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03/27/12 11:00 AM ET

NL Central: Crew tough, but beware of Cards

Despite loss of Pujols, World Series champs not to be ignored

Let's begin our look at the National League Central in the place where last season ended, with the St. Louis Cardinals hoisting their 11th World Series trophy. That championship was a triumph of perseverance, resilience and good old-fashioned luck.

Thanks to the 2011 Cardinals, it's going to be harder than ever to look at the standings and decide who is in contention and who isn't. The Cardinals refused to quit when the odds told them otherwise.

The Redbirds overcame an 8 1/2-game deficit in September to grab a playoff spot, before going on to capture the NL pennant by defeating two teams -- the Phillies and Brewers -- who had better records during the regular season.

After all that, St. Louis did something really incredible. Twice a strike away from losing the World Series, the Cards staged a pair of heart-stopping rallies to finally overcome the Rangers.

How could any team top that?

They'd begin by holding a nice retirement party for their manager, one of the best who ever lived. And then they'd lose their best player, also one of the best ever. And, finally, they'd lose their No. 1 starting pitcher for an indefinite period of time.

Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter were the three most important figures to the Cardinals' success. Now the club is trying to figure out a way to win without them. St. Louis is still hopeful that Carpenter will return at some point, but they have no idea when.

Here's something important to remember about the Cardinals. Don't sleep on them. Don't count them out. And whatever you do, don't underestimate them.

Their pitching staff still has Adam Wainwright at the top of the rotation and Jason Motte at the back of the bullpen. Their lineup has Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina in the middle.

Their new manager, Mike Matheny, comes to the job with zero coaching or managerial experience, but during his playing days he was widely respected for his toughness, insight and people skills. If he fails, it won't be because he lacks the essential gifts good managers are supposed to have.

Professional athletes love being challenged, love being told that they're not good enough to do something. The Cardinals don't believe they were decimated by their losses. Inside their clubhouse, they still believe they've got enough to win. They see David Freese and Allen Craig and Lance Lynn as rising young players who are capable of doing special things. They see Carlos Beltran as someone who will not leave a hole in the space in the lineup once occupied by the great Pujols.

There's no questioning that Pujols was such a dominant figure that he made all the other Cardinals better, and there's almost no way of gauging the impact of his absence. On the other hand, St. Louis still has some very good players, and at a time when players would be asked if they're hungry enough to win again, the Cardinals have been challenged, and then some. There's also circumstances. The NL Central is not yet in focus because there have been too many changes to understand the impact of them all. The Cardinals will be dramatically different, but then again so will the Brewers in the wake of Prince Fielder's departure. Milwaukee has a terrific rotation, and perhaps that will be enough to win. The Brewers also have a superior bullpen.

The Reds are looking very good after a winter in which general manager Walt Jocketty added Matt Latos, Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson to his pitching staff. Madson, however, is gone for the season and scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery.

If Drew Stubbs can cut down on his strikeouts and the Reds aren't further stricken by injuries, they've got enough to win.

With the help of my MLB.com colleagues who cover the NL Central, we've broken down the division race position by position.

Best lineup

GM John Mozeliak aggressively filled the hole left by Pujols with Beltran, and if he's healthy, the veteran slugger is capable of putting up franchise-type numbers. Regardless, if Berkman, Holliday and Molina can stay healthy, the Cardinals appear to have a formidable lineup. They're hoping Freese, Jon Jay and Craig will continue their progressions toward stardom, but their success begins with Berkman, Holliday, etc. The Brewers have more question marks, not just in replacing Fielder's thunder with Aramis Ramirez, but in not knowing how good Ryan Braun will be after a turbulent offseason. Likewise, the Reds believe they could have a dynamic lineup if Jay Bruce and Stubbs have big years, and if Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips do what they've usually done. Our selection: Cardinals

Best rotation

The Brewers run three potential No. 1 starters to the mound in Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. They're so deep that Randy Wolf is allowed to toss his 200-plus innings from the fourth spot. The Cardinals had hoped that having both Carpenter and Wainwright together would offset the loss of Pujols, but Carpenter is out indefinitely with a nerve issue in his neck and shoulder. Still, the Cardinals are solid with Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse in the first four spots. And they love former first-round pick Lynn -- who pitched in five of the seven World Series games -- breaking into the fifth spot. They're hoping that Carpenter can return to contribute this season. Regardless, they think they have enough starting pitching to be competitive. Likewise, the Reds believe their starters can match up with any in the division. Johnny Cueto is a solid No. 1, and Latos has drawn the praise of scouts for a couple of years. If Homer Bailey bounces back from a tough season, the Reds' rotation could be very solid. Our selection: Brewers

Best bullpen

The Brewers were runaway winners in our poll. They've got a quality closer in John Axford and an array of proven arms in front of him, including Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Veras. Every other team has some questions. Madson's elbow injury has left the Reds much thinner as Marshall is expected to take over the closer role. Cardinals closer Motte didn't assume his team's job until September. He was outstanding in converting eight of nine save chances in the final month of the season, but there's still an unknown quantity about how he'll do over the long haul. The Astros are gambling that Brett Myers can make the transition from 200-inning starter to successful closer. If he does, he could be a hot name in the trade market as the after the All-Star break. Our selection: Brewers

Best defense

The Reds ran away with this category. First, their infield has three Gold Glovers -- third baseman Scott Rolen, an eight-time winner; second baseman Phillips, a three-time winner; and first baseman Votto, who was the NL's Gold Glove first baseman in 2011. The Reds also have a very good defensive center fielder in Stubbs. Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart has looked good in his limited time with the big league club. The Cardinals have the game's best defensive catcher in Molina, but no other team in the division comes close to making a defensive impact the way the Reds do. Our selection: Reds

Predicted order of finish

  1. 1st
  2. 2nd
  3. 3rd
  4. 4th
  5. 5th
  6. 6th

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.