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NL Central hot-stove primer

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

Baseball's winter meetings begin Monday in Indianapolis. Yahoo! Sports will go division by division, providing a primer on each team's needs and ability to satisfy them.

National League Central

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Holes to fill: Trading for Matt Holliday(notes) to bat behind Albert Pujols(notes) propelled the Cardinals to the playoffs. Now they must find a suitable replacement because it doesn't appear they will be willing to pay what it will take to re-sign Holliday. Other housekeeping includes replacing Joel Pineiro(notes) in the starting rotation, adding a third baseman and shoring up the bullpen.

Trade winds: Deals that brought in Holliday and Mark DeRosa(notes) but depleted the farm system didn't result in a World Series appearance. The Cardinals might adopt a different approach and try to fill needs this time around. They stand to get draft picks if Holliday, DeRosa and Pineiro sign elsewhere.

Cash considerations: The Cardinals have pledged to hold fast to a $100 million payroll cap next season and in the foreseeable future. With Pujols looking at an extension after the 2011 season, GM John Mozeliak won't box himself into a corner by spending too much this offseason.

By spring training … New hitting coach Mark McGwire will be ducking reporters unless they want to talk about the merits of soft toss vs. tee work.

CHICAGO CUBS

Holes to fill: The primary need is the same as it was a year ago: a productive outfielder. The Cubs thought they filled it with Milton Bradley(notes), but are back to square one and $30 million poorer unless GM Jim Hendry softens and gives the disruptive outfielder another chance. Signing John Grabow(notes) to a two-year deal solidified the bullpen.

Trade winds: Unloading Bradley is a top priority, and the Cubs are resigned to eating most of the $21 million he is owed the next two years. Arbitration-eligible reliever Aaron Heilman(notes) was traded, as were marginal infielders Jake Fox(notes) and Aaron Miles(notes).

Cash considerations: Shedding money off what is already a team-record $135 million payroll will be difficult if the Cubs want to contend.

By spring training … Starlin Castro(notes) will get a long look at shortstop and could win the job days after turning 20 if hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo believes he is ready.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Holes to fill: Milwaukee is already dabbling in the market, signing veteran catcher Gregg Zaun(notes) to replace Jason Kendall(notes) and making a formal offer to re-sign infielder Craig Counsell(notes). Both players will be 39 when the season starts. If Counsell signs elsewhere, the Brewers would be looking for a reliable middle infielder in case rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar(notes) flops or second baseman Rickie Weeks(notes) is slow coming back from a wrist injury. Adding one or two starting pitchers is also on the to-do list.

Trade winds: The Brewers are more likely to wade into the mid-range free-agent market for pitching and infield depth than to part with a major piece or top prospect. If they do go the trade route for pitching, third base prospect Mat Gamel(notes) might be dangled because Casey McGehee(notes) is ahead of him at the position.

Cash considerations: Assuming they are fine with an $80 million payroll again, the Brewers have a tad more than $10 million to spend on free agents for 2010. That puts them in better position to sign a pitcher than several of their division competitors.

By spring training … rookies Jonathan Lucroy(notes) and Angel Salome(notes) will both prove ready to split time with Zaun behind the plate.

CINCINNATI REDS

Holes to fill: Think tinker, not overhaul. The Reds are set around the horn if they can live with slick-fielding shortstop Paul Janish's(notes) weak bat. Signing a mid-range veteran left fielder to a one-year deal is a possibility.

Trade winds: Trading Francisco Cordero(notes) and the $25 million he is owed the next two years will be difficult because of the glut of free-agent closers. It might be easier to deal either Aaron Harang(notes) or Bronson Arroyo(notes) (both of whom make at least $11 million in 2010) for a top-of-the-order hitter, but moving either pitcher creates a gaping hole in a rotation already thin because Edinson Volquez(notes) won't be ready for opening day after having Tommy John surgery.

Cash considerations: Because of arbitration raises, the Reds are already at the same $74 million payroll mark they were last season. So, forget about any free-agent splurging.

By spring training … Joey Votto(notes) will be primed for an MVP-caliber season.

HOUSTON ASTROS

Holes to fill: Relief pitching is the primary need since closer Jose Valverde(notes) and set-up reliever LaTroy Hawkins(notes) became free agents. The Astros are seeking a cheaper alternative for Valverde (J.J. Putz(notes) is a strong possibility) but are trying to re-sign Hawkins. They also wouldn't mind bringing back shortstop Miguel Tejada(notes) to play third base.

Trade winds: The Astros are excited about several prospects and don't want to part with them. Furthermore, their high-priced veterans have no-trade clauses, so don't expect a blockbuster.

Cash considerations: A payroll that ballooned to $107 million last year is expected to shrink under $100 million, not an easy task when three players (Carlos Lee(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes)) combine for $48 million.

By spring training … Jason Castro will make a strong bid to seize the catching job from Humberto Quintero(notes) and J.R. Towles(notes).

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Holes to fill: Consider Pittsburgh a hungry man who must wait until everyone at the dinner table is stuffed before grabbing a few scraps of food. The Pirates have below-average players at nearly every position, but no money to upgrade. High-risk, low-cost players such as Rick Ankiel(notes), Noah Lowry(notes) and J.J. Putz are about all GM Neal Huntington can chase.

Trade winds: Second baseman Akinori Iwamura(notes) was acquired from Tampa Bay for right-handed reliever Jesse Chavez(notes) shortly after the season. That might be Pittsburgh's only deal unless they decide to trade catcher Ryan Doumit(notes) or starters Paul Maholm(notes) and Zach Duke(notes). Otherwise, there's nobody left to unload.

Cash considerations: Last year's modest $48 million payroll will be trimmed. The Pirates are strictly low budget. At least they are making strides in their farm system after years of blowing high-round picks. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez could be the face of the franchise within a year.

By spring training … The Pirates will already be looking squarely at an 18th consecutive losing season.