Cards’ NL Central opponents are fixing holes with home-grown talent

The Reds lost Shin-Soo Choo but are banking on speedster Billy Hamilton to fill his role.  

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ST. LOUIS — If you want another reason to gloat about the Cardinals, take a look around the NL Central.

There are holes all over the division following an off-season during which the Brewers’ signing of Matt Garza ranks as the most notable addition. Considering Garza hasn’t won more than 10 games or pitched 200 innings since 2010, labeling him an impact acquisition might be a stretch.

Of course, it’s not like the division needed much improvement. Well, except for that team 300 miles to the north of St. Louis. The Pirates are banking that their bullpen and youth can keep them heading in the right direction. The Brewers are hoping the return of Ryan Braun will sufficiently fortify their offense, and the Reds are planning to give super-speedy Billy Hamilton a chance to take over their only opening, in center field.

Still, each of the hopefuls will open spring training with at least one significant issue to resolve. Team-by-team:

Brewers: Who will lead off?

They’ve been unable to upgrade at first base and their bullpen remains a work in progress. But aside from dealing with Braun’s return — if he hits, they’ll deal just fine — the most pressing order of business for Ron Roenicke is finding someone to take over for Norichika Aoki (.367 OBP) at the top of the order.

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Carlos Gomez has led off plenty in his career, but he found a comfort level in the middle of the order that Roenicke sees no need to mess with. All-Star shortstop Jean Segura is another possibility, but he balked last year when he was asked to change his place in the order. Roenicke, however, says Segura would be fine with hitting first. "He didn’t like third," Roenicke says. "He’s fine first or second."

Coming off a rookie season during which he hit .324, second baseman Scooter Gennett could be the leading candidate. But is he ready for the pressure after hitting mostly in the bottom of the order last season? He still must hold off Rickie Weeks for the starting job, anyway.

Pirates: Who will replace Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau?

Pittsburgh didn’t exactly break the team coffers trying to capitalize on last season’s success. With the Yankees finished paying most of A.J. Burnett’s salary, the Pirates were unable to convince him to return on their dime. They believe they have enough pitching to offset his loss and they probably do, as long as Francisco Liriano can give them another year like last (16 wins, 3.02 ERA). Getting Wandy Rodriguez back to form would help, too.

As much as the Pirates raved in September and into October about the lift Byrd and Morneau gave their offense, the club showed little interest in re-signing either.

The Pirates are set to let Jose Tabata, Travis Snider and rookie Andrew Lambo battle for the right-field job, at least until prospect Gregory Polanco is ready to take over.

At first base, it looks like Gaby Sanchez will get another crack even though he lost the job last year when Morneau arrived. The Pirates are built on pitching, defense and MVP Andrew McCutchen, so spending big on sluggers isn’t part of the plan. But don’t be surprised if they have to go outside for offensive reinforcements down the stretch.

Reds: Who will get the ball to Aroldis Chapman?

If Hamilton isn’t ready to take over the leadoff spot left by Shin-Soo Choo’s exit, the Reds can turn to Skip Schumaker or Roger Bernadina. The club also is prepared to put young lefty Tony Cigrani in the rotation vacancy created by the decision to not re-sign Bronson Arroyo.

Deciding who gets the eighth inning isn’t so obvious. The Reds hope that Jonathan Broxton can take back the job, but he is returning from surgery. If he’s not up to the task, they will have to figure it out among a contingent that includes J.J. Hoover, Sean Marshall and Sam LeCure. All are capable, but unless one of them can step up and take control of the role, the team could end up mixing and matching. That is a route that managers and relievers would rather avoid.

Cubs: Oh, where does one even start?

As it turns out, the Garza signing wasn’t the only impact acquisition in the division. The Cubs hired a mascot, after all. Clark Cub, or Clark Bear, or something like that. The club must be hoping he can deflect attention from what’s happening on the field.

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There’s plenty that needs shoring up between the lines. The Cubs have holes of varying sizes at third base, left field, in the bullpen and the rotation. And that’s giving center fielder Justin Ruggiano and right fielder Nate Schierholtz the benefit of the doubt. It’s not much of a reach to say the Cubs face as many issues as the rest of the division combined.

They also have a new manager, Rick Renteria, to deal with all the youth and the expected losing. He spent the past six seasons with the Padres, so he won’t come without experience in the losing department.

Renteria’s main charge will be trying to get young Starlin Castro (.245) and Anthony Rizzo (.233) back on track after disappointing seasons. Both already have enjoyed success in the big leagues, so talent isn’t the issue.

Unfortunately, the Cubs can’t say the same about much of their roster.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.