Only two teams in all of baseball had a better record than the National League Central champion Brewers last year -- the powerhouse Phillies and Yankees -- and the second-place Cardinals won the World Series.
Both those teams suffered big losses this winter, however, with Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis and Prince Fielder bolting from Milwaukee. As a result, the Brewers are expected to fall back toward the pack, while the Cardinals should survive the loss of Pujols for now thanks for the addition of rightfielder Carlos Beltran and the return of ace Adam Wainwright.
Meanwhile, the Reds, who won the division in 2010, are expected to climb back toward the top after adding a young ace in Mat Latos and installing rookie reinforcements in shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco. The bottom half of the division features three teams at different stages of rebuilding with bleak outlooks for the coming season, but reason for optimism over the long term, be it because of their emerging young talent, new front office braintrust, key draft opportunities, or a combination thereof.
WINTER GRADE: A-
The moves that will be reflected on the 25-man roster on Opening Day -- signing right fielder David DeJesus and lefty starter Paul Maholm, trading for third baseman Ian Stewart and righty starter Chris Volstad -- were uninspiring. However, the Cubs greatly improved the franchise's long-term outlook by importing two major front office talents in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, whom they lured away from general manger jobs with the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. Epstein and Hoyer, who previously partnered in the Red Sox's front office from 2002 to 2009, started slowly with the players above but also acquired 22-year-old former Red Sox and Padres first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo, who is expected to give the Cubs a middle-of-the-order slugger as soon as the second half of this year. They also brought satisfactory closure to the team's untenable relationship with Carlos Zambrano by convincing the Marlins to take the volatile starting pitcher for Chris Volstad (even if they had to pay most of Big Z's salary in the process).
KEY QUESTION: Will Starlin Castro mature or stagnate?
If there's a player for the Cubs to build around, it's Castro, a shortstop with a career .304/.343/.422 hitter after two full seasons in the majors who became the youngest player ever to lead the NL in hits last year while also making the All-Star team and stealing 22 bases. Castro just turned 22 last weekend, so there's significant time and opportunity for him to develop into a true star, but there are those who doubt his secondary hitting skills (power and patience) and his fielding, and still others who worry about his approach to the game, highlighted by this infamous clip of Castro not paying attention at shortstop as a pitch is delivered.
With regard to the last, it's important to remember just how young Castro is and while his mental approach needs to mature, it's far too early to label it problematic. As for his physical skills, Castro hit for more power and stole more bases at a better percentage as a sophomore last year than as a rookie in 2010, but advanced fielding metrics suggest his defense took a step back. The Cubs will be looking for Castro to show even more progress this season.
X-FACTOR: Brett Jackson
The team's top prospect and first-round pick in the 2009 draft, the 23-year-old Jackson will open the season as the centerfielder for Triple-A Iowa, but he looks major league ready after hitting .297/.388/.551 in 215 plate appearances after a mid-season promotion to Triple-A last year. Jackson has all the physical skills you'd want from a centerfielder. The only knock on him is that he strikes out too much.
It seems like only a matter of time (service time, that is) before Jackson takes over in center for the Cubs, pushing Marlon Byrd, who is in the last year of his contract, into a rightfield platoon with DeJesus or off the club entirely. Of course, the range of possibilities for Jackson's 2012 season is great. He could struggle or get hurt in Triple-A and get nothing more than a September call-up and a few spot starts, or he could rake in April and become an impact player in the majors as early as May, putting himself in contention for Rookie of the Year. The Cubs won't contend this year, but seeing Jackson, Castro and Rizzo together in the lineup in the second half should give their fans something to dream on.
"Changing the culture of that clubhouse is key. David DeJesus should help there. He's a professional player who knows how to play and play hard. Marlon Byrd has solid makeup. . . . This roster will flip quite a bit. They're in a complete rebuild mode. . . . Matt Garza needs to learn from Ryan Dempster; that's a guy who can pitch. Garza always pitches like his hair's on fire."
WINTER GRADE: A-
The Reds gave up a lot of young talent to get an ace in Mat Latos, but the potential reward is even greater. Closer-to-be Ryan Madson looked like the bargain of the winter until he succumbed to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, but that only made the trade for reliever Sean Marshall look better.
KEY QUESTION: How will Mat Latos do in a hitter's ballpark?
