Regular Articles
The NL Central is the biggest division in baseball as it has six teams. These six teams are divided into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I will let you determine which is which. (Order for winning the division is in the order of listing.)

Chicago Cubs

Who they lost: Hee Seop Choi, 1b (Traded to Marlins), Damian Miller, c (Traded to Oakland), Kenny Lofton, of (Signed with Yankees), Doug Glanville, of (Signed with Phillies), Dave Veres, rhp (Signed with Astros), Eric Karros, 1b (Signed with A's)

Who they gained: Derrek Lee, 1b (Traded from Marlins), Juan Uribe, ss (Traded from Rockies), LaTroy Hawkins, p (Signed from Twins), Michael Barrett, c (Traded from Athletics), Kent Mercker, rhp (Signed from Braves), Todd Walker, 2b (Signed from Red Sox), Ryan Dempster, rhp (Signed from Cincinnati), Greg Maddux, rhp (Signed from Braves)

What to expect: The Chicago Cubs were the division winners last year and they should repeat this year. They have fixed their biggest weaknesses this year and are looking for an even bigger margin of victory in the central, as well as a trip to the World Series. One hundred wins are definitely possible.

Strengths: If you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you have heard nothing about the Cubs starting rotation. Everyone else has not heard enough, so I will waste athomeplate’s bandwidth and discuss the starting five. Mark Prior is the best starting pitcher in the Major leagues, Wood is one of the best number 2’s, and Greg Maddux is an able third man. Carlos Zambrano figures to falter enough to make up for Clement’s expected improvement for next season. The bullpen will be even better than last season with the addition of the best setup man in baseball, Latroy Hawkins. The heart of the order figures to be an improvement as well.

Weaknesses: The main weakness of this Cubs team will be the lack of offense at positions not started by Derrek Lee, Corey Patterson, and Sammy Sosa. Team running speed will be lacking and defensive ability might hinder Maddux’s numbers.

Houston Astros

Who they lost: Billy Wagner, p (Traded to Phillies), Geoff Blum, if (Traded to Devil Rays), Ron Villone, lhp (Signed by Mariners)

Who they gained: Brandon Duckworth, p (Traded from Phillies), Taylor Buchholz, p (Traded from Phillies), Andy Pettitte, lhp (Signed from Yankees), Roger Clemens, rhp (Signed from Yankees)

What to expect: The Houston Astros have greatly improved their team this season with the additions of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Their veteran presence has already been a factor in the development of younger Astro pitchers, most notably opening day starter Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. An eighty-five-to-ninety win season seems likely for this Astro team.

Strengths: This Astros team has a strong, albeit old, offense. Also, the rotation is top heavy with Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller especially. The backend of the bullpen, with Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge, is a force to be reckoned with.

Weaknesses: The biggest weakness with this Astros ball club is the lack of a leadoff hitter and sparkplug to hit second. A presence lower down in the order is very important for this three deep middle of the order. Outside of Dotel and Lidge, who is in the bullpen?

St. Louis Cardinals

Who they lost: Tino Martinez, 1b (Traded to Devil Rays), Fernando Vina, 2b (Signed by Tigers), JD Drew, of (Traded to Braves), Eli Marrero, of (Traded to Braves)

Who they gained: Jason Marquis, rhp (Traded from Braves), Ray King, lhp (Traded from Braves), Adam Wainright, p (Traded from Braves), Jeff Suppan, rhp (Signed from Boston), Reggie Sanders, of (Signed from Pirates)

What to expect: The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the greatest teams in baseball. They can hit, defend, pitch, and run the bases. An eighty-five-to-ninety win season is entirely possible.

Strengths: The Cardinals have one of the league’s best offenses with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Edgar Renteria. Jason Isringhausen figures to be healthy this season and a top 5 Closer. Matt Morris and Woody Williams figure to be two strong top of the rotation starters.

Weaknesses: The Cardinals have relative unknowns in their starting rotation behind Morris and Williams. In the bullpen only Isringhausen is great and not much else to set him up. And who is playing left field?

Cincinnati Reds

Who they lost: Ryan Dempster, rhp (Signed with Cubs), Russell Branyan, if (Signed with Braves)

Who they gained: Cory Lidle, rhp (Signed from Blue Jays), John VanderWal, of (Signed from Brewers)

What to expect: The Cincinnati Reds are stuck in a rut with the huge contract of Ken Griffey Jr. If they can only find a way to move him, they can begin to contend, even in this hard division. A season of seventy-five wins is possible.

Strengths: The strength for this ballclub is Austin Kearns. Also, Danny Graves is returning to the bullpen, so he might produce some saves to boost his midseason trade value until Ryan Wagner steps into that position. Adam Dunn is quite a good player; he just needs to be more aggressive at the plate.

Weaknesses: The Reds pitching staff can’t keep the ball in the park and runners off the basepaths. The offense in the infield is very weak and needs drastic improvement before the Reds can contend again.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Who they lost: Reggie Sanders, of (Signed with Cardinals)), Pokey Reese, 2b (Signed with Red Sox), Jeff D'Amico, rhp (Signed with Indians)

Who they gained: Rick Reed, rhp (Signed from Twins), Jose Mesa, rhp (Signed from Phillies), Chris Singleton, of (Signed from A's), Raul Mondesi, of (Signed from Diamondbacks), Randall Simon, 1b (Signed from Cubs)

What to expect: The Pirates have one of the best stadiums in the Major Leagues, but not much of a product on the field. The Pirates will only win about seventy games this season.

Strengths: The Pirates have Kris Benson, Josh Fogg, and Oliver Perez in their young rotation. Also, Jason Kendall, albeit owed a four year, 42 million dollar contract, is a great presence behind the plate and hit .325 last season.

Weaknesses: The team has very little offense following the departure of Brian Giles. The rotation is young and very inexperienced. This does not seem to be a bright season in store for the Pirates.

Milwaukee Brewers

Who they lost: Richie Sexson, 1b (Traded to Diamondbacks), Shane Nance, p (Traded to Diamondbacks), Royce Clayton, of (Signed by Rockies), John VanderWal, of (Signed by Reds)

Who they gained: Junior Spivey, 2b (Traded from Diamondbacks), Chad Moeller, c (Traded from Diamondbacks), Chris Capuano, p (Traded from Diamondbacks), Jorge De La Rosa, p (Traded from Diamondbacks), Lyle Overbay, 1b (Traded from Diamondbacks)

What to expect: The Milwaukee Brewers have continued toward another year of rebuilding. A win total of around sixty-five should be expected - and fewer kickbacks for the organization after Bud Selig sold his controlling share in the franchise.

Strengths: The Brewers’ only strengths are in the Minor Leagues and still developing. Lyle Overbay, Junior Spivey, and Scott Podsednik will form a decent group of younger players for a few seasons. The sausage races, of course, are always entertaining.

Weaknesses: The pitching staff is nothing behind Ben Sheets. Danny Kolb is the only member of the bullpen worth mentioning, and he might be dealt at the trade deadline.