With Spring Training just a few days away, it's time for a brief early look at the National League's Central Division.
Here's how the NL Central, 2005 edition, shapes up in a nutshell:
St. Louis Cardinals 2004 record: 105-57 2004 results: First Place
The high flying Cardinals have won or shared this division title four times in the last five years, averaging 95 wins per year during that span.
The Redbirds have the deepest starting rotation (five starting pitchers that won 15 or more games last year) in the division, the best hitting lineup in the division, and a solid closer that led the National League in Saves in 2004.
Given that combination of facts, it's highly doubtful that the Cards will be dethroned in 2005.
Houston Astros 2004 record: 92-70 2004 results: Second Place
The return of Roger Clemens assures that the Astros will again have one of the best starting rotations (Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettite, and Brandon Backe, etc.) in baseball and Brad Lidge has emerged as an outstanding closer.
The departures of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent may make scoring runs difficult for Houston. A return to form by longtime stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and a big year from Lance Berkman will be needed.
Many "experts" are writing the Astros off (primarily due to the aforementioned loss of Beltran) but their pitching alone should keep the defending NL wild card winners in the race.
Chicago Cubs 2004 record: 89-73 2004 results: Third Place
The "lovable losers". I'm not too sure about the "lovable" part though. There wasn't much to love about the 2004 Cubs. They were probably the most disappointing (if you bought in to all of their 2004 preseason hype that is) team in baseball last year.
A typical Cubs team in many ways, the Cubs look good on paper but haven't been able to get it done on the field. GM Jim Hendry hasn't done much to improve his team during the offseason either.
Cincinnati Reds 2004 record: 76-86 2004 results: Fourth Place
If their attempts to improve their pitching (GM Dan O'Brien signed starters Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz as well as veteran relievers Kent Mercker, David Weathers, and Ben Weber) work out, the Reds could move up in the standings.
At least O'Brien has made some moves (unlike some other GM's in this division) in an attempt to improve his ballclub.
Pittsburgh Pirates 2004 record: 72-89 2004 results: Fifth Place
It would take improvements on the part of many of those young players, however, for Pittsburgh to move up in the standings.
The Pirates figure to miss longtime star Jason Kendall in a major way.
Milwaukee Brewers 2004 record: 67-94 2004 results: Sixth Place
The Brewers have a new owner in Mark Attanasio and GM Doug Melvin has been wheeling and dealing this offseason.
How much Melvin has improved his team remains to be seen however. Milwaukee still appears to lack the pitching needed to contend.
The Brewers should win more games than they did last year though.