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NL Central preview: Astros leave opening at bottom; Reds should still rule

The Houston Astros’ move to the American League means the only thing keeping the Cubs out of last place each the last two seasons has opened a path to the cellar for the Cubs or the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The division champion Cincinnati Reds return every key player from last year’s team — and, unlike last year, are planning for a full season from former MVP Joey Votto. But they haven’t seen the quality they expected when they signed left-hander Manny Parra for the rotation.

The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are both a clear step below the Reds on paper, with the Cardinals suffering a major blow in the form of All-Star shortstop Rafael Furcal’s season-ending elbow injury. But the Cards are loaded with young pitching on a staff headed by Adam Wainwright and have three playoff berths in the last four seasons.

And the Brewers, who actually played better last year after trading off Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels, boosted their expectations with the late signing of 16-game winner Kyle Lohse.

the breakdown

• Key additions: LF Shin-Soo Choo, Reds; RHP Kyle Lohse, Brewers; RHP Edwin Jackson, Cubs; LHP Francisco Liriano, Pirates; C Russell Martin, Pirates.

• Key departures: RHP Kyle Lohse, Cardinals; RHP Zack Greinke, Brewers; RHP Ryan Dempster, Cubs; IF/OF Skip Schumaker, Cardinals; 3B Scott Rolen, Reds; OF Drew Stubbs, Reds; SS Rafael Furcal, Cardinals (injury); Houston Astros.

• Best-case scenario for Cubs: Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson perform well enough at the top of the rotation to keep the Cubs near .500 until Matt Garza returns to the rotation in May. Then the Cubs perform just well enough just deep enough into the season to avoid a July 31 sell-off. Going into the final six weeks, the race for the second wild card becomes a mad scramble among teams around that .500 mark.

• Worst-case scenario for Cubs: Garza lingers on DL, end of the rotation is shaky, team is 10 games under .500 by June and inevitable sell-off creates another ugly finish, plunging the loss total deep into the 90s.

NL CENTRAL ORDER OF FINISH

1. Reds

2. Brewers

3. Cardinals

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

NL PLAYOFFS

West: Dodgers

East: Nationals

Central: Reds

Wild-card game: Giants vs. Brewers



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