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NL Central spring training preview: Departed stars creates window

This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to expect from each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2011. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in camp and has not yet debuted in the major leagues.

The Big Question: Will Ryan Braun's suspension get overturned?

That isn't a question that will be answered on the field in Phoenix, but it is the biggest question facing the defending NL Central champions right now, and it should be answered shortly, likely even before Braun reports to camp. Though there have been no indications in either direction with regards to Braun's case specifically, the lack of precedent for a performance-enhancing drug suspension being overturned after being reported to the press strongly suggests that the Brewers will indeed be without the 2011 NL MVP for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. That's a big enough blow by itself -- using Braun's 2011 rate of production as measured by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, it could cost Milwaukee more than two wins -- but in combination with the loss of Prince Fielder to free agency it could be enough to ruin the Brewers' season before it even gets started.

The Big Battle: First Base

The Brewers' attempt to replace Fielder came not at first base, but at third, where free-agent addition Aramis Ramirez will represent a pure upgrade over the sub-replacement level season turned in by Casey McGehee in 2011. That was a sharp move by the team, particularly given how shallow the talent pool at third base has become in recent years.

But while Ramirez will help replace some of Fielder's production, he does nothing to fill the hole at first base. Instead, the leading candidate for playing time in Fielder's stead is 26-year-old Mat Gamel, a career .301/.374/.512 hitter at Triple-A who has struggled to bring that production to the majors, hitting .222/.309/.374 in 194 career plate appearances, and is now out of minor league options. The glass-half-full view of Gamel, who was moved from third base to first in the minors last year, is that he only once got more than a dozen games to find his swing in the bigs and hit a respectable .242/.338/.422 at age 23 in that opportunity. Still, he's an unproven 26-year-old that the Brewers don't trust to hit his fellow left-handers.

That could mean a complex platoon that would put Corey Hart at first base against southpaws, but the man most likely to fill Hart's place in the outfield, Japanese import Norichika Aoki, is also left-handed and may be needed in leftfield for the first 50 games if Braun's suspension is upheld.

That in turn might create an opening through which non-roster invitee Brooks Conrad could sneak onto the roster. Conrad, who typically plays elsewhere on the infield but poorly, is a switch-hitter with some pop who has hit .268/.358/.465 in the admittedly small sample of 81 major league plate appearances against lefties, which could make him worth a look as a short-term, short-side platoon partner at first base for Gamel.

The Big Prospect: Wily Peralta

The Brewers effectively traded the best prospects from a bad system to get starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum before last season. It's no surprise, then, that two of their top three prospects right now are 2011 draftees, lefty Jed Bradley and righty Taylor Jungmann, both starting pitchers who will be in major league camp to start the spring despite the fact that they won't make their minor league debuts until April (Bradley did pitch in the Arizona Fall League last year). Milwaukee's top prospect of the moment, however, is Wily Peralta, a thick-bodied, 22-year-old righty starter who excelled in his brief Triple-A debut late last year and should be ready to fill a rotation spot vacated by the free agent Greinke or Marcum after the coming season and could even force his way into the rotation this year.

The Big Question: How complete is Adam Wainwright's recovery from Tommy John surgery?

I wrote a lot this offseason about how the Cardinals wouldn't have that much trouble replacing the wins Albert Pujols took to Anaheim because of the return of ace Adam Wainwright from the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2011 season. In the most recent of those, following the signing of Carlos Beltran, I worked on the assumption that Wainwright would be worth two-thirds of his 2010 value and had the Cardinals improving by more than a win with Beltran and Wainwright replacing Pujols and the starts of Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson. I still think that's a safe assumption, but we'll have a much better idea after we see Wainwright take the hill in a few exhibition games.

The Big Battle: Second Base

The Cardinals gave incumbent second baseman Skip Schumaker a two-year extension in December and let his primary rivals for playing time at the keystone in 2011, Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto, leave as free agents. That doesn't mean that Schumaker will be the team's second baseman this year, though. In fact, back in November, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said that sophomore Daniel Descalso, not the veteran Schumaker, would be the Cardinals' second baseman in 2012, and just a few weeks ago he publicly favored Tyler Greene for the job.

Greene, 28 and a shortstop by trade, is a career .291/.373/.477 hitter at Triple-A, but hasn't hit in 359 major league plate appearances over three seasons. Descalso doesn't have the potential in his bat that Greene does, but he hit better in 375 plate appearances last year at age 24 than Greene has in his major league opportunities or Schumaker has in either of the last-two years. Descalso is also a fine defender, making him an upgrade on Schumaker, a converted centerfielder who remains subpar defensively at the keystone, on both sides of the ball. Prior to re-signing shortstop Rafael Furcal, Mozeliak said he'd be open to a double-play combo of Greene and Descalso, and given Furcal's injury history, the Cardinals very well may see that combination often this year.