The Reds, who acquired Latos from the Padres back in December, have a real opportunity to reclaim their division this season but they'll need Latos to be a legitimate ace for that to happen. The 24-year-old righty clearly has the talent to fill that role, but that talent could be undermined by his new ballpark. Latos is a fly-ball pitcher and is leaving a home stadium in Petco Park that, according to the 2012 Bill James Handbook, had a home run park factor of 82 (100 being neutral) over the last three seasons for one that had a home run park factor of 122 over the same span. The good news is that Latos's ground ball rate is way up this spring (1.67 groundouts for every air out, per MLB.com, compared to less than 1.00 each of the last two springs).
X-FACTOR: Aroldis Chapman
The Reds stretched the Cuban Missile out as a starter this spring with outstanding results. Chapman, famous for his 105 mile per hour fastball, traded some velocity for command and excelled in the role, but with Opening Day around the corner, word is the Reds plan to not only keep Chapman in the bullpen, but to use him primarily as Marshall's set-up man, or as part of a closer-by-committee approach to replacing Madson.
If Chapman does eventually find his way into the rotation, he and Latos could prove to be the difference in the division, but if Chapman is stuck pitching 50-odd eighth innings and a handful of ninths, he won't have nearly the impact, and the Reds will be passing 150-odd innings off to lesser pitchers.
"This is a good team, and they're going all-in... With Fielder and Pujols in the A.L., it's pretty clear who the best first baseman in the N.L. is, and it's Joey Votto... Drew Stubbs can fly, and he can hit it out of the park, too. If he ever makes more contact, he's off the charts, a premium centerfielder. He should be more of a 15 home run guy and hit for a better average -- stop pulling off balls, trying to hit them way up in the stands... Mat Latos should have a lot of success pitching in that small ballpark. Even though he's a fly ball guy, he's a strikeout guy. This is big time, big time stuff... They've got a great pitching coach -- Brian Price is outstanding. I think he'll help Aroldis Chapman figure it out. When he was with the Cuban national team, he started but they pitched him like a reliever -- just go out and throw as hard as you can for three of four innings, and we'll bring the older guys in. He's got to fix that mindset, and it's maybe the greatest arm in baseball, and at some point they should have him start."
WINTER GRADE: B
Like the Cubs, the Astros' key offseason moves came in the front office. Barely more than a fortnight after the sale of the team to Jim Crane was approved in late November, Crane hired long-time Cardinals vice president Jeff Luhnow, a scouting and development specialist who, in turn, hired a bevy of leading statistical analysts to give his team the best of both worlds. Luhnow quickly swapped newly-minted closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox for a couple of low-ceiling major leaguers in shortstop Jed Lowrie and righty starter Kyle Weiland, but otherwise remained largely quiet. His best move thus far may have been leveraging the Royals' spring training catcher injuries to land lefty relief prospect Kevin Chapman and a player to be named later for outfielder Jason Bourgeois and catcher Humberto Quintero, but the most important part of Luhnow's job will come on draft day.
KEY QUESTION: Will Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Carlos Lee be traded?
Houston's major league roster has been stripped almost bare. Those three veterans remain, and each has greater value to the organization as a trade chit than as a player on the field.
Lee is in the final year of his contract and could have some value as a right-handed designated hitter for a contending club. Rodriguez is owed $13 million for 2013 and has an option of identical value that would become a player option if he's traded. That likely $26 million commitment hurts his trade value -- it reportedly kept the Yankees from acquiring him last year -- but a strong first half could change some minds. Myers was taken out of the rotation and made the team's closer as camp opened this spring, an idea initiated by Lunhow. That makes Myers less valuable to the Astros but could actually increase his value on the trade market given his middling performance in the rotation last year. He has a $10 million option for next year that can vest based on his total of games finished (it was based on starts before the conversion).
X-FACTOR: The top pick
The Astros have the first overall pick in this June's amateur draft, and there are few organizations in more desperate need of the sort of superstar talent such a pick can produce. However, unlike in recent years when the likes of Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg where clear choices for that first pick, this year offers no such break-out talent.
That makes Crane's hiring of Luhnow all the more astute. The Astros could very well draft first again next year, but that doesn't mean they can afford to blow the opportunity they have this year. Well-deployed top draft picks are what helped pull the Rays out of the AL East cellar and helped stock the Royals' farm system, which was considered one of the best in recent memory a year ago, before those players started graduating to the majors. The Astros are the new worst team in baseball and need to take a similar road back to respectability.
"Brett Myers is not a typical closer but he's their best option, which is about all you can saw. . . . The rest of the bullpen is very vanilla. . . . The Astros won't score much and they'll give up a bunch too."
