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N.L. Central Division preview

1. Cincinnati Reds

The defending division champions brought back their roster virtually intact, spending more than $150 million to lock in key players for the long term. They’re counting on more consistency from outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs and right-handed starter Johnny Cueto, and full seasons from left-handed reliever Aroldis Chapman and right-handed starter Edinson Volquez.

The Reds made the playoffs last season for the first time in 15 years. Manager Dusty Baker thinks that experience should help in their quest for their first back-to-back division titles since 1994-95.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals imploded down the stretch last season, going 21-27 while scoring two or fewer runs 17 times. They failed to sign three-time MVP Albert Pujols to an extension in the offseason, leaving him a potential free agent after this year.

Could things get worse? Yes. Top starter Adam Wainwright tore up his pitching elbow in February and had reconstructive surgery and No. 2 starter Chris Carpenter pulled his left hamstring during spring training and missed a few weeks.

3. Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee made two of the biggest moves in the division, acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to round out the rotation. The Brewers also replaced manager Ken Macha with Ron Roenicke, who has instant expectations.

The Brewers gave up some of their top prospects to get the two pitchers in a win-now move. Prince Fielder can become a free agent after the season. If the pitching staff can hold up, they have enough offense to contend.

4. Houston Astros

Houston played 11 rookies last season, often using three or more in the starting lineup. The Astros brought the young lineup back virtually intact, adding veteran infielders Clint Barmes and Bill Hall to their ongoing rebuilding.

Offense is the issue. Houston hit only 108 homers last season, worst in the N.L. The Astros’ on-base percentage and slugging percentage also were the league’s worst.

5. Chicago Cubs

Manager Mike Quade’s top challenge is to get the Cubs to stop fighting themselves. Quade had to call a team meeting during spring training after pitcher Carlos Silva (since demoted) and third baseman Aramis Ramirez squabbled in the dugout.

Last year, Carlos Zambrano got into it with Derrek Lee, drawing a suspension. The Cubs upgraded their rotation by acquiring Matt Garza, a 15-game winner with Tampa Bay last season.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates hit a league-low .242 and had a league-high earned run average of 5.00 – fourth worst in franchise history. The only major move in the offseason was to fire manager John Russell and replace him with Clint Hurdle, who will try to pump enthusiasm into his young and overmatched lineup.

The Pirates tried to upgrade their pitching staff by signing Kevin Correia, who went 10-10 with a 5.40 ERA for San Diego.

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