Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Today, the National League Central (in alphabetical order).
First impression: On one hand, no team has an easier path to the postseason than the Cubs, who are real Champagne to the rest of the division's Miller High Life. On the other, no team has a more tortured existence when it gets to the playoffs than the Cubs, and last season was no exception. Chicago brought in Milton Bradley to combat its lineup's right-handedness, and replaced Kerry Wood with Kevin Gregg. Subtract Mark DeRosa, too, and pretty much everything is the same. The rotation is there. The lineup. The bullpen. Everything is on the Cubs' side, really. Except history.
Competition: The Cubs owe Kosuke Fukudome $38 million over the next three years, so they're going to give him every chance possible to wrest the center-field job from Reed Johnson. Sean Marshall and Aaron Heilman will battle for the fifth-starter spot and Aaron Miles will try to unseat Mike Fontenot at second base. The most interesting battle, though, will be for the leadoff spot, which manager Lou Piniella plans to vacate by moving Alfonso Soriano down in the lineup.
Hot Seat: The last time Rich Harden pitched 150 innings was 2004, when he was 22. He's now 27, coming off the best almost-full season of his career: a 2.07 ERA in 148 innings. During the final three months with the Cubs, Harden allowed only 39 hits in 71 innings. If he can stay healthy, Harden is a legitimate No. 1 starter, the kind that makes the Cubs even more dangerous.
Next: Where Jeff Samardzija lands ultimately – toward the back end of the bullpen, a role in which he excelled last season, or in the rotation – isn't clear right now. What is: He's a power right-hander with a devastating sinker whose initial success shouldn't be mistaken for guaranteed dominance. First, he needs to figure out where that fastball is going.
First impression: If any team in the Central can give the Cubs fits, it's the pitching-rich Reds. Each starter comes with a caveat, of course: Aaron Harang, if he returns to form; Edinson Volquez, if he maintains last season's electric stuff; Bronson Arroyo, if he can pitch well on the road (after looking good, of all places, at Great American Ball Park); and Johnny Cueto, if he grows into his great arm. The Reds can hit for power, too. Whether they can muster enough offense from their kid-filled lineup full of bad on-base guys – Brandon Phillips, Edwin Encarnacion and newcomer Willy Taveras chief among them – will determine the difference between second and fifth place.
Competition: Taveras, who signed a two-year deal after Colorado cut him, should keep center field warm until he plays his way out of the lineup. (Though, as Corey Patterson twice showed, Dusty Baker has an affinity for leadoff men who have on-base allergies.) The only other spot of intrigue is at fifth starter, where Micah Owings will try to hold off Homer Bailey.
Hot Seat: Now that Baker has had his year to espouse his antiquated ideas about statistics – mainly, that they're bunk – he gets to test his theory in an environment even more sabermetrically charged than the one he left in Chicago. Somehow he finagled a three-year deal out of the Reds. It's time to prove he's worthy of it.
Next: Drew Stubbs and his mighty speed are poised to take over in center field by July or so, and Chris Valaika could solve the revolving shortstop door by late in the season as well. And there's always Bailey, so tantalizing in the minor leagues and so frustrating once he crosses the state line from Kentucky into Ohio.
First impression: Randy Wolf should lead this list, because he was the Astros' No. 1 offseason target. And, uh, oops. The market crashed, Drayton McLane got tight with his money, and the Astros instead turned to Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Aaron Boone to bolster a team that needs quite a bit more. The Astros' pitching remains tenuous, their hitting hit-and-miss, and anytime you've got a third-base competition between Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone, well, that doesn't speak terribly well.
Competition: Blum. Boone. Spring training '09. Be there.
Hot Seat: A pair of kids, Michael Bourn and J.R. Towles. Bourn is a blazer in center field … and, so far, that's it. Towles, a catcher, was probably the worst hitter in the big leagues last season. In 146 at-bats, he hit .137. That is difficult.
Next: Thankfully, the Astros' farm system is stocked. Oh, wait. McLane has spent years cheaping out in the draft and internationally, too. So the only prospect close to the big leagues worth talking about is Brian Bogusevic, who turns 25 in a couple weeks and was a pitcher until last season. He did hit .371 in 124 at-bats in Class A and could replace Bourn midseason.
