Posted: Friday March 30, 2012 2:04PM ; Updated: Tuesday April 3, 2012 3:51PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL Central preview: Reds should challenge Brewers, Cardinals

Story Highlights

Cincinnati added key parts while Milwaukee and St. Louis lost superstar sluggers

The Cubs' rebuilding efforts are underway but they aren't a playoff contender

The Astros will have the No. 1 pick this June and could have it again next year, too

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Only two teams in all of baseball had a better record than the National League Central champion Brewers last year -- the powerhouse Phillies and Yankees -- and the second-place Cardinals won the World Series.

Both those teams suffered big losses this winter, however, with Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis and Prince Fielder bolting from Milwaukee. As a result, the Brewers are expected to fall back toward the pack, while the Cardinals should survive the loss of Pujols for now thanks for the addition of rightfielder Carlos Beltran and the return of ace Adam Wainwright.

Meanwhile, the Reds, who won the division in 2010, are expected to climb back toward the top after adding a young ace in Mat Latos and installing rookie reinforcements in shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco. The bottom half of the division features three teams at different stages of rebuilding with bleak outlooks for the coming season, but reason for optimism over the long term, be it because of their emerging young talent, new front office braintrust, key draft opportunities, or a combination thereof.

CHICAGO CUBS

WINTER GRADE: A-

The moves that will be reflected on the 25-man roster on Opening Day -- signing right fielder David DeJesus and lefty starter Paul Maholm, trading for third baseman Ian Stewart and righty starter Chris Volstad -- were uninspiring. However, the Cubs greatly improved the franchise's long-term outlook by importing two major front office talents in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, whom they lured away from general manger jobs with the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. Epstein and Hoyer, who previously partnered in the Red Sox's front office from 2002 to 2009, started slowly with the players above but also acquired 22-year-old former Red Sox and Padres first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo, who is expected to give the Cubs a middle-of-the-order slugger as soon as the second half of this year. They also brought satisfactory closure to the team's untenable relationship with Carlos Zambrano by convincing the Marlins to take the volatile starting pitcher for Chris Volstad (even if they had to pay most of Big Z's salary in the process).

KEY QUESTION: Will Starlin Castro mature or stagnate?

If there's a player for the Cubs to build around, it's Castro, a shortstop with a career .304/.343/.422 hitter after two full seasons in the majors who became the youngest player ever to lead the NL in hits last year while also making the All-Star team and stealing 22 bases. Castro just turned 22 last weekend, so there's significant time and opportunity for him to develop into a true star, but there are those who doubt his secondary hitting skills (power and patience) and his fielding, and still others who worry about his approach to the game, highlighted by this infamous clip of Castro not paying attention at shortstop as a pitch is delivered.

With regard to the last, it's important to remember just how young Castro is and while his mental approach needs to mature, it's far too early to label it problematic. As for his physical skills, Castro hit for more power and stole more bases at a better percentage as a sophomore last year than as a rookie in 2010, but advanced fielding metrics suggest his defense took a step back. The Cubs will be looking for Castro to show even more progress this season.

X-FACTOR: Brett Jackson

The team's top prospect and first-round pick in the 2009 draft, the 23-year-old Jackson will open the season as the centerfielder for Triple-A Iowa, but he looks major league ready after hitting .297/.388/.551 in 215 plate appearances after a mid-season promotion to Triple-A last year. Jackson has all the physical skills you'd want from a centerfielder. The only knock on him is that he strikes out too much.

It seems like only a matter of time (service time, that is) before Jackson takes over in center for the Cubs, pushing Marlon Byrd, who is in the last year of his contract, into a rightfield platoon with DeJesus or off the club entirely. Of course, the range of possibilities for Jackson's 2012 season is great. He could struggle or get hurt in Triple-A and get nothing more than a September call-up and a few spot starts, or he could rake in April and become an impact player in the majors as early as May, putting himself in contention for Rookie of the Year. The Cubs won't contend this year, but seeing Jackson, Castro and Rizzo together in the lineup in the second half should give their fans something to dream on.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"Changing the culture of that clubhouse is key. David DeJesus should help there. He's a professional player who knows how to play and play hard. Marlon Byrd has solid makeup. . . . This roster will flip quite a bit. They're in a complete rebuild mode. . . . Matt Garza needs to learn from Ryan Dempster; that's a guy who can pitch. Garza always pitches like his hair's on fire."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Transitional but interesting year ahead for Cubs

CINCINNATI REDS

WINTER GRADE: A-

The Reds gave up a lot of young talent to get an ace in Mat Latos, but the potential reward is even greater. Closer-to-be Ryan Madson looked like the bargain of the winter until he succumbed to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, but that only made the trade for reliever Sean Marshall look better.

KEY QUESTION: How will Mat Latos do in a hitter's ballpark?

