CENTRAL DIVISION

1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Key arrivals: OF Larry Bigbie, OF Juan Encarnacion, RP Braden Looper, SP Sidney Ponson, 2B Aaron Miles, RP Ricardo Rincon, 2B Junior Spivey.

Key departures: 2B Mark Grudzielanek, SP Matt Morris, INF Abraham Nunez, OF Reggie Sanders, RP Julian Tavarez, OF Larry Walker.

On the way up: Downtown St. Louis. The Cardinals open the new Busch Stadium on April 10 against Milwaukee. Scott Rolen played only 56 games last season because of a tear in his right shoulder.

On the way out: The Cardinals didn't see much out of Spivey this spring, potentially opening some innings for Miles. Mark Mulder can be a free agent after the season, which creates an interesting quandary for the Cardinals. First, he'll be expensive, as most 200-inning pitchers are. Then, as Baseball Prospectus points out, his strikeout rate has fallen for four consecutive years.

Story lines: The Cardinals have fallen into the habit of blowing away the NL Central, only to falter in the postseason. They still have MVP3 -- Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Rolen. Chris Carpenter and Mulder could be a championship 1-2. But Bigbie and Encarnacion at the outfield corners? Spivey (or Miles) at second base? The rest of the division hasn't caught up yet, but the day is coming.

At Dodger Stadium: July 21-23.

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2. HOUSTON ASTROS

Key arrivals: OF Preston Wilson.

Key departures: SP Roger Clemens, INF Jose Vizcaino.

On the way up: Roy Oswalt won 20 games and posted a 2.94 earned-run average, so you wouldn't think there's much "up" left. But baseball minds in Houston believe there is a lot more in Oswalt, beginning with his belief that he can win every time out. Seriously. USC man Jason Lane got an everyday chance and turned it into 26 home runs, 78 runs batted in and a trip to the World Series.

On the way out: After 15 years and tens of thousands of violent swings, first baseman Jeff Bagwell's body appears to have given up. It's a shame Astro management wasn't there for him when it did. Fellow "Killer B" Craig Biggio turned 40 over the winter.

Story lines: We're not ready to give up on the Astros just yet, especially with Clemens not officially starting the Cooperstown Countdown. Manager Phil Garner has his work cut out in the rotation, however, considering what follows Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. Presumably, closer Brad Lidge becomes Brad Lidge again after a few frightening postseason moments. So, the guy gave up a home run to Albert Pujols. It's Albert Pujols.

At Dodger Stadium: May 9-11.

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3. MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Key arrivals: SP David Bush, RP Jared Fernandez, RP Danny Kolb, 3B Corey Koskie.

Key departures: 1B Lyle Overbay, RP Julio Santana.

On the way up: First baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks and shortstop J.J. Hardy, none of whom has seen his 24th birthday, could initiate a Brewer revival. Hardy and Weeks had encouraging rookie seasons last year, and now Fielder -- all 265 pounds of him -- arrives with his big left-handed bat. He still has some lessons ahead; Fielder had 17 strikeouts and two walks in 62 major league plate appearances last season.

On the way out: Carlos Lee, who has put up three consecutive years of 31-plus home runs, is in the final year of his contract, which will pay him $8.5 million. The Brewers believe it will be difficult to re-sign him. Kolb, under a one-year contract, followed a disastrous season in Atlanta with an iffy spring training back with the Brewers.

Story lines: It has been a decade since the legend of Cecil's boy was born at Tiger Stadium, where 12-year-old Prince launched a batting-practice pitch into the upper deck. Four years before that, the Brewers had their last winning season. It appears they have some organizational momentum, a credit to GM Doug Melvin and Manager Ned Yost.

At Dodger Stadium: May 5-7.

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4. CHICAGO CUBS

Key arrivals: RP Scott Eyre, RP Bob Howry, OF Jacque Jones, SP Wade Miller, CF Juan Pierre.

Key departures: OF Jeromy Burnitz, SS Nomar Garciaparra, OF Corey Patterson.

On the way up: A throw-in by the Red Sox in the 2004 deal that featured Garciaparra, Matt Murton showed up in Chicago a year later and batted .321 in 51 games. He'll open the season in left field. The Cubs are waiting on Felix Pie, a speedster who'll soon take Pierre's place in center field. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno has a big-time arm and in 41 games showed a decent knowledge of the strike zone.

On the way out: What to do with Kerry Wood? This year, they're thinking May 1 for his first start. Ten starts last season, 22 in 2004, he's in his final guaranteed season, with the team holding a $13.5-million option for 2007. Derrek Lee is in his walk year and has told the club he won't negotiate once the season starts. Pierre can be a free agent as well.

Story lines: When Hendry sets his mind to something there's not much in between, is there? Having decided to rework the bullpen, he spent $15.5 million on Ryan Dempster, $12 million on Howry and $11 million on Eyre. Shoulder injuries to Wood and Mark Prior could mean a slow start for the Cubs, who don't have the depth to survive long without them.

At Dodger Stadium: April 17-19.

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5. PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Key arrivals: OF Jeromy Burnitz, 1B Sean Casey, RP Roberto Hernandez, RP Damaso Marte, 3B Joe Randa.

Key departures: SP Josh Fogg, INF Rob Mackowiak, RP Brian Meadows, RP Jose Mesa, SP Mark Redman, 3B Ty Wigginton, SP Dave Williams.

On the way up: We'll ignore spring training, during which left-hander Zach Duke gave up 20 runs and a .362 batting average in 21 innings, and assume he'll be closer to the 8-2, 1.81 ERA pitcher he was last season. Chris Duffy was the favorite to be the opening-day center fielder but was pushed by Nate McLouth into the final days of camp.

On the way out: The Pirates are taking offers on Craig Wilson, who lost his first base and right field jobs with the off-season acquisitions of Casey and Burnitz. One scenario has tWilson and reliever Salomon Torres going to the Braves for John Thomson.

Story lines: Somewhere along the line, the folks in Pittsburgh got the notion there was something called "Tracyball" here, which was news to the folks here. But "Tracyball" it is at PNC Park, and there's little doubt Jim Tracy will have a decent run. Still, if Tracy was unhappy the Dodgers didn't add players at the last trading deadline, wait till he sees the alternative in low-budget Pittsburgh.

At Dodger Stadium: June 23-25, Sept. 19-21.

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6. CINCINNATI REDS

Key arrivals: SP Bronson Arroyo, 1B Scott Hatteberg, SP Dave Williams, INF Tony Womack.

Key departures: 1B Sean Casey, INF Luis Lopez, SP Ramon Ortiz, OF Wily Mo Pena.

On the way up: After years of part-time big-league work, Felipe Lopez got the full-time gig in Cincinnati, became an All-Star, hit 23 home runs, and had an .352 on-base percentage. As with most of his teammates, games played at Great American Ball Park contributed to most of his offensive breakout.

On the way out: After a couple of years of rumors, this could be the season Ken Griffey Jr. leaves Cincinnati. Still a potent offensive player, center field is no longer his position. He'd be better off in the American League, serving the rest of his career as a DH and occasional outfielder. Rich Aurilia's professional bat and defensive utility would be a greater asset on a contender.

Story lines: In three seasons since they opened the ballpark, with all of the revenue streams and goodwill that new ballparks are supposed to create, the Reds are 50 games under .500. The Reds start over with a new owner and GM, but mostly the same pitching staff. They added Arroyo in the final week of spring training, but there's a lot more work to do there.

At Dodger Stadium: Aug. 28-30.

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