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NL Central: Cubs and Brewers look to close the gap on the Cardinals

Breaking down each team in the NL Central heading into the offseason. Teams are listed in order of 2009 finish. Check out the other division previews here:

AL EastAL CentralAL WestNL EastNL West

PENDING FREE AGENTS: LF Matt Holliday, 3B Troy Glaus, UT Mark DeRosa, OF Rick Ankiel, SP Joel Pineiro, SP John Smoltz, SS Khalil Greene, 3B Brian Barden, C Jason LaRue, SP Todd Wellemeyer.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 3B David Freese, SS Tyler Greene, SP P.J. Walters.

BUILDING FOR: Another division title.

BIGGEST HOLES: Left field, second base, back of the rotation.

TARGETS: Holliday, LF Jason Bay, RF Jermaine Dye, 2B Orlando Hudson, 2B Placido Polanco, SP Jarrod Washburn, SP Randy Wolf, SP Doug Davis, SP Vicente Padilla, Pineiro.

BREAKDOWN: The Cardinals took advantage of the Cubs' lost season with pitching, another MVP performance from Albert Pujols and the deadline acquisition of Matt Holliday. The Cards led the Central by 1 1/2 games when they acquired Holliday and surged to 11 1/2 games up thereafter before a small swoon in late September. They will make keeping Holliday their top priority this winter -- their opening salvo being hiring Holliday's pal Mark McGwire as hitting coach -- but will face steep competition from the Yankees and Red Sox for his services, and early word is that Holliday would prefer to join the defending world champs. Losing Holliday would hurt a lot, as no one else in the Cardinal order was much better than average in 2009, leading to Pujols being intentionally walked 34 times before Holliday's arrival. Giving third base to Freese (.308/.384/.532 in his minor league career) could help, as could some growth from Colby Rasmus in center, but if the Cards fail to keep Holliday, they owe it to their MVP and their pitching staff to replace him. St. Louis could also upgrade its offense by taking Skip Schumaker off second base, where he's something of a butcher, making him a super sub, and signing a proper keystoner such as Hudson or former Cardinal super sub Polanco, either of whom would be an upgrade on both sides on the ball. As for the rotation, with Dave Duncan back in the dugout and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in the top two spots, the Cardinals can pick up just about anyone for the underside while using Mitchell Boggs and Walters as insurance. Mixing in a lefty might help, while Padilla clearly passed his audition.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: SP Rich Harden, RP Kevin Gregg, RP John Grabow, OF Reed Johnson, RP Chad Fox.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SP Mitch Atkins.

BUILDING FOR: A return to the postseason.

BIGGEST HOLES: Outfield, one rotation spot.

TARGETS: SP John Lackey, RF Jermaine Dye, OF Rick Ankiel.

BREAKDOWN: New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has pledged to increase payroll in pursuit of the sort of annual playoff appearances that could lead to the franchise's first championship in more than a century, so anything is possible on the north side this winter, but what the Cubs need most of all are good health and rebounds from players such as Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano, whose struggles wreaked havoc on many a preseason prediction. Look for the Cubs to test the trade market and try to unload some past mistakes, such as Milton Bradley, though some of those contracts, such as Soriano's, will likely prove untradeable. If they can clear some holes through trades, they could be a major player for the top free agents (moving Bradley could make room for Holliday or Bay), but even if they can't move one of their disappointing outfielders, they should bring in an upgrade anyway, much like the Angels did after giving a bad contract to Gary Matthews Jr. A smaller deal for Dye or a flier on someone like Ankiel would at least give them options and depth.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: CF Mike Cameron, 2B Felipe Lopez, C Jason Kendall, RP Claudio Vargas, IF Craig Counsell, OF/1B Frank Catalanotto, CF Corey Patterson, SP Chris Capuano.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: SP Braden Looper ($6.5/1M mutual, no buyout if Looper declines), David Weathers ($3.7/0.4M club -- declined).

TRADE ACQUISITIONS: CF Carlos Gomez (from Twins for SS J.J. Hardy).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SS Alcides Escobar, 3B Mat Gamel, C Angel Salome, SP Josh Butler, RP John Axford.

BUILDING FOR: A return to the postseason.

BIGGEST HOLES: Rotation.

TARGETS: SP John Lackey, SP Doug Davis, SP Jarrod Washburn, SP Rich Harden, SP Ben Sheets.

