Spring Training Preview: NL Central

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The NL Central is once again high on quantity -- it's the only division with six teams -- but low on quality. The Cubs and Brewers will battle for the flag again, with Chicago having the inside track as camps begin.

Where: Mesa, Arizona (Cactus League)

2007 record: 85-77 (1st, NL Central)

New guys:Jose Ascanio, Jon Lieber, Kosuke Fukudome

Gone guys:Cliff Floyd, Koyie Hill (NRI), Jacque Jones, Jason Kendall, Will Ohman, Angel Pagan, Mark Prior

Wow, he's still here?Felix Pie has been traded to Baltimore in a deal for Brian Roberts a thousand times in the media, and not once in MLB. With the Orioles having added Adam Jones, it would seem less likely that they'd acquire Pie, leaving the 23-year-old free to roam center field for the Cubs.

Winter grade: A-. Their only move of note -- signing Fukudome -- was a terrific one, giving them the OBP boost they sorely needed and solidifying a position, right field, that was a problem in 2007.

NRI (Non-Roster Invite) to watch: God bless him. Chad Fox, 37 and nearly three years removed from his last professional appearance, is in camp. Fox, who we used to describe as "effective when healthy," hasn't been either since 2003. Still, you have to root for a guy who wants it this badly.

Job battle to track: There's no obvious closer, as Ryan Dempster is being moved back to the rotation after a few years of relief. That leaves Kerry Wood, Bobby Howry and Carlos Marmol, all hard-throwing righties, grappling for the job. This seems like a good place for Piniella to recreate his 1990 Reds approach, with no closer and all three guys available for work from the seventh through the ninth.

One move to make: Slapping Piniella with a clue stick. Piniella, who has a lot of good qualities as a manager, indicated last week that his lineup would feature Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Theriot in the top two spots, with Fukudome fifth. The Cubs' biggest problems on offense have been not having enough runners on base for Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Hitting Fukudome behind those two is a waste of his talents. If Soriano has to bat leadoff because he's fast, fine; at least bat Fukudome second and Theriot down in the lineup where he belongs.

The Cubs return the good players from the division champions of 2007, and have upgraded in right field as well as added some depth. The middle infield is pretty lousy for a contending team, which is why the pursuit of Roberts, even at a cost of Pie, has made sense. It will be harder to hold off the Brewers this season, and even the Reds could make some noise if things break right. Still, you're looking at the favorites, part of the cluster of teams that can lay claim to being the second-best in the league behind the Mets.

Where: Sarasota, Florida, (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 72-90 (5th, NL Central)

New guys:Jeremy Affeldt, Francisco Cordero, Ramon Ramirez, Edinson Volquez

Gone guys:Josh Hamilton, Eric Milton, Kirk Saarloos

Wow, he's still here?Mike Stanton hadn't begun and ended a season with the same team since 2004, nor opened the season with the same team in consecutive years since then. He's achieved both with the Reds.

Winter grade: C+. The big move was the challenge trade of Hamilton for Volquez, which smacks of one team having more information than the other. It could also just be a case of selling high, and from depth, to shore up a weakness. The presence of the game's top prospect, Jay Bruce, made Hamilton expendable. In general, it was a very quiet winter for a 72-90 team. Adding Dusty Baker made headlines, but it's an open question as to what he brings to a team that will be relying heavily on young talent over the next few years.

NRI to watch: Bruce is in camp, and Ryan Freel is the listed starter in center field. You do the math.

Job battle to track: As much as the Reds love Scott Hatteberg's glove, Joey Votto seems ready for a major-league job. There's no platoon to be had here -- Votto swings from the left side, too -- so Baker has to choose one. Given Baker's history of preferring veterans, Hatteberg certainly has an inside track. This looks like Karros vs. Choi all over again.

One move to make: Few teams in baseball have as steep a drop in reliability from their top two starters to the rest of the rotation. Asking Homer Bailey, Matt Belisle or even Johnny Cueto to be a reliable No. 3 is a stretch. If the Reds could find that guy on the trade market or in free agency -- getting lucky with Bartolo Colon, or enticing Kyle Lohse to return on the cheap -- they'd solidify the team's biggest weak spot.

The Reds have been an ill-defined team for a while, never quite rebuilding, never quite being awful, never quite being a contender. That continues this year, for even as the products of the farm system make their way forward in Bruce, Bailey, Votto and Cueto, they've hired a manager, in Baker, whose signature trait is his preference for veterans. Despite Baker's reputation as a leader of men and a good manager, it still seems like his success was more about timing -- showing up in San Francisco when Barry Bonds did -- than anything he brought to the table. This job may settle the debate over him, once and for all.

