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A division not always used to making headlines, the National League Central has been the epicenter for baseball news over the past three months. From the Cardinals' World Series run to the Reds' win-now makeover, no division topped the NL Central for intriguing developments over the final quarter of 2011.
As 2012 opens, the intrigue doesn't figure to diminish. Rather, it may increase. The top three contenders all will feature significantly different looks for the new season, while the three teams chasing them continue trying to build toward brighter futures.
Reigning division champion Milwaukee -- remember, the team that finished six games ahead of the World Series champion Cardinals -- seems resigned to losing the face of its franchise. Free-agent slugger Prince Fielder remains without a home, but returning to the Brewers appears low on his list. Add in the potential absence of Ryan Braun for the season's first 50 games, and the Brewers will have to win games in a different way than they did in 2011.
They've added Aramis Ramirez to soften some of the blow on offense, and brought in Alex Gonzalez to shore up what was often an overly porous defense. The bullpen will have a similar look to the unit that helped propel Milwaukee in the second half in 2011. But it's the rotation that will have to carry the day for Milwaukee in 2011. The same cast of characters will need to repeat or improve upon its fine performance from last year in order for Milwaukee to return to October.
The facelift is even more drastic in St. Louis, though, where the two most defining figures of the past decade are gone. Albert Pujols has departed via free agency, and Tony La Russa has retired. Like Milwaukee, St. Louis moved aggressively to add a bat, bringing in Carlos Beltran. Also like Milwaukee, that addition won't replace all the production that's being lost.
Unlike Milwaukee, though, St. Louis is making one major addition to its 2011 club without needing a signing or a trade. Ace Adam Wainwright, who missed all of 2011 due to elbow surgery, is set to return. And that brings up the biggest similarity between the two rival clubs: Each will rely more on run prevention, and less on run scoring, in order to win in 2012.
In the wake of all that turnover at the division's top two clubs from last season, the Reds sensed an opportunity. General manager Walt Jocketty made a pair of bold moves to shore up his 2012 roster, even if it proves costly to the organization in the long run. Flags, as the saying goes, fly forever. And Jocketty sees a chance for one.
So Cincinnati moved to bring in Mat Latos from the Padres and Sean Marshall from the Cubs, upgrading a rotation and a bullpen that can both use the help. The Reds wave goodbye to catcher Ramon Hernandez, but with Ryan Hanigan returning and Devin Mesoraco waiting in the wings, they shouldn't miss him. The Reds have improved; the question is whether they've improved enough.
Beyond those three, there could again be a gap, as the division's other three clubs seem focused on the longer term rather than the immediate. To their credit, however, the Pirates, Astros and Cubs all seem to be rebuilding in earnest. None of the three clubs seems terribly worried about putting on a better face next year if it means hindering the grand plan.
Pittsburgh, which has been exceedingly busy over the winter, improved its defense, but in so doing likely exacerbated what was already a team on-base percentage problem. Erik Bedard could be a stealth bargain for the Bucs, but it's hard to see them cracking the top tier in 2012. The long-term trend looks good, though, and that's the main thing.
Meanwhile Houston and Chicago are involved in full-scale roster remakes. New general managers Jeff Luhnow and Theo Epstein, respectively, have wisely decided that 2012 is not the year to focus on. Any of the three could make a run -- after all, who saw the Pirates coming in 2011? -- but more likely is that their brighter days are further off in the future.
Here's a look at some of the key comings and goings within the division since the regular season ended. Not all transactions are included.
Arrivals: Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Jose Veras
Departures: Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee, Takashi Saito
Departures: Pujols, Octavio Dotel
Unsigned (but expected to leave): Edwin Jackson, Ryan Theriot
Arrivals: David DeJesus, Travis Wood, Sonnanstine, Ian Stewart
Departures: Marshall, Ramirez
Unsigned: Carlos Pena
Arrivals: Latos, Marshall
Departures: Yonder Alonso, Hernandez, Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood
Arrivals: Jed Lowrie
Departures: Mark Melancon, Clint Barmes
Arrivals: Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Bedard, Casey McGehee, Nate McLouth
Departures: Ronny Cedeno, Ryan Doumit, Derrek Lee, Paul Maholm, Jose Veras