For the last several years, the National League Central has been dominated by the presence of two sluggers -- Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols -- who have now migrated to the American League. The teams those two played for, the Brewers and Cardinals, have been consistent contenders and combined for nine postseason appearances since Pujols' debut in 2001.
With those departures, and the still-existing possibility that the Brewers' Ryan Braun might miss 50 games of the 2012 season via suspension, the Brewers and Cardinals will have to retrench and retool to maintain their status as favorites.
St. Louis signed Carlos Beltran, who will take Pujols' place in the lineup (he'll play right field, with Lance Berkman moving to first base). But Beltran turns 35 shortly after Opening Day, and although he had a productive .300/.385/.525 season in 2011, he could enter a decline phase at any time.
The Brewers will have a tougher time replacing Fielder's bat. Mat Gamel, buried behind Fielder for several years in the Milwaukee farm system, will get a chance at first base. He hit .310/.372/.540 at Triple-A Nashville in 2011; if those numbers translate to the major leagues, and if Milwaukee can get production out of Aramis Ramirez, who turns 34 in June, they might come close to compensating for the loss of Fielder's hitting.
All of these uncertainties could make 2012 the year of the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. After a division title season in 2010, the Reds regressed to 79-83 in 2011, in part because Scott Rolen was hurt and non-productive and in part because much of their rotation was hurt and overall wasn't as good as it was in 2010.
They have put much faith in a return to form by Rolen, who turns 37 in April, but they will also have power-hitting catching prospect Devin Mesoraco providing offense (and, they hope, stability) behind the plate. Ryan Madson replaces the departed Francisco Cordero at closer, and they might also attempt to take Aroldis Chapman and his 100+ m.p.h. fastball and put him in the starting rotation. If he succeeds, that takes a lot of pressure off guys like Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto, who struggled at times in 2011. The Reds also picked up Sean Marshall from the Cubs; Marshall was a top setup man in 2011 and will help solidify Cincinnati's bullpen.
The Reds seem just about where the Brewers were a year or so ago -- coming off an unexpected postseason appearance in 2008, Milwaukee regressed for a time before roaring to the NL Central title in 2011. With Joey Votto and Jay Bruce seemingly in their primes, they could be the Braun and Fielder of Cincinnati.
With the Astros fielding a team of mostly kids, the Pirates going through their 20th annual retooling and the Cubs rebuilding (again), the Reds appear to be next in line to the the power at the top of the NL Central.