Where: Kissimmee, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 73-89 (4th, NL Central)

New guys:Reggie Abercrombie, Michael Bourn, Doug Brocail, Jack Cassel, Darin Erstad, Geoff Geary, Kazuo Matsui, Chad Paronto, Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, Oscar Villarreal

Gone guys:Matt Albers, Josh Anderson, Craig Biggio, Eric Bruntlett, Chris Burke, Adam Everett, Jason Jennings, Mike Lamb, Brad Lidge, Mark Loretta, Trever Miller, Brian Moehler (NRI), Eric Munson, Orlando Palmeiro, Troy Patton, Chad Qualls, Luke Scott

Wow, he's still here? Are you kidding? Look at that list of "gone guys." Anyone who might have been disappeared was.

Winter grade: C. Getting Tejada for a package of middling prospects wasn't a bad idea. Letting Everett go so that Tejada could play shortstop, rather than third base, was. Trading Lidge for a true center fielder wasn't a bad idea. Adding Erstad after that was. It was that kind of offseason, a mix of decent primary moves and bad secondary ones.

NRI to watch:Tommy Manzella can play shortstop nearly as well as the departed Everett did. It's not likely that Cecil Cooper will keep him around to caddy for Tejada, but if you're down in Kissimmee and get the chance to see him play, do so.

Job battle to track: Is this the year that someone other than Brad Ausmus catches a majority of Astros games? J.R. Towles' big cup of coffee in September created that hope. Keep in mind, though, that a year ago Towles was a 23-year-old who'd yet to make it out of A ball. He does have good defensive tools, ones that should help him stay in the lineup even if his bat slips back to the .270-with-doubles level.

One move to make: Like the Reds, the Astros have a steep dropoff in the rotation, only theirs occurs between No. 1 and No. 2. Roy Oswalt is an ace on anyone's staff; Wandy Rodriguez is a No. 3/No. 4. Here, he's starting the second game of the season. The Astros don't have the kind of trade bait to acquire someone to fill that gap, nor does that pitcher exist in the market. Their move to make involves cloning.

By edict from ownership, Astros' GM Ed Wade played his hand this winter as if he had a contending team that just needed sprucing up, making a big move for a star, swapping out one closer and bringing in another, and signing a free agent to fill a hole. The problem is that even if those moves made the Astros five games better, that still only gets them to .500. Of the 11 roster spots spent on pitchers, only Oswalt, Valverde and maybe Rodriguez are more than filler. Two years ago, this roster might have worked in a weak division. Now, it's just not good enough.

Where: Phoenix, Arizona (Cactus League)

2007 record: 83-79 (2nd, NL Central)

New guys:Mike Cameron, Randy Choate, Eric Gagne, Gabe Kapler, Jason Kendall, Guillermo Mota, Eric Munson, David Riske, Salomon Torres

Gone guys:Francisco Cordero, Johnny Estrada, Tony Graffanino, Geoff Jenkins, Scott Linebrink, Kevin Mench, Damian Miller, Chris Spurling, Matt Wise

Wow, he's still here?Claudio Vargas would seem to have no job given the emergence of Yovani Gallardo, the return of Chris Capuano, and the presence of Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra. Nevertheless, he's still around.

Winter grade: B+. GM Doug Melvin was aggressive about rebuilding a bullpen that hurt the team badly last summer, and he did it without an overcommitment on contracts. The decision to sign Cameron has the effect of upgrading two spots on defense, correcting the team's biggest problem in '07.

NRI to watch: With Ryan Braun having moved from third base to left field, 2007 first-round pick Matt LaPorta is now blocked by young stars at all three positions he might have played. Watching him hit is a treat, though. He'll eventually put up some big seasons in the majors, just not in Milwaukee.

Job battle to track: Gagne is the nominal closer, brought in for $10 million to replace Cordero. The memory of Gagne's late-season collapse is fresh, however, and given the presence of Riske, Derrick Turnbow and Brian Shouse, all with success in short relief and each with specific skills, this job could be filled by a number of guys this year.

One move to make: The Brewers are the game's most right-handed team, with only Prince Fielder batting from the left side among their eight projected starters. One way to solve this would be to find a platoon partner at third base for Bill Hall, who absolutely should be platooned (career .310 OBP vs. RHP). A better one than Craig Counsell, at least.

This was supposed to be the Brewers' strike year, the year their young talent came together and produced a winner, perhaps the start of a mini-dynasty in the game's maxi-division. That could still happen, although the 2008 Cubs look a bit more formidable than they were projected to be. Still, this could be a 90-win team if it wins more of the bullpen bets than it loses, and if the payoff in signing Cameron shaves 40 runs off of its Runs Allowed, adding him makes third base better, too, although Milwaukee will give some runs back in left field as Braun learns the position. Whether they win this year or not, this is the most entertaining Brewers team in a quarter-century.

