Eric Mack
Tuesday February 1st, 2011

It is that time of year in baseball before pitchers and catchers (ah, music to the ears) in a couple of weeks: Arbitration, contract renewals and news about pending free agency battles.

None will be bigger than that of Sir Albert Pujols, Mr. No. 1 in fantasy. He is ready to hunker down in his final year before free agency next winter.

Distraction? Bah, humbug. That's good -- no, great -- news.

You have to love your fantasy stud playing for a big-time contract. It is almost like you don't want your contract-year player to sign in the spring, since it could strip them of that added motivation and perhaps lead them to complacency.

We are going to analyze all those players facing free agency in our fantasy baseball preview, but there is an interesting dynamic in the NL Central this spring we figured we should point out here: It could be decided by which pending free agents have the biggest seasons.

The Cardinals have Pujols as they chase the defending champion Reds in the division, but the Brewers have a strong pair in their own right in Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. This division could be real interesting at the top.

A capsule look at the Cardinals:

St. Louis Cardinals outlook

Projected lineup

1 Ryan Theriot SS 2 Colby Rasmus CF 3 Albert Pujols 1B 4 Matt Holliday LF 5 Lance Berkman RF 6 Yadier Molina C 7 David Freese 3B 8 Skip Schumaker 2B

Top bench options

R Jon Jay OF R Nick Punto UTL R Tyler Greene UTL

Projected rotation

1 Adam Wainwright RH 2 Chris Carpenter RH 3 Jaime Garcia LH 4 Jake Westbrook RH 5 Kyle Lohse RH ALT Lance Lynn RH

Top bullpen arms

CL Ryan Franklin RH SU Kyle McClellan RH RP Jason Motte RH RP Trever Miller LH RP Mitchell Boggs RH

Pujols is getting a second protector in the order with the addition of free agent Lance Berkman, who was a case study of how contract years might not be all they are cracked up to be. Berkman had his worst (not best) season of his career before hitting free agency. He should be better this season, though, and a nice sleeper at first base and the added outfield eligibility.

Rasmus is a secondary beneficiary of Pujols' free agency. He has the coziest lineup spot in baseball, getting protected by the world's best hitter. That should mean plenty of fastballs and Rasmus can murder fastballs. If Pujols has one of his better seasons, Rasmus could be a candidate to go .280-30-90-120-15. That would make him a steal if he slips past the top 25 fantasy outfielders like he should.

The Cardinals have the best rotation in the division. The question marks come in the back-end of the rotation and the bullpen.

If you're giddy about contract years, then you have to love what the Brewers have going for them. Not only do they have a stud first baseman, Fielder, ready to slug for a huge payday, they also have 2010's breakout, 27-year-old Weeks, motivated to put back-to-back years together.

If you add in the massive upgrades in the rotation, the Brewers can definitely compete with the Cardinals, if not the defending champion Reds. Zack Greinke will have a contender to pitch with for the first time and Gallardo is ready to take that next big step into fantasy super-acedom.

A capsule look at the Brewers:

Milwaukee Brewers outlook

Projected lineup

1 Rickie Weeks 2B 2 Corey Hart RF 3 Ryan Baun LF 4 Prince Fielder 1B 5 Casey McGehee 3B 6 Yuniesky Betancourt SS 7 Jonathan Lucroy C 8 Carlos Gomez CF

Top bench options

R Mat Gamel CI R Chris Dickerson OF R George Kottaras C

Projected rotation

1 Zack Greinke RH 2 Yovani Gallardo RH 3 Shaun Marcum RH 4 Randy Wolf LH 5 Chris Narveson LH ALT Manny Parra RH

Top bullpen arms

CL John Axford RH SU Takashi Saito RH RP Zach Braddock LH RP Kameron Loe RH RP LaTroy Hawkins RH

Braun, this writer's choice for the No. 1 fantasy outfielder and a top five overall, is in a good spot between the contract year of Weeks (along with the breakthrough of Hart last season) and the getting the protection of Fielder's contract year. It should mean a rebound to his .300-35-110-110-15 level.

The Brewers' problem last year was pitching, but they look plenty stacked there with Greinke and Gallardo ready for career years on the best supporting cast they have had yet. Marcum was strong in the AL East with the Brewers and should be very good in the division that features the lowly Astros and Pirates.

The bullpen is a bit of a question mark behind 2010 surprise Axford, but Saito is better than he is given credit for and Braddock is a flame-throwing future closer in his own right.

If we are saying the Brewers are going to be this year's surprise winner of the NL Central, what are the Reds going to be? They are still going to be very good, if not better, if the young arms in their rotation continue their maturation.

In the Great American Bandbox, the Reds will certainly be about offense, but if they are going to hold off the Cardinals and Brewers, they are going to have to pitch even better than they did a year ago.

A capsule look at the Reds:

Cincinnati Reds outlook

Projected lineup

1 Drew Stubbs CF 2 Brandon Phillips 2B 3 Joey Votto 1B 4 Scott Rolen 3B 5 Jay Bruce RF 6 Jonny Gomes LF 7 Ramon Hernandez C 8 Edgar Renteria SS

Top bench options

R Chris Heisey OF R Fred Lewis OF R Paul Janish UTL

Projected rotation

1 Bronson Arroyo RH 2 Johnny Cueto RH 3 Edinson Volquez RH 4 Mike Leake RH 5 Homer Bailey RH ALT Travis Wood LH

Top bullpen arms

CL Francisco Cordero RH SU Aroldis Chapman LH RP Nick Masset RH RP Logan Ondrusek RH RP Bill Bray LH

You can be sure what you're going to get out of Arroyo as an innings-eater, but the Dominican Dandys, Cueto and Volquez, are now in the time of their careers where they could take significant steps to acedom. Leake, Bailey and Wood will have a good battle for the last two spots, with Chapman slated to spend the year in short relief before starting down the road.

Votto had a huge 27-year-old breakthrough a year ago, but the Reds offense needs to get even better. It will if Stubbs and Bruce continue to rise and Phillips and Rolen post their average seasons.

Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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