WINTER GRADE: C-
The Brewers couldn't afford to keep Prince Fielder, so it's hard to criticize them for losing him, and signing Aramis Ramirez to upgrade third base was a good first step toward replacing him, but that was the extent of Milwaukee's moves.
Carlos Peña would have fit wonderfully, as would have an upgrade at shortstop, but neither materialized, nor did an extension for starter Zack Greinke, who could prove to be the next star they can't afford to keep.
Instead, the one player they did shell out big money for, Ryan Braun, got embroiled in a major controversy this offseason. Speaking of . . .
KEY QUESTION: Did the positive drug test and the resulting controversy get into Ryan Braun's head?
Spring training statistics rarely mean anything, but Brewers fans have to be a little freaked out about the fact that Braun is hitting just .161 with two extra-base hits in 31 at-bats in camp. It's hard to imagine that Braun will enter the season with a clear head. Whereas his MVP win should have been a validation of his talent, one worries that Braun feels the need to go out and validate the award by putting up an identical season to prove that the first didn't come thanks to a pill or a syringe. Braun's 2011 season wasn't wildly out of line with his previous career performance, but it was a career year, the likes of which would typically be followed by some regression. Add the pressure of keeping the offense afloat without Fielder and the weight on Braun's shoulders must be immense.
X-FACTOR: Mat Gamel
Gamel opens the season as the Brewers' first baseman and will be charged will making up the portion of Fielder's production not covered by Ramirez. If Ramirez can repeat his 2011 performance, that should be achievable, something on the order of a win and a half above replacement per Baseball-Reference.com's WAR. If Ramirez struggles or gets hurt, however, Gamel's burden increases.
Gamel has the potential to get the job done. He's a career .301/.374/.512 hitter in 1,247 plate appearances at Triple-A, and surpassed that line at that level last year while transitioning from third base to first. However, he's also 26, a career .222/.309/.374 hitter in the major leagues (admittedly in just 194 PAs), and three years removed from being rated the 34th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Also, the Brewers seem unlikely to let him start against lefties despite lacking a solid righthander to replace him in the lineup (moving Corey Hart to first base would just require another lefty in the outfield, and will also have to wait until Hart returns from knee surgery). If Gamel can be productive and shake that platoon tag, the Brewers could repeat as division champs. If he's a bust, they could miss the playoffs entirely.
"Ryan Braun's only going to get better. He wants to be liked and he's going to hear some boos. There's going to be a target on his back but he has to have a big year. . . . Aramiz Ramirez is a good pick up. He'll be motivated. I think he could hit 25-30 HRs but he's no replacement for Prince Fielder. Mat Gamel's in a tough spot trying to replace Prince, too. He has a chance to his 270 with 18 to 22 HRs. He can be streaky at times but he's got bat speed and has a chance to be a solid player just not a star. . . . Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford give them an outstanding options in the eighth and ninth. That's where they could still be very tough. I could see them winning this division again."
WINTER GRADE: A-
The Pirates didn't turn themselves into contenders over the winter, but that wasn't really a possibility. What they did do was lock up their star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen into his early 30s, which alone gives the Pirates high marks. The cheap, one-year deal they gave to Erik Bedard, a pitcher who is very good when healthy and could be flipped for talent at the deadline (last year, he netted Trayvon Robinson for the Mariners), was also smart. The "minus" is for A.J. Burnett, Casey McGehee, and Nate McLouth, three upside plays that seem to have little upside, and for giving Clint Barmes a two-year deal that cracked eight figures.
KEY QUESTION: Which version of the Pirates will show up?
Last year, Pittsburgh went 42-37 from May through July and briefly took over first place after the All-Star break, but was just 18-38 to finish the season. The difference was run prevention. Through the end of July, the Pirates allowed just 3.9 runs per game. Over the final two months, they allowed 5.4 runs per game.
What happened was a near total collapse of the Bucs' starting rotation. Paul Maholm's season was ended by a shoulder strain in mid-August. Kevin Correia went 11-6 with a 3.74 ERA through July 3, but just 2-6, 7.68 thereafter before an oblique injury ended his season in mid-August. Jeff Karstens went 8-5 with a 2.49 ERA through the end of July but just 1-4, 6.56 thereafter amid shoulder soreness of his own.
