Even though Milwaukee won only 77 games last year, its Big Three and an offense that scored the fourth-most runs in the NL (4.6 per game) has the Brewers dreaming of a division title. (The euphoria was dampened somewhat in early March, when Greinke suffered a cracked rib while playing pickup basketball. He's expected to be back in the rotation by late April.) As for keeping Fielder beyond this season, well, let's just say Prince's time is now in Milwaukee. He will make $15.5 million this season and is likely to seek upwards of $200 million in free agency, a sum that's almost certainly too rich for the Brewers. But, says McGehee, "the biggest thing we can do if we want to keep him here is win."
Overtaking the well-constructed Reds will be difficult. Votto is surrounded by twentysomething talents: centerfielder Drew Stubbs (26), rightfielder Jay Bruce (23), and starters Edinson Volquez (27), Johnny Cueto (25), Homer Bailey (24), Travis Wood (24) and Mike Leake (23). "There's a lot of optimism on this team," Votto says.
Powered by Votto's breakout year, the rising Reds led the NL in runs per game (4.9), homers (188) and slugging (.436) and won the Central for the first time in 15 years. G.M. Walt Jocketty could have tried to improve his young team by diving into the free-agent market, but instead, aside from looking around for a leadoff hitter (signing only reserve outfielder Fred Lewis to help with that role), he invested within. Votto signed a three-year, $38 million deal that will take him through his arbitration years. The arbitration-eligible Bruce (six years, $51 million) and Cueto (three years, $27 million) also received multiyear deals, ensuring that the core of the team will be in place for several more seasons. "We felt like our young guys would all continue to mature and get even better than they were," Jocketty says.
The opposite trend is at work in Chicago, where Peña, whose average and home run totals have tumbled from career highs of .282 and 46 in 2007 to .196 and 28 last season, has plenty of company. He flew to Texas for a week in January to work with Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who was Peña's hitting coach when he made his big league debut with the Rangers in 2001. "We're starting new," says Jaramillo.
That's a theme for the Cubs. In the last two years they've gotten new owners (the Ricketts family), a new manager (Mike Quade), a new hitting coach (Jaramillo) and a new pitching coach (Mark Riggins). Unfortunately they still have a boatload of declining players with eight-figure salaries: starters Ryan Dempster, 33, Carlos Silva, 31, and Carlos Zambrano, 29; outfielders Kosuke Fukodome, 33, and Alfonso Soriano, 35; third baseman Aramis Ramirez, 32, and Peña, 32. That's the core of a roster that carries the NL's third-highest payroll ($133.8 million) and won just 75 games last year, the Cubs' worst performance since 2006. "We've got some expensive guys who have to perform up to it," says G.M. Jim Hendry.
The Pirates and the Astros are at the other end of the financial spectrum, and far at bottom of the standings. Pittsburgh will have the game's third-lowest payroll ($51.4 million) and, in all likelihood, one of its worst records, though 24-year-old centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (33 steals, 16 homers and an .814 OPS in 2010, his second big league season) is a blossoming star. The Pirates signed Overbay—at 34 he'll be their oldest player—to be a veteran totem for McCutchen and raw talents such as leftfielder Jose Tabata (22), third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) and second baseman Neil Walker (25).
The division's other major youth movement is in Houston, where the Astros are banking on unproven talents such as Wallace. After being traded three times in one year—he went from St. Louis to Oakland to Toronto before landing in Houston last July—Wallace has been handed the first base job despite hitting .222 with only two homers in 51 big league games last year. He was a slugger in the minors (career OPS in 287 games: .863), and with Wallace and 26-year-old third baseman Chris Johnson (11 homers in 94 games last year) the Astros hope to have infield cornerstones they can build upon.
In his first big league camp, with the Cardinals in '09, Wallace shadowed Pujols, hoping to pick up pointers from—and be noticed by—the star. Pujols, who shares an agent (Dan Lozano) with Wallace and Votto, noticed and started advising the prospect on everything from hitting to dress code. "I get that a lot from young kids," says Pujols. "They don't take advantage of talking. They're so shy about it."
Seven months from now, when he's eligible for free agency, Pujols will have no shortage of suitors. He may be first among his peers, but in 2011 Votto's Reds and Fielder's Brewers are the better bets to be first in the division.