First impression: Welcome, Trevor Hoffman, to Milwaukee, which is pretty much the opposite of San Diego in every fashion possible. It's a nice fit, actually, as the baby Brewers need some sort of stabilizing figure after losing CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency. The chances of the playoffs this year are accordingly slim, though with that lineup – Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Mike Cameron, Bill Hall and Mat Gamel on his way – anything can happen.
Competition: Losing a pair such as Sabathia and Sheets will throw a rotation into flux, and though Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra are stars in the making, backing them up with a rapidly aging Jeff Suppan, the inconsistent Dave Bush and a pick 'em between Seth McClung and Chris Capuano inspires little confidence.
Hot Seat: Perhaps everyone set expectations too high because of the waggle. Rickie Weeks' nervous pre-swing wrist twitching makes him look like the second coming of Gary Sheffield. Never has that materialized, and it's coming to the point where the 26-year-old needs to figure out how to hit – and with where his defense once was, who'd have thought that was his issue? – or restart his career elsewhere.
Next: Even after shipping out four prospects to acquire Sabathia, the Brewers' farm system is far from the Jack Zduriencik days. Alcides Escobar is valedictorian and a rightful shortstop heir for when Hardy gets too expensive. He might have an 80 arm on scouts' 20-to-80 scale, and his bat caught up last year, as his 179 hits were the most in Double-A.
First impression: The new Pittsburgh Pirates are a lot like … the old Pittsburgh Pirates. The culture has changed with new president Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington, certainly, though the on-field product is lagging behind. Pittsburgh's big offseason moves were signing Ramon Vazquez and Eric Hinske. The Pirates are in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't situation: Excessive spending seems egregious for a team that won't compete, while mild spending seems cheap. The perception war won't end until the Pirates win – and that doesn't figure to be anytime soon.
Competition: Most positions are solid, the bullpen's middle excepted. That's a good thing, usually. If players are entrenched in spots and they're simply no good, though?
Hot Seat: Andy LaRoche joined his brother, Pirates first baseman Adam, in the three-way deal last year which sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles. In his final two months, he hit .152 and slugged .232 in 164 at-bats. The level of incompetence was staggering. It's been the story of LaRoche's career: kill minor-league pitching, flail at major-league pitching. If he's not ready, Pedro Alvarez is moving fast and could take over at third base (unless he eats himself off the position), which could allow LaRoche a slight reprieve.
Next: Andrew McCutchen is moving quickly and could force Nate McLouth to left field, which would push Brandon Moss out of his first real playing time. And then there's Alvarez. Between the contract spat and him showing up to minicamp looking like he'd swallowed a pony keg, he's made a bad impression on Pirates management. But he hits. And for players to whom it comes so naturally, the bosses swallow their tongues.
First impression: While the National League's surprise team faded in September, the Cardinals' prior accomplishments were impressive enough. Albert Pujols is now officially the best player in baseball who hasn't been exposed with a positive drug test, and he was simply the best last year, period. A healthy Chris Carpenter – oxymoron though that may be – would look very nice in a rotation with Adam Wainwright and Dave Duncan's rejuvenated trio of Todd Wellemeyer, Kyle Lohse and Joel Pineiro.
Competition: Rookie Chris Perez was dynamite out of the bullpen, and now that Jason Isringhausen is gone, Perez gets to fight with Ryan Franklin to close. Another possibility: rookie Jason Motte, a catcher-turned-pitcher who struck out 110 in 66 2/3 innings at Triple-A last year.
Hot Seat: Since he signed a $63.5 million extension, Carpenter has thrown 20 1/3 innings and been paid $19 million. That is a healthy $311,475.41 per out. Given that $44.5 million remains on the deal's final three years, Carpenter stands to be one of the rare long-term mistakes the Cardinals make.
Next: Lots, though first comes Colby Rasmus. GM John Mozeliak has done a superb job of refreshing what recently was a bereft farm system, and between Rasmus and last year's first-round pick, Brett Wallace, the Cardinals' lineup could be dynamite for years.