The banged-up NL Central


Right after starter Adam Wainwright was lost for the season, manager Tony La Russa said nobody would feel sorry for the St. Louis Cardinals, and that despite the crushing nature of that injury, the team would just have to plow ahead, because there will be games and the season will be played.

So it was within the first day or so after the Wainwright injury that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak found himself in La Russa's office being encouraged by the manager, who spoke of how much he liked the team the Cardinals had put together. La Russa has been around long enough to know that sometimes these kinds of things start to even out among rivals; the other teams start to lose their key players to injuries, too.

Which is precisely what has happened in the National League Central. The Milwaukee Brewers will be without starter Zack Greinke for the first month or so, having lost him to a basketball injury, and they'll know on Monday -- when Shaun Marcum is scheduled to pitch -- whether they'll also have a hole in the No. 2 spot in their rotation. The Cincinnati Reds were thought to have more rotation depth than any team in the division, to go along with their extraordinarily talented core of young position players, but in the past two weeks, the Reds' starters have dropped like falling dominoes. Johnny Cueto was the first, with arm trouble. Bronson Arroyo has been under the weather, and on Thursday he was tested for valley fever; it turns out he has been diagnosed with mononucleosis. Mike Leake has remained healthy but has pitched poorly. On Friday, Homer Bailey -- who had been slotted as high as second in the rotation, as the others started to have problems -- was shut down because of a shoulder impingement, as John Fay writes, an injury that the Reds say is not serious.

Right now, the first turn of the Reds' rotation could look something like this:

Edinson Volquez

Travis Wood

Bronson Arroyo

Mike Leake

Sam LeCure

Nobody is going to feel sorry for them, and Reds GM Walt Jocketty -- who worked alongside La Russa in Oakland and St. Louis for years -- knows this. On Friday evening, Jocketty sent this email:

"Everything is pretty good here. We have had a couple setbacks with Cueto and Bailey, but they are short term and should only miss a couple of starts. We are lucky to have the depth we have to overcome the setbacks. Bronson has had numerous tests and all is well and he has been cleared to make his next start on Tuesday."

There may be teams with higher ceilings in other divisions, but there is no division that is deeper than the NL Central, which has no less than four teams that appear to have a legitimate shot to finish in first place. They haven't even played a single game that counts, and already it's starting to feel like a long and tough year in this division. Extra credit will be given for competitive survival.

The Brewers picked up a swingman, in Sergio Mitre; Doug Melvin views him as a reliever. The Chicago Cubs cut Braden Looper, who indicated that he is retiring, and Carlos Silva's chances for making the team improved.

Drayton McLane is close to selling the Houston Astros to Jim Crane.There could be greatness in the Astros, writes Richard Justice. Crane was once a student-athlete.

• There are four songs in the running for Troy Tulowitzki's walk-up music; vote here. I know which song I would vote for, but I'm never telling anyone, ever.

• And the hits just keep on coming for the Philadelphia Phillies, who will be without closer Brad Lidge indefinitely. The Phillies are now without their No. 3 hitter from last year, given the absence of Chase Utley, and their No. 5 hitter, given the departure of Jayson Werth, and their closer. To put that into perspective, imagine the New York Yankees without Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Mariano Rivera, or the San Francisco Giants without Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and Brian Wilson; imagine the Boston Red Sox without Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Jonathan Papelbon. Since that first day when the starting rotation was introduced, Cliff Lee sitting in the middle of Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, almost nothing has gone right for Philadelphia.

And in time, we'll see if Placido Polanco's injury situation is more precarious than what has been let on so far, as rival evaluators believe.

Lidge will start the year for the third time in four years, as Paul Hagen writes.

Tommy Hunter could miss up to six weeks. Not good. Neftali Feliz is not an option for the rotation, by the way.

Mat Latos has an inflamed bursa sac. Not good. Tim Stauffer will pitch on Opening Day.

• It's a wait-and-see situation with Joe Nathan, after a spring in which Matt Capps has thrown well, writes La Velle Neal. It sounds like Nathan will open the year as the Minnesota closer, and then as time goes along, performance will dictate any necessary adjustments.

Dings and dents

1. Within this Nick Piecoro notebook, there is some positive news about J.J. Putz, the Arizona closer.

2. There was a sign of progress for Brian Wilson, as mentioned within this notebook.

3. Jair Jurrjens's injury is believed to be minor.

4. Joe Beimel had a setback and will start the year on the disabled list.

5. The Marlins' starting outfield will be together for the first time.

6. An injury to Brian Tallet has muddled the St. Louis bullpen situation, as Derrick Goold writes.

7. Joel Zumaya could begin throwing soon.

8. A cut on the thumb has hurt a Minnesota reliever.

9. Five Brewers are likely to start the season on the disabled list, including Corey Hart and LaTroy Hawkins.

10. Octavio Dotel will open the season on the Toronto Blue Jays' disabled list.

11. Dioner Navarro has a strain.

12. Adam LaRoche has been shut down until Monday.

13. Kyle Farnsworth had another injury scare.

14. The Red Sox, like a lot of teams, are dealing with injuries a lot, and working to be at the forefront of injury prevention.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Mike Sweeney signed with the Kansas City Royals so he could retire as a Royal. He had a nice career, and nobody represented the sport better. Here's some key dates in Sweeney's tenure, courtesy of the Kansas City Star.

