A look at the National League Central division.

CINCINNATI REDS


2010 Record: 91-71; first place, National League Central (lost to Phillies in Division Series)


Manager: Dusty Baker, fourth season


Key Additions: SS Edgar Renteria, OF Fred Lewis, OF Jeremy Hermida, SP Dontrelle Willis


Key Departures: SP Adam Harang, OF Willie Bloomquist, RP Arthur Rhodes, RP Russ Springer


Season preview: These are the days of plenty for the Cincinnati Reds. After ending a 15-year playoff drought in 2010, the team avoided splashy moves, instead sticking to the plan of allowing their farm system to continue to stock their roster. Toward that end, the team locked up four significant contributors, three of them homegrown – RF Jay Bruce,1B  Joey Votto and SP Johnny Cueto – plus SP Bronson Arroyo, to multi-year deals. Along with 2B Brandon Phillips, 3B Scott Rolen and a talented young rotation, the Reds have a mostly-youthful core positioned to compete for World Series berths for years to come. Of course, Rolen (3 HRs in the second half) and SP Edinson Volquez need to prove they’re healthy, and closer Francisco Cordero must be more consistent. But this team is loaded for bear, and if they can get past the Brewers and Cardinals in a stacked NL Central, a World Series berth could be theirs.


Ron Darling’s (TBS) take: “For them to move forward, Renteria is going to have to find the fountain of youth. And Jay Bruce … if he has a Votto kind of outbreak where he realizes how good he can be, Cincinnati’s going to be tough.”


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS


2010 Record: 86-76; second place, National League Central


Manager: Tony LaRussa, 16th season


Key Additions: OF Lance Berkman, C Gerald Laird, IF Nick Punto, SP Ian Snell, IF Ryan Theriot, SP Brian Tallet, OF Jim Edmonds


Key Departures: SP Brad Penny, RP Brian Hawksworth


Season preview: Impending free agent Albert Pujols wants to stay in St. Louis and the Cards want him to stay. The problem is, of course, money, and if his contract situation isn’t resolved by Opening Day, it could very well cast a pall over this talented team’s 2011 season. The cast that challenged the Reds for the NL Central crown returns largely intact, with Berkman adding left-handed thump to a middle of the order that also includes CF Colby Rasmus, LF Matt Holliday, 3B David Freese and Pujols. The rotation, with Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia, is solid, but defensive downgrades at shortstop (Ryan Theriot) and right field (Berkman) could undermine its effectiveness. Depth in the infield and the rotation is a question mark, so if there are significant injuries, the Cards could be in for a difficult season. Depending on health, performances and the Pujols situation, this team could finish anywhere from first to fourth place.


Ron Darling’s (TBS) take: “(Pujols) is one of the best offensive players I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and they have that great starting pitching. So they’re always going to be there. I think health is going to be a problem for them.”


MILWAUKEE BREWERS


2010 Record: 77-85; third place, National League Central


Manager: Ron Roenicke, first season


Key Additions: SP Zack Greinke, SP Shawn Marcum, SS Yuniesky Betancourt, RP Sean Green, OF Brandon Boggs, C Wil Nieves, RP Takashi Saito


Key Departures: SP Chris Capuano, RP Todd Coffey, RP Trevor Hoffman, SP Dave Bush, C Gregg Zaun


Season preview: After finishing with a team ERA near the bottom of the National League in 2010, the Brewers upgraded their rotation by leaps and bounds, getting Greinke (10-14, 4.17 ERA, with the Royals) and Marcum (13-8, 3.64, with the Blue Jays) to go with Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson and form one of the best starting five in the game. As for the lineup, 1B Prince Fielder (32 HRs) was re-signed to a one-year deal, and he’ll team with LF Ryan Braun (25 HRs), 3B Chris McGehee (23 HRs), RF Corey Hart (31 HRs) and 2B Rickie Weeks (29 HRs) to form a scary middle of the order made scarier by Roenicke’s vow to step up the running game. Young closer John Axford (24 saves in 27 opportunities) stepped in for future Hall-of-Famer Hoffman last year and made it look easy.  With the lineup and that rotation, the Brewers are a bonafide contender, pure and simple, if not a division champ.


