National League Central capsules

The Associated Press Published:

Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:


Milwaukee Brewers

2011: 96-66, 1st place (lost to St. Louis in NLCS).

Manager: Ron Roenicke (2nd season).

He's Here: 3B Aramis Ramirez, SS Alex Gonzalez, OF Norichika Aoki, RHP Jose Veras.

He's Outta There: 1B Prince Fielder, INF Craig Counsell, INF Jerry Hairston Jr., 3B Casey McGehee, SS Yuniesky Betancourt, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, RHP Takashi Saito.

Projected Lineup: 2B Rickie Weeks (.269, 20 HRs, 49 RBIs), CF Nyjer Morgan (.304, 4, 37), LF Ryan Braun (.332, 33, 111), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.306, 26, 93 with Chicago Cubs), RF Corey Hart (.285, 26, 63), 1B Mat Gamel (.115, 0, 2 in 10 games), SS Alex Gonzalez (.241, 15, 56 with Atlanta), C Jonathan Lucroy (.265, 12, 59).

Rotation: RH Zack Greinke (16-6, 3.83), RH Yovani Gallardo (17-10, 3.52), RH Shaun Marcum (13-7, 3.54), LH Randy Wolf (13-10, 3.69), LH Chris Narveson (11-8, 4.45).

Key Relievers: RH John Axford (2-2, 1.95, 46 saves in 48 chances), RH Francisco Rodriguez (6-2, 2.64 ERA, 23/29 with New York Mets and Brewers; 4-0, 1.86, 0/3 with Brewers), RH Kameron Loe (4-7, 3.50).

Hot Spots: Gamel, who has not yet met expectations when given chances in the majors, gets first crack at taking over for Fielder at first base. The Brewers also planned to get Corey Hart some time training at first base in spring training, but he's recovering from a knee injury and it's not clear if he'll be ready to play on opening day. Ramirez isn't expected to fully make up for Fielder's absence, but he is expected to drive in runs and get hits in critical situations.

Outlook: The Brewers' chances got a huge boost when Braun was able to get his 50-game suspension for a positive drug test overturned, although he has struggled mightily in spring training and is likely to get some grief from opposing fans when he hits the road in the regular season. The Brewers might not score as many runs without Fielder, but they can rely on a strong starting rotation and what should be a rock-solid back end of the bullpen. Assuming Braun is back to MVP form and the Brewers stay healthy, they should be contenders. Significant question: Will the defense be better?


St. Louis Cardinals

2011: 90-72, 2nd place, NL wild card (World Series champions).

Manager: Mike Matheny (1st season).

He's Here: OF Carlos Beltran, LHP J.C. Romero, OF Erik Komatsu.

He's Outta There: 1B Albert Pujols, RHP Edwin Jackson, INF Ryan Theriot, INF Nick Punto, C Gerald Laird, RHP Octavio Dotel, LHP Arthur Rhodes, OF Corey Patterson.

Projected Lineup: SS Rafael Furcal (.255 in 50 games with St. Louis after acquired from Los Angeles Dodgers), RF Carlos Beltran (.300, 22, 84 with New York Mets and San Francisco), LF Matt Holliday (.296, 22, 75), 1B Lance Berkman (.301, 34, 91), 3B David Freese (.297, 10, 55 in 97 games), C Yadier Molina (.305, 14, 65), CF Jon Jay (.297, 10, 37), 2B Tyler Greene (.212, 1, 11 in 102 at-bats).

Rotation: RH Chris Carpenter (11-9, 3.45 in 237 1-3 IP), RH Adam Wainwright (injured in 2011; 20-11, 2.42 in '10), LH Jaime Garcia (13-7, 3.56), RH Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.39), RH Jake Westbrook (12-9, 4.66), RH Lance Lynn (1-1, 3.12 in 18 games, replaces Carpenter at start of season).

Key Relievers: RH Jason Motte (5-2, 2.25, 9/13, team-leading 78 appearances), RH Fernando Salas (5-6, 2.26, 24/30 saves), LH Marc Rzepczynski (0-3, 3.97), RH Mitchell Boggs (2-3, 3.56, 4/8 saves), RH Kyle McClellan (12-7, 4.19 as starter and reliever), RH Eduardo Sanchez (3-1, 1.80), LH J.C. Romero (1-0, 4.01 in 36 games with Colorado and Philadelphia).