The Big Prospect: Shelby Miller

Miller is one of the top pitching prospects in the game and among the top 10 prospects at any position in the game. A 21-year-old righty, Miller throws a mid-90s fastball with movement that can spike into the upper 90s, can dominate with his curveball and has received high marks for his maturity on the mound. Miller spent most of 2011 at Double-A, acquitting himself well with more than a strikeout per inning in 16 starts to go with a 2.70 ERA. He could be in the majors at some point this year, be it as a September call-up or sooner depending on how he performs at Triple-A, where he'll report in April, relative to the pitchers at the back of the major league rotation.

The Big Question:Will Aroldis Chapman force his way into the starting rotation?

The Reds have said that Chapman will indeed be stretched out in spring training, but that information has not been accompanied by the news that any of the team's five presumed starters -- Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, or new addition Mat Latos -- will have to fight for his job. What we don't know is what the Reds would have to see from Chapman to bump one of those men from the rotation if all are healthy and effective this spring. Certainly Latos and Cueto aren't going anywhere, but Arroyo was awful last year, and the 24-year-old Leake and 25-year-old Bailey are still trying to establish themselves and could prove vulnerable.

An injury might create an opening for Chapman, but it's just as likely that an injury will end his bid -- he missed a month with shoulder inflammation last year and a reoccurrence of the soreness in his pitching shoulder during the Arizona Fall League prompted the Reds to keep him out of winter ball entirely. Given that, one wonders if Chapman's chances of cracking the rotation are all that much higher than those of non-roster invitee Jeff Francis.

The Big Battle: Catcher

Rookie catching prospect Devin Mesoraco is expected to split time with Ryan Hanigan behind the plate this year, but the ratio of their playing time could vary significantly depending on how each performs early on. The pressure there is on the rookie, who struggled in 53 plate appearances last September and will have to win over a manager in Dusty Baker who is notorious for preferring the familiar veteran over the unproven rookie.

That said, Baker's reputation has softened in Cincinnati, where Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs have all become regulars on Baker's watch. There's also a chance that Chris Heisey will have to fight off fellow righty Ryan Ludwick for the leftfield job, though Ludwick has been so awful since the Cardinals traded him at the 2010 deadline (.229/.308/.353 in 792 plate appearances) that I find it hard to believe that he'll be a serious challenger.

The Big Prospect: Daniel Corcino

A small, righthanded starter, the 21-year-old Corcino isn't the Reds' best prospect, but the men above him on the list are either too far away to get invites to major league camp or have already made their major league debuts. Corcino cracked 100 innings for the first time last year while posting a 4.59 K/BB ratio in A-ball, a product of excellent control as well as the ability to miss bats. Corcino gets his fastball into the mid-90s, but not without considerable effort, given his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame, which makes some wonder if he'll end up in the bullpen, as his ability to hold up under a starter's workload with that approach is in doubt.

The Big Question: Is Pedro Alvarez still a future star?

A year ago, Alvarez was coming off the big September surge that capped his rookie season, and was ripe with all of the promise one might expect from a slugger who was the second-overall pick in the 2008 draft and a top 10 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2010 season.

In 2011, however, Alvarez didn't hit at all. He was batting .208/.283/.304 with just two home runs when a quadriceps injury shelved him for two months, and he was even worse after he returned, hitting just .173/.260/.273 with two more taters over his final 124 plate appearances, which surrounded a brief late-August demotion.

There was no silver-lining to that performance. Alvarez didn't just struggle, he was the 10th-worst hitter in baseball out of the 306 with 250 or more plate appearances last year, posting a 56 OPS+ (100 is average) that matched Adam Dunn's mark in his disastrous debut season with the White Sox. Alvarez is now 25 and a career .230/.304/.392 hitter in the major leagues. This is a player who was supposed to be a pillar of the Pirates rebuilding, a player many ranked ahead of Andrew McCutchen as a prospect. One has to wonder if that potential is still there, or, if not, how much of it remains.

The Big Battle: Leftfield

After making the All-Star team and winning an (undeserved) Gold Glove as the Pirates centerfielder in 2008, Nate McLouth was traded to the Braves in 2009 and hit just .229/.335/.364 in parts of three seasons with Atlanta. The Pirates brought McLouth back on a one-year deal this winter, and he'll likely challenge Alex Presley for the leftfield job this spring, though the 26-year-old Presley should prove victorious.

The Big Prospect: Gerrit Cole

The top pick in the 2011 draft is just one of three Pirates prospects, along with fellow righties Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia, who could grow up to be legitimate major league aces. However, Cole, who made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League after signing with the Pirates, is the only one of the three who will be in major league camp this spring.

A solid 6-foot-4, the 21-year-old Cole can hit triple-digits on the radar gun, compliments that heat with a wicked slider and above-average changeup and expects to be on the fast track to the major leagues, starting with a full-season assignment in April.

