St. Louis has owned this division for the past two years, but everyone else is starting to catch up. Let's review:Chicago
: I have been hard on the Cubbies in earlier posts, but I will give them props for some recent deals. Signing Jacque Jones away from Minnesota and trading for Juan Pierre are two significant steps in the right direction. They gave up on Corey Patterson, too, which I think was a good move for both sides. The power is all in the infield (Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, specifically), but Pierre and Jones should hit 1-2 and be effective. This is a team that will play a lot of small ball this year, manufacturing runs rather than waiting for the big bop. Pitching is always a question mark, since the health of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior is never guaranteed. Having said that, a starting five of Wood, Pior, Greg Maddux, Carlos Zambrano and Glendon Rusch isn't too shabby. Direction: Slightly Up.Cincinnati
: Boy, I wish I knew what to make of this team. They have a scary good group of outfielders (Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena). Looks like one of them (probably Dunn) will likely be converted to a first baseman to replace the departed Sean Casey, swapped to Pittsburgh for Dave Williams. The Reds then dealt for Tony Womack, probably as insurance in case super-sub Ryan Freel gets hurt. Felipe Lopez had a breakout season last year, and this year could be Edwin Encarnacion's turn. Add in the great catcher combo of Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin, and you have as good an offense as anyone else in the division. But, boy, is that pitching still bad. Direction: Neutral.Houston
: If you've heard of the play "Waiting fo Godot", meet the cast of "Waiting for Clemens". Everything in Houston depends on Roger Clemens' decision whether or not to pitch this season. The only significant move the Astros made this offseason was signing Preston Wilson. That move further proves that the Astros want to get rid of Jeff Bagwell and his wrecked shoulders, as Wilson's signing forces Lance Berkman to first base, assuming the Astros feel Jason Lane is ready to assume the center field job full-time (which he is). Direction: Neutral, pointing Down.Milwaukee
: Here's the team that could make the jump from division also-ran to player. Of course, we've heard it all before. Did OK in completing two trades with the Blue Jays, getting David Bush, Gabe Gross, Zach Jackson and Corey Koskie for Lyle Overbay and Brian Wolfe. Overbay was out of a job with the ascension of Prince Fielder, and the Brewers have a lot of good, young talent (Rickie Weeks, JJ Hardy and Brady Clark) combined with some great veterans (Carlos Lee, Geoff Jenkins and Koskie). The pitching staff is better than you think, as Doug Davis would have won more than 11 games last year with better run support. Tomo Ohka and Dave Bush are both good pitchers and, if Ben Sheets is healthy, this team looks good. In short, they didn't make a lot of moves this offseason, but they really didn't need to. And the moves they had to make, they did. Direction: Up.Pittsburgh
: I really want to see Pittsburgh do well. Sadly, it won't be this year. Instead of sticking with growing a team up from the minors, they go out and sign Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz to free-agent contracts, trade for Sean Casey, re-signed all of their arbitration-eligible guys and unloaded Mark Redman, Tike Redman, Mike Restovich and Dave Williams. Doesn't make much sense. Also, they let Jose Mesa walk (not necessarily a bad thing), but Mike Gonzalez looks ready for prime time. This club got older this offseason and that's not good. Direction: Neutral, pointing Down.St. Louis
: The defending division champs underwent an extreme makeover of sorts after last year's ugly playoff exit against the Astros. They cut ties with OF's Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker and dealt for Juan Encarnacion and Larry Bigbie, added 2B Junior Spivey and Aaron Miles (who should have a fun slugfest for the job in Spring Training) and signed Braden Looper to set up, and as insurance, for Jason Isringhausen. They also cut loose Matt Morris and are giving Sidney Ponson a second chance after his Baltimore banishment. On paper, not good, but this is St. Louis, land of the greatest clubhouse and fans in the NL, not to mention Tony LaRussa, so you gotta think good things. Direction: Neutral, pointing Down.
Coming soon....the NL West!