Posted: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:30PM ; Updated: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:30PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL Central preview: Brewers and Cardinals chasing Reds

Story Highlights

The Chicago Cubs filled all their major holes but have an aging lineup

Clint Hurdle takes over a Pirates team that has had 18 staight losing seasons

The St. Louis Cardinals will struggle to replace injured co-ace Adam Wainwright

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Reds preview
Source: SI
Tom Verducci explains why he likes Cincinnati to win the NL Central.

The Reds usurped the National League Central crown from the Cardinals in 2010, a year earlier than most expected the change. Now Cincinnati must fend off revenge-seeking St. Louis, pitching-enhanced Milwaukee and veteran-loaded Chicago to hold onto the division title, as forward-thinking Houston and Pittsburgh advance their rebuilding plans.

CHICAGO CUBS

WINTER GRADE: B

The Cubs signed first baseman Carlos Peņa and reliever Kerry Wood and traded prospects for starter Matt Garza and outfielder Fernando Perez. They hired interim manager Mike Quade to fill the position fulltime, and they cut starter Carlos Silva.

Chicago filled its three stated needs of a starting pitcher, righthanded reliever and first baseman, but the grade isn't higher because of the cost of prospects, especially Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee and Brandon Guyer, all of whom Baseball America rated in the organization's top 10.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Which Carlos Zambrano will show up in 2011?

Through his first four starts last year, Big Z had a 7.45 ERA, which earned him a demotion to the bullpen. Restored to the rotation in August, Zambrano was 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts. His 2011 production will inevitably be somewhere in the middle, but the closer it skews to the latter, the better the Cubs can feel about matching their ace against anyone in the division.

2. Can the slew of 30-something sluggers -- Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Peņa, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano -- all have good years?

In a word, no, as it's unlikely they'll all bounce back collectively, but they are in a situation that's conducive to big offensive numbers because they play their home games at Wrigley Field and their hitting instructor is the well-regarded Rudy Jaramillo. Their production is vital to a Chicago offense that has only one position player (catcher Geovany Soto) squarely in his prime.

3. Who will play second base?

The club hoped Blake DeWitt would claim this job in spring training, but instead he struggled offensively and defensively, meaning Jeff Baker and spring surprise Darwin Barney will start the year as a platoon opposite Starlin Castro in the middle infield. But Baker at his best is still only an average offensive player (and slightly above-average defensively), and Barney is mostly an unknown with fewer than 80 big-league at bats to his name.

X-FACTOR:

Starlin Castro, SS

The first ballplayer born in the 1990s to reach the majors, Castro had a nice offensive year at the plate, batting .300 with a .347 on-base percentage but had plenty of inconsistencies to work on -- namely, that he was safe in only 10 of 18 stole-base attempts and committed 27 errors, the second most of any NL player. He'll be an All-Star before his career is over. The Cubs could use that level of play sooner rather than later.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"This is a below-.500 team. It's not a dynamic lineup and it looks really old. The wind at Wrigley Field will negate some of Carlos Peņa's power, they'd love to get rid of Alfonso Soriano if they could and Aramis Ramirez's bat speed isn't there. Carlos Zambrano pitched well over the last six weeks but he's still a time bomb."

VERDUCCI: Cubs have no impact position players

CINCINNATI REDS

jay-bruce.jpg
Jay Bruce is looking to build on his strong finish to the 2010 season.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

WINTER GRADE: B

The Reds signed middle infielder Edgar Renteria and outfielder Fred Lewis, but their key move was the reinvestment within, agreeing to multi-year deals with first baseman Joey Votto, rightfielder Jay Bruce, starter Johnny Cueto and catcher Ryan Hanigan.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Was inertia a good offseason strategy?

General manager Walt Jocketty's thinking on the Reds offseason was that his young core players who have been steadily improving the past few years ought to remain on that trajectory. For a team that won the NL Central last season and is the favorite this season, such a patient plan was bold for its lack of aggressive spending to bolster the Reds' advantage.

2. Will Jay Bruce be this year's breakout star?

In Bruce's final 37 games he had a scorching batting line of .377/.459/.798 and homered 15 times -- once every 7.6 at bats. It's that kind of tantalizing production that has scouts drooling, one of whom said this spring, "I love Jay Bruce. I think he can be a force." He needs to be more patient at the plate, but if he develops into the offensive star many think he will be, the Reds will have a great counterpunch to Votto and be even more dangerous at the plate.

