Reds the favorite, but NL Central is wide open
Division has had different teams as champ the past three years
In recent years, the National League Central has been one of the most wide-open and hardest-to-predict divisions. Three different teams have won the division in the past three years, and four of the six teams have made the playoffs in that span. Go back to 2005, and five of the six clubs have appeared in the postseason.
It looks very much like 2011 could bring more of the same after a Winter Meetings where the reigning champions stayed mostly quiet. The Reds will enter '11 with a very similar roster to '10, while the second-place Cardinals are hard to read after several changes. The third-place Brewers appear to be the most improved team, thanks to the addition of Shaun Marcum and the possibly impending acquisition of Carl Pavano.
Meanwhile, second-division finishers Chicago and Houston have been fairly quiet over the offseason, but both are surely gleaning some hope from second-half improvements last season. And the Pirates have been extremely busy, hoping to move up the ladder in Clint Hurdle's first year at the helm.
Hot Stove updates
Headline-grabbing moves haven't been the order of the winter in the NL Central, but that's often the case. It should remain a competitive division, though, and some of the offseason's more intriguing moves have taken place here -- such as St. Louis' signing of Lance Berkman to play the outfield.
What they've done: It's been a fairly quiet winter for the Astros, especially since they acquired Clint Barmes from Colorado for Felipe Paulino. Ryan Rowland-Smith signed during the Winter Meetings.
Left to do: Houston still needs to upgrade the offense, quite possibly in the middle infield. Bench depth could also be on the menu, but for the most part, the 2011 Astros have taken shape.
Where they stand: Optimism reigns in Houston following a strong second half of 2010. The rotation still looks like the strong point, and the Astros have brought in a number of candidates to compete for the fifth spot behind a solid front four. The offense still does need to get better, and that's the goal as of now. There's also the need to balance the long-term building project, focusing on youngsters like Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson, with any short-term fixes.
What they've done: No team in the division has made a better single upgrade to its roster than the Brewers, who added Marcum by trading Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays. After thriving in the bruising American League East, moving to the non-DH league should make Marcum look even better. The Brewers also signed Wil Nieves for depth behind the plate.
Left to do: Priority one is making another addition to the starting rotation. There's a need for some depth in other areas, but Milwaukee is focused on the starting five, and Pavano looks like he's at the top of the shopping list for the time being.
Where they stand: With one move, the Brewers are suddenly a much more interesting team. They finished fourth in the NL in runs scored last year, and just about the entire offense returns. One more starter, and they could change from "interesting" to serious contender in the division.
What they've done: This has been one of the busiest clubs this winter. St. Louis re-signed Jake Westbrook while also signing three free agents from outside the fold: Berkman, Brian Tallet and Gerald Laird. The Cards also acquired Ryan Theriot from the Dodgers for Blake Hawksworth, which then led to the trade of Brendan Ryan to Seattle for Minor League pitcher Maikel Cleto.
Left to do: The Cards still want to get a deal done with Albert Pujols, but the 2011 roster is pretty much set, barring some possible depth acquisitions on Minor League contracts.
Where they stand: It's been a curious winter for the Redbirds, who have clearly put offense and clubhouse presence at the top of their list of desired qualities. The defense has been weakened, but the offense should be better. Health is again the key for a team that should contend and may even be the favorite.
What they've done: In some years the Cubs have been among the most active clubs during the winter, but this year's edition has kept fairly quiet -- save for signing Carlos Pena to play first base.
Left to do: Chicago would still like to add another starting pitcher who can eat up some innings, as well as another arm or two for the bullpen, and they are nearing a deal to bring Kerry Wood back to set up closer Carlos Marmol. However, it doesn't appear that any major overhaul is in the works.
Where they stand: The Cubs are hoping for bounce-backs from some key players, most notably Carlos Zambrano, who gave them some hope for just that late in the season. There's plenty of talent here, and there's something to be said for having patience rather than blowing everything up. Once again, the Cubs look like a high-risk, high-reward team, but you can see how it could all come together.
What they've done: It's been a very busy winter for the Buccos. They signed several free agents: Matt Diaz, Kevin Correia, Scott Olsen and Lyle Overbay, as well as a couple of intriguing Minor League free agents in Andy Marte and Fernando Nieve. They also acquired Cesar Valdez from the D-backs for Zach Duke. And don't discount Rule 5 selection Josh Rodriguez, either.
Left to do: Bullpen depth remains a goal for Pittsburgh.
Where they stand: It's hard not to think that the 2011 Pirates will be improved, though it's also fair to ask whether the better tactic might still be to keep 2012-14 in mind. Pirates fans are obviously sick of looking to the future, though, so you can understand where the front office is coming from. Either way, the question for the '11 Pirates is the continued development of the kids, and how far those youngsters can take them.
What they've done: The Reds have concentrated on in-house business, re-signing Miguel Cairo and agreeing to new contracts with Jay Bruce and Bronson Arroyo.
Left to do: Nearly everybody is coming back, so there's not all that much to do. The Reds would like to bring back Arthur Rhodes, and their pursuit of Jason Bartlett indicates that they're at least open to a move at shortstop. There's also the matter of reaching agreements with core players like Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto on new contracts.
Where they stand: The Reds haven't made themselves a lot better this winter, but neither do they appear to have taken any major steps backward. That means they're a favorite, if not necessarily the favorite, in the division. It's also worth remembering that general manager Walt Jocketty has a history of activity in January and February, dating back even to his time with the Cardinals.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Brian McTaggart, Adam McCalvy, Carrie Muskat, Jenifer Langosch and Mark Sheldon contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.