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Albert Pujols is contract year if he didn’t need any added motivatihis streak three straight MVPs was snapped last season.

Albert Pujols is in a contract year, and if he didn’t need any added motivation, his streak of three straight MVPs was snapped last season. | AP

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Updated: May 1, 2011 12:40AM



Looking for a National League team that can play the disrespect card in 2011?

Search no further than the “Queen City’’ — home of the Cincinnati Red-headed stepchildren.

All Dusty Baker’s Reds did last season was lead the NL in offense, have the NL MVP in their lineup in Joey Votto, and unleash on the league a collection of young arms that has a chance to only get better.

Yet, they are almost an afterthought in the Senior Circuit, with Philadelphia and the defending World Champion Giants capturing all the hype.

Memo to Major League Baseball: There’s a reason Reds GM Walt Jocketty barely lifted a finger this offseason, and it’s because he thinks the existing core is not only talented enough to repeat, but play deep into October.

Considering the hard luck that has hit rest of the Central challengers, Jocketty might be on to something.

St. Louis lost ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery early in spring camp, while Milwaukee ace Zack Greinke already has endeared himself to his new organization by showing up to camp with cracked ribs suffered in a pick-up basketball game.

The sleeper in all of this resides on the North Side of “New Gotham,’’ as the Cubs enter Year 103 of ineptitude. The additions of Matt Garza to the starting staff, Kerry Wood to the back end of the bullpen and Carlos Pena to the middle of the lineup all were upgrades, but the biggest improvement could be manager Mike Quade losing the interim tag he wore at the end of last season. The everyman might be the breath of fresh air the Cubs needed.

Heck, at this point, it couldn’t hurt.

As far as the bottom of the division, Houston can still be thankful for one thing — there’s always Pittsburgh.

NL CENTRAL CY YOUNG: Chris Carpenter, Cardinals: Just because Wainwright went down doesn’t mean St. Louis doesn’t have another ace up its sleeve.

NL CENTRAL MVP: Albert Pujols, Cardinals: Joey Votto might have stopped the Pujols streak of MVP titles last year, but Pujols is in search of MVP No. 4 and is in a contract year. Let the bidding begin.

FANTASY SLEEPER: Aroldis Chapman, Reds: It isn’t often that a left-handed set-up man could be called a fantasy sleeper, but for keeper-leagues he’s a must get. He is the closer of the future in Cincinnati, and may hold that spot down for a long time.

YOU’LL KNOW THE CUBS ARE IN TROUBLE WHEN . . . : You’re in Year 103 of a dry spell, and a team like Pittsburgh is breathing down your neck for fifth-place in the division.

NO CHANCE: Houston and Pittsburgh, thanks for playing.

PRINT IT! Big Z wins 18 games.



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