The Big Question: Can Ian Stewart rebound from his lost 2011 season?

The first trade made by the Cubs' new front office, headed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, brought Stewart to Chicago as Aramis Ramirez's replacement at third base coming off a season in which Stewart hit .156/.243/.221 without a home run in 136 major league plate appearances. The price for Stewart wasn't high. Third-year outfielder Tyler Colvin was barely any better at .150/.204/.306 last year and is only five months younger than Stewart, while infielder DJ LeMahieu can hit for average but lacks power, patience, or a defensive home.

Still, Stewart didn't exactly set the world on fire even before his disastrous 2011 season. He has 20-homer power, but is an average fielder and hit a fairly pedestrian .246/.334/.454 in two and a half seasons as the Rockies third baseman from 2008 to 2010, that despite the fact that he was the rare Rockie who hit almost as well on the road as at home.

The good news on Stewart is that he hit .275/.359/.591 with 14 homers in 195 Triple-A plate appearances last year and it can be argued that the Rockies were too quick to demote him in April and again after just 24 plate appearances in May, given that one can point to injury and illness (sprained knee, hamstring, flu) as possible reasons for his early-season slump.

The Big Battle: Centerfield

The addition of rightfielder David DeJesus would seem to have signaled that the Cubs top prospect, centerfielder Brett Jackson, will start the 2012 season back in Triple-A. However, unlike first baseman Anthony Rizzo -- whom the front office has explicitly stated will start the season in the minors -- Jackson just might have a chance to break camp with the team. He could force incumbent centerfielder Marlon Byrd into a platoon with the left-handed DeJesus in rightfield or he could secure a bench role as a roving fourth outfielder.

The Big Prospect: Brett Jackson

Jackson, the team's first-round pick in 2009, is a five-tool centerfielder, though not necessarily a future superstar. A career .292/.393/.491 hitter in the minors, Jackson has 20-homer power, can steal a similar number of bases at a solid percentage, is a competent defensive centerfielder with a strong arm and will take his share of walks. He's also prone to strikeouts, though, which suggests he might not hit for much average in the majors, and he doesn't do any one thing at an elite level.

Still, the 23-year-old is the team's top prospect and hit .297/.388/.551 in 215 plate appearances after a mid-season promotion to Triple-A last year and could well be the Cubs' best outfielder from the get-go this year. He, Rizzo, and shortstop Starlin Castro are expected to give Epstein and Hoyer a young offensive core to build around, and Chicago's hope is that Rizzo and Jackson will join Castro in the majors by the second half of this season at the latest.

The Big Question: Who are these guys?

Of the eight men in the Astros projected 2012 lineup, just two -- veteran Carlos Lee and centerfielder Jason Bourgeois -- were on the team's Opening Day roster in 2011, and it's not as if the other six (as well as possible outfield alternates Brian Bogusevic and Jordan Schafer, neither of whom was on the 2011 Opening Day roster, either) were big-name additions or highly-touted prospects. Lee is the only one of the 17 hitters on the Astros 40-man roster to get enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in either of the last two seasons, and it's hard to look at that group and see it as anything other than a Triple-A lineup.

The Big Battle: Outfield

Lee is shifting to first base, and 24-year-old J.D. Martinez, arguably the top hitter among the group of young Astros who filled in the lineup late last year, will take his place in leftfield. Exactly who will be roaming the other two pastures, however, has yet to be decided. Fallen Braves prospect Schafer, who came over from Atlanta in the Michael Bourn trade, will battle the 30-year-old Bourgeois for the centerfield job, while Bogusevic, who turns 28 this weekend, will try to hold off 24-year-old rookie J.B. Shuck in rightfield.

Schafer, 25, was once considered the Braves' centerfielder of the future, but he hasn't hit at any level since 2008 and was busted for marijuana possession in October after hitting just .242/.309/.315 in 337 plate appearances for the Braves and Astros last year, his first major league action since 2009. Bourgeois isn't appreciably better and is already past his natural peak. Shuck is a hard-nosed player who will take a walk, but is unlikely to eke out a career as a major league starter given a dearth of other skills. Bogusevic was converted from pitching in 2008, which means he's younger in terms of development than his actual age, and is the best hitter of the quartet, but that's not saying much.

The Big Prospect: Jonathan Singleton

Acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade along with the organization's top pitching prospect, Jarred Cosart, who won't be in major league camp this spring, Singleton immediately became the Astros' top hitting prospect. The 20-year-old first baseman has hit .294/.393/.456 in two-plus minor league seasons as a teenager, topping out at High-A last year, and more power is expected from him as he matures. If that happens, he'll be a legitimate heart-of-the-order slugger, which is what he'll have to be given that he offers nothing in the field or on the bases.

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