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A look at the Reds chances of winning the NL Central

The Cincinnati Reds should recognize that team in the opposing dugout Thursday afternoon at Great American Ball Park.

It's a team that finished in the middle of the National League Central pack last fall, but added reinforcements to its core and believes the franchise's long wait for a division title is about to come to a close.

Basically, it's a team a lot like the 2010 Cincinnati Reds.

The Milwaukee Brewers want to get where the Reds got. And what better way to begin the journey than to face the defending division champs on Opening Day?

"They're probably in a similar position as we were," Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs said of the Brew Crew. "They like the personnel they're going to have on the field. They feel like they have a legitimate chance to win the division."

For the Brewers, that feeling begins with the revitalization of the rotation. Zack Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner, was acquired in a trade with the Royals, and Shaun Marcum, winner of 34 games over the last three seasons in the brutal AL East, was hauled in via trade with the Jays.

But because Greinke is out of the April equation for at least the next couple weeks after breaking a rib in a pickup basketball game, it will be a more familiar face on the mound for the opener. Yovani Gallardo gets the nod and hopes a season of high expectations gets off to a strong start.

"For us, [the goal is] obviously to make the postseason," Gallardo said. "Coming into camp, since Day 1, I think all the guys would agree with me. Yet again, we all know there are other teams in our division thinking the same thing. It's not going to be easy."

No, it's not, and this matchup of two teams predicted to be major factors in the NL Central showdown is an appropriate way to begin the battle.

A year ago at this time, the Reds were in the Brewers' position, and they capitalized. They had a solid offense, guided by MVP Joey Votto and his 37 homers, 113 RBIs and 1.024 OPS. They had dependable defense and a reliable relief corps. And perhaps most important of all, they had deep starting pitching, led by 17-game winner Bronson Arroyo and 12-game winner Johnny Cueto and getting a second-half spark from Edinson Volquez's return from injury.

It all came together for the Reds, to the tune of 91 wins, as they outlasted a more experienced Cardinals team down the stretch.

And then it all came crashing to a screeching halt in the postseason. Roy Halladay's no-hitter in Game 1 of the NL Division Series set the tone for a three-game sweep.

So the Reds enter this game and this 2011 season with a hunger of their own. They generally stayed pat over the winter, investing in long-term commitments to their core players rather than seeking out added help on the open market. And they have heard all the skeptics who ask aloud whether they might be a one-year wonder.

But while the Reds have some early rotation concerns of their own -- Cueto has battled shoulder inflammation, Arroyo has mononucleosis and Homer Bailey has a shoulder impingement -- the overall depth of their pitching should still make them a weapon. And getting a full season out of Volquez is a major upgrade, in and of itself.

Volquez gets this Opening Day nod and hopes to turn in a season similar to 2008, when he went 17-6 and was named an NL All-Star. Injuries derailed his development, but now he's back and deemed worthy of the ace slot.

"He's capable of facing the tough opposition," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "If you're going to match up with No. 1's, you're going to have to throw shutouts and low-run games."

Had Greinke not injured himself playing hoops, he likely would have edged Gallardo for the ace slot in Milwaukee's rotation. But that doesn't mean Gallardo isn't worthy of the assignment. He is 27-19 with a 3.79 ERA over the last two seasons, emerging as a valuable arm.

The Brewers, who will be guided by first-year skipper Ron Roenicke, believe in their bats. And with Prince Fielder entering his walk year, they viewed 2011 as an important window of opportunity. They also knew they had to augment the rotation surrounding Gallardo if they were going to have any shot in this division. That's why they got aggressive over the winter and earned their fair share of Hot Stove hype.

If the Greinke injury doesn't linger too long, the Brew Crew firmly expects to hunt down the Reds this year.

"There's a bull's eye on our back, and we know what it takes to get there," Stubbs said. "We're going to do everything we can to get back to that."

And the Brewers are going to do everything they can to stop them. That begins on Opening Day.

"It definitely is a challenge," Gallardo said. "They won the division last year, and they have a great team, which just adds that much more excitement to it."

Brewers: Stakes high for Roenicke

Rare is the first-year skipper who takes over a club with legit postseason expectations. But the Brewers have faith that Roenicke, who last managed in the Minors in 1999 and spent the last 11 seasons on Mike Scioscia's Angels staff, is the right man for the job.

Injuries have already led to some major question marks about Roenicke's team, but that hasn't shaken his optimism for what lies ahead.

"It's hard to win a division," Roenicke said. "It's hard to get into the playoffs. Once you get in the playoffs, it's who gets hot, but it's also the pieces you have, pitching-wise. I don't think you can get deep into the postseason without good pitching. I just don't think it can happen. If we can get in the playoffs, if we're hot, I just don't think there are any limitations to how far we can play, because of the pitching."

Reds: The Chapman story, Chapter 2

Aroldis Chapman has made just 15 appearances at the Major League level, but already he's a star. That's the kind of thing that happens when you're a left-hander with 105 mph heat.

The 23-year-old Chapman, who defected from Cuba at the end of 2009, will again serve as a left-handed setup man in the Reds' bullpen but could eventually become the club's closer. However, he'll first have to harness consistent command of his pitches, something that largely eluded him during spring camp.

"I've been around 38 years and have never seen anyone throw the ball as hard as he does consistently," Reds Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Marty Brennaman said. "I have reservations about his command. I haven't seen any indication from my perspective that his command is any better now than when he came up to the club last year. ... I think he has to show better command when the season begins, in order for him to successfully do the job that he's going to be asked to do."

Worth noting

The Reds and Brewers last faced each other on Opening Day in 2000, and it was a memorable game. The two clubs played the first Opening Day tie in 35 years, as the game was called because of rain after a three-hour delay, with the score 3-3 in the sixth. ... The Reds are 109-98-1 all-time against the Brew Crew, including 11-3 last year. The Reds have won 15 of the last 18 meetings. ... Newly retired Cincinnati police chief Tom Streicher will be tossing the ceremonial first pitch and Brian McKnight will be singing the National Anthem before the game. The Reds will also have a special tribute to Sparky Anderson, who passed away this winter. Comments