BREAKDOWN: The Brewers tipped their hand by trading Hardy, not for pitching, but for a replacement for Cameron in center field. That tells us that they're going to fill their offensive holes internally and devote the savings toward restocking their rotation. Rickie Weeks, returning from a season-ending wrist injury, Escobar, Salome, and new arrival Gomez will replace Lopez, Hardy, Kendall, and Cameron. Gamel could stay at third or make a Ryan Braun-like move to right field, pushing Corey Hart to center where he and Gomez can form an offense/defense partnership, with Casey McGehee manning the hot corner. Trevor Hoffman has already been re-signed to close games. That allows Doug Melvin to focus on the task of filling in the rotation behind Yovani Gallardo. Lackey is the big fish, of course, but with Gallardo already in place as the ace, the Brewers could also benefit from a couple of mid-level signings such as ex-Brewer lefty Davis or Wisconsin native Washburn to upgrade on Looper, who led the majors in home runs allowed in 2009, and company. Another route would be incentive-laden deals for talented-but-brittle arms such as Harden or Sheets, the latter of whom is hoping to return to the majors after a year of unaffiliated rehab and seems sure to draw some interest from his old, and only, team.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: RHP Kip Wells, 2B Danny Richar.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: C/1B Ramon Hernandez ($2.85/1M club).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 3B Juan Francisco, IF Drew Sutton, SP Sam LeCure, SP Travis Wood, UT Todd Frazier, CF Chris Heisey, RP Enerio Del Rosario, RP Logan Ondrusek.

BUILDING FOR: The winning season that eluded them in 2009.

BIGGEST HOLES: Shortstop, Edinson Volquez's spot in the rotation.

TARGETS: SS Marco Scutaro, SS Miguel Tejada, SS Orlando Cabrera, SP Joel Pineiro, SP Jason Marquis.

BREAKDOWN: A popular preseason sleeper pick, the Reds had a disastrous 2009 season riddled with injuries and poor performances. The most devastating was the torn elbow ligament that put newly-established ace Edinson Volquez on the surgeon's table in August, erasing his 2010 season. With that exception, however, all of the young talent that was in Cincinnati in March is still there, and has been supplemented by the arrival of center fielder Drew Stubbs and the rejuvenation of right-hander Homer Bailey's prospect bonafides as well as the continued progress of the players listed as "on the verge" above. If everything that went wrong for the Reds goes right for them in 2010 (hey, it worked for the Yankees), they'd be a replacement for Volquez away from challenging for the division title. The question is how much is ownership willing to bet on everything coming up roses. Baring a run at Lackey, Pineiro or Marquis would be smart choices given their ground-ball tendencies and the Reds' homer-friendly ballpark. Hernandez's option is cheap, but he'll be 34 in May, and at this point in his career he's no better than Ryan Hanigan, who is earning the major league minimum.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: CL Jose Valverde, SS Miguel Tejada, RP LaTroy Hawkins, C Chris Coste, CF/1B Darin Erstad, IF Aaron Boone, OF Jason Michaels, SP Mike Hampton, SP Brandon Backe, RP Geoff Geary.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: RP Doug Brocail ($2.85/0.25M club - declined).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SS Tommy Manzella, 3B Chris Johnson, C J.R. Towles.

BUILDING FOR: Giving up on the quick fix and rebuilding in earnest.

BIGGEST HOLES: Catcher, shortstop, closer, back-end of the rotation.

TARGETS: Trade partners for a major rebuild.

BREAKDOWN: Defiant in the face of a 73-win season in 2007, the Astros hired former Phillies general manager Ed Wade and doubled down with Valverde, Kaz Matsui and Tejada, the last of whom cost them several prospects from an already sparse farm system. It nearly worked, they won 86 games and finished four games out of the Wild Card in 2008, but this year they were back down to 74 wins and Valverde and Tejada will now depart as free agents, leaving the Astros with nothing to show for taking the chance. Shocking as it might be to say, the Pirates are ahead of the 'Stros right now because they're already two years into their rebuilding and they have younger and better prospects to build around than Hunter Pence, who will be 27 in April.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

TRADE ACQUISITIONS: 2B Akinori Iwamura (from Rays for RP Jesse Chavez).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 1B Jeff Clement, 3B Neil Walker, 3B Pedro Alvarez, SP Brad Lincoln.

BUILDING FOR: The long-term reestablishment of the franchise.

BIGGEST HOLES: Everywhere but center field and third base.

TARGETS: More trades for prospects, with C Ryan Doumit, SP Paul Maholm, CL Matt Capps, even Iwamura as potential trade chips.

BREAKDOWN: In the 12 months from the 2008 to 2009 trading deadlines, the Pirates traded their entire starting infield from 2008, four starting outfielders, a pair of veteran relievers, and the two young starting pitchers who had breakout seasons for them in 2007. This was less a fire sale than the new administration (installed after the 2007 season) discarding what wasn't working and starting over. The thing is, nothing had worked for the Pirates since Barry Bonds left the team in 1993. The Pirates organization is now flush with prospects, many of them imported via those trades, but the goal line for this rebuilding is still so far away that the organization hasn't even begun to sift out who will play where, with prospects clumping up in center field, third base, and shortstop. That's the main reason they brought in the veteran Iwamura; someone has to play second base. I also suspect the Bucs plan to take advantage of the number of teams that still need keystone help by flipping Iwamura at the trading deadline, if not before. The did well doing so with Freddy Sanchez, landing the Giants' number 2 pitching prospect, righty starter Tim Alderson. Home grown prospects Andrew McCutchen, already established in center field, and Alvarez will give the Bucs a pair of stars in the near term, and Clement and righty starter Ross Ohlendorf will remind fans that the trades did yield useful players, but for now the Pirates' only strategy is to draft and develop, neither of which will make them a significant player in the Hot Stove League.

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