Division tour: NL Central

The flush New York Yankees once established that a $200 million payroll will get you close but not necessarily win it all, and now the downtrodden Chicago Cubs will examine the impact of $300 million spent in a single offseason.

In the months after the St. Louis Cardinals turned 83 wins in this division into a World Series championship, the Cubs declared themselves all in and pushed as much money across the table as Tribune would allow. That meant more bats and more arms and a new guy to run things, even if it wouldn't necessarily get them the division's best defense (Cardinals), best starting rotation (Milwaukee Brewers) or even the best manager (Cardinals), though the offense should be a real, uh, bear.

Anyway, the next seven months will be spent gauging the Cubs' dynamic winter, its immediate impact on a last-place finish, and its broader influence on nearly a century without a championship. One thing is for sure: Baseball is a more interesting place when the Cubs are contending, or thinking they can.

Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs

First impression: Of all the fresh starts and new guys on the field come opening day (April 2 in Cincinnati), perhaps none will have the impact of Derrek Lee, an exceptional and elegant hitter who basically lost his 2006 season when he broke his wrist in an April collision with Rafael Furcal. Alfonso Soriano apparently will bat leadoff and play center field, though the Cubs still are considering his ideal position. If they trade Jacques Jones, Soriano could relocate into one of the corners. He should hit plenty of home runs at Wrigley Field, but expect his 2006 on-base percentage – a career-best .351 – to fall; he was intentionally walked 16 times with the Washington Nationals last season, or one more than in his previous seven years combined.

Competition: Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and probably Rich Hill are set at the top end of the rotation, and the Cubs presumably didn't spend $21 million on Jason Marquis to make him a long man. So, the final spot goes to Mark Prior or Wade Miller, whoever's healthy (or healthier). Sean Marshall could also get an opportunity here. Cliff Floyd either makes a run at Matt Murton's job in left or becomes the fourth outfielder. The middle infield appears set with Cesar Izturis at short and Mark DeRosa at second, leaving Ronny Cedeno in a utility role with Ryan Theriot.

Healing: The usual suspects: Prior and Kerry Wood. Wood has taken his career to the bullpen, where he could develop into anything from a middle reliever to a closer. Floyd had surgery on his Achilles' in late October.

Next: Felix Pie, the lanky Dominican outfielder who possesses power, speed and a tendency to strike out, spent all of last season at Triple-A Iowa. He looks to be headed back.


Cincinnati Reds

First impression: It surely is a long shot, but amid the Reds who are familiar by face or name or game, Josh Hamilton – working on life phase No. 2 or 3 or 4 – will be trying to win a job. He is 25 years old, aged as outfield prospects go. He has played 15 games in four years, all for the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Penn League late last season. He is in camp as a Rule 5 flier, giving him six weeks to find a place amid Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Ryan Freel, Bubba Crosby, Jeff Conine and Chris Denorfia. In a "The Natural" scenario, Hamilton reclaims his unattended baseball tools, takes center field, and the Reds move the 37-year-old Griffey to right. More likely, Hamilton has his moments, isn't nearly ready for the big leagues, and he returns to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for another year or two in the minors.

Competition: Kirk Saarloos, the right-handed sinkerballer who was so versatile the past two seasons for the Oakland Athletics, has a good chance to fill out the Reds' rotation behind Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, Eric Milton and Kyle Lohse. Right-handers Matt Belisle, Elizardo Ramirez (recovered from shoulder tendinitis) and Homer Bailey also have a shot. David Weathers, Mike Stanton and Todd Coffey will be considered for the closer's role.

Healing: Milton is back from elbow surgery and in the final year of his contract. Griffey has healed from a broken hand suffered in the offseason. Reliever Eddie Guardado, back as a non-roster player, had Tommy John surgery in September and isn't expected to pitch until late summer.

Next: Bailey, at 20 one of the top pitching prospects in the game, had a 1.59 ERA in 13 Double-A starts in 2006. He possesses a mid-90's fastball, which is a good start, but the Reds would like to see more consistency in his off-speed pitches.


Houston Astros

First impression: Richard Hidalgo wandered out of Baltimore Orioles camp last spring and, at 30, seemed destined for retirement. But, after a season out of the game, he got after it in the Venezuelan winter league (where he played for Al Pedrique, a special assistant to Astros GM Tim Purpura) and is back in Houston, where he spent the first 7½ years of his career. Hidalgo has a good chance to win a three-way battle with Luke Scott and Jason Lane for right field. He'd also be a candidate to protect Carlos Lee offensively, giving the Astros a pretty good Lance Berkman-Lee-Hidalgo middle of the order.

Competition: Like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Astros are building their rotation assuming Roger Clemens won't pitch again, but with one eye on the telephone. After Roy Oswalt, they've rebuilt the top of their rotation with right-handers Jason Jennings and Woody Williams. Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez is a good bet to win the fourth spot. Chris Sampson and Fernando Nieve, with some competition from veteran Brian Moehler, vie for the fifth. The Astros also are considering adding Steve Trachsel. Third base is Morgan Ensberg's to lose. If he does, Mike Lamb or Mark Loretta will step in.