3. Can the rotation be a force in October?

It's no secret that pitching wins playoff games, so while the Reds return the NL's best offense (790 runs in 2010), their starting pitching will need to improve upon last year's 4.05 staff ERA, which ranked 10th in the NL. Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey both have ace stuff but haven't reached that level yet. Bailey and Johnny Cueto, meanwhile, are both battling shoulder issues and, though the prognoses have been mostly good so far, they remain a concern. But the Reds do have great rotation depth, with Mike Leake able to step in for Cueto, and with Bronson Arroyo and Travis Wood also filling out the staff, Cincinnati has six starters and none of them are just back-of-the-rotation filler material.

X-FACTOR:

Aroldis Chapman, RP

He's the most hyped set-up man in recent history, but the Cuban import with the 105-mph fastball could play a big role in the Reds' season despite neither starting nor closing. Chapman will be intimidating on the mound no matter what inning he pitches, if his 19 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings last year are any indication. A starter for most of his baseball life, Chapman could be used as more than just a situational reliever as long as his high walk rate (4.9 per nine in 95 2/3 minor league innings) doesn't get the best of him.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

Last year gave them more confidence. Those young guys are all stepping forward. Their pitching depth and bullpen are a little better. Joey Votto has a nice, quiet swing. He's the center of the core for them, a hell of a hitter. I love Jay Bruce, too. He's improving."

VERDUCCI: Favored Reds are no one-hit wonder

HOUSTON ASTROS

WINTER GRADE: C

The Astros signed second baseman Bill Hall and traded starter Felipe Paulino for shortstop Clint Barmes. Houston needed an offensive boost in the middle infield and probably got it, though how they'll catch the ball remains to be seen. The two-year extension to starter Brett Myers isn't reflected here because it happened back in August -- as is also the case with the July trades of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt -- so it's a gentleman's C for a mostly quiet offseason.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. There's enough offensive uncertainty that it's really a series of questions: 1a. Will Carlos Lee stave off continued depreciation of his offense? 1b. Will Hunter Pence rise to stardom? 1c. Will Brett Wallace hit consistently and rediscover his power stroke? 1d. With Jason Castro hurt, will the Astros find offense at catcher? 1e. Will Chris Johnson reduce his 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio? Will Barmes and Hall hit enough to justify their being handed everyday fielding jobs at positions they barely played last year?

Only time will tell on each answer, but if the majority receive a "yes" then the Astros ought to flirt with .500.

2. Will Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris pick up where they left off?

Last year Myers joined Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver as the only pitchers to throw six or more innings in his first 32 appearances of the season; Myers lasted only 5 2/3 innings in his 33rd and final start of the season. Right around the time Houston traded Roy Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris kicked their games into high gear too and the trio finished the year strong: Myers was 6-2 with a 3.20 ERA, Norris was 7-3 and 3.84 and Rodriguez was 3-1 and 1.90. Those three plus J.A. Happ form a strong first four in the rotation, which should keep the Astros close in games into the late innings.

3. Can Houston avoid another slow start?

The Astros began last year 0-8 and 17-34. In 2009 they were 18-28. In '08 they were 6-12. In '07 they were 21-31. No one seems to know why, but every season lately Houston has trouble achieving liftoff, making their almost annual strong finish a case of too little, too late. For instance, the Astros were 40-33 after the All-Star break last year -- fourth best in the NL -- but still finished 15 games behind the division champion Reds. "Particularly with the balance in our division," GM Ed Wade said, "it's not good to give the pack a headstart."

X-FACTOR:

Ownership sale

The Houston Chronicle reported recently that longtime Astros owner Drayton McLane was "close" to selling the franchise to businessman Jim Crane, who begged out of purchasing the team at the 11th hour in 2008. Crane has also tried buying the Cubs and Rangers in the past few years. But what's unclear is how he'll run the franchise -- whether he'll increase or decrease payroll or demand a change in personnel either on or off the field.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I don't think they overachieved last year; 76-86 was probably right where they belonged. I'm not sure they're going to be as good this season, without having Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt for even part of the year. Carlos Lee is the one individual that is going to determine whether they have a really bad year or just a bad year and I don't think he is by any sense washed up. Losing Jason Castro, the young catcher, was a real blow -- he's a worthy everyday guy. J.A. Happ doesn't have eye-popping stuff, but the delivery at times reminds you of Andy Pettitte."

VERDUCCI: Astros lack punch to complement pitching

 
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