Where: Bradenton, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 68-94 (6th, NL Central)

New guys:Jimmy Barthmaier, Phil Dumatrait, Chris Gomez, Evan Meek, Ray Olmedo, Ty Taubenheim, Josh Wilson

Gone guys:Tony Armas Jr., Jose Castillo, Shawn Chacon, Cesar Izturis, Josh Phelps, Salomon Torres, Shane Youman

Wow, he's still here?John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington are still around, living tributes to just how bad this team was run in the early 2000s. Here's hoping no one writes the same thing about Daniel Moskos in 2014.

Winter grade: C-. I debated giving them an "S" for "shrug." Not that they had any reason to spend money or any trades to make, but GM Neal Huntington basically sat out his first offseason. I suspect that was the right decision, and am curious to see what he does with his trade chits in-season this year.

NRI to watch:Neil Walker isn't a catcher any longer, but he is a prospect, one who hit well at Double-A last season and has taken well to third base. Jose Bautista is the incumbent, but has never held a starting job for very long; Walker could win it outright this spring, or position himself to take it away by midsummer.

Job battle to track:Nyjer Morgan was the team's regular center fielder in September and played well enough that he goes into camp in a dead heat with Nate McLouth for the spot. Chris Duffy is also around, but an afterthought. McLouth also played well down the stretch last season, and one solution would be to have McLouth take over in right field while using Xavier Nady, whose production is insufficient for a corner man, as trade bait.

One move to make: Don't sign Adam LaRoche to a long-term deal. Signing the 30-year-old Freddy Sanchez was questionable, but given the unlikelihood of him triggering the 2010 option year, not a big deal. A comparable contract for LaRoche, who's had one good season, has no projection left and is eminently replaceable -- heck, move Nady there -- would be a bigger error.

The Pirates have, at least, stopped signing random veterans for no good reason. That's progress, and it's enabled players such as Morgan, McLouth, Bautista and Sanchez to establish themselves as contributors. The Pirates are still three or four years from relevance, and in fact, few players currently on the team will be around when they get there. The greatest value of the 2008 Pirates is in trade, and it will be up to Huntington to move aggressively to get value for Jack Wilson, Jason Bay and other members of the roster as best he can. This is a major rebuilding project; in fact, the biggest concern for Huntington will be if the Pirates start 28-24 or something, which they could do based on a strong bullpen and good top two starters. The last thing he needs is pressure to contend in 2008.

Where: Jupiter, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 78-84 (3rd, NL Central)

New guys:Matt Clement, Troy Glaus, Cesar Izturis, Jason LaRue

Gone guys:Gary Bennett, David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds, Mike Maroth, Troy Percival, Scott Rolen, So Taguchi, Kip Wells

Wow, he's still here? The entire bullpen. In an era when teams routinely turn over from two to five bullpen spots each season, the Cards return their top six guys in appearances, plus swingman Brad Thompson. Only Percival is gone, as a free agent to the Rays.

Winter grade: C-. The Rolen-for-Glaus deal was big in salaries and past performance, but doesn't change much for the Cardinals on the field. They didn't get very much back for Edmonds.

NRI to watch: The Cards have six non-roster catchers in camp, the best of which is 21-year-old Bryan Anderson, BP's No. 71 prospect. The recent signing of Yadier Molina to a long-term deal means that Anderson might be coming to your organization some day.

Job battle to track: Identifying three starting outfielders on this roster is not easy. If healthy, Chris Duncan will have at least half of the left-field job. Rick Ankiel has a line on a job, and we'll just note that he closed last year on a .220/.250/.330 run in his last 97 PA. Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick and Scott Spiezio and Josh Phelps are all battling for corner time. Colby Rasmus will clear this story up considerably once he's allowed to take over in center. That could happen in March, or not until June, but it will happen this season.

One move to make: The Cards need to not worry about 2008 all that much. There's nothing they can do at this point about the fact that they have an awful middle infield, no right fielder and Joel Pineiro as a No. 3 starter. This is going to be a tough season, and what will keep it from being a disaster is Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Rasmus.

Flags fly forever, so Cards fans inclined to be frustrated about the 2007 and 2008 campaigns should take a gander skyward and see theirs, freshly minted in 2006, blowing in the breeze. The aftermath of that season -- perhaps not dealing an Edmonds or a Rolen or an Eckstein when they had more value, perhaps a contract extension to a fragile pitcher in Chris Carpenter -- will be with the Cards for a while, but so will the afterglow. A new front office faces the challenge of a team with one star and one burgeoning one, and little else around which to build. It could be a few years before the Cards contend again, which inspires the question: When does Albert Pujols become a piece to be moved?