A 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation and a 1-2 punch in the middle of the order is hard to beat, and the defending National League Central champion Cardinals could stack up against any division with what they have in those departments.

But that doesn't mean the Cardinals go into 2010 as locks to knock out the competition again.

With the Cubs still very dangerous, the Brewers balanced and a little deeper on the pitching side and now the Reds making some noise with their offseason acquisitions, the NL Central has the makings of a race that won't be clinched early.

Make no mistake: The team with the combo of Cy Young contenders Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright at the top of the rotation and two-time defending National League MVP Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the middle of the order will be expected to lead the way.

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But with the Redbirds possessing less overall depth than their pursuers, fate will have some say in how the NL Central plays out. Health in St. Louis, as much as anyplace, will be paramount. Already, a strained oblique is threatening Opening Day for superb catcher Yadier Molina -- not a devastating injury but not a great sign, either.

And the Cubs, who fell to second last year after finishing first in back-to-back years for the first time since 1908, a year that continues to live on for baseball's ultimate "Get 'em next year" gang. But with Carlos Zambrano leading the rotation and an offense strong through its core, the Cubs do have what it takes to battle their rivals and anyone else to the end.

The Brewers, meanwhile, have their own 1-2 punch in the middle of the order with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun -- no teammates had more runs batted in than those two in 2009. While they don't have the knockout combo at the top the rotation, they do have added rotation depth with veteran Randy Wolf joining the mix, and they remain strong in the bullpen.

The real X-factor in the division is the Reds, and their X-factor -- fireballing left-handed phenom Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector signed to a $30.25 million deal this offseason -- could have something to do with whether this is the year Cincinnati jumps back into the fray. It's not all about Chapman, who appears likely to start the season in the Minors, but his presence would presumably upgrade what's already a strength with Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo at the top. The lineup includes veterans Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez joining cornerstone second baseman Brandon Phillips and younger stars Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. This is a team that could do some damage.

The same could be said for the Astros, but that likely would depend on bounceback seasons from first baseman Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. With a renewed energy sparked by the arrival of former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills as manager and driven by young up-and-comers Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, the Astros could surprise some folks.

A much bigger surprise would come from Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have made some moves to augment a young core that includes second-year outfielder Andrew McCutchen at the top of the order. Really, the intrigue about this season isn't necessarily about Opening Day, but it's about when their latest top prospects -- third baseman Pedro Alvarez, pitcher Brad Lincoln and outfielder Jose Tabata, are going to arrive -- all three expected by this summer.

Really, how 2010 unfolds revolves around the Cardinals, who have what it takes to win the division again -- but do they have enough of it to fend off the rest?


Best lineup
The Cardinals don't have to completely rely on the Pujols-Holliday ticket to take them to the promised land, with 22-homer man Ryan Ludwick following them. But having two of the game's premier right-handed sluggers goes a long way. The Brewers boast a right-left combo of Braun-Fielder that also ranks among the game's best, but offseason moves depleted some of the power potential, so speed might have to come into play more this year. The Cubs should get a boost from a return to health from third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who will add support for Derrek Lee that wasn't there down the stretch last year, when Lee regained MVP-caliber form. Center fielder Marlon Byrd adds some, shall we say, stability they didn't have a year ago as well, pushing Alfonso Soriano to No. 6 in the lineup. If Soriano and Ramirez are indeed healthy and Geovany Soto can bounce back, the Cubs are right there at the top. Our selection: Cardinals


Best rotation
It'd be one thing if the Cardinals just had Carpenter, a Cy Young and two-time Comeback Player of the Year winner, at the top of the rotation. But Wainwright's ascension into the elite in the league puts the Redbirds at the top of the division. Still, it'll be up to the rest of the rotation, including newcomer Brad Penny, to put them over the top. The Cubs aren't that far behind and will get a boost in late April with Ted Lilly's return. Their depth will keep them going until then. Our selection: Cardinals


Best bullpen
Baseball's all-time saves leader, even at age 42, is a good place to start, and the Brewers added to Trevor Hoffman with veteran LaTroy Hawkins. Then again, Francisco Cordero isn't a bad place to start coming off perhaps his finest season in a 250-save career thus far, and he has support in the Reds' bullpen. It's a division that also includes Ryan Franklin coming off his own career year in St. Louis and as-yet unfulfilled closer promise in the Cubs' Carlos Marmol, who earned an All-Star spot in a setup role before taking over the job down the stretch. Call it a toss-up. Our selection: Brewers


Best defense
Astros center fielder Bourn turned his speed into a Gold Glove a year ago, right fielder Pence led the league in assists and rookie shortstop Tommy Manzella comes in with a sparkling defensive reputation, and he'll share the left side of the infield with Pedro Feliz, also solid. The Reds have more Gold Glove winners, but Rolen and Cabrera won't be favored to win again this year -- although second baseman Phillips might. Pujols and his Gold Glove lead a solid group in St. Louis as well. Our selection: Astros

Predicted order of finish


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