Hot Spots: Berkman moves from RF, his first regular outfield duty since 2004, to 1B and takes over the position Pujols patrolled for 11 seasons. Berkman said last year he believed more straight-line running in the outfield would help keep him healthy, but this spring admitted he'd rather play first. Perennial prospect Greene has been successful in minors and gets first crack at nailing down 2B job, with versatile Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker, when healthy, also in mix. World Series MVP Freese has yet to play 100 games in a season. Holliday under a bit of pressure following Pujols' long-running, proficient act as No. 3 hitter.

Outlook: There's a lot of change at the top, with manager Tony La Russa retired, pitching coach Dave Duncan on extended leave and not expected back and Pujols bolting for the Los Angeles Angels. Players privately weren't happy with the national perception that the offense was Pujols or bust, providing motivation to make a repeat postseason run without him. The post-Pujols lineup appears to be deeper, with Allen Craig a dangerous wild-card bat whenever he recovers from offseason kneecap surgery, which should make things easier on new manager Mike Matheny. Wainwright's return fortifies a rotation that'll likely have to survive without postseason horse Carpenter for a lengthy period. But the back end of the bullpen has definition with Motte claiming the closer role in September, which should ease Derek Lilliquist's transition to pitch coach. Health could be a season-long concern. The clock is ticking on Carpenter, who'll be 37 in April, Berkman (36), Romero (35) and Furcal, Beltran and Westbrook, all 34.


Cincinnati Reds

2011: 79-83, 3rd place.

Manager: Dusty Baker (4th season).

He's Here: RHP Mat Latos, RHP closer Ryan Madson, LHP Sean Marshall, OF Ryan Ludwick, INF Wilson Valdez, OF-INF Willie Harris.

He's Outta There: C Ramon Hernandez, RHP closer Francisco Cordero, LHP Travis Wood, RHP Edinson Volquez, LHP Dontrelle Willis, INF Yonder Alonso, OF Fred Lewis, SS Edgar Renteria, C Yasmani Grandal.

Projected Lineup: CF Drew Stubbs (.243, 15, 44, 205 Ks, 40 of the team's 97 steals), 2B Brandon Phillips (.300, 18, 82), 1B Joey Votto (.309, 29, 103), 3B Scott Rolen (.242, 5, 36 in 65 games before shoulder surgery), RF Jay Bruce (.256, 32, 97), SS Zack Cozart (.324, 2, 3 in 11 games), LF Chris Heisey (.254, 18, 50), C Ryan Hanigan (.267, 6, 31).

Rotation: RH Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.31, 34 starts), RH Mat Latos (9-14, 3.47 with San Diego), RH Bronson Arroyo (9-12, 5.07, club-record 46 HRs allowed in 32 starts), RH Homer Bailey (9-7, 4.43), RH Mike Leake (12-9, 3.86).

Key Relievers: RH Ryan Madson (4-2, 2.37, 32/34 with Philadelphia; out for season), LH Sean Marshall (6-6, 2.26, 5 with Cubs), RH Nick Masset (3-6, 3.71), LH Bill Bray (5-3, 2.98), RH Jose Arredondo (4-4, 3.23).

Hot Spots: The left side of the infield is a question. Cozart got his first promotion to the majors last season and impressed during a brief showing, but tore a ligament in his non-throwing elbow and needed reconstructive surgery. He also had his right ankle cleaned out. Cozart gets a chance to be the starting shortstop despite his limited experience in the majors. Rolen, who turns 37 on April 4, won't guess at the number of games he'll be able to play. He's coming off surgery to his non-throwing shoulder. If he's healthy enough to play more games, it'll be a huge boost.

Outlook: The Reds won the NL Central in 2010, when several players had career years. They kept the core of the team intact and made few changes the following offseason, and paid for it, falling back to third place. Manager Walt Jocketty did an about-face and changed some key spots in the offseason, replacing closer Cordero with Madson and adding Marshall as a set-up man. The bullpen is already in trouble, with Madson out for the year and Masset starting the season on the DL. Marshall might end up in the closer role, but his career high for saves is five. Jocketty gave up a pair of former No. 1 draft picks and starter Edinson Volquez as part of a package to get Latos, who gives the Reds a solid 1-2 combination at the top of the rotation. Arroyo was bothered by mononucleosis last season, contributing to a down year, but showed up healthy for training camp. With St. Louis and Milwaukee losing their top sluggers, the Reds are in position to contend for a second division title in three years. If they fail, Baker's job will be in jeopardy.


Pittsburgh Pirates

2011: 72-90, 4th place

Manager: Clint Hurdle (2nd season)

He's Here: RHP A.J. Burnett, LHP Erik Bedard, C Rod Barajas, SS Clint Barmes, 3B Casey McGehee, OF Nate McLouth.