The Reds, who acquired Latos from the Padres back in December, have a real opportunity to reclaim their division this season but they'll need Latos to be a legitimate ace for that to happen. The 24-year-old righty clearly has the talent to fill that role, but that talent could be undermined by his new ballpark. Latos is a fly-ball pitcher and is leaving a home stadium in Petco Park that, according to the 2012 Bill James Handbook, had a home run park factor of 82 (100 being neutral) over the last three seasons for one that had a home run park factor of 122 over the same span. The good news is that Latos's ground ball rate is way up this spring (1.67 groundouts for every air out, per MLB.com, compared to less than 1.00 each of the last two springs).

X-FACTOR: Aroldis Chapman

The Reds stretched the Cuban Missile out as a starter this spring with outstanding results. Chapman, famous for his 105 mile per hour fastball, traded some velocity for command and excelled in the role, but with Opening Day around the corner, word is the Reds plan to not only keep Chapman in the bullpen, but to use him primarily as Marshall's set-up man, or as part of a closer-by-committee approach to replacing Madson.

If Chapman does eventually find his way into the rotation, he and Latos could prove to be the difference in the division, but if Chapman is stuck pitching 50-odd eighth innings and a handful of ninths, he won't have nearly the impact, and the Reds will be passing 150-odd innings off to lesser pitchers.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"This is a good team, and they're going all-in... With Fielder and Pujols in the A.L., it's pretty clear who the best first baseman in the N.L. is, and it's Joey Votto... Drew Stubbs can fly, and he can hit it out of the park, too. If he ever makes more contact, he's off the charts, a premium centerfielder. He should be more of a 15 home run guy and hit for a better average -- stop pulling off balls, trying to hit them way up in the stands... Mat Latos should have a lot of success pitching in that small ballpark. Even though he's a fly ball guy, he's a strikeout guy. This is big time, big time stuff... They've got a great pitching coach -- Brian Price is outstanding. I think he'll help Aroldis Chapman figure it out. When he was with the Cuban national team, he started but they pitched him like a reliever -- just go out and throw as hard as you can for three of four innings, and we'll bring the older guys in. He's got to fix that mindset, and it's maybe the greatest arm in baseball, and at some point they should have him start."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Look for the Reds to be 2012's turnaround team

HOUSTON ASTROS

WINTER GRADE: B

Like the Cubs, the Astros' key offseason moves came in the front office. Barely more than a fortnight after the sale of the team to Jim Crane was approved in late November, Crane hired long-time Cardinals vice president Jeff Luhnow, a scouting and development specialist who, in turn, hired a bevy of leading statistical analysts to give his team the best of both worlds. Luhnow quickly swapped newly-minted closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox for a couple of low-ceiling major leaguers in shortstop Jed Lowrie and righty starter Kyle Weiland, but otherwise remained largely quiet. His best move thus far may have been leveraging the Royals' spring training catcher injuries to land lefty relief prospect Kevin Chapman and a player to be named later for outfielder Jason Bourgeois and catcher Humberto Quintero, but the most important part of Luhnow's job will come on draft day.

KEY QUESTION: Will Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Carlos Lee be traded?

Houston's major league roster has been stripped almost bare. Those three veterans remain, and each has greater value to the organization as a trade chit than as a player on the field.

Lee is in the final year of his contract and could have some value as a right-handed designated hitter for a contending club. Rodriguez is owed $13 million for 2013 and has an option of identical value that would become a player option if he's traded. That likely $26 million commitment hurts his trade value -- it reportedly kept the Yankees from acquiring him last year -- but a strong first half could change some minds. Myers was taken out of the rotation and made the team's closer as camp opened this spring, an idea initiated by Lunhow. That makes Myers less valuable to the Astros but could actually increase his value on the trade market given his middling performance in the rotation last year. He has a $10 million option for next year that can vest based on his total of games finished (it was based on starts before the conversion).

X-FACTOR: The top pick

The Astros have the first overall pick in this June's amateur draft, and there are few organizations in more desperate need of the sort of superstar talent such a pick can produce. However, unlike in recent years when the likes of Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg where clear choices for that first pick, this year offers no such break-out talent.

That makes Crane's hiring of Luhnow all the more astute. The Astros could very well draft first again next year, but that doesn't mean they can afford to blow the opportunity they have this year. Well-deployed top draft picks are what helped pull the Rays out of the AL East cellar and helped stock the Royals' farm system, which was considered one of the best in recent memory a year ago, before those players started graduating to the majors. The Astros are the new worst team in baseball and need to take a similar road back to respectability.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"Brett Myers is not a typical closer but he's their best option, which is about all you can saw. . . . The rest of the bullpen is very vanilla. . . . The Astros won't score much and they'll give up a bunch too."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Houston's last NL season won't be pretty

 
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