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Know Your Enemy: Cubs NL Central Opponents

Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds hits the ball against the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds hits the ball against the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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With the first game of spring training now less than a week away, I thought I'd revive a series I did a couple of years ago, briefly previewing all the teams the Cubs will play this year. This will run in four parts -- one for each of the other National League divisions, and one for the Cubs' American League opponents.

The NL Central has a much-changed landscape this year, with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder no longer in the division (or the league, either), the Reds making a big trade to bolster their rotation, and the changes the Cubs have made.

The Pirates and Astros are still in the division.

After the jump, previews of the Cubs' five NL Central opponents, not necessarily in predicted order of finish.

Milwaukee Brewers. 2011 finish: 1st place, 96-66. The Brewers breathed a sigh of relief when Ryan Braun's possible suspension for using a banned substance was overturned by an arbitrator. The purpose here is not to rehash that; you're surely doing that enough in multiple other posts. Braun will thus be in Milwaukee's Opening Day lineup. Losing Prince Fielder's bat will hurt; they've attempted to replace at least some of that production with former Cub Aramis Ramirez, who will start at third base for them. We don't need to rehash A-Ram, either; all of us are familiar with both his good and bad points. Mat Gamel, who has been buried in Milwaukee's system for four years, will take over at first base for Fielder.

Apart from that, the Brewers return essentially intact. Francisco Rodriguez, who many felt might leave Milwaukee to close elsewhere, accepted arb and will return to set up John Axford, who had an outstanding season in 2011. The only significant player the Brewers won't have back is Casey McGehee, who was traded to the Pirates to make room for Ramirez. The Brewers signed Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki, primarily as plan B if Braun had been out; what they'll do with him now is anyone's guess.

And for amusement, Corey Patterson will be in Brewers camp.

St. Louis Cardinals. 2011 finish: 90-72, second place, NL wild card. Not only will the Cardinals be without Albert Pujols. they've got a new manager for the first time in 16 years. Mike Matheny has never managed anywhere, so how he'll do is anyone's guess. Perhaps more importantly, pitching guru Dave Duncan won't be in St. Louis this year. He's been credited with resurrecting the careers of numerous pitchers. The effects of pitching coaches are often overrated, but Duncan is the one guy who does appear to have really had an impact on St. Louis' pitching staff.

The Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran to take the place of Pujols' bat; Lance Berkman will play first base with Beltran in the outfield. Beltran's good, but he's no Pujols, and he will be 35 in April. The Cardinals will have a full year of Rafael Furcal at shortstop -- and that should markedly improve their defense there over Ryan Theriot -- but he's also approaching 35.

Adam Wainwright, who missed all of last season, is expected to return. But the question the Cardinals need to answer is: will he, and the oft-injured Chris Carpenter, be solid, or fragile? If it's the former, St. Louis will contend to repeat their World Series title. If not, they could be in for a rough year.

Cincinnati Reds. 2011 finish: 79-83, third place. Remember last year's White Sox slogan? "All in"? The Sox spent a ton of money in an all-out push to win the AL Central.

That didn't work out for them. The Reds, though not on a spending spree, appear to be doing the same sort of thing before Joey Votto hits free agency after 2013. They traded Yonder Alonso -- who could eventually have replaced Votto -- and several other top prospects for Mat Latos, who they hope will lead a revamped rotation to the division title. They signed Ryan Madson as a free agent to be their closer and they're attempting to convert 103-MPH fastball thrower Aroldis Chapman to starting.

This all could work, or blow up in Dusty Baker's face. (Knowing Dusty, I think you'll agree the latter could very well happen.)

The Reds will hand over two starting jobs to rookies at important positions. Zack Cozart will start at shortstop, and Devin Mesoraco at catcher. Cozart is 26 and his minor league numbers are nothing special.

But Mesoraco. Man, that guy can hit. He went only 9-for-50 in a September callup, but I wouldn't be surprised if he winds up NL Rookie of the Year.

Pittsburgh Pirates. 2011 finish: 72-90, fourth place. The Pirates were 53-47 and tied for first place on July 25, 2011. The next day, they played and lost a 19-inning game to the Braves in which the winning run scored on an apparent blown call by the home plate umpire.

That seemed to take all the stuffing out of the Bucs. The loss began a 3-16 stretch and the Pirates overall went 19-43 from that game through season's end.

They return most of the same cast, except with Clint Barmes replacing Ronny Cedeno at shortstop and Garrett Jones moving to first base to replace the departed Derrek Lee. You might not notice a change in performance level at either of those positions. Their big offseason deal brought A.J. Burnett from the Yankees in exchange for a pair of miscellaneous minor leaguers; Pittsburgh's main contribution was giving the Yankees some salary relief. That's strange to say about a team that has had among the lowest payrolls in MLB the last few years.

The Pirates have a superstar in the making in Andrew McCutchen, but not much else.

Houston Astros. 2011 finish: 56-106, 6th place. From 1969 through 1993, the Astros were a NL West team that came to Chicago twice a year and only was really on the radar screen in that brief time in the late 1980s when they were playoff contenders.

From 1994 until now, the Astros have been a division rival; the teams fought it out for the division title in 2003 and, after Houston moved into Enron Field Minute Maid Park, the rivalry was a bit more even. The Cubs had a horrific record in the Astrodome, but have played the Astros a bit better than even in Houston since their current stadium opened: 50-49. We'll say goodbye to the Astros after this year as they move to the AL West; the Cubs probably won't see them more than once every three years or so.

You'll notice I haven't said a word about any of the Astros' actual players here. That's because none of them is really worth mentioning. That's not entirely true, actually; Jordan Schafer, once a top Braves prospect, is a pretty good player; J.D. Martinez might turn into a decent hitter; Jose Altuve looks good and Brian Bogusevic hit a walkoff grand slam off Carlos Marmol last August 16.

Brett Myers has always had the Cubs' number; Wandy Rodriguez is pretty good, but he'll probably be the subject of trade rumors before April is over, and Jordan Lyles became the youngest player in baseball -- seven months younger than Starlin Castro -- when he made his major league debut against the Cubs last May 31 at Wrigley Field. Lyles' stats were pretty poor -- 2-8, 5.20 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 71 ERA+ -- but then, so were Greg Maddux' numbers at age 20.

The Astros lost 106 games in 2011, a franchise record. It's not impossible to think they could break it this year.