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The National League Central isn't often the center of attention, come September and October. This is, after all, a division that hasn't had an honest-to-goodness, nip-and-tuck race for its title in the season's final weeks since 2007, and hasn't had a division winner claim a playoff victory since 2006.
Last year, the NL Central seemed scintillating in mid-August, when the Cardinals swept the Reds in a three-game set at Great American Ball Park -- a series that began with a benches-clearing brouhaha to spice things up -- and took a 1½-game lead in the standings. But from that point on, the Cards quickly fell off the face of the earth and the Reds rose to their first division title in 15 years.
Had everybody in the NL Central stayed pat, it would have been fashionable to predict the race for the division title would once again come down to the Reds and Cards, in no particular order.
Staying pat, however, has not been the NL Central standard.
What we have now, if aggressive acquisitions by the Brewers and Cubs are any indication, is at least a four-team race (at this point, it's up to the Astros and Pirates to provide the element of surprise). It's a race that could make the NL Central more compelling -- and competitive -- than it's been in years.
"Our division has become stronger," Cards general John Mozeliak wrote in an e-mail. "It was as if every few weeks a club did something to strengthen their rotation or team. Overall, it is good for the Central and should make for a very competitive season."
Mozeliak has spent his winter retooling a lineup that he hopes can adequately surround Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and support a robust rotation fronted by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and featuring up-and-comer Jaime Garcia and wily veteran Jake Westbrook. The Cards had the lowest starters' ERA (3.50) in the National League last season, which is reason enough to figure them to factor into the division outcome.
Over in Cincinnati, former Cards GM Walt Jocketty has, aside from the recent acquisition of aging World Series hero Edgar Renteria and veteran outfielders Fred Lewis and Jeremy Hermida, generally rested on the laurels of a strong stable of young players and a definitively deep pitching staff. The defending division champs have an embarrassment of riches in their rotation, with Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake all aboard and Edinson Volquez ready for a full season's work.
Not many clubs could afford the luxury of keeping Aroldis Chapman and his blazing fastball in a bullpen setting, but the Reds can. They can also afford to spend their winter performing routine maintenance on the roster, rather than undergoing a major overhaul.
It's also been a quiet winter in Houston and Pittsburgh, for an entirely different reason. Both the Astros and Pirates are in the midst of building a viable roster from within, not rounding one out through free agency. That's why, at this point, they generally aren't counted among the contenders in the Central.
But in Milwaukee and the North Side of Chicago, the course of action -- aside from naming new managers -- this offseason has been clear: Raise the rotation stakes to more adequately challenge the Reds and Redbirds.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin fired the first shots in December, when he parlayed a trade for Shaun Marcum with another for 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke. Suddenly, the Brewers, coming off a 77-85 season, became a sexy pick to click.
The second of those swaps was surprising, in the sense that one of the game's elite arms was not headed to some major market but rather to a Milwaukee team that capitalized on its profound pool of prospects. Then again, perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised, for the scenario was similar to that of July 2008, when the Brewers made a Trade Deadline deal to land Indians ace CC Sabathia.
But where Sabathia was a hired gun for the stretch run -- the final push to get Milwaukee in the postseason, via the Wild Card, for the first time in 26 years -- the Greinke deal makes the Brewers a viable contender, from Opening Day on, for their first division title since they won the AL East in 1982.
"It feels like we got CC Sabathia, but we got him for two years, and maybe even longer," Melvin said. "That's the difference."
While Greinke will undoubtedly be the Brewers' Opening Day starter, he is one of three viable candidates for the honor. Marcum, after all, took that starting nod for the Blue Jays last year, and the Brewers still have their Opening Day starter from 2010 in Yovani Gallardo, who has won 27 games over the past two years.
It's important not to overlook the value of the Marcum addition. He's imported from an elite division, the AL East, where he posted a 3.64 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 195 1/3 innings for the Blue Jays last year. He is 6-1 with a 3.34 ERA in his career against National League clubs, and he'll no longer be facing the imposing lineups of the Yankees and Red Sox with regularity.
And don't forget that, before the Marcum and Greinke additions, the Brewers already had an offense that ranked fourth in the NL in runs scored last season. With Ryan Braun on board for the long haul and Prince Fielder playing for his next contract, it's not unrealistic to expect that offense to continue to produce in 2011.
Thus, the NL Central became a three-headed monster just before the holidays. And then the New Year brought a new team to the forefront.
Last week, Cubs GM Jim Hendry pulled the trigger on an eight-player deal that netted right-hander Matt Garza. Reviews of the trade's long-term implications for the Cubs are mixed, as Hendry parted with five viable prospects in Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer. But its short-term meaning is obvious. A Cubs team that had been expected to use 2011 as a time of transition will instead be looking to ride Garza, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano to a division crown.
Before the Garza trade, Hendry had brought Carlos Pena aboard to man first and reacquired Kerry Wood to shore up the setup situation. But acquiring Garza, who was 34-31 with a 3.86 ERA over three seasons with the Rays, was the most impactful transaction. Garza won 15 games last year and compiled at least 200 innings and 150 strikeouts in each of the past two seasons. He, like Marcum, should benefit from the change of scenery, from AL East to NL Central. If his notorious fly-ball tendencies don't get the best of him in Wrigley Field's cozy confines, he's a legit No. 1 option.
And for all the Cubs had to give up to get Garza, they did not part with several front-line youngsters, such as shortstop Starlin Castro and reliever Andrew Cashner, who might transition to a starting role to further augment the Cubs' rotation situation.
What we have, then, is a fourth team that, on paper, has the makings of a viable Central contender. And keep in mind that Garza is under club control for three seasons.
"This was a trade for not just now for us," Hendry said. "We're not giving away the farm to try to win in one year. That couldn't be farther from the truth with a guy like Matt Garza."
The competitive juices that drive their players often drive GMs, too. And the competitive atmosphere in the NL Central has been as intense as any division in baseball this Hot Stove season. For the first time in a long time, it seems, the Central is capable of becoming the center of attention.