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March 26, 2012
The worst division in baseball was further weakened by the loss of two of the game's biggest stars, which has opened the door for the well-rounded, pitching-fortified Reds
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March 26, 2012

Nl Central

The worst division in baseball was further weakened by the loss of two of the game's biggest stars, which has opened the door for the well-rounded, pitching-fortified Reds

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1 REDS 89--73 --
2 CARDINALS 87--75 2
3 BREWERS 84--78 5
4 PIRATES 70--92 19
5 CUBS 66--96 23
6 ASTROS 57--105 32

Nattily attired in dark blue jeans and a navy sweater, his dark brown hair perfectly coiffed, Ryan Braun resembled a CEO at a ribbon-cutting ceremony when he addressed a live national-TV audience at the Brewers' Maryvale, Ariz., training camp on the morning of Feb. 24. But instead of carefree hopes springing eternal, the National League's reigning MVP was in crisis-management mode, trying to convince the public that he's not a drug cheat despite Major League Baseball's insistence otherwise.

"It's sad and disappointing that this has become a p.r. battle," lamented Milwaukee's leftfielder, who enlisted help from Hiltzik Strategies, a New York City public relations firm, before delivering his impassioned defense.

Though an arbitrator overturned, on procedural grounds, Braun's 50-game suspension stemming from a positive test for elevated amounts of synthetic testosterone, the p.r. damage is certain to linger through the season. It was just the most visible and picked-over of hits for a division that, despite producing the World Series champs last season, could use the help of a Hollywood spin doctor to reinvent its image.

Consider the variables that have this division vying to be baseball's worst: The Astros (56--106), Cubs (71--91), Pirates (72--90) and Reds (79--83) combined for 370 losses last season, just 12 fewer than the AL East shared among five teams. And though the Cardinals and the Brewers reached the postseason—with St. Louis going on to win the World Series as a wild card—the free-agent departures of the Cards' Albert Pujols and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder have left the division without a clear-cut front-runner.

"It's wide-open with those two guys leaving," says the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano, who belted 26 homers a year ago and is one of the division's big boppers now that Pujols is with the Angels and Fielder is with the Tigers.

The popular belief, understandably, is that the Cardinals can't defend their championship without Pujols, a three-time MVP (and four-time runner-up) over the past 11 seasons. "His jersey isn't hanging up in a locker, so you're going to be perceived differently," says 28-year-old third baseman David Freese, the new face of the franchise after earning NLCS and World Series MVP honors last season. "There's definitely a different vibe. But the Cardinals won before Albert, and hopefully we'll continue to win without him."

Manager Mike Matheny, who on Opening Day will fill out his first regular-season lineup card at any level, is responsible for making sure that the new vibe remains positive. A former Gold Glove catcher for 13 years in the big leagues, including five in St. Louis (2000 through '04), the 41-year-old Matheny was a roving minor league instructor for the Cardinals during the last two seasons before he was promoted in mid-November to replace Tony La Russa, who led St. Louis to seven division titles, three pennants and two world championships over the past 16 seasons—and retired 36 wins shy of becoming the second-winningest manager in history.

But, with a little help from a weakened division, the Cardinals won't have to endure a rebuilding year despite losing two future Hall of Famers. On Dec. 23, two weeks after Pujols exited the Gateway to the West, G.M. John Mozeliak signed switch-hitting outfielder Carlos Beltran for two years and $26 million. Although he turns 35 in April and has been slowed by balky knees, the six-time All-Star had a .910 OPS last season while playing his home games in two notorious pitchers parks (Citi Field and, after being traded from the Mets to the Giants, AT&T Park). That was the ninth-best figure in the league, but would only have been the third-highest in the Cardinals' lineup, behind Lance Berkman (.959) and Matt Holliday (.912). Those three now compose the heart of St. Louis's order, which, with the expected continued development of Freese, remains fearsome.

"I don't know if our lineup will be quite as explosive, but I don't see any reason why we can't compete for the World Series title again," says the 36-year-old Berkman, who hit .301 with 31 homers and 94 RBIs in his first year with St. Louis. "We've lost Albert, but we've gained one of the best pitchers in the game."

Berkman is referring to Adam Wainwright, who was dominant in 2009 and '10, winning more games (39) and posting a lower ERA (2.53) and throwing more innings (4631/3) than all other NL starters. However, he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery at the start of spring training last year, a loss that, based on his performances over the previous two seasons, cost the Cardinals approximately six wins and forced them to go 18--8 in September just to get into the postseason. Although Wainwright's control was rusty in his first few outings this spring, he declared himself "a normal pitcher again" after his fastball consistently returned to the low 90s.

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