Healing: Brandon Backe underwent Tommy John surgery in September and could return before the end of the season. Utilityman Chris Burke, a favorite of Astros Manager Phil Garner, has recovered from shoulder surgery.

Next: Venezuelan right-hander Paul Estrada, 24, had a solid year at Double-A Corpus Christi and followed up with more of the same in the Venezuelan winter league. He could help fill out the bullpen.


Milwaukee Brewers

First impression: The Brewers haven't finished with a winning record since 1992, the first year of the Phil Garner era and the last year Bud Selig was just the owner of the franchise and not the owner/commissioner. Now, with Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas, it appears they've assembled a quality starting rotation, assuming Sheets' shoulder holds up. They upgraded one of the league's least productive offenses with switch-hitting catcher Johnny Estrada, and otherwise will rely on Prince Fielder, Bill Hall (35 home runs, up from a previous career-high of 17) and Geoff Jenkins, who had a big September, wasn't traded, and apparently will be back for his 10th season in Milwaukee.

Competition: The Brewers have plenty of outfielders, the only sure job being Hall's in center field. The most likely scenario has Corey Hart in left field and Jenkins in right, though Kevin Mench could win left field outright, Hart could win right field outright, or Jenkins and Mench could platoon in one corner. Gabe Gross, who hit .294 in 187 at-bats against right-handers, won't be forgotten, either.

Healing: Corey Koskie continues to suffer from post-concussion syndrome, which already has cost him half a season and threatens at least some of this one as well. Veterans Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell will compete for playing time at third base, a situation that could become a platoon.

Next: Ryan Braun, 23, is the longshot candidate at third base if Koskie is unable to perform. He hit .303 with 15 home runs and 40 RBI in 59 games in the Southern League last season.


Pittsburgh Pirates

First impression: Without getting too carried away, there is a place for optimism in Pittsburgh. The Pirates played their final 72 games two games over .500, then dealt from a strength (closer Mike Gonzalez) to acquire Adam LaRoche from the Atlanta Braves and build up an offense that was last in the league in scoring and home runs. Their pitching, which actually was decent in areas, is generally young and talented, with more on the way. They have a batting champion on one corner of the infield and a 30-plus homer guy on the other, power hitters on the outfield corners and decent defense – with a chance to get better – in the middle.

Competition: Pirates management is asking more of second baseman Jose Castillo, who got heavy, had his batting average fall to .253 and his errors climb to 18. If the problems persist, manager Jim Tracy has the option to move Freddy Sanchez to second and Jose Bautista to third. He would prefer to keep Bautista as a super-utilityman. The first four places in the rotation go to Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny. The fifth looks to be between Tony Armas Jr., Shawn Chacon and 27-year-old left-hander Shane Youman, who made five late-season appearances in 2006.

Healing: The Pirates have no serious injuries. Left fielder Jason Bay has recovered from late-November knee surgery and Snell (elbow) and Maholm (shoulder) are expected to open camp without restrictions.

Next: A trio of former first-rounders with injury histories – right-handers John Van Benshoten and Bryan Bullington and left-hander Sean Burnett – could provide depth.

St. Louis
St. Louis

St. Louis Cardinals

First impression: The Cardinals didn't do much in the offseason, suggesting they more believed the team that ran through the San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers in October than the team that lacked consistency from June to September. The sense around the organization is that general manager Walt Jocketty is trolling for another starter – perhaps Jon Lieber – and collected a surplus of outfielders and relievers for that purpose. Along the way, they were outbid for Jeff Weaver ($8.5 million for one year from the Seattle Mariners vs. their own offer of $12 million for two years), also lost Suppan, passed on the expensive high-end and mid-level pitchers, and weren't interested in the likes of Trachsel or Chan Ho Park. As it stands, their only sure winner is Chris Carpenter, though Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright have the potential to break through.

Competition: Pitching coach Dave Duncan vs. the rotation. The Cardinals have long believed there is more to right-hander Kip Wells than his results suggest. His ERA has gone 3.28, 4.55, 5.09 and 6.50 in the past four seasons, but they like his arm, so he's in. So, apparently, is Braden Looper, who hasn't started a game since A-ball in 1997.

Healing: Closer Jason Isringhausen threw in early February for the first time since September hip surgery. As potentially unstable as the rotation is, it would be devastating if Isringhausen weren't ready by opening day, because Wainwright would go back to the ninth inning. Right fielder Juan Encarnacion had wrist surgery in December and should be ready for camp. He's slightly ahead of center fielder Jim Edmonds, who had foot and shoulder surgeries over the winter.

Next: If injuries foul the rotation, the Cardinals might turn to Blake Hawksworth, a 23-year-old right-hander who was the organization's Pitcher of the Year in 2006. He has not pitched above Double-A.