Ron Darling’s (TBS) take: “Greinke and Marcum were the aces for their staffs last year, so to add those two … . It’ll be interesting to see if they can put a run together because they have the talent.”


HOUSTON ASTROS


2010 Record: 76-86; fourth place, National League Central


Manager: Brad Mills, second season


Key Additions: SS Cliff Barmes, 2B Bill Hall, SP Ryan Rowland-Smith


Key Departures: IF Geoff Blum


Season preview: Minimal payroll flexibility meant a quiet offseason for the Astros, though they did manage to upgrade in two areas. They brought in power bats for the middle of the infield in Barmes and Hall to beef up an offense that was eighth in batting average, 14th in runs and 12th in homers. OFs Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee will anchor the middle of the lineup and hopefully provide more consistency than they did in 2010, CF Michael Bourn will provide leadoff speed and Gold Glove defense, and youngsters 3B Chris Johnson, 1B Brett Wallace and C Jason Castro will be counted on to step up. But the team’s fortunes may hinge on the solid, if unspectacular rotation of Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris. If everything breaks right, the Astros can contend this year, but getting within shouting distance of the top of this division is about the best this squad can hope for.


Ron Darling’s (TBS) take: “Even though they played a lot better in the second half, I still think they’re a year or two away from being where the Reds and Cardinals are.”


CHICAGO CUBS


2010 Record: 75-87; fifth place, National League Central


Manager: Mike Quade, second season


Key Additions: 1B Carlos Pena, SP Matt Garza, RP Kerry Wood, OF Reed Johnson


Key Departures: OF Sam Fuld, SP Tom Gorzelanny, OF Xavier Nady


Season preview: A 19-10 record in the season’s final month convinced the Cubs to remove Mike Quade’s interim tag and make him Lou Piniella’s full-fledged successor. The team plugged three significant holes over the winter, signing a power bat for first base in Pena (despite his .196 average in 2010) and a legitimate closer in Wood, and trading for a top-of-the-rotation starter in Garza. Still, the team lacks a leadoff hitter, middle-of-the-order hitters Pena, 3B Aramis Ramirez and LF Alfonso Soriano appear to be in decline, and erstwhile ace Carlos Zambrano’s mental state is always in question. Young SS Starlin Castro showed promise in his rookie season (.300 average in 125 games) but needs to find consistency in the field (27 errors). The Cubs should improve on their 75-win total of 2010, but with the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers in a stacked NL Central, a fourth place finish may be all they can hope for.


Ron Darling’s (TBS) take: “I think the Cubs are going to do much better under Mike Quade. They’re another team … that has really good pieces in place but they haven’t always performed.”


PITTSBURGH PIRATES


2010 Record: 57-105; last place, National League Central


Manager: Clint Hurdle, first season


Key Additions: SP Kevin Correia, OF Matt Diaz, SP Scott Olsen, 1B Lyle Overbay, IF Josh Rodriguez


Key Departures: SP Zach Duke


Season preview: When you haven’t had a winning season in 19 years, posted a majors-worst 105 losses in 2010 and reside in a division with three legitimate playoff teams, your hopes for this season can be only so high. So the Pirates hope that a few veteran retreads combined with young talent can lead them back to respectability. Overbay will step in at first base, Diaz will platoon in right field with Garrett Jones and Correia and Olsen will improve a rotation that posted a record of 34-84 with a 5.28 ERA. Pedro Alvarez, off his stellar September, offers intriguing power possibilities but whether he remains at third base remains to be seen. IF Neil Walker and OF Jose Tabata had impressive rookie campaigns and will be counted on heavily, but SS Ronny Cedeno needs to tap his considerable potential. Hurdle’s optimism and motivational skills will certainly help, but this team still has last place written all over it.


Ron Darling’s (TBS) take: “How their young players – the Tabatas, the Alvarezes, the Andrew McCutchens – develop will determine how good they get.”