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MLB Division Preview: 10 things about the NL Central

Who wants to revisit the old Astros divisional digs?

Let's continue our tour of the rest of baseball by stopping in to see the Astros old digs. here's some quick hits on how the National League Central could shape up this season.

1) Do the Pirates have the best outfield in MLB?

That's the question Jayson Stark posed earlier this offseason. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, the Pirates can legitimately boast three five-tool outfielders that could play any of three spots.

One of them, McCutchen, is a bona fide superstar. Another, Polanco, is a top prospect who could easily turn into a star. A third is a young player who is signed to a team-friendly extension.

Together, though, they represent the core of Pittsburgh's offense. All three can hit for power and run the bases. They all get on base at a nice clip and can play pretty good defense.

There aren't many outfields who can boast that kind of corner-to-corner talent. Maybe Mike Trout and two other guys makes a case.

If the Pirates dethrone the Cardinals at the top of the division this year, it'll be because this outfield clicks into the best in the league.

2) Winter's best FA signing

That would be Francisco Liriano, who the Pirates kept around on a three-year, $39 million deal that included a $2 million singing bonus. Liriano will get $11 million in 2015 and his salary will rise in each of the next two years.

That comes after he pitched two years for the Pirates for $9 million total after finishing his injury-plagued final years in Minnesota.

Since hitting the Three Rivers, Liriano has thrown 160 innings each year with an ERA under 3.40. He's rediscovered his elite strikeout rate, topping 25 percent in each of his two Pittsburgh seasons. Lirano has also coupled that with a return to his lower walk rates from when he was effective with the Twins in his first go-round.

Add all that up and for 18 percent of what the Nationals paid Max Scherzer, the Pirates get a pitcher who should give them 80 percent of Scherzer's production.

That's not a bad bargain, especially when you consider that Ervin Santana signed with the Twins for $15 million (on a four-year deal).

3) The cardinal rule is pitching

If the St. Louis Cardinals top the NL Central again, it'll be on the strength of their pitching staff. Under general manager John Mozeliak, the Cards have build a deep staff filled with young, inexpensive talent.

That depth is why Mozeliak felt confident enough to spin one of those pieces (Shelby Miller) to Atlanta for soon-to-be free agent slugger Jason Heyward.

It's a risky move, because Heyward could walk after this season for the $200 million contract that the Cards probably won't be able to give him. But, St. Louis also didn't lose much out of its staff. They've still got Adam Wainwright at the top with Lance Lynn just behind him. John Lackey, a nice midseason acquisition from Boston last year, is the third starter while former Texas A&M pitcher Michael Wacha is an overqualified fourth starter.

Then, the Cards have three guys competing for the fifth start that could pitch in the middle of the Astros rotation. Highly touted prospect Carlos Martinez is trying to transition from the bullpen to the rotation. Lefty Marco Gonzales hasn't given up anything this spring while Jaime Garcia was very effective before hitting an injury skid the past couple of seasons.

That's enviable depth and should provide a bedrock for the St. Louis climb to contention this year.

4) Kolten Wong=bae

One of my favorite draft prospects finally has a spot locked up in the regular lineup. Hawai'i's favored son Kolten Wong will be the Cardinals starting second baseman. He should be a pretty good one, too.

Wong's projected to hit .264/.310/.389 this season by ZiPS with 11 home runs and 21 steals. He was a .305/.367/.451 hitter in four seasons in the minors and had a .303/.369/.466 line in his final full season at Triple-A before giving way to the majors last year.

Wong struggled to make consistent contact last season, managing just a .292 on-base percentage, but he did have some pop, slugging 12 home runs and adding 29 total extra-base hits in 433 plate appearances.

5) No one rebuilds like the Cubs

Theo Epstein appears to have worked his magic with the Cubs. The perennial sad-sack franchise of baseball has exciting talent on the farm, a powerful lineup and an emerging rotation. Kris Bryant could be the best prospect in baseball and should murder baseballs very soon in Wrigley.

But, for all that hype, the Cubs have seen some of their high-profile prospects struggle already. Javier Baez has really had trouble making contact in the majors while Arismendy Alcantara doesn't have a set position nor a bat that justifies a nomadic existence.

Still, the Cubbies do have impressive depth. If Baez falls down, they can just bring up Addison Russell. If Alcatara doesn't work out, Jorge Soler will be there instead.

Add in stalwart performances from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro and the Cubs should make it over .500 this year. They may need another year before they can play with the big boys at the top of this division, but if things break right for them, 2015 may see the Cubs make a run at a wild card spot.

6) Three teams for Brother Lester

Jon Lester may have been the most coveted pitcher on the free agent market for one reason: he didn't come with draft pick compensation. The left-hander was traded from Boston to Oakland midseason last year, which meant that he would not be eligible for a qualifying offer from the A's.

Thus, he was free of any restrictions to sign with any team that wanted him.

That team turned out to be the Cubs, where his former boss Epstein works now.

It's a bad contract, just because any contract that runs that long and for that much money is bad. But, Lester should be able to give the Cubs a top-of-the-line arm for their rotation, while they usher some of the younger players up the ladder.

7) Something Brewing

Where are the Brewers? Are they rebuilding or contending?

The team itself doesn't seem to know. After winning 82 games last season, Milwaukee didn't do a whole lot to improve the 2015 product. They traded for Adam Lind, signed a few minor league free agents, sent rotation mainstay Yovani Gallardo for prospects and then picked up closer Fransisco Rodriguez after flirting with a Jonathan Papelbon trade.

By FanGraphs Base Runs projections, the Brewers improved by minus-3 wins. That's right, they got worse.

There are nice pieces here. Jean Segura is a very good, young shortstop. Khris Davis provides some pop in left field. Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun are stars and Jonathan Lucroy could be the best all-around catcher in baseball.

But, the rotation is fronted by Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, the bullpen has been pieced together and there's little help on the farm.

So what do the Brewers do? With that second wild card spot, it's easier than ever to make a playoff run. Should the Brewers tear things down and go all-in on a rebuild? They still have a few stars in their prime. Shouldn't they make a run?

It's a fascinating place to be and a fascinating team to watch. I just wouldn't want to be a Brewers fan. Reminds me too much of the 2006-08 Astros.

8) The Red Menace

It's easy to see what the Reds are doing.

They have exciting young players like Devin Mesoracom, Aroldis Chapman and Billy Hamilton, but they've also actively acquired older, worser players like Skip Schumaker and Marlon Byrd. They appear ready to let Johnny Cueto walk into a huge free-agent payday next winter while shepherding a few young players along.

With all that, they must recognize that this is a bit of a transition year. They have some nice talent, but Joey Votto may not be as transcendent a player as he was, Brandon Phillips could be washed up and Jay Bruce may be past his prime. By taking a step back and giving some younger players a chance to establish themselves.

It also means that it could be a long season for Reds fans. This division is pretty deep and the Reds could be at the bottom for much of the year.

9) Prospect to watch

The baseball world doesn't get shocked by much. It's seen some things, man. Like, heavy things.

When the A's flipped Addison Russell to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija, though, it shocked plenty of people. Teams in this day and age just don't flip super prospects at all, much less for players with little control left.

Yet, that's exactly what happened. Russell immediately gave the Cubs the best farm system in baseball and adds more infield depth to a team loaded with position players.

Russell doesn't excel in any one area, but he should give the Cubs a well-rounded player who can hit for average, play good defense and run the bases. He doesn't have a spot yet, and the Cubs could bring him along slowly to allow them time to sort out who's playing where on that infield.

10) Predictions

1. Pirates

2. Cardinals

3. Cubs

4. Brewers

5. Reds