Baseball's biggest division may have lost two of its biggest stars this offseason, but it's still home to the defending World Series champions and the last two National League MVPs. So, while Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are gone, there's still plenty of interesting subplots in the fly-over land. Did the Reds do enough in their apparent attempt to go all-out to win the division with the addition of Mat Latos and Sean Marshall (and, well, Ryan Madson)? Can Aramis Ramirez and Mat Gamel fill the hole left by Prince Fielder and can Carlos Beltranstay healthy in St. Louis? Even the other teams have something to watch -- will the Pirates' streak of losing seasons extend to 20? How patient will the Cubs fans be with Theo Epstein's rebuilding job and just how many games will the Astros lose?

2011 Final Standings
Milwaukee Brewers 96-66
St. LouisCardinals 90-72
Cincinnati Reds 79-83
Pittsburgh Pirates 72-90
Chicago Cubs 71-91
Houston Astros 56-106

2012 spring primers (links to our posts)
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

National League Central's Best

Best lineup: Cardinals. Pujols may be gone, but with Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran hitting 3, 4, 5, that's still pretty formidable. The key is health, including Beltran and David Freese. Rafael Furcal has struggled this spring and could give the Cardinals a hole at the top of the lineup. The Cardinals do have question marks, but everyone else does too.
Best defense: Reds. This one isn't even close. With Gold Glovers at first, second and third, plus a Gold Glove-worthy right-fielder in Jay Bruce and the speedy Drew Stubbs, the Reds have by far the best defense in the division.
Best rotation: Brewers. If Chris Carpenter's status weren't so uncertain, this would be a much tougher call, but the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke are a formidable one-two punch. Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson are good enough
Best bullpen: Brewers. Before Ryan Madson went down, the Reds could have been in this conversation, but the injury factor gives another check mark to the defending (divisional) champs. With John Axford set up by Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Veras, Milwaukee's bullpen is a strength.
Best manager: Clint Hurdle, Pirates. The fact that the Pirates were in first place after the All-Star break last year was a testament to Hurdle's deft touch with a young team.
Best player: Joey Votto, Reds. With apologies to Ryan Braun, Votto is the best all-around player in the division. In addition to his big bat, he also picked up his first Gold Glove last season. It will be interesting to see how Braun does without Fielder batting behind him.
Best pitcher: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. The 30-year-old right-hander is back after Tommy John surgery and if he returns to form, he's as good as it gets. Wainwright was second in Cy Young-voting in 2010 and third in 2009. So far this spring, he's looked like to be in vintage form, and that's good news for St. Louis.
Best rookie: Zack Cozart, Reds. Or at least the Reds hope so. Catcher Devin Mesoraco comes in as the organization's top-rated prospect, but that's more of a long-term forcast. Cozart will need to help immediately. Last season he impressed, hitting .324/.324/.486 with two homers in 11 games, before suffering an elbow injury that forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing arm.

NL Central All-Star team

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Ryan Braun, LF
5. Carlos Beltran, RF
6. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
7. Brandon Phillips, 2B
8. Yadier Molina, C
9. Adam Wainwright, P
Closer -- John Axford

Chances at winning the division

Brewers -- 30%
Cardinals -- 30%
Reds -- 30%
Pirates -- 5%
Cubs -- 4%
Astros -- 1%

The Blue Jays question

Much can be learned about the strength of the division by simply asking where the Blue Jays would finish. They were 81-81 last year, which was good for fourth in the mighty AL East. Where would they fit in the National League Central?

With Toronto in the NL Central, not only would the division be severely crowded, it could also be crowded at the top. It's hard to look at any of the top three teams and say the Blue Jays couldn't hang. It'd certainly be interesting to see Jose Bautista playing multiple series at Wrigley Field and Great American Ball Park. In short, the Blue Jays could finish anywhere from first to fourth in this fictional seven-team division.

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