The bad news is that Correia and Karstens were pitching over their heads in the first half and Maholm, whose option was declined, is now a Cub. Worse yet, Charlie Morton, one of the two Pirates starters who remained consistent down the stretch, will open the season on the disabled list as he's still recovering from October hip labrum surgery, as will Burnett, acquired as a change-of-scenery gamble only to suffer a fractured orbital bone in bunting practice during his first week in camp. Morton could be ready by mid-April, and Bedard will help if he can stay healthy, but don't expect much from Karstens and Correia, nor from Burnett, who has been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons.
X-FACTOR: Pedro Alvarez
Alvarez was the Pirates' "Big Question" coming into camp, and thus far the answer he has provided has not been the one the Pirates wanted to hear. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez entered 2010 as the eighth-best prospect in baseball, reached the majors in mid-June of that year, and hit .306/.355/.577 that September. Then last year it all fell apart. Around injuries and demotions, he finished the season with a 56 OPS+ (100 is average), the 10th-worst mark among hitters with 250 or more plate appearances last season.
This spring, he's hitting just .167/.182/.310 with two extra-base hits and one walk in 42 at-bats. Alvarez was supposed to be one of the best hitters in baseball, not one of the worst. McCutchen is fulfilling his potential and the farm system is stacked with potential ace pitchers, but if Alvarez, now 25, isn't able to find himself soon, the rebuilt Pirates could be missing a key structural support.
"Eventaully they've got to start winning some games and not just for a couple months. . . A key for them could be Casey McGahee. If he rebounds a little bit he could end up beating out Pedro Alvarez at third base. . . . Alvarez might always be a low-.200s hitter with some power. He also has to work on his defense, making the routine play. He's getting real close to being a guy they'll have to move to first base. . . All of their starting pitchers are middle-of-the-rotation guys. There are no No. 1 or 2 pitchers there."
WINTER GRADE: B-
Did the Cardinals lose one of the best hitters in baseball history or avoid an albatross of a contract that could have tied their hands for the next decade? Chances are that the second half of Albert Pujols' career will fail to live up to the impossible standard of the first half, making the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Angels a burden, but there's a lot of gray area in there. Extending Lance Berkman in September and singing Carlos Beltran to replace Berkman in right could go a long way toward filling the hole left by Albert, but then Beltran, the younger of the two, will be 35 in late April and both have had significant performance fluctuations in recent years.
Using the Pujols savings to extend catcher Yadier Molina into his mid-30s at roughly $15 million a year was a questionable move given how catchers age, the mileage Molina already has on him and the fact that he's coming off a career year with the bat. The Cardinals also replaced one of the winningest managers in major league history in Tony La Russa with a man who has never managed or coached at any level in Mike Matheny. Any of those moves could go either way, thus the middling grade.
KEY QUESTION: Can Lance Berkman do it again?
This question could have been about Adam Wainwright's return from a season lost to Tommy John surgery, but I have fewer concerns about Wainwright's ability to recover a significant amount of his pre-surgery value than I do about what Berkman's age-36 season will look like. Certainly, Berkman should regress some from what was his best season since 2008, but how much? Was his 2011 season a comeback or a last gasp? Was his weak 2010 really just a slow recovery from that March's knee surgery? What of the fact that he hit just seven home runs in the second half of 2011 and slugged .438 in the playoffs?
Nagging wrist and shoulder injuries contributed to that power outage, but those aren't the kind of injuries that his move to first base are likely to help, particularly given that they were on his glove side. Berkman is a key part of the Cardinals' attempt to survive Pujols' departure. Significant regression on his part could be deadly in what promises to be a tight race.
X-FACTOR: Chris Carpenter
Carpenter, the Cardinals ace a year ago and a major reason that they won their 11th world championship, was supposed to be a given for this team, but a stiff neck in camp led to a diagnosis of nerve irritation in his pitching shoulder and an open-ended disabled list stay to start the season. If Carpenter spends a significant amount of time on the shelf, or struggles upon his return, that will undermine the return of Wainwright, whose added run prevention was supposed to help balance the loss of Pujols' run creation. It could also open the door for the Reds or Brewers to take the division. If Carpenter returns quickly and effectively, however, the Cardinals could be in the driver's seat in the Central even without their departed superstar slugger.
"The biggest concern right now is Chris Carpenter. If he can't return until late in the season they're in trouble. . . . Their lineup's not as good but how can you take Albert Pujols out and be as good? . . . I think they'll struggle a bit. They don't have the kind of team you need to repeat."