Spring training: Has Central taken step back?

Cubs, Brewers took offseason hits, Pirates say, while others improved

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Here is an odd statistic: The Pirates had a winning record against the majority of the Central Division in 2008.

Yeah, and if only they had not gone a combined 5-28 against the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, that might have meant something, too.

"No question, those teams had our number," catcher Ryan Doumit said.

Will they again?

The Cubs are still the unquestioned class of the Central, but a breakdown of all five of the Pirates' most frequent opponents shows that more backward than forward steps were taken:

• Chicago, the defending champion, added a formidable bat in Milton Bradley but failed to secure Jake Peavy despite a large push. And the Cubs lost closer Kerry Wood and superb utilityman Mark DeRosa.

• Milwaukee, which ascended to 90 wins, took the biggest loss in watching CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets leave through free agency. It will be asking quite a bit of young Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra to replace them. Trevor Hoffman's addition should address Salomon Torres' retirement, but he is 41 and his bell might have tolled.

Central changes

A look at significant pluses and minuses for the other five teams in the NL Central:

Cubs: Major additions: Milton Bradley, OF; Kevin Gregg, closer. Major subtractions: Kerry Wood, P; Mark DeRosa, 2B.

Brewers: Major additions: Trevor Hoffman, closer. Major subtractions: CC Sabathia, P; Ben Sheets, P; Salomon Torres, P.

Astros: Major additions: Ivan Rodriguez, C. Major subtractions: Ty Wigginton, 3B; Brad Ausmus, C.

Cardinals: Major additions: Khalil Greene, SS. Major subtractions: Braden Looper, P; Jason Isringhausen, closer; Aaron Miles, 2B.

Reds: Major additions: Willy Taveras, CF. Major subtractions: Ryan Freel, OF; Gary Majewski, P.

• St. Louis, an 86-game winner despite tons of adversity, did little more than add .213-hitting Khalil Greene at shortstop. The Cardinals are counting on Chris Carpenter to be healthy after his elbow limited him to 15 innings last year. If so, he and Adam Wainwright would be a nice 1-2 for the rotation. If not ...

• Houston has a good lineup again, powered by Lance Berkman and Miguel Tejada, but there is no pitching depth beyond Roy Oswalt. Wandy Rodriguez, maybe? Mike Hampton, after 13 starts in three years?

• Cincinnati might be most intriguing. The Reds had glaring losses in Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., but the rotation might be the division's best, with Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and elite prospect Homer Bailey or Micah Owings at the back end. And those bat losses might be mitigated by youngsters Jay Bruce and Joey Votto.

"Whatever you can say about it, it sure looks like some things have changed," reliever Sean Burnett said.

The Pirates, of course, did precious little to upgrade this offseason -- adding bench pieces Ramon Vazquez and Eric Hinske -- and are coming off yet another 95-loss season, so they hardly are in a position to look down at anyone.

But several of their more prominent players did acknowledge that the division might be tighter in 2009.

"I think so," Doumit said. "It really hurt Milwaukee to lose Sabathia and Sheets. That's the big thing. The Cubs are always going to be tough, but losing DeRosa ... I'm not upset to see that guy go. As far as I'm concerned, the playing field is a little more even right now."

"The Cubs are definitely still the team to beat, but beyond that ... it's a little different as far teams that have real horses," center fielder Nate McLouth said. "It's a more balanced division, especially if our team and Cincinnati can step up. And, you know, the Reds are my sleeper team. That's a really good rotation."

"I wouldn't say the division has come back to us or anything. I'd say it's more even, more competitive," starter Paul Maholm said. "I think the Reds, the Astros and our team are going to be better."

Others found it premature to be discussing division opponents, for various reasons.

"I don't pay attention to what other teams do," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "Especially here in spring training, you're just focusing on getting yourself and your team as ready as possible."

First baseman Adam LaRoche might have had the most poignant prediction on this topic.

"I can't say what other teams are going to do and, honestly, I don't care," he said. "All I can say is this: If we play against our division like we did last year, with the same results, it doesn't matter. All we can control is what we do."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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