The conventional wisdom favors the Cardinals. They pummeled the rest of the division throughout the second half of '09. They resigned Matt Holiday. They still have Pujols, Carpenter, and Wainwright. And nobody in their division got markedly better.
I don't doubt that the Cardinals will be there right to the end and it never surprises me when Tony LaRussa edges a team into the postseason, but the Cardinals are not as complete as some would have you believe. The backend of the rotation is an utter mystery, as Dave Duncan will be expected to work his magic once again with the likes of Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse. Even if he does, if injury befalls one of the Cardinal Aces, the organization does not have a whole lot of compensatory depth.
The left side of the infield is another major weakness. Brendan Ryan and David Freese can catch it and throw it well enough, but they'll make little to no offensive contribution. Few teams are able to survive by punting at short and third. The good news is that John Mozeliak has provided Tony LaRussa with a pair of his favorite things: utility infielders. Felipe Lopez and Julio Lugo can both play pretty much everywhere and hit a little as well, so LaRussa can mix and match to his heart's content.
As a whole, beyond Pujols and Holliday, the Cardinals lineup looks a little tepid. They really need Ryan Ludwick to regain his 2008 form, or Colby Rasmus to make good on his considerable potential. If that happens, and they stay relatively healthy, the Cards could win the division running away, as many expect. However, those are some sizable "ifs".
It would be difficult for the Cubs to have any worse luck than they had in '09, when they still managed, barely, to secure a winning record. Going into last year, the Cubs were heavily favored to win the division, more heavily even than the 2010 Cardinals. Superficially, very little has changed. Rich Harden and Milton Bradley are gone, but the Cubs still have plenty of talent. This may be Alfonso Soriano's last chance to dignify his massive contract.
While I'd like to predict a resurgence from Chicago, I think the major threat to a St. Louis repeat is the Milwaukee Brewers. The difference between Pujols/Holliday and Fielder/Braun is negligible and the Brewers have a much deeper lineup, especially if Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart rebound.
The major question for the Brewers is, as ever, the rotation. By adding Randy Wolf, they have, hopefully, the innings-eating #3 they expected to get several seasons ago when they gave Jeff Suppan $42 Million. And, in Yovani Gallardo, they have a blossoming Ace. Beyond them, there isn't a lot of stability.
What gives me hope for the Brewers is that Manny Parra and Carlos Villaneuva, both electric arms, are a year older and wiser and Milwaukee has been collecting middling veteran hurlers - Suppan, Dave Bush, Doug Davis, and Chris Capuano - all of whom have proven their ability to succeed at the major-league level (though not as consistently as one might like). If one or two from that quartet can turn in at least league-average peformances, this team could be very, very dangerous, because one thing is certain, they're going to score a ton of runs.
The NL Central is deeper than it has been in years. Nobody will look forward to facing the Astros on days when Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez are pitching. Even the Pirates seem to finally have a few reasons for optimism (namely, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Garrett Jones). But, the real Wild Card here is the Cincinnati Reds.
It's difficult to pick the Reds ahead of the Cubs, Cards, and Brewers, who all have a recent track record of success, but if all the young Reds were to figure it out at once, they could become an NL version of the '08 Rays. Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker have brought together an impressive combination of blue chip talent (Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, etc.) and veteran leadership (Orlando Cabrera, Bronson Arroyo, Scott Rolen, etc.). It will be a very disappointing fall in Cincinnati if the Reds don't manage at least their first .500 season since 2000. I don't expect Dusty Baker will be renewed if he can't yield at least 85 wins, which won't be an easy feat.
Milwaukee Brewers 93-69
St. Louis Cardinals 90-72
Chicago Cubs 84-78
Cincinnati Reds 81-81
Pittsburgh Pirates 74-88
Houston Astros 69-93
M.V.P. Candidate: Albert Pujols, Cardinals (Who else? Seriously)
Cy Contender: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Rookie of the Year: Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
Breakout Candidates: Joey Votto (Reds); Jay Bruce (Reds); Andrew McCutchen (Pirates); Manny Parra (Brewers); Colby Rasmus (Cardinals); Bud Norris (Astros); Mat Gamel (Brewers); Wladimir Balentien (Reds)