterson, SP Chris Capuano.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: SP Braden Looper ($6.5/1M mutual, no buyout if Looper declines), David Weathers ($3.7/0.4M club -- declined).

TRADE ACQUISITIONS: CF Carlos Gomez (from Twins for SS J.J. Hardy).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SS Alcides Escobar, 3B Mat Gamel, C Angel Salome, SP Josh Butler, RP John Axford.

BUILDING FOR: A return to the postseason.

BIGGEST HOLES: Rotation.

TARGETS: SP John Lackey, SP Doug Davis, SP Jarrod Washburn, SP Rich Harden, SP Ben Sheets.

BREAKDOWN: The Brewers tipped their hand by trading Hardy, not for pitching, but for a replacement for Cameron in center field. That tells us that they're going to fill their offensive holes internally and devote the savings toward restocking their rotation. Rickie Weeks, returning from a season-ending wrist injury, Escobar, Salome, and new arrival Gomez will replace Lopez, Hardy, Kendall, and Cameron. Gamel could stay at third or make a Ryan Braun-like move to right field, pushing Corey Hart to center where he and Gomez can form an offense/defense partnership, with Casey McGehee manning the hot corner. Trevor Hoffman has already been re-signed to close games. That allows Doug Melvin to focus on the task of filling in the rotation behind Yovani Gallardo. Lackey is the big fish, of course, but with Gallardo already in place as the ace, the Brewers could also benefit from a couple of mid-level signings such as ex-Brewer lefty Davis or Wisconsin native Washburn to upgrade on Looper, who led the majors in home runs allowed in 2009, and company. Another route would be incentive-laden deals for talented-but-brittle arms such as Harden or Sheets, the latter of whom is hoping to return to the majors after a year of unaffiliated rehab and seems sure to draw some interest from his old, and only, team.

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