2. The Cleveland Indians' payroll has shrunk for the third straight season, writes Paul Hoynes.

3. Jayson Werth is OK with hitting in the No. 2 spot in the Washington lineup.

4. The Tampa Bay Rays cut a couple of pitchers.

5. The Yankees added depth in Kevin Millwood. At some point, they're likely to name Freddy Garcia as their No. 5 starter.

The Battle For Jobs

1. Russell Branyan made the Arizona Diamondbacks' roster, and kept the secret from almost everybody.

2. Marc Kroon has kept hope alive, with a dominant inning.

3. Pat Burrell will open the year as the Giants' left fielder, which means Brandon Belt could be headed to the minors.

4. Josh Tomlin won a spot in the Cleveland rotation, but David Huff did not.

5. Wilson Betemit still has a place with the Royals, for now.

6. Esmil Rogers was named as the No. 5 starter for the Colorado Rockies.

7. Chris Carter was sent down, but wasn't shaken by the news, writes Susan Slusser.

8. Robert Andino might not have a spot with the Orioles.

Friday's games

1. At a time when Scott Kazmir is really struggling, Scott Palmer threw out a good outing. I don't think it's overstating the case to say that Kazmir will be pitching for his job as the season opens; the Angels need to see improvement.

2. Kyle Lohse continues to impress, writes Rick Hummel.

3. Within this notebook, there is word that Tsuyoshi Nishioka has hit in 13 consecutive games.

4. Within this notebook, there is word that Starlin Castro has been killing the ball.

5. Gordon Beckham carried a .351 average into Friday's exhibition.

6. Within this Geoff Baker notebook, there is word that Erik Bedard had another strong start.

7. Nate McLouth is finishing strong in spring training.

Other stuff

• The Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers played a charity game in the name of Christina-Taylor Green.

• Willie Aikens chooses to believe, as Sam Mellinger writes.

• After a visit to Japan, the disaster there weighs on Kei Igawa, writes Mark Feinsand.

• A case involving Brian Giles has gone to trial.

• The Giants are a hot ticket, even at steep prices.

Omar Infante is happy that he's being left at second base.

• The Rockies' new approach at the plate is starting to sink in, writes Troy Renck.

Justin Verlander has been throwing the ball great and is excited for this season. I think he'll have a monster year.

Josh Wilson is fighting for a roster spot with the Mariners.

• Here's some inside stuff on Aroldis Chapman, from Hal McCoy.

Jose Molina will catch Jo-Jo Reyes.

Mike Pelfrey expects his at-bats to be better.

• The Cubs have picked a new PA guy.

• Alex Anthopolous talks about his second year on the job with the Jays.

• This is the seventh spring for this column, seven years of the same morning routine. Sometime before sunrise, I walk quietly down the darkened hallway, tiptoeing so that I don't wake the others in the house, which is silly because my predawn partners are already shaking and stretching and wagging at the top of the stairs, their collars and tags jingling loudly. Penny is 6 years old and some kind of a mix between a chow and German shepherd, and Lady is 8 years old, a golden retriever that our daughter chose as a newborn because she had the darkest coloring of her litter.

Lady is the first down the stairs, rushing to get the day started, while Penny lingers at the top because she knows this is a good place to get the first scratch on the top of her head. They never stop wagging, looking up as I sleepily put together the morning coffee, and when the button is pushed and I throw on a jacket, they're headed for the front door. Penny, young and smaller, is bouncing by this time, and Lady steps back, deferring, always letting her stepsister outside first.

Penny is results-oriented and to the point, and after her rush to the front lawn, she is back quickly. Lady, however, takes her time, putting her nose in the air and checking for deer, then walking out to the pine tree near the top of the driveway. She walks at a 45 degree angle, tail up and her nose down, along the driveway, taking in the morning, and eventually, she makes it back to the porch, from where Penny has been watching impatiently, bouncing, cajoling, because Penny is already thinking about the spread that will be put out after we get inside. Lady listens, and if she hears something, her tail and the hair on her back rises, and she looks in the direction of the noise, woofing low and thick, as if she is about to take the head off of any chipmunk that turns the corner. A big, scary faker; she's the friendliest dog ever.

When we get back to the kitchen, Penny lies on the floor with her dish between her two front paws, a competitive eater; nothing else in the world matters. A cup of coffee is poured, and as I walk quietly to the office, Lady is at my right side, always, and after I turn on the computer and place the cup on the coaster and sit, she lies down at my feet, for the next three hours, and goes to sleep.

This morning, the space at my feet is empty. Lady, cherished and devoted, passed away unexpectedly on Friday at 8 years old.

Goodbye, old friend.

And today will be better than yesterday.