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The National League Central has produced three of the last pennant winners in the senior circuit, including the 2006 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not only top heavy. Less than nine games separated the top four teams last year. While many people look at this division as one of the weakest in baseball, there’s a chance of drastic improvement from all of the entrants in 2007.

St. Louis Cardinals
The Reason for Hope: Any lineup that features the triumvirate of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen has a very good chance at being productive. Making their lineup even stronger is the fact that guys like Chris Duncan and Juan Encarnacion add more power, while David Eckstein (a Sanford, Fla., native) and Adam Kennedy are both scrappy guys.

The Cause for Concern: Chris Carpenter, the best pitcher in the National League, is the only constant from last year’s opening day rotation. Kip Wells spent 2006 recovering from a blood clot surgery, but pitching coach Dave Duncan seems to be working his magic on the right hander this spring. The trouble comes from Braden Looper attempting to make the switch to the rotation from the bullpen and Adam Wainwright learning how to use all of his pitches for strikes.

Prediction: First place, with 95 wins

Chicago Cubs
The Reason for Hope: Last year was last year, while this year is this year. Derrek Lee is fully recovered from wrist surgery, while Alfonso Soriano has been added to the lineup. This is more than enough to push their offense into the upper portions of the National League. Switching from Dusty Baker to Lou Pinella should add a couple of wins, too.

The Cause for Concern: Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly are known commodities. The Cubs are just wondering how every one else in their rotation will fare. Will Mark Prior actually stay healthy this year and throw harder than the 84 mph he’s posting this spring? Is Rich Hill going to control his curveball? And is Jason Marquis, who finished with a 6.02 ERA last year, ready to lower his WHIP?

Prediction: Second place, with 89 wins

Houston Astros
The Reason for Hope: After dumping Jeff Bagwell’s albatross of a contract and realizing they need offense, general manager Tim Purpura added Carlos Lee. While his contract was for too long and too much money, Lee brings a very powerful bat to give the Astros perhaps the best 3-4 punch in the division with Lance Berkman.

The Cause for Concern: The Astros replaced Andy Pettitte with Jason Jennings in the starting rotation, which is a lateral move. However, the remainder of their starting five looks worse than last year. Woody Williams is going to get lit now that he’s away from the spacious PETCO Park, while Wandy Rodriguez and Fernando Nieve are no one’s ideas of good pitchers. They better pray Roger Clemens returns to Houston.

Prediction: Third place, with 85 wins

Milwaukee Brewers
The Reason for Hope: Mike Maddux remains one of the most underrated pitching coaches in the major leagues. The rotation assembled could prove to be very valuable, with veteran Jeff Suppan assuming a leadership role behind Ben Sheets. Dave Bush threw much better last season than his numbers indicate, and his bad luck should even out.

The Cause for Concern: All around the diamond, there’s going to be a lot of questions about who is playing where. Rickie Weeks needs to move to an outfield position from second base due to questions about his defense. Corey Koskie, suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and Ryan Braun, a future star, are battling it out for the third base job, while the outfield is muddled with Kevin Mench, Geoff Jenkins, Brady Clark, and Billy Hall. There needs to be more stability going into the season.

Prediction: Fourth place, with 84 wins

Cincinnati Reds
The Reason for Hope: If there was a reason to hope for the Cincinnati Reds, it may their starting outfield. Adam Dunn in left field carries one of the most powerful bats in the major leagues. Ken Griffey Jr. is a very good complementary player at this stage in his career. In right is Josh Hamilton, a Rule V draft pick from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Hamilton has been trying to kick a cocaine addiction and it seems as if he has been successful. Also, he’s tearing the cover off the ball in spring training. Throw in the speedy Ryan Freel to spell these three, and you’ve got a talented outfield.

The Cause for Concern: Aaron Harang led the NL in strikeouts last year and has been underappreciated for a few more seasons than that. After him, the rotation is not pretty. Was Bronson Arroyo’s 2006 season a fluke? The remainder of the starting five is filled out by journeymen or unknowns.

Prediction: Fifth place, with 78 wins

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Reason for Hope: With the addition of Adam LaRoche, the Pirates’ lineup is that much stronger. Now Jason Bay has some protection, and pitchers will be forced to face him. We’ll find out just how talented he really is. Also, there’s batting champion Freddy Sanchez at second base and power bat Brad Eldred will be waiting for a corner outfield spot to open up.

The Cause for Concern: The Pirates are trying to break in a lot of young pitchers at the same time, but they are failing to give their youngsters some sort of veteran presence to help them adjust to the majors. Ian Snell and Zach Duke will get onto the radars of fans this year, while guys like Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny slowly learn the ins and outs of pitching.

Prediction: Sixth place, with 70 wins