The NL Central has been half-good, half-bad for the past few seasons. That ratio should stay the same this season, but not without some shakeup along the way.

With a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I’m picking the Cubs to win the division, just barely reaching 90 wins. I’m predicting 68 starts from the top three of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, with Prior missing a big chunk of the season. His elbow is in bad shape, and all the smoke and mirrors in the world won’t hide the fact that he hasn’t been the same since being worked like a dog down the stretch and into the 2003 postseason.

The Cubs can patch the loss of Prior or Wood or Zambrano, but not two of the three. The solutions being proffered right now–Sergio Mitre and Ryan Dempster and such–are stopgaps while they wait for Angel Guzman to convince them of his readiness. Guzman’s emergence, and a burst of sanity that pushed Glendon Rusch back to the rotation, would give the Cubs enough starting pitching to win.

The rest of the team isn’t as impressive. They have the same surfeit of right-handed power that they’ve had for a few years now, with Nomar Garciaparra replacing Sammy Sosa in the “famous person” category. They’ll have good-but-not-great OBP guys atop the lineup, and the lack of anyone likely to crack .390 in that category is probably the team’s greatest weakness. On the other hand, the up-the-middle group of Michael Barrett, Todd Walker, Garciaprarra and Corey Patterson is a real competitive advantage, certainly as compared to the rest of this division.

The bullpen is the team’s great worry, largely because they continue to see LaTroy Hawkins, a superior pitcher, as a problem. Mike Remlinger continues to be mis-used as a specialist, despite five years of data that shows him destroying right-handed batters and being less effective against lefties. I like some of the low-profile guys they have–Todd Wellemeyer and Jon Leicester and the like–but it appears Dempster and Joe Borowski and Chad Fox are going to get first cracks at jobs, at least when they’re healthy.

A full year of Garciaparra and a real chance for Jason Dubois should help the Cubs score more runs this year, certainly enough to make up for the loss of Prior and some slippage from Zambrano. They’ll take advantage of a down year and win the Central.

The Cardinals, coming off of a year in which everything went right, appear to be the consensus favorite in the division. It’s because so many things went right for them this year–especially with regards to health–that I see a falloff happening. The Plexiglass Principle is something we think about more with teams on the rise, but it’s just as applicable to teams at the top. The Cards, who picked up 20 wins in ’04, could be expected to lose half of them based on that alone.

I’m also not as enthused about their offseason moves. I’d simply rather have Dan Haren and Kiko Calero than Mark Mulder, and don’t see where that trade made them much better. I don’t see Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter providing 60 starts and 380 innings. The Cardinals’ bullpen took a hit with the losses of Calero and Steve Kline, too. The Cardinals gave up 659 runs last year, fewest in the NL. I’d be shocked if they weren’t over 700, and maybe even over 725, this year.

They replaced their middle infield with two scrappy guys who aren’t all that good; they won’t feel it much at second base, but the falloff from Edgar Renteria to David Eckstein–who’s been a lousy hitter for two years now, and is 30–will cost them at least two wins. A full season of Larry Walker–well, OK, whatever that means–will help cover for that. A deep, underrated bench–Hector Luna, So Taguchi, John Mabry–is a key advantage over the Cubs. Nevetheless, their league-leading run total of 855 is also going to take a hit.

The Cardinals are my wild-card pick, but what I really see is a mad scramble among about nine teams who might be separated by less than ten games heading into September, and who will be fighting for four playoff spots among them. Who emerges will have a lot to do with which GMs make the best in-season adjustments (and, Will Carroll would have me add, which medical staffs keep their players on the field).

The Reds are going to score runs, and they’re going to give up runs. As much as any team in baseball, they’ll need their position players to stay healthy to give them a chance in the race. Austin Kearns and Ken Griffey Jr. could join Adam Dunn to be the game’s most productive outfield, and if you think I lifted that from a February 2002 column, you’re absolutely right.

The rest of the lineup is just all right, although I do like D’Angelo Jimenez‘s chance to break out into a Ray Durham peak.

The Reds don’t have a very good pitching staff, and their team defense is among the worst in the NL. Other than Kearns in right field and Jason LaRue behind the plate, they have no above-average glove men. Even if guys like Luke Hudson and Brandon Claussen establish themselves, the Reds are going to give up 800 runs. They’ll need help to stay under 900.

The Brewers are slowly getting there, and they quietly had a good winter with the addition of Carlos Lee for very little. They’re at least a year away from contending, but I see them as a team that could have a very strong second half, as stopgap players give way to the products of a strong farm system. J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, David Krynzel…maybe even Prince Fielder and Corey Hart could all be in Miller Park come September. The Brewers will be everyone’s sleeper next spring.

The Astros project to have the game’s biggest falloff from ’04, as they’ve lost two of their best hitters from last October’s playoff team, a third will miss a month with a knee injury, and they did little to replace the losses. The decision to demote Chris Burke rather than let him play second base is a huge mistake, and will cost them runs at the plate and in the field, runs they simply can’t afford. The organizational commitments to Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell will really come home to roost in the next two years. Their bullpen, outside of Brad Lidge, could be a disaster.

On the positive side, Jason Lane has a real chance to play, and Ezequiel Astacio will force people to learn how to spell his name, possibly as soon as this month. It won’t be enough.

The Pirates’ wave of pitching prospects that looked so big a couple of years ago has broken on the rocks of injuries and ineffectiveness. As well as they did in trading Brian Giles, adding their best hitter and pitcher last year, they did just as poorly in dealing Jason Kendall for a middling 33-year-old corner oufielder. The steps forward that the Brewers have made in player development haven’t been taken by the Pirates, and while one perennial loser can envision a playoff appearance in this decade, the other will be fortunate to taste. 500.

Projected standings:

             Record     RS    RA
Cubs          90-72    815   705
Cardinals     89-73    821   712
Reds          81-81    848   854
Brewers       78-84    717   737
Astros        77-85    741   788
Pirates       69-93    675   766

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