He's Outta There: LHP Paul Maholm, C Ryan Doumit, C Chris Snyder, SS Ronny Cedeno, OF Derrek Lee, OF Ryan Ludwick.

Projected Lineup: LF Alex Presley (.298, 4, 20 in 52 games) or Nate McLouth (.228, 4, 16 in 81 games with Atlanta), RF Jose Tabata (.266, 4, 21 in 91 games), CF Andrew McCutchen(.259, 23, 89), 2B Neil Walker (.273, 12, 83), 3B Pedro Alvarez (.191, 4, 19 in 71 games) or Casey McGehee (.223, 13, 67 with Milwaukee), 1B Garrett Jones (.243, 16, 58), C Rod Barajas (.230, 16, 47 with the Dodgers), SS Clint Barmes (.244, 12, 39 with Houston).

Rotation: RH A.J. Burnett (11-11, 5.15 with the New York Yankees), LH Erik Bedard (5-9, 3.62 with Seattle and Boston), RH Kevin Correia (12-11, 4.79), RH James McDonald (9-9, 4.21), Jeff Karstens (9-9, 3.38).

Key Relievers: RH Joel Hanrahan (1-4, 1.83, 40/44), RH Daniel McCutchen (5-3, 3.72 in 73 games), RH Chris Resop (RH 5-4, 4.39 in team-high 76 games), RH Evan Meek (1-1, 3.48), RH Jason Grilli (2-1, 2.48).

Hot Spots: The Pirates made a splash when they traded for Burnett to anchor the front of the rotation, then the veteran fractured his right orbital bone during a bunting drill early in spring training and will be out until May. That leaves the well-traveled Bedard to be the No. 1 starter on a team whose rotation over-performed for the first four months of 2011 before fading down the stretch. Bedard signed a one-year deal and is basically looking to extend his career. He's been a question mark in the clubhouse but Hurdle has a way of connecting with veterans. If Bedard can be solid, it takes some of the pressure off Burnett and Correia, who got off to a nice start in 2011 but limped to the finish.

Outlook: The Pirates enter 2012 with heightened expectations following a 15-game improvement last season. They led the division in late July but ran out of steam when the pitching staff couldn't overcome one of baseball's weakest offenses. The Pirates hope a revitalized and healthy Alvarez can provide the power they sorely lack while hoping there are third acts for Barmes and Barajas. The team continued to invest in the future by signing All-Star McCutchen to a contract extension and he's the set piece the rest of the clue will revolve around. The division is wide-open following the departure of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, though the Pirates have more realistic goals of ending their miserable streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons. The team must build on 2011 for this season to be considered a success. If they fall back yet again the goodwill instilled by four months of solid baseball last spring will fade quickly.


Chicago Cubs

2011: 71-91, 5th place.

Manager: Dale Sveum (1st season).

He's Here: LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Chris Volstad, LHP Travis Wood, 1B Anthony Rizzo, 3B Ian Stewart, OF David DeJesus, LHP Trever Miller, RHP Andy Sonnanstine.

He's Outta There: Manager Mike Quade, RHP Carlos Zambrano, 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B Carlos Pena, LHP Sean Marshall, RHP Andrew Cashner, C Koyie Hill, OF Tyler Colvin.

Projected lineup: RF David DeJesus (.240, 10, 46 with Oakland), 2B Darwin Barney (.276, 2, 43), SS Starlin Castro (.307, 10, 66, 207 hits), 1B Bryan LaHair (.288, 2, 6 in 20 games with Cubs; .331, 38 HRs, 109 RBIs at Triple-A), LF Alfonso Soriano (.244, 26, 88), CF Marlon Byrd (.276, 9, 35), 3B Ian Stewart (.156, 0, 6 in 48 games with Rockies), C Geovany Soto (.228, 17, 54).

Rotation: RH Ryan Dempster (10-14, 4.80), RH Matt Garza (10-10, 3.32), RH Jeff Samardzija (8-4, 2.97 in 75 relief appearances), RH Chris Volstad (5-13, 4.89 ERA with Marlins), LH Paul Maholm (6-14, 3.66 with Pittsburgh).

Bullpen: RH Carlos Marmol (2-6, 4.01, 34/44, 48 walks), RH Kerry Wood (3-5, 3.35), LH Travis Wood (6-6, 4.89 with Cincinnati), RH Rodrigo Lopez (6-6, 4.42, 16 starts), RH Andy Sonnanstine (0-2, 5.55, 15 games with Tampa Bay), LH James Russell (1-6, 4.12, 64 games, 5 starts), LH Trever Miller (0-1, 3.80 in 48 games with St. Louis, Toronto and Boston).

Hot Spots: The Cubs lost their two main run producers in Ramirez and Pena and how Chicago finds ways to score should determine the success in Sveum's first season as manager. The Cubs are counting on career minor leaguer Bryan LaHair to be their cleanup hitter with prospect Anthony Rizzo expected to start the season in the minors. New baseball operations head Theo Epstein has made it clear that he won't jeopardize the future for a quick fix and the Cubs showed that by steering clear of high-priced free agents. At age 22, Castro is already a star after his NL-leading 207 hits last season but he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation in Chicago during the offseason, although no charges have been filed.

Outlook: Theo mania still bubbles on the North Side. Can he be on the one to end an unfathomable World Series title drought — one that could reach 104 years this season — much like he did for the Red Sox? Owner Tom Ricketts is counting on it. Epstein fired Quade and brought in Sveum and also jettisoned the problematic Zambrano. The Cubs, with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, want to build the team by bolstering the farm system and they've also shown they'll be players in the Cuban free agent market, already having signed pitcher Gerardo Concepcion. Garza's name has been in numerous trade rumors and his 10-10 record in his first season with the Cubs was deceiving because he left several games with leads, only to be the victim of bullpen meltdowns. Marmol must find his control after blowing 10 saves last season, and the Cubs will have to replace the durable and effective Sean Marshall as a setup man after he was traded. The 36-year-old Soriano showed in spring training he still has some pop left in his bat, but he's also struggled in the field the last several seasons and has three years left on his eight-year, $136 million contract. A .500 season would seem to be a remarkable accomplishment in this first year of Theo. Maybe the most encouraging factor for the Cubs is that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder no longer player in the NL Central.


Houston Astros

2011: 56-106, 6th place.

Manager: Brad Mills (3rd season).

He's Here: OF Jack Cust, INF Jed Lowrie, RHP Kyle Weiland, C Chris Snyder, RHP Livan Hernandez.

He's Outta There: RHP Mark Melancon, SS Clint Barmes, LF Jason Michaels.

Projected Lineup: CF Jordan Schafer (.242, 2, 13, 22 SB in 82 games with Atlanta and Houston), SS Jed Lowrie(.252, 6, 36 in 88 games with Boston), RF Brian Bogusevic (.287, 4, 15 in 87 games), C Jason Castro (missed entire 2011 season with injury; .205, 2, 8 in 67 games in 2010), 2B Jose Altuve (.276, 2, 12 in 57 games), 1B Carlos Lee (.275, 18, 94), 3B Jimmy Paredes (.286, 2, 18 in 46 games), LF J.D. Martinez (.274, 6, 35 in 53 games).

Rotation: LH Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49), RH Bud Norris (6-11, 3.77), LH J.A. Happ (6-15, 5.35), RH Kyle Weiland (0-3, 7.66 in five starts for Boston), RH Livan Hernandez (8-13, 4.47 for Washington) or RH Jordan Lyles (2-8, 5.36 ERA in 15 starts).

Key Relievers: RH Brett Myers (7-14, 4.46 as a starter), RH Wilton Lopez (2-6, 2.79 in 73 games), RH Enerio Del Rosario (0-3, 4.58), LH Sergio Escalona (2-1, 2.93).

Hot Spots: The Astros are taking a chance by moving Myers, last year's staff ace, from the rotation into the closer's role. The team needed someone to take the place of Melancon, who was traded to the Red Sox in the offseason. They believe Myers' experience in closing for the Phillies in 2007 will allow him to move back into the role easily. Rodriguez leads the rotation now, but behind him are a group of mostly unproven young players. Hernandez is vying for one of the last spots in the rotation and the 37-year-old's experience could be a help to this young group.

Outlook: The Astros have a new owner in Jim Crane and a new general manager in Jeff Luhnow, but it's hard to see this team being much different from last year's squad without any significant offseason moves. Luhnow and Crane insist that the team will be better this season than last, when Houston had the worst record in the majors. For that to happen, the young players who received significant playing time last season are going to have to step up and produce more. The Astros hope the return of Castro, a first-round pick in 2008, from a knee injury will give the offense and defense a boost. Lee is back for the last season of a $100 million contract he signed in 2007 and as virtually the only veteran non-pitcher on the roster, he'll need to lead this young team as it plays its final season in the National League before next year's move to the American League.